The journey to your PhD will be filled with life-changing highs and extreme lows. The prospective student weekend is one of the most critical steps to assuring your graduate school experience will be a rewarding time. WHY? Because you’ll be spending the next 5-6 years there and you need to have some insight into what that time will be like. During my time as a PhD student and a mentor to incoming PhD students I learned that one of the biggest mistakes future PhD students made was not asking essential and effective questions during their visit weekend. Mainly because they were more focused on the amenities and school atmosphere, which are both important things to consider, but it is important to remember that the student-advisor-department relationship will play a major role in your success as a PhD student and most importantly your MENTAL HEALTH. We won’t spend much time discussing mental health in this post, but I WILL definitely revisit this topic at a later date. I was also guilty of not asking some of the hard questions during my visit weekend and also not considering some of the answers I was given in my final decisions. However, I was lucky and my advisor was a God send, but I know many close friends and associates who were not so lucky. I think you should have two main goals during your visit weekend: choosing the best advisor for you and determining if the department including the current students will be a great fit for you. I’ve listed the do’s and don’t’s that will help you make the most of your visit weekend.
Determine What’s Important To You Before The Weekend
It’s true that the visit weekend is the time to learn more about your prospective department including research, prospective advisors, and facilities. However, one of your goals should be to determine how those things align with both your professional and personal values. I have recruited for the University of Michigan at many major conferences including NSBE and SWE and every time I am approached by a prospective student, my first question is always “What’s Important To You”. The reason why, is because this helps you determine what will be the best work and social environment for you. Being from the South, family is very important to me, but most importantly seeing my family is necessary for my sanity and productivity as a scholar. During my visit weekends, I made sure to question current students and prospective advisors on the group’s vacation policy. And because visiting my family is very important to me, I steered clear of advisors who had very strict vacation policies. Before your visit weekend, make a list of things that are important to you, but just like anything….you won’t get everything you want in an advisor or school/department so be clear on your deal breakers. Remember, every one values different things and if something is important to you….don’t ignore it.
Do Ask The Hard Questions To The Right People
This is not the time to be shy or polite. You need to know what you do not know and the only way to do that is to ask hard questions to the right people. This is most important when interviewing prospective advisors. And yes, I do agree that you should ask the advisor the hard questions, but the right people to question are their current students. You will be surprised the amount of students who do not understand this concept. No one knows the advisor better than the people who are mentored and advised by them everyday. It’s the same concept in relationships and friendships where it is understood that you truly do not know a person until you live with them. These questions should stem from your list of “important things”. And make sure to right down the answers and use them effectively in your decision making process.
Don’t Hesitate To Ask Questions Surrounding Race & Gender
As a woman of color in higher education, I know first hand that there are many implicit and explicit biases towards minority groups in academia especially in science and engineering. On top of values, minority students must also consider how advisors and departments handle issues surrounding race and gender and inclusivity and since you more than likely may be the “only” of your group…..these questions should be targeted towards administrators in your department and college, but if you’re lucky and there are other minority students, please ask them. Questions can range from: “are there any policies on discrimination and racism for the department and/or university” to “what is the retention rate for students of color/women in this department”. Six years ago, I was visiting a school that I will not name and after a discussion with another student of color, I learned that the department had a nasty history of racism and discrimination and that weighed heavy in my decision to not attend that university. I can’t think of one minority student who hasn’t had to deal with at least one incident of racism and/or discrimination in college and knowing the department’s policy as well as how they’ve dealt with past incidents is valuable knowledge.
Do Ask Questions About Funding
Every school has a different policy when it comes to funding and you’ll learn that some have more than others. At Michigan, each PhD student was guaranteed five years of funding, but Master’s students were responsible for finding their own funding or paying out of pocket. At most universities, PhD students are paid through teaching, research grants, departments, etc. For science and engineering students, most funding comes from research grants and/or teaching assistantships. Knowing the funding status of a prospective advisor is important and most of the time the graduate coordinator will know the answer. ASK THEM. Another important thing for STEM students, is to know what happens if an advisor runs out of funding. I know students who have had to leave their PhD programs because the advisor lost funding or had to teach which is time-consuming and takes time and energy away from your research.
Don’t Ignore Red Flags
If you perceive it, then it is REAL to YOU!! Sometimes we have our hearts set on working for a certain advisor or being in a specific location. However, don’t let that cloud your judgement when making these decisions. The time it takes to complete a PhD varies from field to field. The Academy of Arts and Sciences reported that the national average was 5.9 years for all PhD’s…..which means it’s a very long time to be miserable. Therefore, if your gut, heart, or mind tells you something is wrong don’t ignore it. If students seem unhappy…..you will be a future unhappy student. If an advisor is condescending and rude….she/he will be that way for the next 5.9 years.
I am not an expert and I am only speaking from my experiences as a PhD student and as a mentor to other students. There are a plethora of things that you must consider when choosing a graduate program and the prospective weekend is your time to learn every thing you need to make an informed decision! As always if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.
From Aeriel, With Love