What to Consider When Selecting a Graduate Program

Asking EPSP: What to consider when selecting a graduate program?
Edited by Claire Masteller (@ccmasteller)

This is the first in our series of crowd-sourced advice for students and early career geoscientists. Read more about our #WisdomWednesday series here.

The perfect fit?

Many of our EPSP tweeps cited the “right fit” as the most important factor in their choice of graduate program. But what does “fit” actually mean? It’s not so obvious.

There is no right answer here! Fit can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Fit could mean that…

  • You have the opportunity to work on your dream project
  • The program is well-connected to future industry/academic opportunities
  • You get along well with your potential advisor
  • The graduate community in the department seems supportive and happy
  • The program is in a location you like (there are mountains, museums, good food, etc.)
  • The school or area works well for your partner or family
  • and so on!

Fit is likely a combination of all of these things and more. Sometimes, you just feel it in your gut – but there are lots of things that you can weigh when making this choice:




Many graduate programs have accepted students weekends where all of the prospective graduate students for a particular department have the opportunity to visit. During these visits you’ll meet with faculty, students, and EACH OTHER! This is the opportunity to explore the place you might call home for the next 2, or 6, or 10 years and meet your future colleagues.

If this visit isn’t offered up front – ASK! This may be the only chance you have to get to visit your future department before making your decision. If you can’t make the scheduled weekend – ask to reschedule! Most schools are able to accommodate this. Also, if you’re traveling internationally, it’s more likely you’ll have to ask to visit – don’t let it deter you!

While you’re visiting, take every opportunity that you have to ask questions and get the lay of the land. Can you picture yourself in this place for the long haul?


$! $! $!

Whether we like to admit it or not, getting a graduate degree is a full time job. You deserve to be paid for the work that you do. Plus, your work will suffer if you have to take on the added stress of not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from. Graduate school is tough enough as it is. Will you be able to make ends meet while you complete your degree?

DO NOT BE AFRAID TO ASK ABOUT THIS. This is information that you deserve to have when weighing your decision. So many of us think it might be taboo to bring up money, or that just by getting your degree you’re somehow getting paid, THIS IS NOT THE CASE!

No project is so perfect that you should do it for free. Or at least, this is a choice that you should make for yourself with all of the available information. You can always plan to try and obtain funding later, but know what you’re taking on by doing this. It is 100% okay to opt for a position that can guarantee funding for the work you do, even if it seems less “prestigious” or like a less “cool” project.


“Gathering data” aka ASK A LOT OF QUESTIONS!

There are plenty of ways to gather some data in order to get an idea of what your grad experience might be like at a particular place. This is especially important if you’re unable to visit.


Make sure you talk to your potential advisor on the phone or on Skype (you can even do this before you decide to apply). This can help you get a better sense of their communication style and to see whether or not your personalities “click”. Remember, this is the person that you’ll likely be working the most closely with in your program – so you’ll want to have a some sense of what that working relationship is going to look like.

Different styles work for different people (Will they be hands on or hands off? Are they easy to reach when you have a question? Do you feel like they would support you if your interests change? etc.). What do you feel like you need from a potential mentor? Talking to them will likely be a lot more informative on these points than chatting over email.


But your advisor won’t be the only person that you work with during your graduate program. The rest of the department can provide a broader network of collaborators. You’ll also likely be working closely with other graduate students. Think about what you might need in a broader community. A larger department could provide more potential mentors, but a smaller one could provide a closer-knit feeling, there is no one-size fits all department climate. Getting a sense for the department as a whole and the graduate student experience is key, because it can vary wildly.


Your potential mentor isn’t the only one that you can chat with while making your decision. It’s not uncommon to try and get a sense of the broader department or lab climate by reaching out to existing post-docs and students. You might also have some luck with department or lab alumni, who might feel more comfortable sharing some of the less-than-perfect parts of their experience. Don’t be afraid to ask, many folks are happy to share their past experiences!


There’s no need to make this decision in isolation – especially if you’re not sure. If you have an existing undergraduate mentor, this is the time to turn to them – these programs and potential mentors are likely in their orbit, and even if they aren’t, these folks have been through this and can talk you through your options. If you don’t have a designated mentor, think about reaching out to current professors (start with those who wrote your recommendation letters) or graduate students in your department.


Looking forward (and inward!)

Time for some soul-searching.

What do you want to get out of your graduate experience?

Do you want to focus on certain approaches or topics? Fieldwork? Experiments? Modeling? Everything?

Do you want to be prepared for academia? for industry? For government? Or have the flexibility to decide later?

Do you want a project with clear objectives or space to define it yourself?

What if your interests change? Can the program/advisor that you’re considering support that?


Things don’t always work out

If a program doesn’t meet your needs, it’s better to decline than to try and make something work that you don’t have a good feeling about. If you just don’t click with an advisor, don’t force it because a place is prestigious. If you don’t get the financial support you need, don’t go into debt. There are other paths and other options out there to explore!


There’s nothing wrong with taking into account a program’s strengths, but it’s ranking or reputation shouldn’t be the only thing you use to make your decision. Remember – “fit” is a combination of lots of things!

Depending on what you’re looking for, there might be some opportunities beyond the US that are worth considering.


And above all else…

Be kind. To yourself and to others!

Remember, not everyone gets good news and you may not either. Very few people get accepted to every graduate program that they apply to. This is a stressful time for all, and a rejection can just be an opportunity to find another, even better path.


This blog post was borne out of AGU EPSP’s new #WisdomWednesday initiative on Twitter. See the full tweet thread here and look out for future #WisdomWednesday posts!