Ok you’ve applied to many grad schools, gotten some offers (congrats!), what happens next? Often a PhD program will invite you to visit the campus, meet faculty and grad students, and see the town before you accept the offer. I went on four grad school visits in order to help me make the decision of which offer to accept. It’s an exciting time – the dynamics have switched. Instead of you begging them to let you in, now they are begging you to accept their offer!
The decision of which offer to accept is challenging, and there are many factors to consider. For me, the most important factors where the advisor I would work with, the presence of multiple people in the program I wanted to learn from, and the cost of living (especially important to me as I am too old to have a ton of roommates!). Those were the major factors, but there are lot more things to consider and questions to ask!
Planning for your future can be both fun and stressful, especially when that includes going to graduate school. Luckily, grad students like to help one another navigate this process – which is one of the main reasons that the Student Veterans Research Network exists! When we (Logan, Rebecca, and I) come across articles like this one, we pass that along to our members to help them in their decision-making process. There are many articles/blogs like this out there, so seek them out, especially if you’re looking for advice for a specific research field.
Neuroscience Postdoc, Nour Al-muhtasib, recently wrote an article for #GradHacks on “Picking a graduate school” and it is full of great advice on things students should consider when choosing the graduate programs they want to apply for. Since Nour does research in neuroscience, her advice is generally suited for medical/health-focused STEM students, but most of the information can be generalized for all graduate programs. I’ve summarized the advice here in this post and have elaborated on how STEM programs can differ.
Things to consider when choosing a graduate program:
Choose a program with a mentor and research focus that interests you. You’re applying for something you will work on for several years, so you should choose something that you will get the most out of and will get you to your career goals.
Do not choose the program based primarily on the school. You should choose an advisor that will work best for you. This is particularly important for student veterans, who may have different support needs than other graduate students. It may be best to choose an advisor who is familiar with the military, is a veteran themselves, or has advised veterans in the past. This is also important for students from marginalized backgrounds.
Talk to current graduate students in the program. They will give you honest feedback about their experiences, and they may help you avoid a problematic program/advisor/school.
Location for the program can be an important but often neglected point to consider. You have to live in the city, and some student veterans may want to consider proximity to support systems. This can also be important for people of color and LGBTQIA+ students who may want to consider how safe they will feel in the city they have to live in.
If you apply to a program with one faculty advisor in mind, you may not be able to work with them depending on their availability/funding. It is best to contact potential advisors before you apply to make sure they can take you on as a student, but it is always good to have multiple options for advisors in a program, so keep that in mind when choosing where to apply.
Stipends and funding options vary by school, program, discipline, and advisor. Most programs (the good ones) have some funding available for parts of your degree, whether that is as a Research Assistant (RA) and the funding comes from the advisor, or as a Teaching Assistant (TA) and the funding comes from the school and you will have to teach. There are also grants and fellowships that you can apply for to fund your research and tuition, so you will not have to teach while getting your degree. The main point is do not apply to programs that do not have any funding options. None of you should have to pay out of pocket for a graduate degree, and if a program claims that you should, that’s a red flag. As student veterans you may also have options to use VA funding (GI Bill or Vocational Training) for you graduate degree, so explore those options if you have them. (For example, my geology graduate program encourages students seek out funding, like fellowships, if their advisors cannot pay their tuition and stipend (RA). But if your funding doesn’t cover the entirety of your degree, they guarantee TA funding for the rest of your degree after your fellowship or RA runs out. Make sure you know what is available to you.)
This advice is primarily for US-based institutions. Although generally applicable, non-US programs have different requirements and options, so that should be investigated thoroughly if you would like to get your degree abroad. This is also important to consider if you are using US-based funding that may not be applied to foreign programs.
Last piece of advice (not in the article, but very important) – it is ok to change your mind. If you’re unhappy with your degree/program/discipline/advisor choice, then you can switch programs. That is something you’ll have to coordinate at your institution, but don’t feel stuck if you make the wrong choice for yourself. Changing career paths isn’t something new to any of us, after all, so don’t feel like you have to stay in a program that doesn’t work for you.
Good luck with your future planning and reach out for advice in the SVRN Slack if you need it!
