Things to note before / during / after visits

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shouravv
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Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby shouravv » Sat Feb 21, 2009 9:37 pm

Now that the admission cycle is rolling into visits season, here is a compilation of my random thoughts on what sort of info is helpful in deciding. Although I am in astro grad program, I guess physics prospects should find it useful too.

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Before Visits:

1. What is the faculty to grad student ratio? Usually, 1:1 is ideal, 1:2 is still acceptable, beyond that is questionable. Don't count emeritus faculty, post-docs, or full time research staffs as faculty although they might (or not) help.

2. What's the recent (<3 years) publication history of the faculty members, specially those whose work you take most interest in? Is it standard for that specific sub-fields they are working in? You can compare ADS search for faculty members in same field at different institutions.

3. How does the TA/RA pay compare to other cities? Remember, 25k in Cambridge is less than 24k in Columbus or 20k in Austin, but is still more than 30k in Hawaii. Use salary.com or CNN-money. Check if the schools offer on campus university owned decent housing, specially if the city is expensive (eg. Columbia does this pretty well). Also note if health insurance is fully paid for, 85% paid for, or even less. You can also note if the department is paying for your Gym fee, campus/city bus fee etc. tiny but unavoidable expenses.

4. Where are the recent graduates from this department? Did they get post-doc jobs at reputable places and/or win fellowships at a decent rate? Did many of them leave the field totally? Many departments will list their recent graduates' whereabouts, or at least their names. In the latter case, google them.

5. What's the retention rate? Does the department hardly ever lose a student midway, or is it very common that every year a few would leave with a masters? This info is tricky to find since people don't advertise their weaknesses. Use these two pages -
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/archives/astrorost.htm
http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/archives/physrost.htm
along with the departments' recent-graduates list to get a sense of last 10 years total enrollment-graduation numbers.


During Visits:

1. Do the graduate students look and sound happy? Are they excited about their research and their advisers? Are the 1st/2nd/3rd years stressed about class and qualifier instead of research? Are the 4th/5th/+ years optimistic about their job prospects? Remember, the departments will only want to parade their poster children. I found it rather helpful to randomly walk in a few grad student offices, politely ask for 5 minutes and ask a few questions. Also, speak with both younger and older graduate students to get a balanced sense of things.

2. What is the average length of study? 5~6 years is the best. Try to get a sense of how many beyond 6th years are in a the department. If too many (more than a quarter, may be?) students are taking more than 6 years, that's a red flag.

3. How soon do you get a decent office with a new computer (Day-1 is the best)? How early do the graduate students usually have their first publication (varies by field, but should be within first 1 or 2 years)? Is the TA workload prohibitively high (less or around 10hr/week is best)? Is it common for students to work as TAs even beyond the first two years (bad sign, you gotta do more research at that time). Do the faculty members you are interested in working with have grants that'd allow them to hire RAs in the near future?

4. How hard is the qualifier? Some don't even have one, some have oral exams, some have thesis-defense like presentation-exams, while some have the old slash-n-burn 6 hours tests. This is important since it will determine your mental stress level for the first two years. Don't forget to ask if more or less all the students pass the qualifier within 2 years, since too many of them not doing so is not a positive thing. Also, inquire if there is a publication requirement for the qualifier. It is actually a good sign if they require you to publish in order to proceed to candidacy, since that means they really want you to do research.

5. Of course everyone will put up a smiley face for you during the visits, take you to the best bars and restaurants, and promise to fetch the moon for you. But do you really feel like more or less living at that place for next 5-6 years? Is it someplace you'd feel at home to be creative? In brief, what's the feel factor? Personally, I believe that it is the single most important issue.


After visits:

1. Did the department put enough efforts to have a well organized visit? Did they really seem to care that you do join the department? Did the trip, overall, feel good or not? Again, looking back, how's the feel factor?

