Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Choosing a graduate program

In the next several weeks, college seniors who've applied for graduate school in astronomy will be receiving acceptances and rejections.  So, here is some completely unsolicited advice for those who will be choosing which astronomy graduate program to attend.  One disclaimer: this is based on my own experience and observations, which leads right in to my first point:

  1. Selecting a graduate program is a personal choice.  Even before the offers start coming in, consider what is important to you in your graduate career.  Do you want the best possible education?  The best university name on your degree?  Do you care about where you will be living?  Do you have family or a significant other who factors in to the equation?  If you have to make a choice between some of these, which factors more highly?
    Don't be afraid to make decisions based on what you want, not how other people would choose.  I turned down an offer from what had been my dream school and what is arguably the absolute best astronomy program in the nation because I came to realize that I would be very unhappy there for several reasons.  As a graduate student, you will be spending up to six or seven years of your life working very hard for lower pay than you could get elsewhere, so you might as well be happy.

  2. Visit before making your decision.  Many graduate programs will offer to pay for you to visit their school; take advantage of that visit.  Visit multiple schools, if you are so lucky.  And, if the school(s) to which you've been offered admission can't afford to pay for your trip, try to scrounge up money for one or two visits.  I visited four schools, and it was those visits that helped me to realize where I'd have the best chance to succeed.  Some of the most unhappy grad students I've met are those who didn't visit.
    On a visit, remember that the school is courting you and will put on the best possible face.  Enjoy being recruited; it may not happen again for some time.  But also work hard to get some behind-the-scenes information.  Ask grad students about their courseload, workload, and what complaints they have.  Every grad student has complaints, and most will be honest with you.  You'll find some complaints are universal, such as grads working much harder than expected and some/many classes seeming useless and poorly taught.  Complaints that would raise flags in my mind would be things like faculty being unresponsive to student concerns, students not getting paid some semesters or summers, students thinking their fellow students are competitive, and so on.

  3. Think twice before entering a program without a Master's Degree.  Most new graduate students in astronomy enter with the intention of earning a PhD.   But, after a year or two, many students come to realize that astronomy research is not what they want to do with their lives.  If your program offers a master's degree, you can earn that in two or three years, feel proud of your accomplishment, and then take that degree into industry and earn much more money than your PhD friends ever will.  If, on the other hand, you don't have the option of a master's degree, you can either quit without a degree or slog through to the bitter end, at which point you will be disenchanted and several years older when you start your career outside astronomy.
    Earning a master's degree is not a failure.  Let me repeat that, since a lot of new grad students and many older academics do not believe it.  Earning a master's degree is not a failure.  It is a big achievement that requires successfully completing rigorous classes and research work.  It is a highly valued degree in the professional world.  In recognition of that, many astronomy graduate programs now require completion of a master's degree before a student can become a candidate for a PhD.  If one or more of the programs you are considering does not offer a master's degree, take that into consideration (but, as always, see point 1 above).

  4. Pay attention to the faculty's areas of interest.  If you really, really, really want to work on Solar System exploration, don't go to a school where the faculty work on galaxies.  If you like computational physics but the faculty are all observational astronomers who return a blank stare when you talk about blades, cores and clusters, it may not be a great fit.  On the other hand, keep an open mind.  If you think you really want to do quasar accretion disk reverberation mapping, you may find that you excel at other extragalactic projects, or maybe even that you have a knack for finding extrasolar planets.  But if even your most generic interests are not matched by one or more faculty members, you may not be happy.

  5. You always have a choice.  Many potential graduate students will only get an offer to one school, and many will get no offers of admission.   If you fall into this case, remember that you still have multiple choices available.  Let's say you visit your one school and you don't like it.  You can always decline admission, try to strengthen your credentials, and apply to grad schools the following year.  Likewise, if you do not get any offers of admission, you can either decide against grad school for the time being, or you can work to strengthen your application for the following year.
    If you are deciding not to take your one offer and applying again, or if you received no offers and still want to go, be sure to ask your professors why you didn't get more offers.  Were your physics GRE scores too low?  Were your grades low?  Was your application poorly written?  Were your letters of recommendation weak?  Examine every aspect of your application, and see if there is anything you can do to improve it the following year.  And, if professors you trust give you frank advice that they don't think you'd succeed in grad school, listen to them and consider their words carefully.

My one-sentence summary would be point number 1 - graduate school is your decision.  Like any decision, there are positives and negatives to any choice you make, and there may be no perfect or obvious decision.  Graduate school will be one of the most challenging (and rewarding) times in your career, so be sure to make a choice that is right for you.


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  2. Very sound advice! I was in the camp of not getting an offer at one time. I took a year off and then went to a school with only a M.S. program. Having an M.S, already can trump a bad GRE and I got into a PhD school that had initially rejected me. I am excelling now and flew through the program. It did not really add time either with a total time of 7 years between the two schools. Fear not the rejections, it was the best thing that could have happened to me!