Notifications and Decisions

Timeline

Applicants always want to know when they will hear back from graduate schools. The process is not as simple as the college admissions process, in which most schools released decisions on the same specified-in-advance date.

You may start to hear from some schools in early January, or less than a month after the application deadline. On the other hand, some schools won't release any decision or make any contact until March. Some programs have interviews, and some do not. For those that include interviews, some are highly competitive and others will likely result in an admissions offer down the line. For many Ph.D. programs, an interview or an admissions offer will likely be accompanied by a paid visit, but sometimes you will be paying out of your pocket to make the trip.

In most cases, good news precedes bad news. It is not unusual to hear about all of your admissions offers or invitations for interviews before you are rejected anywhere. Also, good news will occur over e-mail or phone, and bad news will come via mail (or sometimes e-mail as well.)


Interview / Visit Tips

Before making any visits, learn from graduate students and professors in your field whether the interviews are usually competitive or whether they are likely to result in an admissions offer. As a rule of thumb, if the visit is paid for, the interviewed group is likely small and your chances are likely high. If the visit is not paid for, your interview is more likely competitive.

Whether or not your interview is competitive, you should aim to make a positive impression by dressing and acting professionally (though realize that most academics never wear suits) and by being enthusiastic. On the other hand, you should also be yourself and try to stay relaxed.

For a competitive interview, it pays to do some extra research before you visit. Try to take the following steps:
  1. Clarify your research interests and goals. Try to articulate them in a single sentence.
  2. Be able to explain your previous research experience concisely. Learn to give a "short explanation" of each research project in under 30 seconds, and be ready to provide a lengthier 2-5 minute explanation when asked. If you performed several projects that were thematically linked (e.g. with the same research advisor), count those as one project for the purpose of this tip.
  3. Learn about the school and department (and geographical area?) so that you can articulate specific reasons for your enthusiasm. 
  4. Note the research interests for all of the faculty in the area or department (i.e. whomever you are likely to meet at some point in your interview.)
  5. Study your potential faculty advisors' work more thoroughly--read the abstracts of some of their recent papers, or the entire paper if you have time. If they have a website that appears to have been updated in the past year, look it over for new research developments (papers will be out of date.)
  6. Be ready to answer hard questions about flaws in your application (e.g. "why did you have such a low verbal GRE score?") but rest assured that they won't necessarily be asked; the faculty members don't want to turn you off!
  7. Practice your answers to #1, #2, and #6 to your faculty mentor or anyone who will listen and provide useful advice.
For non-competitive interviews you don't need to do anything to prepare, but if any of the above seems manageable you might as well give it a shot in order to calm your nerves.

For all visits -- competitive and non-competitive interviews as well as recruitment (already-admitted) visits -- you should remember that you are interviewing the school as much as they are interviewing you. Ask many questions and get as much information as possible in order to make an informed decision. Don't squander this opportunity to learn as much as possible about the school, program, and faculty members. Sometimes graduate students are good people to ask, but don't forget that they sometimes have a say in the admissions process as well.

Here are some questions to consider asking graduate students or professors:
  1. How long does it usually take to complete the degree? Answer to look for: whatever is average for your field, or a smaller number.
  2. What is the attrition rate like? What percentage of students complete the degree? Answer to look for: as high of a completion rate as possible.
  3. How often do students work with faculty other than their primary advisors? Answer to look for: collaboration is usually a good thing, and it indicates flexibility of funding.
  4. How does the funding package work? Answers to look for: guaranteed funding throughout the period it takes to complete the degree (e.g. five years), funding that is not linked to a specific faculty advisor, packages that involve a small amount of teaching (i.e. half of your terms or less), and summer pay. It is possible none of your programs offer all of these things, but they are attributes you should seek out.
  5. What are the teaching assistant appointments like? Answer to look for: depends on your desire to teach and how much responsibility you want to have in the classroom. But even if you like teaching, a smaller time commitment is better than a larger one.
  6. What is the funding like for performing research? This is actually several questions. You should ask your potential advisors what their grant funding is like. You should also ask faculty and graduate students about whether there are small grants offered by your graduate school or department to perform independent research. Answer to look for: you should feel as though the expenses for any research you'd like to perform would be fully covered. As a graduate student you should not have to pay out of pocket for research supplies, nor should you have to drastically change your research interests to accommodate a less expensive project.
  7. For graduate students only: What is it like to work with Dr. X? Answer to look for: hopefully graduate students will have positive things to say about the faculty advisor who could be your advisor. Make sure the answers sound honest and that the opinion is based on specific examples when possible. Also, see if what they say matches the advising style that is best for you.
  8. For graduate students only: How much is rent here? Is the stipend livable? Answer to look for: graduate students should feel comfortable with their pay.
  9. What is the health care like? Answer to look for: hopefully you get health benefits at all! If you're married or have children, these benefits should include dependents.
  10. Do people get along here? Answer to look for: Yes! A collaborative environment should be visible to you on your visit, but it doesn't hurt to ask as well.
  11. What kinds of professional development activities are there? Answers to look for: a professional development course, school-wide talks and seminars, courses/lectures on applying for grants, a center for professional development, a center for teaching development, teacher orientation, panels, workshops, etc. Information about non-academic career choices.