2. Try to write down the highlights immediately after the trip while the memory is fresh - positives, negatives, neutrals - in details, may be even bullet points. Does anything specifically stick out in your mind, either positive or negative? Why so?

3. Once you are done with all the visits, take a deep breath, and go through all those notes and ask yourself that thinking back *now*, which are the places that you can most comfortably imagine yourself to be in, being both happy and productive? Eliminate the schools until you are down to 1 or 2. If it's 2, then here is something I liked reading recently on the web - "Flip a coin and when it is just about to land, see which one of the two choices you are really hoping will be up." Now, write to that place saying you are accepting their offer.

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Please don't try to decide before you visit all schools. When I ranked my acceptances before visiting last year (let's say A,B,C,D,E as 1,2,3,4,5), I never imagined that I will ultimately choose D and have my relative rankings almost totally reversed (D,C,B,A,E as 1,2,3,4,5) after visiting. Don't be blinded by name brand value, which matters a lot more for undergrad programs than grad programs. And give recent and current data more weight than historical facts: it doesn't help you if 5 students working with a single faculty became Hubble fellows if that faculty is now semi-retired (and so on ...).

Good luck!
Last edited by shouravv on Wed Mar 04, 2009 1:10 pm, edited 22 times in total.

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Helio
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Re: Things to note before/during/after visits

Postby Helio » Sat Feb 21, 2009 9:42 pm

The faculty ratio thing for physics is off because astro programs are different... some physics groups it is 5:1, so shoot for about 3:1 for experimental and 2:1 for theory... that is what i think is best from experience
Thanks for the thoughts

nathan12343
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby nathan12343 » Sun Feb 22, 2009 5:41 am

This is all great stuff to think about. Right now I've got three schools to visit and consider, it's always nice to have more points of view to think about before I make this choice.

Maxwells_Demon
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby Maxwells_Demon » Sun Feb 22, 2009 5:50 am

Excellent thread. Is it common for schools to invite you to a campus "recruitment weekend"/campus visit without officially telling you your admittance decision? I got invited to a "recruitment weekend"/campus visit from my home school department, and they said they want me to meet with a few professors and meet with the department head. (but no mention of 'acceptance').

Also, how common are phone interviews? Do all/most/some schools do this?

Maxwell's Demon

abeboparebop
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby abeboparebop » Sun Feb 22, 2009 11:53 am

Maxwells_Demon wrote:Excellent thread. Is it common for schools to invite you to a campus "recruitment weekend"/campus visit without officially telling you your admittance decision? I got invited to a "recruitment weekend"/campus visit from my home school department, and they said they want me to meet with a few professors and meet with the department head. (but no mention of 'acceptance').

Also, how common are phone interviews? Do all/most/some schools do this?

Maxwell's Demon


I've had four acceptances and no interviews (all in large departments, except maybe Santa Cruz). I imagine they're more common for astronomy and smaller physics departments, because for small departments it's more critical to make sure prospectives "fit in" socially.

valkyrie
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby valkyrie » Sun Feb 22, 2009 4:00 pm

This is really useful, thanks for posting!

shouravv wrote:Please don't try to decide before you visit all schools. When I ranked my acceptances before visiting last year (let's say A,B,C,D,E as 1,2,3,4,5), I never imagined that I will ultimately choose D and have my relative rankings almost totally reversed (D,C,B,A,E as 1,2,3,4,5) after visiting. Don't be blinded by name brand value, which matters a lot more for undergrad programs than grad programs. And give recent and current data more weight than historical facts: it doesn't help you if 5 students working with a single faculty became Hubble fellows if that faculty is now on semi-retired (and so on ...).


