Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thinking about a PhD? Five things to consider!

Hi there! I’m Melissa, a second year PhD student here at Penn in the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering program. With the start of the new school year, I’ve had to say that a lot lately, and I can’t get over how it doesn’t stop being weird. “A second year PhD student” – When did that happen!? I feel like it was just yesterday that I was only beginning to decide what grad schools to just apply to. Somehow two entire years have gone by since then, and here I am at Penn, enjoying everything that the school and Philly have to offer. I realize now that I’m pretty lucky to have ended up in a program that I’m happy with. As a college senior, let’s just say I was very naïve in my approach to making life decisions. When it came down to picking grad schools, I went mostly by location. Now, that isn’t a bad thing to choose a school by – I just realize now that there’s so much more to the story that I should’ve considered more carefully. Here’s the list I feel I should’ve gone by:

1. Research If you’re applying to PhD programs, research should be the first thing on your checklist. Make sure the schools on your list have well-funded programs that specialize in research you’re passionate about. Once accepted to a school and assigned to a specific lab, you will literally (ok not literally but almost literally) sleep, eat, and breathe your research. With typical time to graduation being 5-6 years for most PhD programs, you want to be absolutely sure that whatever you’re signing up for is something you truly enjoy and believe in.  

2. Potential Advisors Once you’ve found a list of schools with relevant research programs, check to see that there’s more than one advisor/lab that you could potentially work for. In an ideal world, every grad student would have the opportunity to work for their first choice advisor. In reality, though, most advisors don’t have the funding or space to accept everyone that shows interest in working for them.
3. Program Requirements/Classes Whether you’re applying to PhD or MS/MSE programs, make sure the program requirements and classes are something you’ll enjoy (as much as you can of course). Don’t apply to a program just because it’s what you have been doing as an undergrad. If you were lucky enough to discover a passion for a specialty area, then seek out those specialty programs if they’re out there. That’s what higher education is all about. And you’ll be thanking yourself later when you’re actually enjoying the material in the midst of really advanced (i.e difficult) courses in your umpteenth year of school. There’s always that mid-semester low when you’re burnt out and ready to give up – but if you’ve picked a program with coursework that really inspires you, you’ll have a much easier time keeping motivated.  

4. Location I grew up in NYC and went to undergrad in Boston. Needless to say, I wouldn’t survive two seconds in a rural area, so I applied to schools that were either in a city or with easy access to one. Like I said earlier, PhD programs typically require a 5-6 year commitment – that doesn’t just mean commitment to the program that means commitment to city it’s in, as well. And it’s very possible that what started out as a 5-6 year commitment could turn into a more permanent situation, as graduates tend to find employment in the areas near or around their school.
5. Ranking Honestly, I hate the idea of choosing anything based on rankings. It feels like such an artificial thing to based decisions on, but they are a rough measure of the “quality” of a program. Schools that are higher ranked are likely to have more funding and more research opportunities than those lower on the list. But with that said, my undergrad research advisor once told me that beyond the top five engineering schools, the rest just become different shades of grey. Each one will have its individual strengths and weaknesses, and it’s important to realize that you won’t be able to figure what they are by just looking at the ranking of the program. So why did I include it on my checklist at all? Well, it turns out that program ranking does matter quite a bit if you’re planning on going into academia. Something about having a degree from a top school really increases your wow factor as a potential professor. I think those all the main points I wish I had known about applying to grad school as a college senior. I hope this proves helpful to all of you in that position now. Best of luck!!

No comments:

Post a Comment