Choosing a Graduate Program After Multiple Offers

opportunityWith March upon us graduate program admissions committees have made their decisions and have sent out their first waves of acceptance letters. If you’ve been accepted by a program, congratulations! Chances are you have more than 1 offer. Now it’s your turn to make some decisions. Most programs with winter application deadlines will want your choice by the middle of April, so time is of the essence.

Now what? How do you choose between your various graduate program offers? You may not sense this is the biggest career decision you’ve ever made. But it probably is.

One thing is certain. Your graduate program experience is going to launch your career on a trajectory that it would take any other way. That trajectory will differ remarkably for each of your offers…this is the classic Road Not Taken problem Robert Frost penned so elegantly, “I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.

Your guiding principle during this decision process is think of each option as an opportunity. All of the opportunities differ to some degree. Which option offers the best opportunity for you and your future?

Your Programs Can Answer Your Questions

Now is the time to lay out the programs side-by-side in microscopic detail. The internet is not going to be very helpful in answering many of the questions that arise. Only the faculty, staff and students of the programs you’re considering can answer them. Be certain to circle back with them to ensure you have all of the information you need to make your best decision. This is NOT a time to play cat and mouse. If you are uncertain about anything, reach out to them directly.

Put yourself in their shoes. The fact that they accepted you means they want you to be there. A lot. They really would hate to lose you because of a misunderstanding. Don’t be shy to ask.

Are You Sure They Offer The Opportunities You Want?

This is the biggest question for you to settle. The primary reason you’re going to graduate school is to satisfy your academic curiosity. If the specialist material you crave is simply not there, you’re at high risk of growing unhappy with your choice. For example, many graduate courses can be offered infrequently, sometimes only once every 3 years or so. Find out if the coursework that interests you the most will actually be offered during your residence.

You have even more prep work to do if you’ll be on a research degree track. Your choice of mentor will define your experience. Reach out directly to specific professors whose research interests you. For now, just check to see they are accepting new students in the next year or so. Be on the alert for any red flags. Pick a few professors associated with each program, to ensure you have a backup that you can be happy with in case something goes wrong with your first choice after you enroll.

There are many factors to consider in assessing these options. Beth Bowman at Vanderbilt University’s Biomedical and Biological Science graduate program has assembled some fantastic advice on what is involved in choosing a mentor and how to go about doing it. Her blog is definitely worth reading.

If you are unsure about what research you specifically want to do that’s perfectly ok and very common. But you should still inquire to get a sense of what proportion of the program faculty professors have the resources and time to take on new students. Would you be happy with those options?

Compare Costs, Not Just Sticker Prices

While it is important to ask yourself whether you can afford to attend a specific school, don’t forget to ask whether you can afford NOT to attend one program or another. You don’t need me to tell you how to compare stipends and tuition and housing costs. But I can point you to some things that you might not be aware of that should weigh strongly in your decision. For example, you are probably going to earn a good living after graduate school. What impact will your choice have on your earnings down the road? What kind of track record do program graduates enjoy afterwards?

Ask yourself whether some front-end sacrifice now can lead to higher dividends later. Don’t get blinded by a higher tuition or a crappy stipend offer that is, in the big picture, only marginally worse than some other crappy stipend offer or barely lower tuition.

Remember, your income is very unlikely to be grad school crappy forever. Your lifetime earnings should be better. It won’t be easy because things seem to have gone out of control lately, but you will probably will be able to manage your student debt. With a graduate degree, you probably will be OK. With the right degree, you may be even better.

Making these judgments means you’ll have to peek around corners. You’ll need to identify and then weigh risks and opportunities that are difficult to be certain about. You’ll need to honestly evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. And there are no guarantees. Might as well start learning how to do these “risk assessment” and  “vision” things now because that’s a skill set that tends to make people with advanced degrees valuable.

But my main bit of advice here is to try to think strategically about how your program options might influence your career launch.

Hidden Costs

Having said that, let me say another word about the smaller costs that add up. Again, stipends and tuition and rents are easy. Graduate students tend to become unhappy when blindsided by unexpected costs. What about software fees? Does the university offer grad students free productivity software–such as MS Office, EndNote, statistical packages–or are these costs on your shoulders? Universities have wildly varying policies in this regard.