I wish more people would understand that choosing a grad school is different from choosing a college. My (non-science) friends immediately assume that I'm going to go to Harvard and can't understand why I would even bother to visit places like UC Santa Cruz... Even if I try and explain how other, smaller programs have as many or more highly successful graduates (especially taking into account the number of people in the program), the fact that the "brand value" of a name like Harvard won't overshadow everything else just doesn't seem to sink in.
Last edited by valkyrie on Sun Feb 22, 2009 8:39 pm, edited 1 time in total.

admissionprof
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby admissionprof » Sun Feb 22, 2009 4:44 pm

valkyrie wrote:This is really useful, thanks for posting!

shouravv wrote:Please don't try to decide before you visit all schools. When I ranked my acceptances before visiting last year (let's say A,B,C,D,E as 1,2,3,4,5), I never imagined that I will ultimately choose D and have my relative rankings almost totally reversed (D,C,B,A,E as 1,2,3,4,5) after visiting. Don't be blinded by name brand value, which matters a lot more for undergrad programs than grad programs. And give recent and current data more weight than historical facts: it doesn't help you if 5 students working with a single faculty became Hubble fellows if that faculty is now on semi-retired (and so on ...).


I wish more people would understand that choosing a grad school is different from choosing a college. My (non-science) friends immediately assume that I'm going to Harvard and can't understand why I would even bother to visit places like UC Santa Cruz... Even if I try and explain how other, smaller programs have as many or more highly successful graduates (especially taking into account the number of people in the program), the fact that the "brand value" of a name like Harvard won't overshadow everything else just doesn't seem to sink in.


I completely agree with everything here (I knew a student a year ago who chose UVA over MIT -- just preferred Charlottesville to Boston). One minor exception (pretty much just wording). You said "Please don't try to decide before you visit all schools". I agree that you should wait to visit a school before making any judgment on it, but after you've visited, say, three of them, then you pretty much know which of those is one that you won't be going to, and then you can turn them down. It isn't necessary to visit twelve schools before you can decide between SOME of them....

confused_p
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby confused_p » Sun Feb 22, 2009 8:30 pm

I agree with you prof.

I suppose, what I will be looking for in a grad school is - what would feel in a year from now. I might be wrong to judge school in 1 year future reference point. But it seems to work in many respect.

Say -- I got into some top rank school and be feeling so s**t-y in a year from now then that is of no use. I might be tempted to change my grad school at that point. This is what I would exactly like to avoid. I am sure human mind changes its direction once in a while but this time I want it to be steady. As it will really matter me in a long run.

Talking about myself - I think getting along with the people around me socially is a very important aspect of my life beside having great physics education. I do not mind talking about the implications of an equation or a purposed experimental setup over coffee but I really mind when smog individuals sit around and are not willing to listen to other side (that is me). I can be completely wrong but just sit there and listen to me before you start ignoring me. I have met many great minds -- they are really smart but what they do is listen to you. And I think it makes them greater in my mind. They go even further and are willing to change their point of view if they find mine to be persuasive enough. Not all views can be changed -- there might be some personal preferences but I want people to engage in reasoning not just opinions and faiths. And I want people to realize their cyclical arguments when it looks reasonable from at first thought but is not in the deeper thinking. I am a person who thinks we are what we are due the decisions that we make everyday for the most part. And I do not believe that Einstein was super-natural being and nor there exist another. So, in a year time I would not like to go to cafeteria and sip my coffee sitting around some self-ranking maniacs. Sorry -- for my language. I have come to hate these kinds lately.
Last edited by confused_p on Mon Feb 23, 2009 2:28 am, edited 1 time in total.

YF17A
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby YF17A » Sun Feb 22, 2009 10:43 pm

YES. I'm glad someone shares my sentiments. I think equally important (perhaps more important) than having famous professors specialized to your area of research is having a community of supportive graduate students to bounce ideas off of...professors are gone on nights and weekends, but grad students are always around :wink: Any current students want to comment on this?

