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.
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 -
along with the departments' recent-graduates list to get a sense of last 10 years total enrollment-graduation numbers.
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.
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.
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 ...).
Last edited by shouravv
on Wed Mar 04, 2009 1:10 pm, edited 22 times in total.