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Taking Stock of Your Graduate School Options

Previously: What do you get from a PhD in STEM?

By Dr. Don C. Brunson Assistant Dean, Graduate School, Vanderbilt University; and Dr. Will Wittels, Program Manager, The Leadership Alliance

Few decisions produce as much anxiety as those regarding the decision to go to graduate school. You may be wondering, “Should I go to grad school? Will it get me a job I want after investing all that time and effort? If I go, what kind of graduate degree should I get?” If you’re asking these questions, know that you are not alone. The vast majority of people in or who have gone to graduate school, including your advisors, found themselves asking these very same questions. This article discusses strategies for taking stock of your graduate school options and putting together your graduate school list.

Like so many questions relating to graduate school, you should focus on fit. In this case, you should focus on the fit between the mode of thinking and the kind of skills you would acquire in graduate school and the kinds of problems, puzzles, and challenges that you would like to confront on a daily basis. If you find yourself “in the zone” when trying to answer a question to which no one knows the answer, then a graduate degree that gives you the skills to do that, such as a PhD, is probably right for you. More narrowly, if the kinds of puzzles that you love tend to concern questions of human health, then a degree in public health or the biological sciences is probably right for you.

Ultimately, you’re choosing to learn a mode of thinking and problem solving that you’ll be able to carry with you into whichever job you have. In the case of a PhD, you’re learning methods for critical thinking and knowledge production that you can use in academia, industry, or government. Masters degrees emphasize the practical tools of a discipline while also exposing you to some of the research elements of that discipline. MD-PhD programs train you to think like a medical doctor and a researcher.

Those modes of thinking and problem solving are relevant to myriad jobs across academia, industry, and government. You will be able to deploy them in some capacity in any of those areas. By focusing on the skills you want to use, rather than the job you want to have, you guarantee that your graduate training will pay dividends in your career.

To start building your school list, begin researching schools according to your academic interests and the skills and training you wish to acquire. Research can be an interdisciplinary pursuit, so use specific search topics. Rather than searching for “Molecular and Cellular Biology,” consider searching “protein methylation.” Since your interests might not fully match those of prospective faculty mentors, consider pursuing opportunities on projects that are similar. That way, you will acquire tools ultimately needed to undertake the research that you want.

Once you identify a department/program, visit its website to learn more about faculty research interests and the department’s philosophy on graduate education. Search for a graduate education administrative person (the title will be different at each institution). This person will often have access to information and other resources that might be very useful to you. Feel empowered to conduct “informational” interviews with representatives from prospective programs or e-mail faculty and graduate students in prospective programs.

Be aware that some PhD programs, such as some in Public Health, may require you to have a master’s before applying. Make sure to note any requirements about previous degrees as you research programs.

Once you have a “long-list” of programs that interest you, start narrowing based on priorities: the “fit” between you and the research, the level of support you are likely to receive, and the appeal of the university and the city as a place to make your home for the next 4-7 years. Ensure that your list has at least a few programs that you would consider to be “reaches.” The number of schools you apply to will depend on how much time and money you estimate you can put into the process. That said, apply to at least five or six schools. Also be aware that applying to more than a dozen schools will tax your time and your wallet (if fee waivers are unavailable). By utilizing these strategies, you should successfully identify programs that match your interests and put you on a pathway toward your ultimate goal.

Action Items:

  1. Focus on the tasks and challenges you enjoy to identify potential degree programs.
  2. Evaluate programs on fit, support, and quality of life.
  3. Narrow till you have a list of schools that is feasible in terms of time and money.

Up next: What information to gather