Making Your Decision

Nearly all graduate programs give you until April 15th to make your decision, and will not keep you hanging on a wait-list past April 15th. However, you should try to make your decision before this date and notify schools as soon as you decide. If you notify a school early on that you will not be enrolling, the school will have time to extend the offer to another student on the wait-list. This information is particularly helpful to a school if it comes before the interview/recruitment/visit weekend, because then your replacement can attend the visit as well.

Theoretically, once you have two offers and you have visited both of the schools, you should decide between the two as soon as possible. Some students feel as though they need to visit each school before they can make a decision of any kind, but this is not true. If you go on four visits and end up with four offers, after the first two visits you should be able to decide between those two schools, even if you have the other two left to visit. You don't need to decide where you are going in order to decide where you are not going. Maintain a single front-runner throughout the process and eliminate others when you can. On the other hand, don't be afraid to take your time if you are truly having a hard time deciding.

Once you decide to turn someone down it is ok to send an e-mail. Thank the professor for his/her offer and tell him/her that you are sorry you will not accept it.

There are many factors to take into account when deciding on graduate school. Some prospective students, in my opinion, weigh certain factors much more than they should, and don't take into account other factors nearly enough. Here are my opinions in what is overrated and what is underrated.

Overrated
  1. Overall prestige of school, irrespective of individual program. If you want to go into academia, then overall prestige of the school doesn't matter. Don't go to Harvard if it's ranked 20th in your field and you've been accepted to the #1 in your field that happens to be a state school. I met so many prospective students who took this "Harvard Factor" or "Ivy League Factor" way too much into account and ended up unhappy. This is the number one biggest mistake people make when deciding on grad schools.
  2. Location: a big, fun city with lots to do. Think instead -- location: low cost of living. Even if you like cities, you might realize that graduate school is a good time to save on costs and live somewhere cheaper that is also less distracting. You'll never have time to take advantage of all that Manhattan, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc have to offer. If you are a dedicated, hard-working student you'll have a hard time running out of things to do even in a smaller city like Pittsburgh. On the other hand, five years is a long time, so don't completely ignore the location factor, either.
  3. Absolute stipend amount. Remember to consider cost of living! There are several websites you can use as well as word of mouth to compare costs. Often a $15,000 stipend in a town can go farther than a $23,000 stipend in a big city. Sometimes it is also counter-intuitive how much the cost of living for a particular location will be, so do your homework.
  4. The visit. Don't get me wrong--the visit matters a lot. Also, you should trust your gut when deciding on grad schools. At the same time, try to deconstruct why you want to go to a particular school. Was it because they had the best recruitment weekend with the tastiest food and the nicest hotel room? In graduate school they're not going to be treating you this way again. If you had a phenomenal visit somewhere, try to think about what made it good. If it was the research match, the professors and the students, then you should attend the school. If it was the organization, the social events and the amount of information they provided you, these are superficial reasons to choose a school.

Underrated Factors
  1. Research match. This is the most important factors in choosing a graduate school. If you don't have a match, don't go. You should choose somewhere you click with in terms of research rather than an institution that is more prestigious.
  2. Personality match. In addition to the research match, make sure you like the professor(s) you'd be working with. Also, make sure their current students like them.
  3. Departmental collaborations and environment. If the department has issues and drama, it is not a good place to be. If everyone loves each other, it is a good place to be. Get the dirt on the department to see what type it is. Don't go somewhere where they backstab. It can really ruin your graduate school experience. One good way of measuring collaborations is looking at publication records. Also try to find out whether faculty and students talk to each other across areas, whether there are regular journal clubs that are well-attended, and whether the interactions are frequent and positive.
  4. Other students. These are your colleagues and are also a wealth of information. Listen to them on the visit. Are they happy? Are they competitive? Do they get along? Are they smart and passionate about their work? The ideal students will get along with each other, collaborate with each other (not compete), be effusively happy with their program, and be extremely brilliant and passionate about their research. Don't attend a school where the students are boring or bored.

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