PhD: what's actually important when choosing a program?
April 30, 2021 4:04 PM   Subscribe

I am looking into PhD programs to pursue an academic career. I have a master's in my field (speech-language pathology) and I was hoping for some advice on choosing programs — in general, not necessarily within my field.

Since I have to reach out to specific potential mentors, I want to be sure that I would like to attend every single school to which I will apply — I don't want to waste anybody's time! (By the way, SLP is one of those rare fields in which there is a need for more PhDs and there are many faculty positions available, in case that's relevant.)

I've narrowed down my list based on which faculty have research interests matching my own, but I'm not sure what I'm looking for beyond that. Here are my questions:

- Do rankings (in your specific field) matter? I know overall school rankings don't matter and besides, in speech-language pathology, there are no programs at ~big-name~ schools like Harvard or Stanford anyway... I graduated from a top 10 (in my field) master's program and I was very happy with my experience; I had access to amazing colleagues, faculty, and resources, which were superior to that of my (lower-ranked) undergrad.

Would it seem odd to choose, say, a top 50 school for my PhD, which is lower than both the ranking of my undergrad and master's programs? It seems like people try to make the jump to higher ranked schools with each degree. Is there some threshold, like schools 1-25 are probably about the same, 25-50, etc.? Or is it all superficial and arbitrary? :)

- "Look at the places where you want to work and see what schools their faculty attended." OK, so apparently this is unusual, but it seems like in this field many faculty work at their PhD-granting institution without any experience elsewhere (maybe a 1-year post-doc elsewhere, but even that is uncommon.) I think I want to work at a research-intensive or balanced institution (R1/R2 but I know these terms are outdated), so I want to go somewhere that gives me the most flexibility for either of those options. It also feels like I am weirdly committing to one institution for my career given this trend of faculty staying at their PhD-granting institutions... Since this is a trend, should I consider it when choosing a school?

- Is there a benefit to being a professor's only doctoral student or is it better to be part of a larger team of doc students? If a team is better, how big is too big? This is probably field-dependent, but I wonder if my field could be compared to other social sciences... So far, I've seen PIs who have 1, 4, or 8 students at a time.

- Would I not want to be a professor's first-ever supervisee? I have two potential supervisors -- one professor is new to the field and has never supervised a doctoral student, and another professor has decades of academic experience, but only recently moved to a school where they can supervise doc students, although they have experience supervising undergraduate and master's students.

- What else should I look for that might indicate a great mentor? I know some of this I will have to gauge in-person if I am lucky enough to be invited to interview, but I'm wondering if there's anything I can glean from info available to me currently... any "read-between-the-lines" information — like how many first-authored papers students publish, etc.?

- Does the GRE ever count for anything important besides admission, like graduate fellowships? Again, I'm sure this is field-dependent, but I'm wondering if this is true for any field... Some SLP PhD programs have eliminated the GRE entirely or at least aren't looking at it for this cycle due to the pandemic. My scores just expired and I dread the thought of having to pay for a study program, study, and pay to take the exam again to achieve another reasonably good score. Ugh. Even if I could get in without it, should I suck it up and plan to re-take it?

I appreciate any other pieces of advice. Thank you very much for your help!
posted by metacognition to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Since I have to reach out to specific potential mentors, I want to be sure that I would like to attend every single school to which I will apply — I don't want to waste anybody's time!
The idea that you have to know for sure you would want to attend sounds unreasonably limiting. Give yourself some space of "maybes" that might surprise you and turn into a strong "yes" once you get to talk to the real human beings involved.
posted by metahawk at 4:32 PM on April 30 [1 favorite]


Best answer: For my money you want a supervisor who is supportive. Lots of factors influence whether they are. Too many students, as you seem to imply, is one reason they might not be. A recent Twitter thread I read had a bunch of US science academics seem to agree 5-6 was a reasonable upper limit. As a soc sci academic that seems scarily high to me.