And just like that our first day at SVA National Conference is wrapped up! Patty, Rebecca, and I flew in to Orlando yesterday and made it to our rooms at the Disney Coronado Springs Resort. The resort is lovely, with a lake in the middle and lots of bars and restaurants, but it’s a resort and it’s Disney so… it’s also lots of bucks. We hit the bar in the middle of the lake last night for dinner and drinks before turning in.
The first sessions today started at 1pm, so the morning was spent with registration, prepping for our talk tomorrow, and a bit of catching up on sleep! They passed out COVID tests are registration, and everyone is required to wear masked inside, which really helped put my mind at ease wrt COVID.
The day started with small group sessions. I’ll summarize here things I learned in sessions that I think might be useful for our interests!
Session 1: Mythbusters: Changing the Culture Surrounding Accessibility & Affordability at Highly Selective Institutions
A highly selective institution is one that admits <25% of its applicant pool. The presenters at this session were from Cornell University, Amherst College, and University of Chicago. The focus of the session was on veterans considering these for undergraduate studies, and assuming they were out of reach, too unaffordable, or that they weren’t good enough and shouldn’t even try to apply. The session was focused on busting those myths and convincing folks that they can be competitive and they should apply to some stretch goals in addition to “safety schools”. I think that’s good advice for grad school applications too!
They suggested some tips for overcoming mental and logistical barriers for vets applying to these types of institutions:
Go to the source: email admin folks and ask questions
Financial aid is very robust at these places, don’t let the sticker price scare you
Don’t be scared off by the touted statistics of first-year students and their awesome GPAs, your life and work experiences can make you more competitive even with lower GPAs.
Don’t send optional standardized test scores. If you send them and the admissions folks see them, they will be biased by them even if it’s more subconscious. If they’re optional, don’t even send them.
Don’t shy away from reaching for the “long shot” school!
What is your “why”: What do I want to contribute to the world, what is my vision for my life? Where do I want my career to go?
Are your grad school plans in conversation with your why: Is grad school the only way to get where I want to be? Is it the best way?
Have you had an honest conversation with yourself and your team (spouse, family, etc) about what is required: Is this something I really want to do? How long is it going to take? How am I going to finance it? Do I need to relocate?
Some tips for applying:
Who’s in your field? Talk with advisors about grad school, identify prerequisites and adjust schedule accordingly
A face in the crowd vs a potential college: Much academic mentorship occurs outside of the classroom, like research settings, office hours, etc. Invest time with mentors and let them get to know you. Work to maintain those connections, especially if there is a gap between UG and grad school.
Asking for letter of recommendation: start the conversation early, let mentors know as soon as you begin the application process. Ask mentors if they would like a gentle nudge before the due date. Don’t be afraid to ask for letters, this is a part of their job they’re not just doing you a favor (but be polite of course).
Following the first sessions was the opening reception. It started with a conversation between Dr. Abby Kinch of SVA National and R.J. Jenkins of Columbia Center for Veteran Transition and Integration about imposter phenomenon. Imposter phenomenon is the feeling that you don’t belong in a group because you aren’t as good/smart/accomplished as those around you, that you are an imposter who will be found out one day. It’s a very common feeling, most people will experience it in their lives at some point.
He had some very encouraging and useful things to say, I thought! To address imposter phenomenon, he suggested leaning into your community (family, friend groups, SVA chapter) and having frank and open conversations about what you’re feeling. Look for folks further down the path you are on, and who care about you and your career and can tell you what they see about your capabilities. Don’t ignore or stuff down that nagging feeling.
He also pointed out that imposter phenomenon is closely aligned with important and valuable leadership qualities – good listeners, responsive to feedback, eager to celebrate the team rather than themselves. A certain amount of discomfort is valuable because it shows you are challenging yourself and growing, so if you feel this a bit you’re probably doing something right not something wrong! But be aware that there may be real external factors contributing to your not feeling welcome, and if that’s the case, that’s not on you!
“When someone believes in you, let them!” Don’t discount it by telling yourself they’re just being nice or they don’t really believe it.
Finally, he suggested that if you’re wondering if or how your military experience will help with college, remember: the one thing the military taught you to do is to get really good at a bunch of things you weren’t already good at, and that skill is 1000% transferable!