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To Do Pick a Graduate Program-2
This article was written by Annaliese, a third-year student, and Emily, a first-year student, both of whom are in the Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry department.


Submitting your applications to graduate schools is a huge accomplishment, but come January, the sit-and-wait stretch where you are expecting letters from schools can drive a person crazy. This intermediate period is a good time to reevaluate and prioritize what you are looking for in a graduate program. Regardless of the outcome of your graduate school applications, we hope this article will help guide you to make the most informed decision about your next steps in life. It’s valid to feel discouraged if applications don’t work out for you this cycle, but there are numerous scientists who took time off between graduate school and undergrad. For us in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program (JP), more than half of us did things other than enter graduate school for a year or more after finishing our undergraduate degrees.

The first thing that should be addressed, and something that should be made more clear to applicants, is that acceptances are contingent upon funding. Either the faculty member running the lab you would join has money to support you or you would provide your own external funding through fellowships (NSF-GRFP, DoD-NDSEG, etc.). Most geoscience programs lack “rotations” (a sort of lab trial period common in other fields), and instead they bring students in through an advisor with a particular project in mind (that has funding attached). Although there are usually internal fellowships through the program, they might be competitive, and should not be relied on for full stipend and tuition support.

Typically (we say typically, because sometimes open house occurs before a student is offered a spot in the program), admitted students will get invited to an open house. Open houses provide a chance for prospective students to have an opportunity to meet with graduate students and faculty and learn more about the place and program (i.e. life as a graduate student, stipend, insurance benefits, ext.). During this time, you should assess whether or not you could see yourself in this program for the next five years. Do you get along with the students and do they seem like uplifting people? Did you and your potential advisor have a good chat together? Open house is going to be the time where schools are trying to convince you to join them, but it is also important to think about what the culture will be like when you are a student.

Below, we have outlined some (a lot) of the major factors you might consider when picking a graduate school.


Student-Advisor(s) Relationship:

Above almost every other factor that comes into play when selecting a graduate school is the relationship that you have with your advisor(s). It’s critical that you are actively communicating your needs and expectations before you commit to working with them. If possible, chatting with older graduate students in the lab is a good chance to get the perspectives of people who have worked closely with them. If it is clear that it is not going to work out from the beginning, you should not actively pursue working with them. This is not to say you should rule the school out completely: there might be other faculty at the institution that are willing and able to take you on as a student. Additionally, if you think a relationship will work and then, after joining the lab, it turns out not to, don’t blame yourself. Switching advisors is sometimes necessary, and at open house, you should ask if the graduate program has student support for this scenario. It is important that you have a strong working relationship with your advisor(s) - even if that means you have to switch advisors in order to achieve that. Talking with older students is the best way to get a realistic perspective on advisor switching. You should make sure to ask them if anyone has ever switched out of your prospective advisor’s lab and if so, why (if that is public information).



Coming out of undergrad, you might feel like you never want to sit through another lecture again (some of us certainly felt that way). However, classes can provide an important foundation to bolster your graduate research, especially if you’re entering a field you’re less familiar with. Class requirements, topics offered, and styles (i.e. lectures vs. hands-on vs. seminars) will vary from school to school. Make sure they offer classes you’re interested in as well as areas where you may have gaps in your knowledge. If you are confident in your knowledge and feel like classes will just take up time, you might consider entering into a program with a smaller course load.

That being said, classes do take up a lot of time. It can be difficult to feel productive in your research when you’re trying to keep up with your coursework, so think about what would make you feel most successful in your degree. Bear in mind, though, programs with heavier class requirements tend to expect less research progress for the time period in which you’re taking classes. Often, classes are concentrated in your first year or two. During that time, you’re expected to be figuring things out and building a strong foundation for the coming years. No one should expect you to be pumping out publications when you’re studying for a marine chemistry exam! Discussing this balance with your advisor is a good first trial for setting expectations.


Program structure (rotations):

In the MIT-WHOI Joint Program, we enter directly into a lab, and stay with that lab for the entirety of our degree (barring extenuating circumstances - people do switch occasionally, for a variety of reasons). That’s not always the case! At some schools, you’ll start your degree by rotating through different labs and conducting small research projects or learning new skills in each of them. These rotations vary in number and length between programs (usually 3-5 rotations that each last around 6-9 weeks), and are a great option for folks who might not know exactly what sort of project they want to do, or are interested in obtaining a wide variety of skills right off the bat. We spoke with Anaa, a Yale PhD student, about her experience with rotations: she found them useful for determining how she fit with the mentorship style of prospective advisors and with the overall dynamics of the lab. The funding structure of programs with rotations generally reflect this set-up, with students sometimes paid through institution-based funds rather than through the grant of a particular lab. If you’re eager to jump right into a project and have a good rapport with a faculty member already, a program without rotations might be better for you. A non-rotation program can also be beneficial for projects heavy in fieldwork, as it can be pretty time-intensive and so adding rotations before that can make sample processing and analysis downstream feel like a bit of a time-crunch.