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meowful
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby meowful » Sun Feb 22, 2009 10:58 pm

Picking the program based on "feel" seems to be a common suggestion, but I'm wondering how accurate a "feel" I'll get from visiting... :/ I remember thinking when I visited my current college during the admitted students' open house, "I'd be miserable here!" But I decided to come here anyway because it offered the best financial aid and ended up loving it! Oh current graduate students, were you able to get an accurate "feel" for your program when you visited?

shouravv
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby shouravv » Sun Mar 01, 2009 5:37 pm

Maxwells_Demon wrote:Is it common for schools to invite you to a campus "recruitment weekend"/campus visit without officially telling you your admittance decision? ... Also, how common are phone interviews? Do all/most/some schools do this? Maxwell's Demon

While I had only one of my 5 places inviting me for a visit *before* accepting me, my interpretation of that was like them telling me "okay, you look good on paper, but we just want to make sure ". But it looks like more schools are asking for phone interviews and such this year ... Overall, it is not uncommon, I guess.

valkyrie wrote:I wish more people would understand that choosing a grad school is different from choosing a college. My (non-science) friends immediately assume that I'm going to go to Harvard and can't understand why I would even bother to visit places like UC Santa Cruz... Even if I try and explain how other, smaller programs have as many or more highly successful graduates (especially taking into account the number of people in the program), the fact that the "brand value" of a name like Harvard won't overshadow everything else just doesn't seem to sink in.

I had similar experience. I went to a Ivy school as undergrad, and my admission offers included one Ivy (not my college) and two "top-physics" public schools. When I opted for a "state school" instead of any of those 3, simply because I liked their research and social culture much better, many of my non physical science major friends were half-shocked! And I must say that at least so far, I am very happy with the decision I made.

YF17A wrote:I think equally important (perhaps more important) ... a community of supportive graduate students to bounce ideas off of...professors are gone on nights and weekends, but grad students are always around :wink: Any current students want to comment on this?

I'd agree. Fellow grad students are people who you'd be seeing every single day of the next 5 years of your life. You'll work with some, do home-work with some, go hiking with some other, and what not ... It is not simply about what sort of people they are, rather about are they generally focused on their work and yet are enjoying life mostly. Are they happy to be where they are now? Do they plan to continue in the academia/research in the long term (beyond grad school)? If you are with productive and generally happy-with-life people, it will boost your productivity as well.

meowful wrote:Oh current graduate students, were you able to get an accurate "feel" for your program when you visited?

When I visited my current program, my primary impression was that the grad students were generally quite happy with their work, study, life, pay, play etc; which has turned out to be very accurate and fully correct view. Also, I liked the fact that everyone seemed to be working on some project they really were passionate about and that the department allowed significant freedom in terms of this, and this has turned out to be true as well. I was told that the average TA workload was closer to 5hrs/wk than 10hrs/wk, and that was true, too. However, somehow I got the impression that the classes are easy or no one really cares a lot about them: this was only partially correct. The classes are well taught and enjoyable, but "easy" was the wrong interpretation.

Anyway, I'd say that visits generally give a pretty accurate idea about a place. But of course, you have to consciously look beyond the expensive restaurants and beer and champagne. That's on your part.

---------------------------------------------------------

BTW, looks like I forgot to mention that speaking with faculty members at your undergrad institution really helps. Speaking with several different people will also give you a balanced view. I probably made appointments with and met 4 different professors at my school to discuss this one issue in detail, although they were very accessible anyway. I just wanted to make sure we have some time to thoroughly talk about each program. Try to ask people who are familiar with recent developments in your fields of interest (aka. better ask astronomy professors about astro grad programs etc.). You can take a printed out list of current faculty members at your schools of interest for these meetings. ... Just something that I am glad that I did: it really helped me decide between the last two school I was choosing between.

flaxcapacitor
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Re: Things to note before / during / after visits

Postby flaxcapacitor » Mon Mar 02, 2009 10:15 am

excellent thread shourav...I'm rarely organized enough to make lists and take notes, but your advice is sound.

Please keep adding to this thread as more ideas come, and I will do the same.




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