Questions for Grad Programs I'm Interested In
October 16, 2008 7:21 PM   Subscribe

I will be applying to graduate school soon and I cannot visit all of the campuses that I am applying to. I have been contacting these schools so that they can put me in touch with current graduate students who I can ask about their campuses, and I wanted to make sure I'm not missing anything important in my list of questions below.

[For what it's worth, I'm applying to political science phd programs, but I'm assuming generic concerns applicable to humanities in general would be helpful for me.]

What is the relationship between graduate students and the faculty? Are grad students treated as colleagues and respected or are they a source of labor and looked down upon?

Does the department provide adequate funding or do students have to seek outside grants and scholarships?

What sort of research and teaching positions are required for funding? Does this interfere with a student's own research priorities?

Does the department attempt to rush students out as quickly as possible? Or are students delayed from finishing in a reasonable amount of time because of other responsibilities that they have?

Is it a large program in size or character where many other students and professors are distant acquaintances, or does everyone get to know each other well.

What is the best part about the program? What would you like to see improved?

If there is anything missing from this list that I should be sure to ask, please let me know.
posted by davidstandaford to Education (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
How are the classes? (Yes, I know... they're just classes, and probably not numerous.)
posted by Netzapper at 7:37 PM on October 16, 2008


A lot of the answers to these questions are likely to be better answered by the grad assistant and I think that a grad student might be annoyed that you're asking him/her these questions. And I think that some of the more "aggressive" phrasing may turn some grad students off.

So, to your questions:

This question: "What is the relationship between graduate students and the faculty? Are grad students treated as colleagues and respected or are they a source of labor and looked down upon?" Personally, I'd be VERY scared to answer that via email. I'd tell you in person, but not in email. The question itself might turn me off to helping you at all.

Same with this question: "Is it a large program in size or character where many other students and professors are distant acquaintances, or does everyone get to know each other well." I'd be nervous to answer this. Maybe if you phrased it as something like "How social is the department?" and then the grad student can answer with something like "Oh yeah, all the grads hang out all the time" or "We have all these awkward required parties where grads and faculty don't mingle" or whatever. The original phrasing is a little harsh.

And again, I'd be nervous to answer this question in email: "What is the best part about the program? What would you like to see improved?"

And this sounds too "aggressive": "Does the department attempt to rush students out as quickly as possible? Or are students delayed from finishing in a reasonable amount of time because of other responsibilities that they have?" You could just ask what the average time to completion is and be more polite about it.

This question: "What sort of research and teaching positions are required for funding? Does this interfere with a student's own research priorities?" This one is better for the grad assistant. And the fact is, it is standard for PhD programs to make you do X number of hours of TA/RAing and you just make it work. No one can really articulate the conflict with your own research. You try to make TA/RAing your lowest priority besides sleep.

Ask the grad assistant:
- What % of students get RA/TAships? What is the time commitment per term for such assignments? Are the TA/RAs unionized? How many years of RA/TA funding are given normally?
- How actively do grad students persue outside funding like grants and fellowships?
- How many students are in each cohort?
- What's the average time to completion?
- How many years, on average, do students spend doing coursework?

Ask the grad students:
- How social is the department?
- How frequently do you meet with your advisor?
- If the advisee and advisor aren't a good match, how difficult is it to change?
- How are the courses? How many courses are offered each term? Do you feel like you have a lot of freedom to choose your courses? Do you feel like the courses prepare you for quals/dissertation?
posted by k8t at 8:03 PM on October 16, 2008


How is the city/town?

Where should I live?

Will I need a car?

etc.

You'll be living there, you need to ask at least a few questions about the city. So, that you don't find yourself in a horrible living arrangement in your first year.
posted by oddman at 8:04 PM on October 16, 2008


And one other thing -- if you get accepted, chances are that you'll be flown out. At that point you can ask grad students in person some of the more personal stuff before you make your final decision.
posted by k8t at 8:04 PM on October 16, 2008


How many classes are required, and how useful are they?
How many exams must you take, when, what percentage pass, how long do you have to study, etc?

How do you like the town? (Remember, you're going to be a student there a good long time if you're in it for the phd; you'd best be happy while you're doing it!) Can you live without a car? How much is rent? How expensive is food? What time does local public transit shut off? Where's your favorite late night study joint? Is there one? What about good places to get a brew, hang out with your fellow students, see live music, whatever it is you do besides academics?

What happens to people who leave the program? Why did they leave?
What happens to people who finish the program? Where do they go?

What time do the relevant libraries close? Are their administrative requirements like establishing residency in the new state?

Otherwise I think you are asking the right questions, but perhaps not in the right way. If my grad department had forwarded me these questions, I'd feel obligated to give the department-positive answer. On the other hand, if you ask more open-ended questions that don't have an implicit judgement in them, your responder might give you more information.

For example, instead of asking "Does the department provide adequate funding or do students have to seek outside grants?" try asking "How are most students funded? How much of your time do you spend on securing funding?"