Health benefits? Childcare? Use of the athletics center? Parking? Free bus shuttles or other low cost commute options? Movies and shows and other good but low cost entertainment?

I’m not kidding here either: I’d even go so far to recommend asking how many times per week the program serves pizza to the graduate students. Being a graduate student is about learning how to stretch an impossible budget in 1 month increments. Always has been, always will be. These hidden costs can add up to the point where it can make all the difference between soup with or without noodles at the end of the month.

Place and Lifestyle

Most graduate students pack up and move someplace to attend school. Think about moving as an opportunity with a couple of important facets. Graduate school is a good excuse to experience a change in place. For example, you might move across the country to an entirely new region that has always struck your fancy. Or, you might wish to attend a program in a college town knowing that your career afterwards will almost certainly put you in a major metropolitan area. Or vice versa.

Graduate school is a way to test drive a new town or city or region to see if its the kind of place where you’d like to plant roots after you graduate. Is that place a good employment center for the career you imagine after school? Employers in metro areas tend to have better opinions of people who emerge with graduate degrees from their local universities, compared to those from outside the region. If that is a place you might want to live, you could have a leg up.

Yes, your program will allow you outside of the classroom or lab or library for a few hours each week. Are there things nearby that you enjoy doing? Are you passionate about an activity that you’d be able to continue or have to give up to attend grad school? A big part of happiness in graduate school is how you spend your (limited) time outside of school.

Most importantly, there is a high probability that your personal life will change profoundly while you’re in graduate school. Most graduate students are young adults. Pair bonding is one of those biological imperatives of young adulthood. What is the meetup scene like?

If you come as a single, there is a good chance you’ll finish graduate school with a partner. If you begin graduate school with a partner, you might end up finishing with a baby in your arms. Don’t forget to look around that corner, too.

Program Culture

How does the graduate program treat its students? Are students on the program steering committees and do they have any voice in shaping the program? Is the program student-centric or is it more aloof? Does any of this matter to you either way?

There are two minds on these questions from a faculty perspective. What I’ll label as the old school way is to believe the job of the program and its faculty is to educate students in this specialized subject matter, because its an education not a career placement service. Besides, all the faculty know from a career perspective is the academic track. For many students, particularly those with a clear vision of their trajectory, that can be all they need.

Others believe that in addition to educating the students, programs should put effort into making students more aware of the various career opportunities that their education will prepare them for outside of the academy. Some students (and faculty) prefer to be in this kind of environment instead.

For the purposes of making your individual decision on where to matriculate, neither environment is necessarily all right or all wrong. It depends upon what seems like a better fit for you. However, in the aggregated space of graduate school, we’re long past the time of going about our business the old school way.

Finally, do the people in the program get along? Are you comfortable with the faculty and staff and current graduate students? If you interviewed, hopefully you did so in a group and was able to meet several of your future classmates. How well do you think you’ll get along with them?

Big decisions like these are never perfect, they are never simple. When your only options are good opportunities, by the very nature of the problem, you’ll probably have to turn down something very good. When you put it into perspective, that’s just not a bad place to be.

As I said before, congratulations. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you hadn’t earned the privilege.

Unfortunately, I feel compelled to have this discussion because some effort on the front end can go along way towards ensuring that you’re satisfied with your decision. Unfortunately, 25% of current graduate students wish they chose a different program. That’s a sobering statistic that indicates too many mistakes are being made. Too many misapplications. Too many mis-acceptances. Too many mis-matriculations.

Whether you become one of those statistics is something you can potentially control now with some upfront effort.

Probably. There are no guarantees.


Thinking About a Research PhD? Here’s Some Grad School Advice

Here’s some really good grad school advice from Slate’s Quora Contributor.

I could quibble with some of what’s said, but overall it has some very good insights that anybody considering the research doctorate path should heed.

