Grad-school visit: what to ask?
February 11, 2009 7:26 PM   Subscribe

Visiting potential grad school. How best to make the most of my visit?

I've applied to masters programs at 4 schools for next fall (Public Policy and Social Work, dual degrees). I've been admitted to the program at School X, and I'm in the running for a pretty nice funding offer as well. I'll be visiting the school this weekend, and I'll have lots of opportunity to talk to faculty, students, and advisors. I want to take full advantage of this chance to get all my questions answered, but, er, what are all my questions, anyway? What should I ask about? Whom should I make sure to talk to? Former/current grad students: what do you wish you'd found out about before beginning your program?

Relatedly, I've been to the town the school is in once before, but certainly I didn't spend my brief visit imagining what living there for 3 years would be like. Any thoughts on what to look for on that front?

Thanks, MeFites!
posted by aka burlap to Education (11 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
suggest you also look at apartments
posted by parmanparman at 7:37 PM on February 11, 2009

I would spend the majority of the time talking with other grad students in your area of study. If you can afford it, offer to take two or three out to lunch to get them talking. Don't just talk about the program either. The telling part is to gauge how happy they come across. Happier the better.

Find out how involved professors are on an individual basis with grad students and their research. This changes with school size and from department to department. You want resources in exchange for tuition, and the conversations you are able to have with professors and colleagues are where it's most valuable.

Finally, if anyone offers you money, go there. If you're smart, you can learn what you need to know wherever you go.
posted by ckohrman at 8:10 PM on February 11, 2009

Ask about housing and public transportation. Where would be the most convenient and safest area for you to live? What's the best way to get around?

Find out what kinds of technical resources are available to you on campus. My department had a computer lab with a lot of the software I needed. The lab was open 24 hours, but only for grad students, which was great.

Ask how the adviser situation works. Do you get assigned an adviser? If your adviser and you aren't clicking, is it a big deal to switch to another adviser?

Ask about the level of formality between students and faculty. There were quite a few traditional type faculty in my program who preferred to be called "Dr." rather than their first name. We also had faculty who didn't have phd's or who preferred to be called by their first names. It would have been helpful to be briefed about this before hand by another student.

If your funding comes in the form of a TA position or research assistantship, ask how much time will need to be dedicated to your responsibilities and what your work schedule will be like.

Maybe you will be fortunate enough to get enough funding so that you don't have to get a part time job, if not, ask some of the other students if they are able to work a part time job with their courseloads.
posted by pluckysparrow at 8:19 PM on February 11, 2009

Ask what the program's retention rate is, as well as students' average time to completion. Find out how your funding offer compares to the town's cost of living. Find out exactly what the requirements are for your program, since small details can make a big difference. Find out how alumni fare on the job market and what career-services resources are available to alumni. Get full details about fees (registration, health care, etc.) you'll be expected to pay beyond what's covered by your fellowship. If you have a spouse or partner, find out what partner benefits are available to him or her. Get some information on the town's crime rate.

Beyond these numbers and facts, you should, of course, try to get a feel for the program. Students, as I'm sure you know, are a great source of information. Ask students whether they feel competitive with their colleagues -- does the program assign grades, and are they taken seriously? Ask students whether they've found mentors and whether they feel professors are responsive to them. Try to get a feel for whether or not students are jaded, and take it seriously if that's the case. How do students feel about their job prospects? How do they like the town? Can they afford a decent place to live and food to eat? Have they run up a lot of credit card debt, or do they have side jobs (bad sign)? Do students have opportunities to see professors outside of class? How do they like the health care (that's important)? In my experience, students will be honest with you, so take what they say seriously.

Ask professors whether the program is adequately supported by the university, or if they have to fight for funding. Ask them how large you can expect your classes to be. Ask about mentoring programs and about exactly what classes and professors are available in your specific areas of interest. Ask them whether you can be sure of continued funding. Do a lot of speakers come to visit? Are there conferences and colloquia to attend?

Facilities matter, too. Does the library have all the resources you need (including electronic databases)? How's the ILL system? Can you get a carrel at the library? Can you expect to have office space? Is there a good gym, if you care? Is there a departmental common room where you can bump into your colleagues? Pay attention to neglected facilities, as they're often a sign of constrained finances.

And something I wish I'd known: since you've already been accepted, the program is courting you. Don't be modest or undersell yourself, since this is (probably) their first impression of you, and grad school success depends so much on impressions. They want you to be a desirable commodity, so don't be bashful. You are entitled to answers to your questions, so press until you get the answers. If you've been turned down by another program, don't disclose it, but do expect to be asked what other programs you're considering and where else you've been accepted.

I hope this helps! Best of luck to you.
posted by miriam at 8:29 PM on February 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Within a given program, your experience (stress level, amount of mentoring and advocacy on your behalf, etc etc) can vary enormously depending on your research advisor. Identify potential advisors, find out if they are taking new students and would consider you (can be done by email before the visit), then meet the advisors and as many of their students as possible. Students separately if possible.
posted by ecsh at 9:02 PM on February 11, 2009

Arrange to see what your daily life would be like, outside of school. That is, see places where students in similar situations live; find out what cost of living is compared to the stipend/savings/whatnot you'll be living on.

Go with current students (and no one else!) to at least one meal. Ask them what they do outside of school, and see if your own life (spouse? kids? hobbies?) could fit into the way life works there.

Also try to go out with students for some social event; often visit days will have these events arranged, but if not, try to get something to happen. You'll see a heck of a lot of these people over the next 3 years, it'd be nice if you liked them.
posted by nat at 9:37 PM on February 11, 2009

Speaking as a biology grad student:

When talking to current students, pay special attention to nuance. I've in the past spoken to potential students at the behest of my advisor. Unless I really feel like putting myself on the line, I often times will put a positive spin on things that relate to my advisor or our lab. I don't know you from Adam (or Eve), so I might not be brutally honest with you or say things that could potentially displease my boss were they to get back to him. Just be aware that positivity might not be always be completely genuine. After all, misery loves company.
posted by dnesan at 9:43 PM on February 11, 2009

Is this a program where you will be going through pre-set classes for a year or two, or a program where you will be working closely with a faculty member.

If its the former, I suggest you sit in on a class or two, and see if thats what you want to do. If its a program where you will be working very closely with an advisor, find out as much as you can about the students who currently work with them. Take one out for lunch if possible so you can get unfiltered opinions.

Good luck!
posted by hal_c_on at 11:04 PM on February 11, 2009

Don't take what 1st years say too seriously. They are probably still in shock.
posted by k8t at 11:08 AM on February 12, 2009

One thing I found helpful was to ask graduate students what they like least about the University and the program. Everyone will tell you about the good things-- they've almost certainly been instructed to sell you on the program but they have to have some complaints about some aspects of the program or the University. They may not come straight out and tell you what they actually like least, especially if doing so is politically insensitive, but they aren't likely to flat-out lie to you either. So you may find out that everything in town closes at nine, that the administration is unresponsive. Little things that can make a big difference in your experience at the school.
posted by pkuras at 1:14 PM on February 12, 2009

Thanks for all the great answers, guys! I feel a lot more prepared now. :)
posted by aka burlap at 3:36 PM on February 12, 2009

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