As you begin your journey to graduate school, one of the first things you’ll need to decide is where you want to apply. After talking yourself into and out of and finally back into applying to school, and digging down deep to determine if a PhD is right for you, you may find yourself experiencing yet another wave of anxiety as you decide where to go. Entering a doctoral program requires not only the grades, standardized test scores, and the ability to craft a winning personal statement, but also requires a 4-7 year commitment to a discipline, field, or program, that program’s faculty, staff, and students, the program’s ideologies (though hopefully with space to disagree with ideologies that don’t jive with your own), and the institution’s location. Choosing a school and program that is the right fit for you can be a daunting task. Not to worry. We’ve got your back.
There are several things to consider when applying to a doctoral program. First, it’s probably important to think about what you are looking to gain from entering graduate school. What takes precedence for you? Institutional prestige? The funding that comes with that prestige? The unfortunate likelihood that more resources means you’ll attend a PWI? The location? Can you see yourself landlocked for 4-7 years if you’re an avid beach goer? Or in a busy, overpopulated city if you’re an open spaces champion at heart? Will there be a community in which you can feel safe, respected, validated? Are there people who look like you and/or represent your ideals in positions of authority? Is that important to you? If you plan to study race or under-resourced and marginalized communities will your work be ignored, overlooked, and undermined, or given the respect it deserves? As many have said before, doctoral life can be extremely isolating at times, and this might be acutely true for students of color, regardless of what or who you choose to study.
The ability to thrive economically, socially, and emotionally in a program is just as important as being able to thrive academically in these spaces.
But official grad school rankings say this is the best program out there! How can I actually know if this program is a place where I can survive and thrive? Right. Just like you will put your best face forward in an interview, institutions will likely do the same via their websites, admitted students and orientation weekends, and hand-picked program representatives. Reading the research of the faculty at these institutions can be extremely helpful in answering some of the questions above. More importantly, don’t just read those researchers whose keywords match your interests. Read the work of those faculty in positions of authority or with the power to shape and influence your intended program. Does their work align with your worldview? If not, are there others on campus with whom you can connect? What kind of course offerings does the institution offer? Are you attached to just one advisor? Is that advisor the key to your funding? It is important to get a sense of who you will be studying under and next to. If you have access to individuals who are already enrolled, ask them the tough questions and be open to hearing something you may not want to hear, whether that sheds a negative or even positive light on a certain institution. Read recent graduates’ dissertations to get a sense of the kind of work expected and accepted by your intended program.
Studying the work of scholars at the outset can help you narrow down where to apply. In previous graduate and undergraduate studies, I was exposed to many researchers across a variety of fields, disciplines, and sub-disciplines. This made the process of choosing a program slightly more difficult. Sociology? Or Psychology? Education? Some combination of the three? Applied human development? Physics or transition to computational biology? (That last one may seem like a stretch, but it’s the exact path my relative took). There were many options that captured my interest and several programs that could have met my needs as a student. However, I did some self-reflection, read the work of scholars and student-scholars, read the additional authors on papers that spoke to me or were co-authored by people I respect, and sought the advice of former advisors and mentors. People who have already entered academic spaces can provide some valuable insight into where the kind of work you want to do may fit best. Moreover, trusted mentors can illuminate where your intended research contributions will have the kind of impact and influence you desire, or at least be well received.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of how to choose a school or program, but may be a start in addressing some of the core concerns voiced by my fellow doctoral students. If all else fails, make a list! As a big advocate of weighing the good and bad of a thing before making any decision, for every program I applied to I relied heavily on trusty pros and cons lists. While my final decision didn’t rely solely on a rigid calculation, laying out the advantages and disadvantages of each program, and cycling through the suggestions above, helped me make a holistic final choice.