Instead of "Does dept rush students out or delay them from finishing?" ask "What's the range for length of time to finish? What pushes students towards either end of the range?"

I'd also suggest once you're admitted to programs that you make sure to talk at least on the phone if not in person with the prof(s) you'd like to work for. And, if possible, I'd pick somewhere with more than one prof you'd be happy to work with; if there's only one and you don't get along, that really sucks.
posted by nat at 8:05 PM on October 16, 2008


And don't forget to look on the school's website. My university has a huge "guide to new grad students" that covers a lot of these types of questions as well as city/living information. If you ask and it is already clearly on the website, it makes you look poorly prepared. Same thing with average GPA/GRE, etc.

Oh, and as a follow up after you hear on the TA/RAship stuff, ask if they cover out-of-state tuition until you get residency.
posted by k8t at 8:07 PM on October 16, 2008


Seconding k8t - some of these questions might be better suited for AFTER you're accepted, and definitely should be rephrased. These folks are going to be your peers, so (at least in my experience) these questions are better asked over beers after you've been accepted and are visiting the school.

For example, this question: "What sort of research and teaching positions are required for funding? Does this interfere with a student's own research priorities?" might be better phrased as "What's the teaching load for graduate students?" - as a PhD student (in another field) the answer is always going to be "yes, teaching interferes with your research priorities".
posted by drobot at 8:11 PM on October 16, 2008


In general, there's no pressing reason to ask now instead of after you're accepted. You'll have a reasonable period to make up your mind, and many (but not all) good programs will fly you out for a visit after acceptance.

A question I haven't seen in the list so far:

Where have recent graduates been hired?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:56 PM on October 16, 2008


Career services questions are key. Ask about alumni connections, availability of campus resources, and pretty much everything k8t suggested.

I'd try to ask grad students something like "what are your opinions of the faculty?" -- it's not as confrontational, and you can glean information from nuanced answers. Ask them what they're focusing on. Since you'll be writing your dissertation on something really specific, you'll want to make sure you know EXACTLY what the professors' areas of expertise are. You've obviously done research on this already, but asking students about their areas of study will give you an idea of how happy they were with the match.

Also: What conferences/colloquia do you/profs attend regularly? (not as important, but interesting)

And do make sure to ask about the social life, things to do on campus and in the town, etc. You'll be there for awhile and, believe it or not, will have down time.
posted by landedjentry at 10:09 PM on October 16, 2008


Honestly, I'm with K8t that these read as too aggressive and I personally wouldn't answer most of these over email. In fact, I answered a few like these last year as a favor to someone, rephrasing them as best I could with wishy-washy responses that couldn't get me in trouble if anyone else saw them. It's a good thing, too, because the prospective student then cc'ed her response to the head of the department AND me, thanking the head for suggesting me as a resource.

I think most folks would find the phrasing of these kind of obnoxious too, and would turn people off from even responding. Add in the problem with email, and you're not going to get great responses. I get a few of these emails from prospective students every year, and without fail, they're the obnoxious ones in person (if they make it to the short list to visit). Rephrasing a few of them (there are good suggestions upthread) and waiting to ask people in person, once you're accepted and making up your mind, is a far more prudent approach.

I know you're anxious about this whole process and want to get more information and seem like a good applicant. But also be wary that being overly needy, and not respectful of boundaries and time, is kind of a turnoff for places like my department. Make a decision about applying and then wait until you're accepted to ask these more nuanced questions.

Good luck!
posted by barnone at 6:23 AM on October 17, 2008


I know this is slightly off topic, but I wouldn't invest too much time in doing this sort of thing before you apply. The threshold for deciding whether or not you should apply to a school shouldn't be that high. The incremental work to applying to more schools isn't huge. You may end up spending more time trying to find grad students and corresponding with them than it would take to just apply to the school. I think you should make the application list based on what you can find out on the website / have heard from other people in your field and just apply.

The real time for asking these questions is after you've been admitted. At that point, the equation totally changes. As an admitted student, the department wants you to come and will do whatever (with limits) they can to make that happen. In my field, this means most schools have admitted student weekends when they bring in all the admitted students and you can meet faculty and students and really get a good feeling for what the school is like. This is going to be a better and more informative experience than anything you can pull off remotely, and will be instrumental in helping you make your decision. Students are much more likely to want to talk to you then, too, since you will likely be a future colleague of theirs. At this phase in the process, though, the odds of you ever working with them are basically zero, so lots of students (barring some sort of personal connection) are going to have better things to do than answer your questions in any kind of in depth way. The same goes double for faculty. My advisor pretty much as a rule won't meet with students who haven't already applied, because when you've got greater than 10:1 odds against any single applicant getting in, talking to someone who hasn't even applied yet just isn't worth people's time.

Good luck!
posted by heresiarch at 7:33 AM on October 17, 2008


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