Since the point of Gradschoolmatch is to help prospects focus on fit, that often means think more about the best programs for your interests, not necessarily about the ‘best school’. The following bit of insight from the article is particularly appropriate to highlight:

Choosing your institution is your least important choice.
Is a Ph.D. from Harvard any different than one from Fresno Tech? No—you are both called doctor. What matters is who you did your work under, not the name on your degree. Yes, the institution carries prestige, but it is your adviser’s connections and reputation in the community that matter the most. Additionally, you need to think about lifestyle a little bit. The stipends are pretty close to parity without regard to institution. This means your stipend is the same in Boston as it is in Bloomington, Indiana. Different parts of the country are more expensive than others—take this into consideration. Generally, save the big name-brand institutions for your postdoc. It looks better on your CV to show continued improvement in brand than it does to get you degree from a big name-brand and postdoc at a second- or third-tier institution.

A bit of advice for those of you at big-name institutions: You are good, you are working with some of the best in the field, and you should be proud of that. However, at every second-tier and third-tier university, there is someone there who is as good or better and smarter than you are. The first truly scary genius I ever met did not come from Harvard, Stanford, or MIT. She came from a third-tier school in North Dakota.



How to Get Involved in a New City

Moving to a new city can be tough, especially if you don’t have any ties or a group of friends to fall back on. While it can be daunting to go to a graduate school hundreds of miles away, or take an internship in a city across the country, there are plenty of ways to make friends and get involved in a new city.

Whether you are moving to a tiny college town or a major metropolis, check out these resources to get involved in a new city.


1. Online forums like MeetUp


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A great way to attend organized events and interact with new people is MeetUp, the world’s largest network of local groups. Local organizers in cities around the world create MeetUp groups for a variety of different interests and activities, ranging from general groups for 20 and 30 somethings, to more specific groups, like those for people who enjoy running or practicing yoga.

It’s easy and free to get started: simply visit the website, create a short profile with a picture and some of your interests, and start finding groups that you want to get involved in.

Each group posts events that they are hosting, and all you have to do is RSVP to attend. You can see other people that are also attending the same event, as well as message them and connect prior to attending.

There are over 20 million MeetUp users and over 200,000 groups worldwide, so you’re bound to find a group that fits your lifestyle in your new city!


2. Local newspapers like Creative Loafing


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Local publications are back on the rise, and are a great way to learn about the events and activities going on in your city.

Community newspapers such as Creative Loafing, which is aimed toward millennials, do a fantastic job of bringing the best of their cities to the forefront. With features on everything from the best tacos in the city, to the latest concerts and sporting events, picking up the local community paper keeps you in the know.

With growing online presences, you can also have events and information directly delivered to your email inbox. Creative Loafing offers the opportunity for a variety of email newsletters to keep you updated, ranging from the daily “5 Things to Do Today” to Omnivore with the hottest new food spots.

Even if there isn’t a big publication like Creative Loafing in your city, you can typically find your local community paper in print at multiple places around town (outside of restaurants is a good bet), as well as online.


3. Deal sites like Scoutmob

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While you’re probably already familiar with Groupon and LivingSocial, Scoutmob is another great deal site that also incorporates articles highlighting local events and happenings.

With a mobile app showcasing deals ranging from salon service to up-and-coming restaurants, Scoutmob focuses on finding the best local, “off the beaten path” offerings in your city. Scoutmob is also great for events, often offering up discounts for everything from local music festivals to comedy shows.

If you live in a town that doesn’t have Groupon or Scoutmob, find local community organizations that offer deals for students or young professionals. Even in the smallest of towns, you’ll be surprised at what you can find if you just look!

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3 Ways to Stay Competitive This Summer

Whether you’re interning, studying for the GRE, or working a job back home, it’s crucial to stay competitive and on top of your game during the summer months. While it’s important to have fun and enjoy the time off of school (for some of us!), summer is a time when many slack off, and where you can gain a competitive advantage over your peers.

Regardless of your work or school situation over the summer, here are 3 ways to stay competitive and relevant, and come out on top when classes start back in the fall.


1. Utilize your network to its fullest extent.

Looking for a grad school recommendation, or a connection to score some facetime at your dream company? Turn to your network for some help.

