Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.
image courtesy of graur codrin / freedigitalphotos.net
The best way to get certain kinds of information about graduate programs is to visit the school. Keeping in mind the number of graduate programs you're applying to, the financial cost, as well as taking the time associated with travelling to each graduate school, you should make every effort possible to pay a visit to at least those schools that interest you the most. Find out who the Graduate Program Director is and contact that person a couple of weeks in advance. Let them know who you are, what day you expect to be visiting the campus, and ask to make an appointment to find out more about the program.
Program Directors or Prospective Supervisors?
The responsibilities of a graduate program director differ from those of a prospective graduate supervisor. The Program Director's responsibilities may include academic advising of graduate students, student recruitment, admissions recommendations, the allocation of assistantships, tuition awards, and fellowships, and the appointment of graduate faculty to student committees. They are however not responsible for running research projects or directly supervising grad students that are completing a research thesis as part of their degree requirements.
A prospective supervisor on the other hand, often runs an active research laboratory, applies for grants, teaches classes and most importantly to you, is directly responsible for your research (if it is a research program), and is most likely responsible for deciding whether to accept you into the graduate program. You need to figure out whether you should be meeting with one or the other or perhaps even both. If you are meeting with a prospective supervisor, then take a look at this article on choosing the right graduate supervisor and tips on avoiding mediocre supervision.
Do Your Research First
Before meeting with anyone, make sure to do some background research on the program that you are interested in applying to. You want to be able to make the most of this opportunity and to do so, you need to be informed and ask appropriate questions that relate specifically to your career goals. Don't ask general questions like "what is the history of the school" or "where are the student dorms" that can easily have been found on the programs web site. Depending on the circumstances, the graduate program director may only allocate a short period time to meet with you and it's your job to be prepared and efficient. Prepare a few pertinent questions in advance and take a look at this article for more on how to choose the right graduate program.
Current Graduate Students Are Sources of Essential Information
Besides program directors, current graduate students are often the best source of information about what it is like to be in the program. You must be careful, however, not to put too much stock into the reports of only a single graduate student. Talk to several of them and look for points of general consensus and recurring themes. The danger in speaking with only one or two is that their attitudes and opinions may not be representative of the majority of students in that program. Trust your instincts when deciding whether a particular program is right for you. If you do not like what you see or the people you meet, if you hear a little voice telling you to stay away, then you probably should.
Things You Can Do If You Can't Visit
It may not be practical or possible to make a personal visit to every graduate program on your list, but that should not stop you from contacting some of the graduate students who are currently in those programs that you cannot visit. You could ask the Graduate Program Director to help get you in touch with a graduate student, preferably someone who has been around long enough and has the experience needed to provide well-informed answers to your questions. Use email to ask your graduate-student contacts a few questions, and if they seem receptive, you should try to arrange a time to phone when they would be willing to talk with you. Do not plan to call more than once, unless you are invited to call again. Keep in mind that these graduate students may discuss your correspondence with their graduate advisors, thereby influencing the decision concerning your application.
A Bit of Detective Work Can Come in Handy
You can learn a lot about a program by emailing and talking to students who are already there. But, you can’t talk to enough different people this way. Perhaps someone at your current school knows something about some of the programs on your list. A particular program might have a reputation among people in the field (these reputations will tend to be more valid than most of those that exist among the general population). Perhaps one of your current professors knows something about one or more of the schools on your list. Maybe someone knows some of the faculty members there. If you are lucky, you may find someone at your current school who actually went to graduate school at one of the universities on your list.
Check the profiles of the professors at your current school. One can always find a bit of information about the faculty members in any given department on a college or university website, and the institution from which they received their doctorate is often indicated. Be resourceful and ask around. You never know what useful information you may get from your efforts.
Find lots more expert advice on getting into grad school in the newly released book: Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In, 2nd edition, by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. It is the most comprehensive advisement handbook for College and University students who are considering graduate school. Whether you are still deciding if grad school is right for you, or are looking for ways to maximize your application, this book is for you. Paperback version available at Amazon & Barnes & Noble. eBook available on Kindle and for Apple iPad/iBooks, Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, and most e-reading apps. Get Your Copy Now!
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