Choosing the right graduate program

by Bryan Bozeman, guest author

I emailed at least 100 professors in my hunt for a grad position…and received less than 20 responses. Half of those were out-of-office emails, several others were ‘thanks-but-no-thanks’, and a few showed actual interest. I was fortunate to have three opportunities, and ended up selecting one that has been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I’m now in year four of grad school and it’s hard to imagine having an advisor, program, and community that better fit for my personal and professional interests.

Photo taken by my parents outside of my department building on campus shortly after I successfully defended my M.S. thesis in June 2017. Source: article author.

Many of my peers are not nearly as fortunate.

Some have strained relationships with their advisors, while others struggle with disinterest in research or lack of community. It’s painful and disheartening to see promising scientists leave the field simply because they aren’t a great fit for their program, advisor, or research program.

If you’re lucky enough to have multiple grad school opportunities – or you’ve got lots of energy but no clear vision for how to apply for grad positions – I’d like to offer a few suggestions based on what worked for me (and also how I’ve seen other situations play out). I’d like to emphasize that these tips are not exhaustive, but rather just one guy’s ideas about what to look for in potential graduate school opportunities.

Three things to prioritize:

  1. Choose an advisor that you can work closely with for the foreseeable future

I cannot over-emphasize how important it is to have a good relationship with your advisor. You’ll be working closely with this person for multiple years, so make sure you find someone with whom you can get along both professionally and personally.

A good advisor will invest in you as a scientist and care about you as a person. They will also push or challenge you when you need it (…and you will). But encouragement, empathy and support from your advisor are equally important.

Prestige can be an attractive quality in a potential advisor…but only if the above qualities are also present. Scientific brilliance doesn’t always transfer into being a capable advisor. Escaping from a strained relationship with your advisor is a lot tougher than making a good choice on the front end. Choose wisely.

Instructing undergraduate students on stream macroinvertebrate sampling techniques as part of my instructor responsibilities – just one of the many non-research opportunities in graduate school. Source: Andrew Tucker, UGA.

2. Choose a lab where research genuinely interests you.

Your project will take up most of your time in grad school. Don’t invest time and energy into a project you don’t care about.

I know folks who have joined a lab just because it was their only opportunity during that application cycle. If you aren’t inspired or intrigued by your research, it will make your graduate school experience much more difficult.

Your research will, at least to some degree, influence your opportunities after you graduate. Sometimes waiting and applying during the next application cycle to find a project that is a good match for your research interests is your best move. You’re not stalling your career, you’re making the right decision.

A Dolly Varden charr (Salvelinus malma) captured as part of the drift model project field study in interior Alaska. Source: Jason Neuswanger.

3. Visit the school and advisor in person before you commit

Flights are expensive and people are busy. But if you can swing it, meeting your advisor in person and visiting a place you’ll spend the next several years at will go a lot farther than video chats and Google stalking.

Perhaps most importantly, visiting graduate programs in person will give you the chance to meet with other graduate students and gauge their opinions on program strengths and weaknesses, as well as what life as a graduate student is like in respective programs, academically, culturally, and recreationally. Program culture is a huge part of day-to-day life as a grad student and visiting the university will help you get a sense of whether or not you fit in.

Georgia Theatre in downtown Athens, GA. Source

There are many other criteria you might take into consideration when choosing or searching for a graduate program, but I’ve found the above characteristics to be especially important for my experiences. Above all, choose a program that is a good fit for who you are as a person and who you want to be as a scientist.

Grad school is challenging and trying and rewarding, sometimes all at the same time. With a bit of luck and perseverance, you’ll find a program, advisor, and project that inspire you, push you to be the best version of yourself, and propel you to a long and fulfilling career.

Bryan Bozeman is a 2nd year Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia. Originally from east Tennessee, he spent much of his childhood splashing, swimming, and fishing in local streams and rivers. His love for the outdoors led him to earn a B.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Tennessee and a M.S. in Forest Resources at the University of Georgia. When he’s not studying fish, he’s probably playing music, reading a book, fly fishing, drinking a craft beer, or hanging out with his wife, Darby, and cat, Claude. You can learn more about his research at www.southernstreamfish.com

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