Choosing Your Graduate School

Introduction

The selection of a Graduate school may be anywhere from straightforward to complex. If straightforward, the applicant may already have pre-determined their preferred universities and programs.
Under the straightforward approach, a letter or email is forwarded to the university department for information on available graduate student openings, and interview possibilities. A CV and transcript would often be attached covering the individual’s academic background and research interests. The initial enquiries may be more informal, although each school will have a formal application process which will eventually cut in.
If a PI and/or Department are interested in the student, interviews would be held and additional information on the school and program would be conveyed by the PI (Principal Investigator). Issues raised by the prospective student would be discussed. A decision is ultimately made to accept or decline an offer to enroll.

Increasing Awareness of Choices

While the choice under a straightforward approach could be good, a fundamental issue remains: is the decision as good as it could be? Students are frequently unaware of the array of choices that should have been carefully studied in arriving at a final decision. Choices exist between Departments within a university, as well as between universities. It includes the variety of Graduate school openings, selection of PIs, the research interests of both the PI and the student, available Department research, graduation requirements, and the possible impact of the choice on a career among other things.
The student should take into account: Has a reasonable number of options been considered? Is the student aware that they might be allowed to transfer to and enroll with other departments within or between universities? These options require sufficient knowledge of alternate yet relevant programs between and within the universities.
Some students intend to enroll in professional studies beyond the PhD or MSc, for instance in Medicine or as a Medical Physicist. Are opportunities for admission to these programs improved by your choice of Graduate department? Has sufficient and relevant knowledge been acquired so that the student’s final decision is based on a thorough and well thought out effort?
If you are uncertain, and feel your current knowledge of your options is insufficient for making a final decision on grad school, extensive research will be required to obtain the necessary data. This path is complex, requiring critical thinking and flexibility, but the research will open your mind to a myriad of choices. I have outlined below some useful steps for initiating this process.

Information Acquisition

Two major resources available are: (A) On-line sources, and (B) Interviews with the PI. These will be further discussed below. Additionally, Departments offer Open Houses with accompanying tours and informal meetings with current students, faculty, and PIs that could be useful. Many also participate in Graduate Fairs where you may meet with faculty and students. These are opportunities for forming opinions on PIs and their research interests etc. and choices within a Department. Students may also highlight their experiences and provide insights on lab and Department culture.
University Departments often publish materials not posted on-line. An inquiry could be useful, since it can be a source of additional material not otherwise accessible.

Major Information Sources

On-line Sources

Comparable university programs should be examined and thoroughly reviewed for similarities and variation. An in-depth analysis assists in a more substantial discussion with your PI interviewer. US News has a website ranking American science schools and providing tips for incoming American college students (http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools). The same website also ranks programs in Canada (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/canada/).

The PI Interview

This interview is critical. The PI is an invaluable information source and a future asset should you attend the school. The PI is knowledgeable about the Department, its options, research opportunities, the program, graduation requirements, lab culture, and is also conversant regarding operational and administrative matters. The PI may be someone with whom you will work closely for several years.
Interview sessions should be informative, candid, and free-flowing with a full exchange of information, ideas, issues, and questions. Throughout this process, questions and issues arise. Some are:

  • The degrees awarded by a Department: Master’s, dual MSc-PhD, PhD only. If your grades are excellent, you may sometimes bypass the MSc and directly enter the PhD. What is the Department’s reclassification policy?
  • The MSc: The study term may be 1-3 years. What is the length of MSc’s available at the university? Do they vary by Department?
  • MSc and PhD study: Graduate studies may be pursued at one school only, or you may already have an MSc from another school. Are there complications should a student wish to transfer from a different Department after obtaining a Master’s?
  • How is the transfer handled? Are there pre-requisites?
  • Entry into PhD by reclassification: Are there underlying conditions?
  • Time-frame for completion of studies: Does the prospective student have a firm timeline for graduation?
  • What is the typical completion time for an MSc or PhD? Do they vary among departments or PIs?
  • What is the departmental policy for attending conferences? Are there limitations?
  • Financial assistance: What is available in bursaries, scholarship, and salary?
  • Are there TAing/tutoring opportunities and/or requirements?
  • What are the specific research and publishing expectations for the MSc and PhD?
  • What type of research projects are available?
  • What alternate departments could provide a good research project match for a prospective student?

These questions evolve as you speak with more people and your school research progresses. Some questions could be directed to a PI, others to students, and others yet to administrative personnel. The better your research effort, the better thought-through your questions, the better the quality of information that can be obtained.
Hopefully, this blog helps your decision-making.
Coming up: Blog #3, The PI Interview.
Good luck.

 

Joe Steinman

BSc (Chemical Physics, Trent)

MSc (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

PhD candidate (Medical Biophysics, U of T)

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