What do I ask a graduate program when I don't actually have any questions?
October 28, 2010 8:08 PM   Subscribe

What do I ask a graduate program when I don't actually have any questions? More inside...

I'm currently applying to several Masters level graduate programs in Biostatistics in the United States with hopes of starting attendance by Fall of 2011. I don't actually have any questions for these programs or schools but I know it is a good or even great idea to contact the schools before I apply. So, how do I make contact when I don't actually have questions?
posted by hammerthyme to Education (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't mean this to come off as rude but how can you not have a single question?

Off the top of my head...
Research areas?
Cost of tuition?
Average years to completion?
Dropout rates?
Do you work under a chair or is there a general advisor?
Is a dissertation required?
What is the area like?
Do they value multiculturalism?
What is the average experience/years for the core faculty?
How many do they admit a year?
How many apply?
Do I need to take the GRE?
How many graduates get jobs after graduation?
What about a student visa?
What does a typical student look like?
What is the workload like?
Is the program competitive or collaborative?
What is social atmosphere?
How does the faculty work with students?
What kind of accreditation do they have?
posted by WhiteWhale at 8:21 PM on October 28, 2010 [6 favorites]

Basically ask any of the above questions that aren't on the 1st page of the department site.
posted by k8t at 8:24 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you really want to do this, and can afford to, then the best thing you can do is visit the schools, setting up meetings with staff, faculty and students/attending a class. You may have no questions that can be answered but you can decide before moving to commit to an expensive two year program (assumption here) whether you like the place, does it fit and what its all about.

I've lost too many students to bad fit and its not worth the agony for both sides to come to realization that this program/school/location is not what they want. A degree doesn't come with a receipt for return or exchange and you're taking a life long decision.

Sorry to have given a heavier answer than one perhaps you may have expected but I'm speaking as a former admissions director for a graduate school in the US.
posted by The Lady is a designer at 8:27 PM on October 28, 2010

I suggest to the undergraduates I work with that they email faculty members who they are hoping to work with to see if they are accepting/funding students in the year that they are applying. I would only advise this if you are applying to work with a specific faculty member and going to grad school will be contingent on getting funding for you (this is the norm in my field). Otherwise, I don't typically advise my undergrad advisees that they contact the schools. Sometimes it can be useful to get opinions on the faculty and the program from current students, but keep in mind that that's highly individualized and may not be representative of what your experience would be like. If you decide to get that sort of information, I'd suggest emailing maybe 2 or 3 students who work with the faculty member you want to work with. A good starting question is, "What do you like most/least about [the program]?" In the two years I've been in grad school, I've gotten maybe two individualized emails of this sort, so it's definitely not the norm (at least not in my field).

I think emailing is unlikely to influence whether you get into a given program. The recipients probably won't remember your name when admissions come around, since many schools get hundreds of applications a year. It's even more unlikely if contacting schools is a norm in your field.

I'd caution strongly against sending the same email to multiple people at a given school. When undergrads have sent form emails to (apparently) all or most grads in my program, it shows. It has been experienced by me and others I have talked to as highly annoying and inconsiderate of our extremely limited time, since there are often not clear, specific questions to answer, and the writers often don't take the time to think about those or even think about who's best to contact.

I generally advise undergrads to only apply to schools that fit whatever overarching requirements they have, then allow the school to decide whether they would be a good fit there by offering them admission or not. Then, the student's side of deciding whether something is a good fit comes during the recruitment process, when students visit the schools and meet with current students and faculty. I'm not sure that fit can be determined in an email.
posted by emilyd22222 at 8:40 PM on October 28, 2010

Also, it would be extremely irritating to me if I got an email from a student asking something about the program that they could have figured out from 5 minutes of Googling. Don't be that guy.
posted by emilyd22222 at 8:41 PM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ask about how collegial the environment is. You don't want to end up in a department where the grad students are the foot soldiers in the faculty's petty little turf wars.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:06 PM on October 28, 2010

I'm a grad student, but not a master's student and not in biostatistics, so ymmv here.

I recall from my undergrad applications that it was considered a good idea to contact the universities you were applying to, I think on the grounds that it would get marked down on your application as a sign that you were serious about attending. This is not, to my knowledge, the case for graduate applications. Rather, if you are going to contact grad programs it needs to be with the intent of actually making a positive impression, so that someone might remember your name at the right moment during admissions discussions.

It seems to me like a compelling way to make contact is to connect your interests and research experience with those of a faculty member you're interested in, and ask questions about the content of their work. I don't mean to grill them about Figure 3.7 from their most recent publication; I mean to ask them something like what research direction their lab is currently going, or whether they would be interested in advising further work on that topic you read their paper about (and ideally, have undergrad research experience on). Obviously this kind of email will require a certain level of knowledge about each individual faculty member you're considering working with. But that's exactly why it will actually make a difference to your application-- it will show that you have the background knowledge of the field that you should have to begin grad school, and that you are considering their program for particularly good reasons.

If you want to ask questions like many of the ones WhiteWhale suggests, you should probably ask a department administrator rather than a faculty member. Even then, though...most of those questions probably have answers available online somewhere, and you definitely risk getting sort of a lmgtfy reaction.
posted by ootandaboot at 9:32 PM on October 28, 2010

Also, it would be extremely irritating to me if I got an email from a student asking something about the program that they could have figured out from 5 minutes of Googling. Don't be that guy.

Oh god, yes. Ask about funding, job or graduate school placements, collegiality, ability to do interdisciplinary work, or anything else that applies to your situation.

The general rules of grad school are: do you have a clear and sharp goal for being there? (Eg: qualification for X job; admissions to Y phd program; requirement of Z visa program.) Is it either funded or will lead to a career that pays enough to make the tuition seem trivial? Will you have an adviser who supports you?

Any negative answer means "don't go." Seriously. No maybes, no "oh, but I can get loans." If the answers are bad, you don't go.
posted by Forktine at 9:57 PM on October 28, 2010

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