School Search: Part One

Figuring out where you are going to spend the next two to five (or more?) years of your life is front and center during your McNair summer. Quite a large task, what’s the best way to go about it, you ask? The best way is having some idea of what you are interested in and finding people who are doing the work that you think you want to do. Searching the literature for articles in your field that really pique your interest and then looking to see where the author(s) might be based university-wise is a good bet. This would be considered the more “targeted” approach.

Alternatively, you can go to big search engines, like and and search for “all Ph.D. programs in biology” for instance. Of course there are many sub-fields of biology, so I would do a search for those as well, such as, microbiology or ecology. This way, you can make sure that you know of every single program in existence based on your topic area or interests. Then what do you do?

Consider narrowing your search based on geography. Not everyone would agree with this, but I think it’s important to determine where you are wiling to live and where you are not, especially if your goal is to go straight into a Ph.D. program, which you should definitely consider if you have strong credentials and want to be most efficient in the process. Big city? Small college town? East coast or west coast? Warm? At least warm(er) than what you are used to? Maybe you want to move where it’s really cold! It’s possible.

I always encourage students to ask *multiple* faculty for their recommendations of people (i.e. prospective advisors) and programs. Their willingness to connect you with people they know (i.e. colleagues) is often the key in bringing your application to the top of the pile.

So you obviously scope out program websites, paying special attention to faculty bios. “Fit” is mostly based on whether there are people there doing things that you think you want to do. Communicating this connection with faculty is essential in your personal statement. If you are not finding “key data” as I like to call it, such as a) how many people apply, b) how many are accepted, c) how many are funded and d) what is the stipend level, then call the departmental secretary to find out. This is reasonable opportunity to introduce yourself and express your interest in their program. An alternate person to contact is usually called the “graduate coordinator” which is a faculty member responsible for interacting with prospective graduate students and facilitating the application process for that particular program. It’s always good that these folks know who you are. You want them to know you “in a good way,” that is, don’t be a pest and always be respectful and appreciative in your interactions.

How much can you really tell about a graduate program from their website? Certainly, you can get a “general feel” about the place – is the information well-organized and up to date, do they highlight the work of their faculty and students, are application guidelines clearly spelled out, do they talk about the success of their graduates? If you are answering “yes” to most of these questions, it’s probably a good sign.

If you were to start “ranking” your potential programs against one another, how would you “rate” them? I have a few suggestions here, but really, it comes down to very personal feelings about what is most important, how you think your credentials will stand up in the process and how much genuine connectivity you can foster that will help you ultimately decide if the people and this place is for you.

Here is a sampling of criteria that you can use either with or without a “weighted” scaling system:

  • Rank according to how responsive the department and grad school has been to your inquiries:

1 = Not responsive
2 = Satisfactory
3 = Exceptional

  • Rank according to your assessment of prospective faculty advisor(s):

1 = Not a great fit, interesting work, but probably not taking students
2 = Good fit for interests, positive interaction, might have an opening
3 = GREAT fit, great interaction, is taking on new students

  • Select a ranking based on info from professors and ranking sources like U.S. News:

1 = Average school
2 = Good school
3 = Highly ranked school

  • Select a ranking on how difficult you perceive it is to get in based on the data you have for average GPA and GRE scores of applicants:

1 = Highly competitive
2 = Moderately competitive
3 = Good chance of getting accepted

  • Select a ranking based on how easy/difficult you perceive getting funding is:

1 = Highly competitive
2 = Moderate
3 = Likely to receive

  • Rank according to how you feel about the “place” that the school is in:

1 = Okay, but not great
2 = Decent, you could live there for a while
3 = You LOVE it and can’t wait to move!

  • Use this ranking after you have been able to visit the school, or if you are unable, base your judgment on the “overall feel” you have received since exploring the program:

1 = Okay
2 = Pretty good
3 = LOVE it!

What does it really come down to?

Gut. Fit. The hunt. The work. Connection.

You hunt and hunt and hunt. Then you reach out to find out more and let them know you exist and that you are awesome. You put together your best effort application to schools that “feel good” to you. Ultimately, you go with your gut. About which schools to apply to as well as which offer (among multiple) to accept. Work hard, put yourself out there, always follow your inner guide.

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