Choosing the right graduate program

graduate admissions strategy

So you’ve decided that you’d like to go to graduate school - now what? Choosing where to continue your education is no small task. It’s a good idea to give the following three categories equal consideration when making your next move: 

Location 

It’s true that the library will likely be your home away from home during your postgraduate studies, but it’s important to think big picture here. If possible, visit campus. Speak to current students about their living situation and learn how people get around town. You’ll likely be making so many adjustments to your study and social habits during this next chapter that environmental factors should be the least of your concerns.  

Ask yourself: can you see yourself walking across this particular campus on a stressful Tuesday morning in November? Are you comfortable riding public transport here? How will you spend your time off-campus in this new town? How well-integrated is the university within the local community and how do you see yourself fitting into that dynamic? Will you, for example, ever have an opportunity to work with local schools and organizations or present your research to a public audience?  

If you plan to travel to and from archives a bit further afield, how difficult will it be to get to and from the airport or train station? If you decide to coordinate a conference someday, will your new university’s location complement or complicate efforts to attract speakers (too expensive/too remote)? 

Institutional Resources 

This will mean different things to different people depending on their area of study, but it’s important to try and come away with a firm sense of what each university on your list offers in terms of support. For some, ‘support’ translates to cold hard cash. Fine – did you receive any funding? How does that funding offer compare to programs X, Y, and Z? Does it include health insurance, childcare, or free bicycle parking? Does the position include a steady research allowance and will your department cover conference attendance? You know you’ll be committed to your studies, so it’s fair to ask just how committed the university is to you. 

If you’re on the STEM side of things, you might be more pre-conditioned to think in terms of institutional resources thanks to your background in lab work and collaborative development. Humanists, too, though, should make sure they apply to each program with a good sense of what they can expect from their new colleagues. Are there regular seminars or workshops you expect to attend? What types of speakers attend these seminars? Are they scholars you’d like to get to know? Will there be teaching opportunities throughout the course of your program and if so, will you be expected to team-teach or design the syllabi from scratch? Marking papers as a TA/GA hardly offers the same ‘teaching experience’ as giving your own lectures and seminars. 

Learn your library! Is it a copyright library or will you need to spend time ordering (and waiting) on Interlibrary Loan from week to week? Are those ILL requests covered by the university or charged to your account? How well-subscribed is the university when it comes to the field-relevant online journals you expect to read from day to day? Is there a designated study area for graduate students or will you be competing for space (and books!) with chattering undergraduates? What about special collections and archives? With the right match (and work ethic), you could leave your program with an incredible advantage over others in the field by familiarizing yourself with archival records without needing to travel anywhere.  

Finally, how well-connected is your university when it comes to exchange programs. The chance to spend a semester or two working at a peer institution can be a very powerful experience. Within the EU, for example, many universities have ‘Erasmus+’ agreements and offer funded doctoral exchange placements for research students at member universities.  

The Right Advisor 

Many people would argue that this is the single most important decision of your academic career. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to figure out just what your supervisor is like in advance, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying!  

First of all, read their work – all of it – and determine how you feel about their writing when it comes to tone and style. This person will be your default academic role model over (at least) the next several years, so pay attention to the way they speak to others. Are they respected in town, on campus, and within your field? Are they, more or less, modeling the type of professional existence you desire for yourself someday? One way to gauge this is to spend time with them. If you can imagine yourself having an intelligent conversation with this person, you should go do just that – an email exchange is not the same. Once you’ve discussed your topic in some depth, try and have a human conversation with them. Get them to a coffee shop or a pub to see how they treat people and how they carry themselves once out in the real world.  

All of this assumes, of course, that your would-be advisor is willing to find enough time for you at an early stage. It should be a major red flag if they come off as too busy or too distracted. Think about it: this will likely be the very first person employers reach out to on the other side of your graduate program. How well they get to know you will depend on how much they care about your work, your ideas, and your future goals. Don’t forget that for all the time and energy they’ll need to invest in you over the next few years, you’ll be investing at least as much in return! 

James holds a PhD in History from the University of St Andrews, an MPhil in History from the University of Cambridge, and an MPhil in Classics from Trinity College. He is the co-founder of the Institute for the Study of International Expositions.

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