Even within those limits a supervisor might still not be supportive. There is a long running question over whether there is value in having big name academic as your supervisor. Opening doors vs access being the issue. You might not see the bigger name very much basically but they might be good at getting you into things, getting additional work, getting you well placed at the end of the degree, invites etc. For me, this question, and this is relevant to a number of other issues with supervisor selection, is really about the student. Some students are independent, can get on with their own thing and don't need weekly meetings, some do. Being independent and a self starter are qualities we all like the sound of, and would say we were at a job interview, but this is where it's important to know yourself. If you go for big name or super busy supervisor and need weekly support that's going to be a bad fit. The added value will be less useful to you.

It's important to note your supervisor could be there all the time and still be a crap supervisor. One big issue that i don't think gets enough attention is that the only training most academics get in supervising PhDs is their own. If their experience was crap they don't have much to go on. They might still turn out to be good supervisors, they might not. So try and talk to current PhD students of your potential supervisor. See what their experience has been.
posted by biffa at 4:51 PM on April 30 [6 favorites]


Best answer: Would I not want to be a professor's first-ever supervisee? I have two potential supervisors -- one professor is new to the field and has never supervised a doctoral student, and another professor has decades of academic experience, but only recently moved to a school where they can supervise doc students, although they have experience supervising undergraduate and master's students.

When I was a doctoral candidate in a linguistics program, I picked a supervisor who was new to the field and had never supervised anybody. I'm ... not sure I would do it again. While she was great to work with in a lot of ways, I also feel she had some possibly unrealistic expectations that created a barrier during my proposal stage that I just never got through. To be fair, while I was stuck in that phase I also realized that I didn't actually want to be a linguist after all so I'm absolutely not saying it was all on her - actually her second and third supervisees both graduated a year or so after I left! - but at this point if I ever went back for a PhD, I would look for a supervisor who had at least one graduated supervisee under their belt.

(For what it's worth, I eventually found the field of speech-language pathology myself and if the university based in the town in my profile happens to be on your list of potential schools, I'd be happy to offer my $0.02 from the perspective of a recent Master's graduate - feel free to message me if I can help. Good luck!)
posted by DingoMutt at 8:39 PM on April 30


Best answer: Different field, but my advice is that rankings don't really matter, and your GRE score does not matter literally at all for anything except admission for schools that still require it. My #1 advice is to look for PhD programs that are collaborative and interactive- ideally in a department with multiple faculty members whose research interests you. Is there a seminar series? Are there other PhD students, postdocs, junior faculty you'll get to interact with regularly? Opportunities to go to conferences and collaborate externally? Basically you want to avoid a situation where your PhD is you interacting with your advisor and no one else- even if you have a great advisor it's risky for a lot of reasons and if the relationship isn't great it can be dreadful. Oh, and above all make sure you have funding (including a stipend) for 4+ years!
posted by emd3737 at 3:45 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Also- given you mention that in your field it is common for people to continue their career in the institution where they did their PhD, then yes, I'd take that into consideration, especially in terms of location. Pick somewhere in a city you'd be happy to live in longer term.
posted by emd3737 at 8:58 AM on May 1 [1 favorite]


Best answer: I'm a speech and language therapist (hello from across the world!) and I previously did a PhD in cognitive neuroscience. So my advice is not specific to SLT. My PhD was a totally awful experience because my very senior and well regarded supervisor was erratic, a bully, had high expectations and didn't see why anyone should expect and days off when they were a student. In retrospect I could have known this by talking to her current students and I could have dealt with it better by having a better idea of what I wanted to achieve. Other students did well with her but my personality just didn't fit her supervising style and I left academia as soon as I had finished.

I don't think I would choose a first-time supervisor unless they were in a lab with lots of other successful students. I think having the experience to know what is actually "good enough" to get through is really valuable and supervisors develop that over time. I also think having a large team is useful so you can get support from people other than your supervisor is valuable.

Good luck!
posted by kadia_a at 12:41 PM on May 2


Best answer: I'm an audiologist, now finishing up my PhD in speech and hearing science at Iowa, where I also did my AuD.

Do rankings (in your specific field) matter?

No not really, but money and connections do matter, and for better or worse, those things tend to be aligned (though not perfectly) with rankings. (After all, rankings are derived based on how others in the field perceive that program). Being in a lab with access to resources to help you do your research and a mentor who will connect you with others is important.

