Thank you for the reply medphys. It was very helpful
Just another question (to anyone): I read here
that the single most important thing a prospective medical physics student should do is find out which graduate programs command the most respect from residency directors, who often give weight to applicants who have worked with people they know. Where is the best place to get this information? If any of you have information about specific places, please comment if you don't mind sharing.
More generally, I find it difficult comparing all the graduate programs just from their site information. Are there specific things I should watch out for (e.g. good signs/red flags) or things I could email departments/people about?
I don't know of any source to find out who has clout within the residency programs. The field is still relatively small, so a lot of it is who you know or who is nearby. As a result, I would really try to find a grad program at a place that has a residency program (or is affiliated with one nearby).
When I was applying to grad programs, here are things I did... and the things I wish I did in hindsight:
1. Ask about statistics from the department for the last ~5 years. How many people graduated per year? How many incoming students? Where did the students end up? Don't rely on the department webpages - they are out-of-date and somewhat misleading. As an applicant, I once asked a program (at a well known university) how many PhD students graduated within the last few years. I was told that 1 PhD student graduated within the last ~10 years! All other students were MS students, even though the webpage gave the impression that the program was for both MS and PhD seeking students.
2. The biggest gamble is finding a lab/advisor with funding. At least half of the faculty on the webpage don't have funding to take on a new student at any given time. If you are set on a certain speciality (radiation therapy, for example), you need to find out how many open slots there will be by the time to get to the program. This information might be tough to get. In my own institution, a number of specialities are advertised on the webpage as having active research. The truth is, there are only a handful of specialities for which research opportunities truly exist for a PhD student.
3. One red flag - As I mentioned in a prior post, some of these medical physics departments only hire their own graduates as faculty..... I think this is a terrible practice. Not only does it breed stagnate teaching, but also indicates that a lot of what goes on happens because of favoritism, and not based on quality of work. Of course, this is true in any setting.
4. Keep in mind that clinical faculty don't do research as a priority. They are paid to keep the machines operating in the hospital (which takes up most of their time). If a program has too many clinical faculty, it is safe to say that your research won't be a priority. "Adjunct" faculty might be even less ideal since aren't really in the program to begin with.
5. If you are planning on taking the clinical route, you will need to go to a CAMPEP-accredited program. Don't trust a program if they say that they "will be accredited" in the near future..... who knows how "near" that could be?
6. In my experience, the "interdisciplinary programs" (as opposed to a medical physics program with faculty dedicated only to medical physics) are not worthwhile. Since the program is not the faculty's "home department", the medical physics education/research will always take a back seat to the established programs. The medical physics students will be considered an "afterthought".
7. During the on site interviews, the current grad students are not free to give their honest input when the faculty are around. Keep this in mind when visiting.
8. Another red flag - if you hear/see that many of the faculty are leaving the department, that indicates some internal political turmoil. In short, the program is being managed poorly. This is a bigger deal for a grad student than an undergrad. I had no idea how important management was until I saw how poorly my own program was being managed.
9. Another red flag - People love to talk about how many committees they sit on, conferences they chair, etc. If someone is doing all this, how are they going to have the time to be a decent mentor/advisor?
10. Another red flag - if a researcher doesn't have too many students/post-docs or collaborators, there is probably a reason for that. He/she takes on students reluctantly. You probably want to avoid him/her as an advisor if possible.
11. Another red flag - politics within a department can get pretty nasty. If an advisor is not on good terms with the rest of the department, life will be that much more difficult for you. Again, it is probably best that you avoid him/her as an advisor.
That's all I can think of for now. I wish the whole process of getting a PhD was more transparent, but, unfortunately, the real world politics will inevitable get in the way. I hope this tidbits of info help out somewhat.