Teaching requirements and opportunities:

Different programs are going to have different requirements for teaching responsibilities that students have to take on. This can feed directly into funding: if a circumstance arises where your funding is limited, there may be an opportunity for you to be hired as a Teaching Assistant (TA) in order to support your stipend (which may increase or decrease your income depending on the program you’re in). In many programs, however, there is a teaching requirement for almost all grad students, irrespective of funding set-up. This might be beneficial if you’re looking to gain teaching experience to hone skills for teaching students later in your career, but can be a large time-sink. The amount of support for teacher training varies widely between programs as well, so may be worth considering if teaching is important to you.



It may seem like all you should be thinking about is the research you want to do and the academic environment of the school you’re considering. Those are important things, to be sure, but the reality is that you’re going to be living where your school is for five or more years. Being miserable because of where you’re located isn’t good for you! You can do as much mindfulness practice as you want, but if you usually go for a long hike along a rocky coastline when you want to unwind, you’re probably not going to be happy in a sprawling, land-locked metropolis. Conversely, if you’re energized by the bustling nightlife and bumping art scene in bigger cities, moving to a sleepy New England town might not fit the bill. Think about seasons, too - do you get blasted by seasonal affective disorder? Moving to Alaska might be tough. If you love a winter wonderland, then maybe you should consider if moving to Southern California is right for you. Not only is city size and biome important, but think about your travel needs. If you want to be able to visit family or friends often, moving across the country from them will make that difficult; as will being somewhere hours from a major airport. It’s important to note that the things mentioned above are not the be-all end-all, but they should be thought about when you’re deciding on a grad school where you’re going to thrive.

Beyond meeting your non-academic needs, there are also sociopolitical reasons you may want to consider location. For example, WHOI is situated on Cape Cod, and the predominantly white environment is a barrier to accessibility for some people whose identities don’t fit the mold (see our interview with Natalie Nevárez in this issue). Many of us are trying to work on that. In addition, immigration restrictions may make cross-border moves difficult, particularly for prospective graduate students with partners or families. Moving can also also be prohibitively expensive, but some programs may offer financial assistance to cover moving costs. Furthermore, there may be some places where your identity, values, or needs clash with the dominant culture or laws. Taking this into account when choosing a graduate school can in some cases be a matter of safety.


‘Prestige’ of an institution:

When considering where to go for grad school, keep in mind that the long-term importance of finding a project that excites you and a supportive, well-respected advisor should outweigh the prestige of the institution. That’s not to say prestige of a school doesn’t mean anything, and the path you choose for yourself matters too–if you intend to work in industry (as opposed to academic science), people do tend to do a double-take at a flashy resumé, at least according to the three current and former TTP team members who hold engineering degrees. Part of that is name recognition, but it is also the fact that knowing people gets you places, and schools with a brand tend to be well-connected. However, if your interests tend towards the academic route, you may want to consider in more detail the departments or programs for which the school in question is known–looking at the Times Higher Education ranking alone won’t reveal which institution has the strongest/most well-funded oceanography department, for example, though we acknowledge that there is often overlap, at least in broad strokes. The department/program you are in may end up mattering more than the overall perceived prestige of the school in terms of gaining collaborators and having access to important equipment and resources pertinent to your field.

We want to be careful to note that this synthetic hierarchy of academic prestige is complicated, and can’t be put neatly into a pros and cons list when you’re deciding which graduate school to attend. Academia today is an insider game: 80% of US academic faculty trained domestically got their degrees at 20.4% of universities, and the 13.8% of domestically trained faculty came out of just five universities. These sorts of hiring practices definitely perpetuate and exacerbate existing inequities, and they are something many people are working to change–as of now, however, this is the academic landscape we face and we would be remiss to not acknowledge it. Despite the benefit of a prestigious name, the difficulties that can arise during a PhD still exist at these big name schools. Graduate school is hard, but the lure of a PhD is big. Too often, mental health issues get pushed aside in the pursuit of this degree, as students can be burdened with unreasonable expectations for working hours. Attrition in graduate school is high–in 2015, the rate of PhD students who left without getting their degree was at 40-50%. The key factor that distinguished between those who completed their degree and those who didn’t was ‘perceived competence’, that is, the level to which a student feels they are making effective progress and are skilled in their field. Perceived competence is heavily enhanced by the quality of an advisor-advisee relationship, making the relationship you have with your advisor one of the most important things to consider in choosing a graduate school where you’ll find the most success.

Would it feel good to tell your middle school bully that you got into Harvard/MIT/Yale/Oxford/whatever for grad school? Yeah, probably. (Sidebar from one of your authors: Yes, this is the sole reason I ever geotag MIT on Instagram. It’s petty, and she probably also doesn’t see it or care). Despite that, don’t let the prestige of a school lead you to ignore red flags in interviews with potential advisors or their graduate students. Reputation of the school (and the department/program–perhaps more so) is important in terms of future career; we can’t pretend otherwise. It is something you should be considering as you make your decision. We can assure you, though, you’ll get much more out of your graduate school experience if you focus more on picking a supportive mentor, a project you’re interested in, and a place where you can feel accepted.


To wrap up:

There’s a lot to think about. It can be overwhelming! We hope this article gives you some guidance on making this decision and wherever you end up, we’re so excited for you to take this next step in your career.

Read more of Through the Porthole Issue #8

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