Monday, July 14, 2008

How to Pick a Ph.D. Program

I have a number of friends who have come to me for advice on applying for a Ph.D. program. I have collected my "best of" advice from my emails, and I thought I would share it with my readers (all 4 of them). If any of you have advice you'd like to add, feel free.

So You're Thinking of Getting a Ph.D.

1. Don't. I can't say this strongly enough, and yet, I have never been able to convince anyone not to do it. The only reason you should be getting a Ph.D. is if you absolutely need one to pursue your chosen career. This means you want to be either an academic, or you want to work in a science lab. Bad reasons to get a Ph.D. include:
  • "I'm sick of my job. I'd like to take a break." Believe me, a Ph.D. is not a break.
  • "A Ph.D. is sooooooo much more impressive than a masters." This may be true, but even put together with the previous reason, it's not worth it.
  • "The economy is in the crapper." Don't worry, it will turn around well before you get out in 5-8 years.
  • "I'm great at classes." Ph.D. programs are not really about classes.

Basically, don't go unless you are 100% sure you want to do it, have really done your homework, and know that having those 3 letters after your name is essential to doing what you want to do and there is no way you can do it otherwise. So I haven't convinced you? All right, fine. Read on for advice on how to pick a program.

2. Talk to current students or recent Ph.Ds to find out who has the best programs in your desired area. You should find these people through your personal networks, not randomly email ones you found listed on the school website. My colleagues and I get emails all the time from people (usually from outside the U.S.) wanting information on how to get a Ph.D. in the U.S. We generally ignore these emails. It is nothing personal, but we just don't have time to email random people we don't know. Use your LinkedIn contacts, ask your friends and family, ask your undergrad advisor, etc. Academia is a pretty small world, and you might be surprised whom your friends know.

If you want to do academia, you will be better off going to the very best program that you can get into. You will have more options this way. Students are great for finding out this because really, they don't have anything invested in you coming to their school. Ask them "what are the best programs in this area?" It will be helpful if you have a narrower idea of what area within the field interests you. So if you want to get an English Ph.D., it will help you pick a program if you have a general idea of whether you are interested in Shakespeare or 20th century African-American literature. If you're interested in the latter, it's not smart to go to a program, no matter how great the overall reputation, if they don't have any scholars there currently doing anything with 20th century African-American literature. This won't be a problem with bigger programs, who tend have enough people to cover most areas, but even so, some programs are stronger in particular areas than others.

3. Realize that it is going to take you MINIMUM five years to finish. Some programs (like mine) like to sell their programs as four-year programs. The only people I have heard of who finished in four years came in on DAY ONE with their dissertation idea and dataset. If this isn't you, you're going to take five years. If you're lucky. Ask how long it has taken the most recent graduates to finish. If you can get the median time to graduation, this is helpful too. Ask about the requirements. I picked a program with an abnormally high number of requirements, and this means that students in my program take a long time to graduate.

4. Once you get in, do your homework to pick the right program. You will get the most honest information from current students (with the caveat coming later in the post), but be sure to talk to faculty as well. Best case scenario is that your school will fly you out so you can see the campus and talk to students and professors. I am assuming that if you got this far, you want to be a professor. If you don't, see #1. Seriously.

Here's the big caveat about talking to current students. They will be too scared to say anything bad about their program or the professors (especially the professors). Here's why. They don't know you. We don't know if we tell you "Oh, Professor X is horrible" or "in our program, the professors use the grad students as slave labor." that you're not going to go to the next school on your list and say "Yeah, I heard from students at PreviousUniversity that the professors there are a nightmare." And then it gets back to the faculty at our school! So we're not going to say a word that is directly negative about our program. Now, if I am talking to a close friend, I might be more candid (although, truthfully, most of the negatives in my program are administrative, and I feel fine about being candid about these) If you are clueless about how this works, you can miss some important information or be blindsided by some pretty nasty stuff when you arrive. So if you hear them avoid answering a question, or give neutral or noncommittal answers, feel free to interpret that as a negative. They will be positive about things that are positive.

5. With this in mind, here are some things you should ask about.
  • Ask where graduates from the last several years (I would say the last five years) have gotten jobs. Some departments have this information on their websites, but others will say that they've placed graduates at "a variety of universities including Flagship State University, University of SmallState, and FancyPants University." When the placement info is given so generally, it's a pretty safe assumption that the person who got a job at FancyPants University is probably the one superstar from 10 years ago, and this is not at all representative of where the average graduate from this program gets placed. All else being equal, you want to go to the school that has the best placement record. The caveat is that I think it is better to go to a school with a slightly worse placement records if the faculty is more supportive and helpful and nice.
  • Does this school function on a "star" system? I know of some programs where if you're a star student, you get a lot of attention, but if you're a middle-of-the-road student, you will have a hard time getting resources and attention.
  • Try to suss out the nature of the relationships between the faculty and students. If possible, you want to go a place where the faculty members treat the students with respect, support them in their learning, give them opportunities for coauthorships, and aren't abusive.
  • What is the funding like? Do you get grants or do you have to TA for most of your money? TAing is not as bad as you hear sometimes; it depends on the professor, but the less TAing, the better. How many years do you get guaranteed funding? Is it a problem to get funding after you're not guaranteed? For instance, in my program, you're only guaranteed funding for 4 years, but really, there are so many TA positions that it is easy to get funding as long as you need it (if you are in town and able to TA).
  • Do they kick people out a lot? This is a very important question to ask. Some programs that I know of get rid of 50% of their students within the first two years. This is crazy to me. You really don't want to go somewhere that kicks out a lot of their students. This is often a sign of department dysfunction. Sometimes kicking people out is a necessary evil- people don't progress, can't cut the work, etc., but this should be somewhat of a minimum.

6. This brings me to a very important point: Do NOT go anywhere that does not give you a masters if you either leave or get kicked out after a certain point (usually after the qualifying exams) If you fail your exams or if you pass them but decide to leave because academia isn't for you and you've realized that you've made a colossal mistake, you want to get something for your trouble without having to sit through 5-8 years of misery. Sometimes programs will say that this is so they don't reward people for dropping out or getting kicked out, but this is BS.

7. And finally, do not go to a program because there is one professor there for whom you would like to work. This is basically putting all your eggs in one basket. People go on sabbatical, they move to other universities, or worst of all, they could be abusive and horrible. There should be at least a few professors there who appeal to you.

Edited to add: One more thing-- ask current grad students at one university about other universities. Because while we won't talk smack about our own, we have no scruples about giving you the scoop on other places, if we know anything.


Jackie said...


Jackie said...

Also, be VERY CAREFUL if you decide to go with an untenured professor as your mentor. There remains the possibility that said advisor will not get tenure, and will have to close up shop in the middle of your research. Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

I found this post very helpful, my sincere thanks for your advice!

Anonymous said...

also finding this very helpful


claytonghering said...

Thank you, i'm currently in my 2nd year of undergrad studies working on my Bachelors in History and doing some research on what it takes to get a PhD. I appreciate the straightforwardness of this article. But i do have a question, can a person maintain a relationship while working on their PhD?

Barbara Slater said...

In addition, it would be a good idea to pick a PhD program that you have interest on. Like for example, if you love science, then go for a degree that is related to science. That way, it would be a thesis help as it would be easier for you to work with your thesis, which can really be helpful to you and your would-be adviser.