Visiting a Grad School? Check out our tips!

On the lighter side, here is what might be running through your head on a visit!

You’ve been accepted by a grad school! Congrats! So now what?

After informing you of your acceptance, many astronomy departments will invite you to visit their institution to become acquainted with the faculty, facilities, and other graduate students. This is the department’s chance to “woo” you and show you a good time while you are there. This is in contrast to other science fields where an invitation to visit is more of an interview after which they will decide to admit you or not. These visits are usually a whirl-wind of meetings with faculty, lunches with grad students, and tours of campus, but are surprisingly well-organized and allow you to formulate opinions about the department and surrounding area. Here are some facts and tips going in:

Warm-up (Before you visit…)

  • The majority of departments will pay for literally your entire visit including travel, food, and hotel.  Some places may have you stay with a graduate student host which can be a great way to interact with a graduate student in a more casual setting and give you an idea of what their lifestyle is like. The departments are usually very good at organizing everything for you, but make sure to clarify with the person of contact at the institution what, if anything, you will need to pay for yourself.
  • If you know there is someone you are really interested in working with, don’t feel afraid to email them before the visit!  It also helps to read one or two of the abstracts of their recent papers, but don’t feel like you need to spend hours of preparation.  Not only does it make it easier to absorb what they say during your meeting, but having a question ready always looks impressive. If you didn’t meet with someone you hoped to, send them an email. You will find the many researchers are often happy to chat over the phone or skype.
  • If you’re asked which faculty members you would like to meet with and you’re not sure, don’t be afraid to ask for help!  Email a current graduate student and ask them which faculty are doing exciting work, are looking for students, and would make good advisors.  They will probably be happy to share their opinions.
  • Relax!  It’s in everyone’s best interests if you be yourself during your visit so you can really get a feel for how you will interact with the other students.  Don’t feel like you need to impress anybody – you’re already in!

Location (Do I want to live here for the next 5+ years?)

  • If you have the time (and energy!) and you feel safe doing so, make sure to walk around campus and get a feel for the layout. Sometimes the astronomy departments are in the middle of campus (ex: University of Michigan) and other times they can be on a far edge (ex:SAO/CFA/Harvard). While not a big deal, considering public transit is usually outstanding in college towns, you may need to hoof it a fair way to the classroom if you need to teach your first few years.
  • Ask about public transit! As mentioned above, many college towns have excellent bus systems, and city schools may be near a subway, but knowing whether you need a car or not can lead to big savings!
  • Find out where the graduate students live.  Do most live in graduate housing, apartments, or houses?  How far is the average commute?  Are there convenient grocery stores nearby?

Money Issues (Do I get enough money?)

  • Where does your money come from? Possible sources of funding are department fellowships, teaching duties and your advisor. Do the people you want to work with have money to pay you, or will you have to teach for several years? Are you required to teach during your first year?
  • Is the cost of living reasonable on a graduate student stipend? This question is VERY IMPORTANT to ask because the answers vary wildly from place to place. Not surprisingly, this question is also better to ask the graduate students.
  • Many departments are clear on their stipend, but it takes a little digging to uncover the benefits. Most schools offer you health insurance, dental care, and other services that are provided by the graduate school. Some include these benefits along with your stipend, and others you may need to pay for them. How is the health coverage?
  • Check out the computer situation. Some places will provide you with a desktop (common choices being iMacs or Linux boxes): does the department or your chosen advisor provide you with a machine, or is that something you need to look into yourself? How about a laptop?

Grad Life (Are you happy?)

  • Ask: are you happy? The answer should be some version of “yes” for most people you talk to. Most importantly, would you be happy in the department?
  • While the visits are a lot of fun and on many visits the graduate students will take you out for a night on the town, keep in mind this is not a typical night for a grad student. Ask them about their daily activities! Know that it will vary, but getting a general sense is important. Do they go out to eat often? Do a lot of people work on Friday nights?
  • Feel free to ask more personal questions. How many grads are married; do any have kids?  What kind of support and leave is available for students with children?  There’s probably no official policy (if there is, that’s pretty awesome), so get a feel for whether the department is supportive, monetarily and otherwise.
  • If many of the grads have time for families, it is a good sign the students are well rounded and the department is not insanely demanding. Grad school may well be the hardest thing you work through in life no matter where your go, but it is important to remain well balanced in life for the sake of your sanity.

The Graduate Program (Will this program get me where I want to be?)

  • Consider the structure and emphasis of the graduate program and whether or not it is a good fit for you.  Is coursework or research emphasized more? Do students like their classes?
  • The advancement or qualifying exam is a major component of many graduate programs. What is the qualifying exam like?  Do most people pass or does it cause people to drop out?
  • Ask the faculty AND grad students the average time it takes to get your Ph.D. if you plan on doing so.  Some faculty may underestimate the amount of time and some grads will overestimate. The national average is somewhere around 5.5 years.  If the department quotes under five, you should be skeptical, and anything over six you need to be a little worried.
  • Make sure to pay close attention to the grad student work environment. This may vary from working in cubicles in a large room, to sharing an office with one or more students.  How close are you to your potential advisors?  Down the hall, up/down a floor or two, or across the street?  Working next to your classmates can allow for a lot of camaraderie, but working next to your advisor can be stressful. This may be opposite for some, so know what you would feel more comfortable with.
  • Where do students go after they have graduated? What sorts of fellowships do they get; where do they go for postdoc positions? Do graduates often leave academia?

General Advice

  • Ask the same question to lots of different people. Try and talk with as many different grad students as you can to get an overall sense of the department. Just as a reminder, you are being RECRUITED so what you see will not be a typical day in the department, or a typical weekday/weekend for grad students. Ask all the questions you can to uncover what a typical day is like. One thing is to ask first year students questions and compare them to answers you receive from older students or postdocs, especially ones who work with an advisor you might want to work with.
  • Have fun surveying the astro landscape! Enjoy the experience of getting to travel around the country and meet other scientists, grad students, and prospective students. These are names you will see pop up on astro-ph. Making connections can be really fun and change your outlook on research, so keep an open mind and meet as many people as you can.
  • Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask very direct questions to graduates and faculty about funding sources/availability and advisor qualities. Asking graduate students how they like their advisors, or if they have opinions on which faculty do/don’t make good advisors may seem inappropriate, but this is not the case in your position. Your advisor makes or breaks your grad school experience, and working with someone who understands their role can make all the difference. This doesn’t mean the best advisors are necessarily the ones who take you and your team out for drinks every week (although that isn’t a bad thing!). You want to work with someone who cares about your career and your growth as a researcher during your time there. Ask the faculty if their grad students publish first author papers and, if so, how often. Find out from the grad students who has had bad experiences with a faculty advisor. This is your chance to find out the answers to all these questions which will affect you for the next ~6 years, so don’t be afraid! ASK ASK ASK!
  • Finally, have a great time! You will feel like royalty on these visits, so enjoy every minute!

About Astrobites

This post was written collectively by multiple members of the Astrobites team. Meet the authors of Astrobites.

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