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087: How Do I Choose a PhD Program?

Some decisions in life are simple (“Yes, I want cheese on that burger!”) and some are difficult (“Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?”).

On that spectrum, choosing a University graduate program sits closer to marriage than it does to your lunch options.

First, grad school takes a long time – usually 4-6 years – and it sets you rather firmly in a career path that can be challenging to change afterward. It’s a life-decision.

Second, once you choose, you’re committing to a series of events and impacts that will be out of your control. You don’t get a “do-over” when the lab you wanted to join moves away or a postdoc picks up the project you learned about during your interview.

Take a cohort of students at any research university in the country, and you’ll find some that graduate with three first-author papers in just four years.  You’ll find others who never make it to the degree, either due to conflicts with their advisors, projects that don’t work out, or personal issues stemming from the stress of graduate studies.

So we know the stakes are high, but how, exactly, are you supposed to choose a PhD program?

 Make the Choice

This week on the show, we answer listener emails.  Mikaela wants to know what factors to consider when choosing a University and degree program, and Katie shares her specific conundrum: going with an offer she has vs. waiting for something better.

We lay out some general guidelines that will help any student-to-be.

1. Fascinating Research

It goes without saying that you should find a program with interesting research topics, but many students make a critical mistake in their focus.  They find one faculty member – one research lab – that sounds absolutely amazing and choose the degree program in the hopes of working in that lab.

Then, after moving, enrolling, and starting classes, they learn the PI has moved away or the lab is full and can’t accept new students.  Now they’re stuck in a program and forced to settle for something else.

Imagine spending the next five years of your life doing research you don’t care about!

Instead, look for programs with a variety of interesting topics.  This is obviously a deeply personal measure, but the goal is to find a variety of labs that satisfy your interests.  Make sure there are three to five research topics you could invest in, and you’ll be ready with Plan B, C, and D when Plan A falls through.

2. Love the Place

We’ve already mentioned you’ll be living in a university town for a few years, and you’ll spend plenty of time outside the lab.  Make sure you like your new home town.

This includes concerns like climate, but also the subtle character of that particular city. Is it bike-able? Is it near the beach? Does it have excellent restaurants? Can you stay close to family?

You want to enjoy the location, but make sure you experience it before you pass judgement.  All too often, students miss a great opportunity to step out of their comfort zones because they’re convinced they “never want to live in the city” or “can’t imagine moving to the East coast.”

Apply everywhere, and use the interview to explore new places.  You may just fall in love.

3. Professional Development

Most universities offer quality classes and cutting edge research, but not all programs are created equal when it comes to professional development.  There are still departments that consider a faculty position the only viable outcome of PhD training.  Others are strapped for resources and don’t offer additional help on career exploration or skill training.

Instead, look for a program that recognizes the diversity of PhD careers, and fosters your development in your chosen path.

Ask about active student groups, journal clubs, writing workshops, industry events, and PhD internships. If you know you’d like to pursue teaching when you graduate, you’re better off asking about opportunities to lecture before you enroll and find out that they discourage time outside of the lab.

For more ideas and considerations, tune into this episode, where we also discuss funding, family issues, the value of prestige, and more!

Tide Pod Challenged

This week, we explain the science behind the decidedly un-scientific “Tide Pod Challenge.”  Bottom line, don’t do it.

We also sample two parallel IPAs that are uniquely hopped.  It’s the Bright Double IPA from Treehouse Brewing in Massachusetts.  One version contains Citra hops, the other has Simcoe and Amarillo!

Yes you read that right – double-double IPAs this week! Wahoo!

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