Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Choices: Graduate program edition

It's that time of year. The applications are in. Undergraduates (and others) around the country are waiting to hear if they've been accepted or invited for an interview. In less than three months, they will have decided where to spend the next 3 to 7 years. Between now and then, they will be gathering intel--scouring websites, talking with PIs and students, visiting campuses--which will inform their impending decision.

The whole process can be overwhelming. I was pretty clueless going in. I knew I wanted to pursue biological chemistry research. I had found professors whose research I was interested in. Beyond that, I didn't know what to expect or what I was looking for in a graduate program.

My undergraduate training was at a mid-sized state school in a small department, which encompassed chemistry and biochemistry. My experience and interactions there certainly influenced my views of what I wanted. I gravitated toward programs that had a similar atmosphere. This meant programs that were highly collaborative and multi-disciplinary in practice. I was weary of departments and labs in which PIs talked about collaborations with people across the country or half way around the world, but never mentioned working with colleagues in the department. I recently described my philosophy regarding divisions between disciplines and subfields of chemistry and biology, a philosophy I held even as a prospective Ph.D. student. I felt then (and still do) that it is difficult to integrate and advance related disciplines if a department imposes rigid barriers between them. I realized later that the rigid structure often went along with a seeming lack of collaboration within the department. I also stayed away from programs in which there seemed to be a great deal of tension between students and their PIs. This was largely rooted in a lack of self-confidence. I could not envision myself going head-to-head with an adviser on a regular basis, nor could I imagine being silent or deferential during repetitive conflicts, especially those unrelated to research. I also could not see myself doing well in a cutthroat department.

I heeded the advice of my undergrad professors. Dr. D told me to find the student who had been in the program the longest, who would have the most experience with the program, the most reason to be bitter, and usually the most honest responses. If you talk to that person and he or she doesn't regret joining the program, then that's a good sign. I did just this on my visit to PSU. Someone else suggested asking basically everyone I met about the typical length of a Ph.D. in their program and how long they had been there. In chemistry, an average beyond five years was viewed as problematic. An issue that revealed itself was that many programs stop providing funding to students after six years; in some of the same programs, it was not unusual to take that long or longer to complete a Ph.D.

Dr. K, another undergrad instructor, counseled me to not pick a program if there were not at least two advisers that I could see myself working for. Although Bear was my first choice for mentor, I saw the wisdom of this advice play out in my program. There are several reasons you might (have to) pass on your first choice PI. You might realize that you'd rather be mauled by hyenas than work for your "dream" adviser once you do a rotation in his/her lab. A PI's funding situation may not allow him/her to take a new student the year you arrive; hopefully this is something you would know before choosing a program, but there is no guarantee. If the PI has a tenure review and doesn't get it, he/she may choose to go somewhere else. Or there may be a high level of interest in a given subfield the year you join. Among my first year colleagues, there were 8 people vying for 6 spots in three labs. Needless to say, two didn't get into the labs they wanted. One of them found a suitable alternative; the other postponed joining a lab for almost another year. The point is things happen, so it's good to have more than one option.

Looking back, perhaps one of the most important things about the application process was figuring out what I really wanted. The questions I asked myself were just as important as the ones I asked others. What was most important to me: sexy science or sanity? What was I willing to compromise on? Was an ultra-competitive or a collaborative environment right for me? I spent time thinking about my experience and my level of comfort and confidence. As a prospective grad student, I didn't have much of any of those. I chose the program where I could see myself succeeding at research that excited, where I would learn from my instructors, my adviser, and other labs. It was a good program--a great one in my book, actually--but not the "best" of my choices (at least according to the U.S. News and World Report). But in hindsight, it was the best program from me. I went in as a timid undergrad but left as a confident scientist. And that's what it should really be about.