What is it like studying at Stanford University?
July 21, 2019 1:07 PM   Subscribe

What is it like to study at Stanford? At the undergrad level and graduate level? I have always wanted to study there, after I complete an MA (Would like to do a second Joint-MA there or doctorate), but it is super competitive it seems.

What was the experience like, particularly at the graduate level at Stanford? Did it open doors right away afterwards? How difficult was the overall Stanford University experience? With classes, studying, internships, et cetera? Was it worth the investment and experience? Are the Professors helpful, friendly, and encouraging?

Also, what is the arts scene like in Palo Alto and on-campus at Stanford University? What is the culture like? Is finding a decent place to rent difficult for graduate students? What is the food like? Are the nearby beaches worth visiting? Thanks in advance.
posted by RearWindow to Education (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What would the degree be in?

In terms of the art scene...er. It's a very corporate and bland campus. It seems optimized for getting people middle management jobs at Google. The culture is very...that. Probably because no one can really afford to live in Palo Alto and a lot of people just come in for classes and then go back to wherever it is they actually live. (This is different for undergrads maybe? But the grad "scene" is that there isn't one, except maybe in your individual dept. lounge.)

Finding a decent place to rent is hellish on grad salaries. I don't even want to think about doing it with loans. For PhDs they provide some subsidized housing but you'll have to have a roommate (multiple roommates sharing one bathroom and kitchen) unless you have a domestic partnership, are married, or have kids, at which point you'll have a chance at getting a subsidized studio. Although it's subsidized, it's still 1800+ a month in rent.

Whether or not you're willing to drive everywhere is a crucial factor in what your quality of life will be. Transit sucks and the "Bay Area" is not really one city --- it's way too spread out, or at least the Palo Alto part of it isn't really involved. I am used to compact and walkable cities/campuses (like NYC / UChicago), and I find Palo Alto and Stanford really miserable, spread out, and car-centric.

The beaches are not nearby unless you have a car in which case I can't give you a ton of help.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:21 PM on July 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Since you mentioned an undergraduate perspective, there's The Kath Path, a YouTube channel focusing precisely on what Stanford is like.
posted by serathen at 1:21 PM on July 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

Also, look, I'm a bit of a downer, but if it's great for your specific field then it's good for that! But I would not go there for the lifestyle / culture, as a grad student. Berkeley, sure. But Stanford is so expensive and so corporate / boring that I could not possibly recommend it over another school with an equally good program in your field.

I forgot food. There's an expensive bunch of places in downtown that are okay but unaffordable to a grad student. There are maybe one or two places that are affordable/good. On and around campus, the food is not great or cheap, just...eh. There is a Trader Joe's nearby, so that's good. If you are willing to drive there is a lot of interesting stuff in the Bay Area in general, but not really in Palo Alto specifically.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 1:29 PM on July 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Finding a decent place to rent is extremely difficult--it's in one of the most expensive regions to live in the US. And yeah, there aren't "nearby" beaches unless you mean Santa Cruz, which isn't particularly close and really necessitates a car. Food on campus is pretty decent compared to a lot of other universities, but it's not particularly cheap.

The way the professors are depends on your particular department.* In mine, the majority of them were deeply uninterested in students--whether teaching them, mentoring them, etc. I had a couple of friendly professors, but none I'd call helpful or encouraging.

There's a general perception that master's students are treated as second-class citizens by the university, and that seems to be true at least to an extent. (Master's students also rarely get assistantships.)

I'm not sure what kind of experience you're looking for, but my guess is that you won't find it at Stanford.
posted by wintersweet at 2:12 PM on July 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

This is probably obvious, but you should really choose your graduate program on the basis of your particular field or department, rather than the university as a whole.
posted by shaademaan at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2019 [18 favorites]

The long and short of it is that it really would depend on the specific program and department that you're in, perhaps even down to the advising system you'd be operating under. But I can say from personal experience (I'm a current PhD student here and live in subsidized student housing) that the vicinity is god-awful. I plan on moving to the city or East Bay as soon as I'm able to. In order to make Palo Alto livable, you definitely need a car, I feel. And even then there is like nothing to do around here; it's really drab and boring, and the fun I have is mainly elsewhere). It's possible to find specific numbers for rent for graduate student housing at different comfort levels online. It seems like you have a lot of questions that would be hard to address in a single, cohesive answer. Memail me and I can try to address some of them elsewhere.

As an undergraduate? I'd say that if you're able to go to Stanford, you should be going elsewhere. My own advisor estimates he spends 10% of his time teaching, and I don't know what minuscule percentage of that 10% he'd attribute to working with undergraduates.

