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Article Summary: Applying for Graduate School? Here’s some advice!

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!

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