Assessing Graduate Programs
Advice on picking a grad school from SSRMC faculty and alumni
This guide is meant as a resource once you’ve applied and been accepted to a Ph.D. program in the social sciences. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you have additional ideas for helpful information to include. This guide was last updated in March 2018.
Quality of faculty
- Avoid going to a program if there is only one faculty mentor you can anticipate wanting to work with. Ask enough questions to assess the overall mentoring structure. People retire, move, go through mid-life crises, aren’t the advisors you’d hoped they’d be, etc. It’s best to be in a place where you think you’ll be surrounded by people you think will push you to get better and better.
- Ensure that you can get the best methods training possible since the substantive content is much easier to teach yourself.
- Ask students who have worked with the faculty you think you want to work with.
- What kind of feedback do they get? Is it hard to get a meeting with them, what those meetings are usually like, etc.?
- Professors vary a lot and it can take time to find someone who fits your style.
- From Taylor Carlson ‘14: “My advisor is very hands-off. I have to initiate everything — but when I do (e.g. could we meet to talk about my prospectus? Could I get some feedback on this paper? I got these reviews back from a journal, can you help me figure out what to do next?) I get instant responses and meetings typically scheduled within a week. In contrast, my very close friend’s advisor is much more hands on and they have a meeting every other week (sometimes every week), this summer they did a weekly data bootcamp sort of thing where they worked through the methods of papers they were working on to get them ready for submission to a journal, etc. Some faculty like to be sent a memo ahead of time with what you’d like to talk about, etc. All styles can work well, but I think it’s important to get a sense for these types of things before heading in so you can find someone (or two or three) who fit your styles.”
- Ask faculty what their hiring priorities are over the next few years and/or any changes they foresee in the department.
- Sometimes, they’re applying for big grants for capital improvements (e.g. new lab equipment), sometimes they are working on hiring new folks in your field, etc., which can be exciting. These aren’t necessarily “deal breakers,” but they can be icing on the cake when you’re choosing between programs.
- Are there research working groups that meet with some frequency? What kind of pedagogical model does the program use (lab or otherwise)? What happens when mentors/advisors go on leave?
- Consider what the students are like. Are they collegial? Do the upper-level students seem to get along?
- It’s also important to feel like your colleagues are smarter than you! If you get the opportunity to go to graduate school with faculty and graduate students who are smarter than you are, then you’re just going to get better and better and better.
- Look into how the offices and workspaces are organized. Will there be areas for students to work in proximity to each other or will you not really see people outside of classes? This can really affect the kind of atmosphere a place has.
- Pay attention to the resources available to student researchers by asking faculty and students about them. Questions to ask might include:
- If you’re interested in any research that requires special equipment, does the program have it? How does one gain access to the equipment and the lab?
- Ask grad students about their experiences—have they noticed any restrictions? (e.g. it’s mostly faculty, it’s hard to get space, you only get a few minutes for your protocols, IRB is a nightmare, etc.).
- Ask sample pools—do they run students through the lab? How big is the pool? Is it only political science students? How many participants come through their labs a semester?
- What opportunities are there for grants to pay participants, buy equipment, etc.?
- What kind of guardrails are offered to help you complete your dissertation on time?
- Meg Schwenzfeier ‘14: “Some departments are very hands on with this and have timelines where they check in with students or where faculty take an active role, others won’t notice if you haven’t made any progress by like your fifth year in the program. You just want to make sure whatever style they have will work for you or that you’re prepared to make it work.”
- Does the department encourage students to take classes in other departments on campus to enrich their methods training? Do they fund travel to summer training programs like the Empirical Implications of Theoretical Models Institute (EITM) or the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR)?
Fellowship and teaching opportunities
- If you’re interested, ask about these and see if you might have the chance to teach your own classes.
- Teaching is a worthwhile goal, but be aware that teaching responsibilities are a huge time commitment and may take time away from your research.
- To what extent can you can get a semester or a year of fellowship? Inquire about university-wide fellowships for which you can apply. This may be something you can negotiate with your funding package as you decide between schools, if you have more than one admission offer.
- Ask about summer funding and funding for after year 5 (or whenever funding is up). Ask other grad students how easy it is to get funding for a 6th, 7th, etc. year and what students have done for money in the summer and during extra years.
- How does the program support students who want to collect novel data?
- Inquire about funding for conference travel too.
- Ask students about quality of life on their stipend/funding packages. Consider whether you’d be able to realistically live semi-comfortably with the funding available. You can ask about subsidized housing, too.
- What’s the department’s take on professionalization? Do they take an active role by providing workshops on preparing for comprehensive exams, giving a conference talk, writing the dissertation prospectus, preparing for the job market, etc? Or is it ad hoc, if at all?
Thanks to Taylor Carlson ‘14, Drew Engelhardt ‘13, Meg Schwenzfeier ‘14—all alumni of the SNaPP Lab—and SNaPP Lab director Jaime Settle for the advice in this guide. Taylor, Drew, and Meg are all Ph.D candidates in political science. Taylor is at the University of California-San Diego, Drew is at Vanderbilt University, and Meg is at Harvard.