But as others have said, at the graduate level it is 100% the specific field/department you'd be working in. There are great graduate programs in every discipline in places that you wouldn't necessarily expect.
posted by lilies.lilies at 2:17 PM on July 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I dated someone working on their Ph.D. in computer science at Stanford and it was...grim. Partly workload (and it's not like he hadn't gone Ivy for undergrad either), and partly the interpersonal politics. I don't know if he ended up finishing, leaving with a masters (the shame!), or just...leaving. MeMail me if you want to hear more; might be able to point you in his direction.

He does seem to be working in his field fwiw.
posted by jrobin276 at 2:41 PM on July 21, 2019

In general, most universities don't have much of a cohesive "scene" for graduate students. Master's/PhD programs tend to be fairly isolated from the rest of the campus, even from other departments with graduate programs. You can find ways to connect with more people on campus (in a previous program I joined the Graduate Student Senate as a department representative) but often things like that are kind of implicitly frowned upon by faculty as detracting from your "actual" work even if they're encouraged at higher levels.
posted by augustimagination at 4:26 PM on July 21, 2019 [4 favorites]

Nting the statement that you probably should be thinking more about individual departments and perhaps specific research advisors rather than schools. I've never been a student at Stanford, though I've visited for several weeks and have many friends who've been through there or teach there now. In my field, everything that happens inside the buildings is pretty much indistinguishable from what happens in any competitive research university. There's a bit more of a commuter culture than you'd find at other places with a similar population density, since far fewer people can or want to live near campus. But, that's about it. You'll know whether you like the nearby South Bay area after visiting for a day. (I hate it, but many thoughtful and creative friends love it.)

If you're looking to hobnob with movers and shakers in the startup/VC/Google/DARPA/industry-partnership world, it's going to depend a lot on your very specific sub-field. If you study string theory or German literature, you're going to have to go far out of your way to make those connections. If you study algorithms or build micro-electrical-mechanical devices, less so. But, it still will take real effort.

But, also, with that caveat that I don't know your field or where you are in your academic career, I suspect you you might benefit from talking with a few people actually working in the field you're considering. (I wish I'd done more of that when I was applying to grad school.) If you're within driving distance of a bigish university with a grad program, looking up a few people involved in the work you're excited about and sending them a polite and short note asking for a half hour meeting might be one way to start. If you're in college or a grad program now, it's even easier to find contacts. Knock on doors, make sure the person isn't on the phone, and give a two sentence discussion of who you are and what you want to know, and ask to schedule a meeting. Very few faculty will refuse. Best of luck!
posted by eotvos at 4:39 PM on July 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

re beaches near Stanford: you've probably seen on a map the Pacific coast nearby (there are no "beachy" beaches inside the San Francisco bay), but getting to them means crossing a range of small mountains over twisty roads. Driving to the coast is doable, though it's miserable during rush hour. When you get there the beaches are scenic but the water and the air are cold, much colder than in Palo Alto, and it's often foggy in summer. Unless you're a surfer this part of California isn't a beach destination. That was a disappointment to me when I moved here.
posted by anadem at 6:10 PM on July 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

I did my BA and MA at Stanford. I’m a little surprised at the negative opinions in this thread, though perhaps that’s the PhD vs. undergrad/MA experience and maybe the other opinions are therefore more relevant to you.

I loved my time at Stanford. I found the classes to be fun and engaging (just reading through the course catalog every fall was exciting!) and the professors to be open and eager to share their research and interests with students. I loved that I felt encouraged to take classes in other departments and to pursue club sports and other non-scholastic pursuits. I applied for and received two decent sized grants to spend summers studying things I was interested in. I think overall I experienced a feeling of intellectual openness and intellectual delight that feels unique - sort of the Silicon Valley experience of innovation and connection and thoughtful risk-taking mapped onto the college experience.

Yes, the area is undeniably pricey and a car is very useful for getting around, but I like the South Bay. I like the openness to entrepreneurship, I like the wide range of good food available, I like having everything from farms in Gilroy to art museums in San Francisco to, yes, (often cold and foggy but still beautiful) beaches in Santa Cruz within a two-hour driving distance. And it’s hard to beat the weather here - four mild seasons, rain but generally no snow in the winter, warmth but generally no prolonged heat waves or high humidity in the summer.

Feel free to Memail me if you’d like any other details. Good luck!
posted by bananacabana at 8:16 PM on July 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I know a lot of people that did their social science PhDs at Stanford and it was awful. Yeah, you get the name, but the environment was terrible. Like abusive.
It depends on your department of course but this is across departments.
posted by k8t at 8:21 PM on July 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Would you have a chance to visit the campus, some of the people in the department you'd want to study in, etc?

I'm trying to figure out what distinctions you're looking to draw between Stanford and other universities' programs/environment. Like, I could tell you what the campus atmosphere was like for an undergrad 20 years ago (I enjoyed it a lot), but couldn't necessarily usefully compare it to others. Sure, more corporate-feeling than Berkeley, though that's quite a point of comparison (and will depend upon the department and crowd you're talking about--there's not a uniform culture most places, and even Berkeley will have a number of corporate-minded folks).

