Some (very subjective) considerations for grad school

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I’ve gotten some questions recently from foreign grad applicants about what they should pay attention to when choosing a graduate program (in psycholinguistics and/or linguistics and/or NLP).  So, here are some thoughts I have on this topic (note that Rochester doesn’t come on top in all of these categories). I am also hoping that some other people may chime in and maybe add to what I say or criticize me for it.

  • Funding: the less worries about, the more you can focus on research. Also, the less teaching, the more you can focus on research.
  • Freedom to conduct your own research vs. guidance: would you be admitted to work on a specific project or to develop your own research portfolio (under guidance of an advisor)? Maybe you prefer (to start) with a project that someone hands to you, maybe you really hate not being able whatever you want to do. Most often, the best solution will lie somewhere between these two extremes. For example, I prefer quite a lot of freedom rather than people looking over my should over the time, but there also needs to be guidance. I personally like to meet with students regularly once a week or every other week, depending on their preference. As an applicant, I would try to figure out whether you would get the mix of guidance and freedom that is right for you. This also extends beyond just research. Some programs will have many strict requirements (but hopefully there will also back that up with better structure in terms of their curriculum) compared to other places where there is a lot of ways to have your walk through your graduate career. Don’t be shy – ask
  • Track record of the department/advisor: What jobs have graduates taken? If the department has a successful track record, does it hold up when you look at recent graduates (people who graduated 2-5 years ago)? Is the track record good in the subfield you want to go into? For example, some programs may be great NLP programs but would make it hard to get a job in a psychology department. Etc.
  • Classes vs. research: obviously, you’ll need both, but what’s your preference and what does the place offer. Will you be asked to take classes until your 3rd or 4th year or do most students get their course work out of the way by the 2nd year? How flexible are the class requirements (how many “core” classes are you required to take? do they interest you?) Are the classes on topics you want to learn about? How early do students get involved in research? It may even be worth checking some grad student pages to see in what year of grad school they attended their first conference
  • Avoid reliance on one advisor: I think this is an important consideration, but arguably not the most important.  I personally think it’s risky if there is only one person who you are really interested in at a place.  I think it’s best if there are at least two people you are excited about. Actually, we only admit students when at least two faculty members are really excited about them (though that is, of course, not the only criterion). Who knows maybe your interests will change a bit? Maybe that advisor will move away, maybe there are personal tensions, etc.
    • As a side point: It’s probably also a good idea to have a mix of junior and senior colleagues at the place.
  • Gut instinct: At the end of the day, it comes down to the fact that you will spend a LOT of time with your advisors and colleagues — including your fellow students. So, I would trust my gut instinct. Did you get along with them? Do you feel you would have a good, productive, and exciting time in grad school? Will your colleagues motivate you to do great things or will you just feel bored or stressed (either one would make 5 years a loooooong time). That being said, I’d be cautious to not to just follow what you are familiar with. We usually feel more comfortable with what we familiar with, but it may not be the best move in the long run.

Here are some more questions that I think are worth asking (not sorted by importance and partially overlapping with the above points):

  • how do the advisors think about you visiting another school some time later in your phd?
  • how easy is it to work with several advisors? would you depend totally on the one advisor who admits you?
  • what type of jobs have recent graduates of the program taken?
  • how many graduate students does the program have? do they collaborate?
  • more generally, have a look at their web pages and check how much collaboration there is. Of course, if you’d rather work on your own, make sure absolutely nobody is ever collaborating! 😉
  • do students often attend conferences? is there funding for travel support?
  • how many classes would you need to attend? in what subjects? some programs will have you take 3.5 years of course work, others only about 2 years.
  • what are the milestones in the program (qualifying papers or exams)?

Again, these are very subjective points. Comments?



2 thoughts on “Some (very subjective) considerations for grad school

    Chris said:
    March 23, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I thought about this recently too thanks to a post by Greg Mankiw with advice for prospective Econ grads. My pick of his advice was this:

    “Don’t be distressed if you did not get into your top choice. What you do in graduate school (or college) is far more important than where you go. Your personal drive matters more than ranking of the school you attend.”


      tiflo said:
      March 23, 2010 at 8:44 pm

      yep, that’s good!


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