“Weak ties” are categorized as people that you are acquaintances with, meaning that you know them, but not very well. According to a study developed by sociologist Mark Granovetter, 56% of those surveyed got a job through a personal connection, and of those connections, an overwhelming majority were weak ties that the subjects saw and spoke to occasionally or rarely.

Scour your network to find people that can help you! Look through your personal and mutual LinkedIn connections and search for people in your desired city or field to reach out to regarding opportunities.

Utilize the alumni association at your alma mater; a fellow alum of your university is almost always likely to want to help out a recent grad.

Reach out to family members- there’s a good chance there is someone in your extended family, or someone that a family member knows, that can provide some career insight or a recommendation. You won’t know until you ask.


2. Set up “discovery” calls with people in your current situation or desired field.

Don’t wait around for a company or grad school to contact you- be proactive!

Once you utilize your network, start reaching out to your connections and setting up discovery calls.

Discovery calls are not interviews- they are simply phone calls or in-person meetings to learn more about a graduate school, company, or job opening.

The best way to set up a discovery call? Reach out to your contact and show your interest in learning more about their organization or school, without outright asking for the position.

For example: “Hi Ms. Barnes. I’m very interested in attending Florida State University, and I would love to learn more about the Applied Economics graduate program. Do you have a few minutes to speak over the phone regarding the program?”

Not only can discovery calls give you good information, they can also give you an advantage over your peers. Even if the company isn’t currently hiring, or the graduate school isn’t currently accepting applications, making a connection with someone on the inside and leaving a good impression will give you an edge. Next time there’s an opening, they’ll look to you first.


3. Hone your skill set and get experience in your field.

Picture this: you’re applying to a digital media graduate program this summer, but you don’t have a lot of experience and don’t know how to make your resume stand out. What do you do?

Start by beefing up your skill set and getting practical experience, even if it’s unpaid. Even if you are working or interning, summer is a great time to continue the learning process and make yourself more attractive to potential job or university opportunities.

In the digital media example above, the prospective student can take serious action to get ahead. Work on tangible skills like InDesign, and take a class at your local university or educational institute like General Assembly to learn from the professionals. Reach out to friends and family and ask if they need any digital media work; the freelance experience, even if it’s unpaid, will give you a chance to practice and hone your craft.

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Where Specialization Begins

A large and growing number of people earn Masters degrees in a diverse array of academic disciplines. More on those numbers at a later time, because that is very interesting in and of itself. For now, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at where this critical career step happens, using US government data.

The Masters is a specialization degree.  For the most part, students enter Masters degree programs to gain deeper knowledge and specific skills, and to sometimes engage in research. Most emerge prepared for employment at higher income levels than they might expect without a Masters, while fewer numbers use the degree to launch into a doctoral program.

It is not uncommon to run across opinions that bemoan the apparent “necessity” of the Masters, conflating that as somehow indicative of a failure of the baccalaureate student to be fully educated.  We don’t share that point of view, believing that the higher income and lower unemployment levels of Masters holders speaks for itself. This is a knowledge economy, and those with more knowledge are in higher demand.

As a first approximation, the density of Masters degree awards tracks pretty well with the population trends in the various regions.  More Masters are awarded in New York city than anywhere else in the US. But we like to think that the core driving force behind Masters degree production is not so much on the intake side but on the outflow.  These cities where Masters are produced are where demand is higher for a more knowledgeable workforce.

Some notable variances include Phoenix AZ and Minneapolis MN, which are outsized because those cities are home bases to a small group of for-profit schools. Some of the college towns with large state universities (or several schools) also produce more degrees than their population size would predict.  The latter are, presumably, exporters of Masters degree talent.

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US specialization begins








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College Graduates Prefer City Cores

The Times has an interesting article discussing how college graduates are choosing to live in the cores of large urban areas.  Within this migration are those who become graduate students.  Among the several implications is a new value proposition that graduate programs in these urban areas can offer recruits. Increasingly vibrant live, study, play communities.  This is a good trend that bodes well for these graduate institutions and their metropolitan areas.