For better or worse, when you start your PhD you have to be constantly thinking about how your work will help you be competitive in an absolutely bonkers job market. Higher ranked schools do tend to have mentors and labs that are more active in the research community, and that can certainly help you get the pubs, connections, etc that will help your job prospects.

Look at the places where you want to work and see what schools their faculty attended.

I don't think this matters at all. Times have changed a lot since most academics got to their current positions, and it isn't like most programs can hire you when you graduate just because they know you and like you. Tenure-track lines are drying up across the board. When you finish you will just have to go to whatever place will give you a job. The SLP faculty outlook is a bit better than some fields, but it is still extremely competitive.

The R1/R2 designation is sort of out-dated, but on the other hand, R1 schools will tend to treat tenure and promotion differently (e.g., number of pubs prioritized much more heavily than teaching record). But most SLP programs are not at R1 institutions, and you are much more likely to end up at an R2 school. In either case, though, what will matter for your job application most is the research you've done, even if you're moving into a more teaching-focused role.

Is there a benefit to being a professor's only doctoral student or is it better to be part of a larger team of doc students? If a team is better, how big is too big?

8 students in our field in one lab is an enormous lab and I don't think I would like that (too much competition for resources, hard to see how a PI could effectively manage that many doc students), but on the other hand this is probably a lot of personal preference.

One thing about our field is that we do human subjects research and usually with a small population (e.g., kids with language disorders, older people with hearing loss etc). This makes the research more logistically difficult than things like bench science, and so just logistically having tons of people in the lab could make this difficult. On the other hand, I could see an argument that could be made that it makes it easier, especially if it is a very supportive, rather than competitive environment. Most of the labs here have 1-3 PhD students. I think 1 is too few, but more than 4, imo, would get a bit much.

Would I not want to be a professor's first-ever supervisee?

I think this entirely depends on the professor. Being a supervisor I imagine to be quite difficult, trying to balance the right amount of helpful and hands-off and trying not to become one of the horror stories you hear so much about. On the other hand, you also hear about older supervisors who don't need to demonstrate service kind of checking out and not being very useful.

To me, if their research is what you want to do and it feels like a good fit, there is a certain amount of trusting your gut. Someone has to be their first supervisee.

What else should I look for that might indicate a great mentor?

If you can, talk to other people in the program or the lab or graduates of the lab. They tend to be honest ime. You want a mentor who does the work you want to do, is funded to do that work, but not so over-stretched that you become nothing more than a lab rat and can't explore your own research. Good mentors will treat you more and more as a colleague as time goes on and include you on projects and try to help you become the scientist you want to be and be successful at it, and not just treat you as labor. It can be hard to suss this out. If they have other supervisees or lab grads, look at publications. Do the PhD students have first author pubs, or is the PI always the first author? Are the other students presenting at conferences and building their CV, or do the seem to always just be secondary to their mentor?

I think the most important thing is if the PI seems excited about their work and excited about what you might bring to the lab. PIs want good doc students in the lab. Having a mutual interest in working together is a critical starting place.

Does the GRE ever count for anything important besides admission, like graduate fellowships?

I have had numerous fellowships over the years, including a big one from the NIH, and I have never had to report my GRE score on anything other than my application for AuD school. Our program has eliminated the GRE requirement for SLP, AuD, and PhD because it is meaningless and problematic. Personally I can't see a reason to re-take it, unless some program you really want to be at requires it for PhD students.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:07 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Many programs have eliminated the GRE.

All PhDs are different, but I recently started one for the second time, and an overriding concern for me in picking one was "Do people finish?" You may be surprised at the rate of incompletion in different programs. The attitude and perspective of your advisors and chairs is utterly critical in this. The program I picked is reputable and rigorous, but also justifiably proud of a high completion rate and the level of support and guidance they give their students.

In a good number of fields, PhDs are overproduced as far as the academic job market is concerned, and your chances of pursuing an academic career are vanishingly small, but it sounds like you've researched that dimension of things.
posted by idb at 12:45 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Thank you so much for your replies! Your answers helped me be more thoughtful about what I want in a program to ensure future success. I am feeling more confident in my choices and what to expect. Thanks again. :)
posted by metacognition at 7:35 PM on May 4


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