If you've been interested in Stanford for some time--why? Is there a particular program they offer that you're interested in? Is it the name/reputation? That's not a bad thing in itself, but would be easily outweighed by a shitty atmosphere.
posted by pykrete jungle at 8:32 PM on July 21, 2019

I am also surprised at the response the question is getting. I did my undergrad at Stanford and my experience was very positive in a similar way to bananacabana's post. I guess the grad student experience must be very different or grad students are just generally grumpy (said with love, I was one once!).

I will say that living on campus makes it much easier to be involved in the social scene (AKA the Stanford bubble) as commuting from Stanford to anywhere you can afford to rent will be really crappy and will suck most of your time. I did the commuter thing to Berkeley for grad school. I felt really disconnected from my cohort and program as a result and wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Especially so for a school like Stanford where 99% of undergrads and 60% of current grad students live on campus.

As for the arts scene, student performing arts groups are a lot of fun (dance, a capella, theatre, etc.) and most groups put on shows and concerts throughout the year. I think it is fair to say though that the arts are more extracurricular and not most people's main focus.
posted by wilky at 9:58 PM on July 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

I am also surprised at the responses here; I did my undergrad at Stanford and had a very positive experience. There were lots of opportunities for activities/clubs, the campus was beautiful, and the food ... well, the food was OK. I made lifelong friends there. I had some very good professors, the opportunity to work on some great projects and the facilities were world-class.

Yes, Stanford can be a bit 'bubble-ly', and having a car is a big deal, but I didn't have one and I was OK. No, Stanford is not in the middle of a big city like Columbia/Northwestern and the campus is gigantic, which makes getting off campus a bit of a pain, but this can be true of other universities as well.

In terms of difficulty, everybody was studying like crazy while pretending that they were super chill.

My own advisor estimates he spends 10% of his time teaching, and I don't know what minuscule percentage of that 10% he'd attribute to working with undergraduates.

I would say that most professors at R1 spend the vast majority of their time doing research as opposed to teaching; certainly there were professors in my department at Stanford with whom I never came into contact. Certainly I would not say that my PhD/postdoctoral advisors (elsewhere) spent much more time teaching. If you are interested in schools where professors are primarily focused on teaching, you should probably investigate SLACs.
posted by Comrade_robot at 2:05 AM on July 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

PhD program selection is done based on the quality of the program and your ability to secure a funded position in one. If Stanford has a competitive program in a field it’s going to be hard to get in. Once you know where you’ve gotten a funded offer of admission, then you weigh the lifestyle factors.
posted by spitbull at 4:01 AM on July 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

As a professor at an R1 for 21 years, I assure you “most” of us — even old tenured folks like me — spend FAR more than ten percent of our time on teaching. I would estimate 40 percent of my time is devoted to undergraduate teaching all in (at least, as the DUS for my department it’s also my administrative focus). I run a special program for undergrad research that produces 2-3 majors a year, advisor 4-7 undergrad honors theses a year (fully half of whom go on to PhD study by the way, many are faculty members now), I teach two undergrad classes of between 20 and 50 students a year (which is quite time consuming as each one requires a research paper), and I remain close to undergrad students for many years after they graduate (some now for 24 years going back to my first job), continuing to advise them on career choices and follow their impressive lives. Oh and I advise a minority undergrad student trying to advance to a PHD program almost every summer through a PhD prep mentorship program (and they all go on to grad programs) and I write many letters of rec for undergrads every year. I have also trained 23 grad student advises to the PhD in 21 years (the most of anyone in my field, and 85% are placed somewhere on the tenure track, about 1/3 are now tenured). And of course I do things like ten year long NSF-funded research studies in Alaska Native communities, and chairing my department (3 years) along the way.

I am not at all atypical of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences at least in devoting AT LEAST half of my energy to undergraduate teaching, and in fact I can assure you that over the long term it’s the best part of the job because you can *see* your effect on the world much more powerfully than in a closed disciplinary PhD program space and because some of these kids (as they are when I meet them) are simply incredible human beings I’m thrilled to remain friends with.

Tenured profs who shirk undergrad teaching exist, and in the natural sciences it’s more the norm, but the very best and most brilliant and accomplished of my Ivy League colleagues tend to LOVE undergrad teaching and especially as we get older it’s the most stimulating and rewarding part of the job. The tenured R1 prof who phones in the bare minimum as an undergrad teacher is not exactly a myth, but it is way less common than the stereotype, and for every one of them I can name ten who get up in the morning looking forward to teaching young people. For real. Best thing about the gig.
posted by spitbull at 7:19 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

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