Two Important Considerations When Choosing Your Ph.D. Direction
October 18, 2013 10:00 AM
Selecting the right program for your Ph.D. is definitely daunting, partly because the process is so different from selecting either an undergraduate or master’s program. Selecting the right program for your Ph.D. is, ultimately, about fit. Rather than the “name brand” of a university or program, the best program for you will be one where you can work with an advisor who does high-quality work and matches your research interests. The entire process consists of two phases: choosing where to apply and then selecting from among the programs to which you have been admitted.
Where should you apply?
When choosing where to apply, one of the first steps in your search should be thinking about who you would like to work with rather than where you would like to go. The best way to do this is to think about the types of research you find most interesting that uses the methods you would like to employ in your own work. This should give you a list of faculty whose work you admire and who you would like to work with. Next, you should identify where these individuals work and research the Ph.D. programs where they advise students (some faculty can be housed in multiple schools but only advise students in the economics department or policy school, for example). Carefully look at the prerequisites for the program as well as the expected coursework to make sure that you are qualified to apply for the program, as well as having the opportunity to take the courses that you are interested in. Also, make sure the program has multiple faculty members (at least two or three) working on topics you are interested in. If your advisor goes on sabbatical or moves to another school, you will still have someone to work with. During the application process, it is also important to contact the person or persons whom you would like to work with, so that they know to look for your application.
Where should I go?
Once you have been accepted into a few programs, it is important to do your research (no pun intended)! Usually upon admittance, you are given some indication of who your primary advisor(s) will be. You should definitely speak with these individuals—you will be working with them for at least four to five years, so it is important that you find out what they are working on now, what they expect from their graduate students, and where their former students have gotten jobs. If you are able to visit each program and talk to your potential advisors face-to-face, do so. You will also want to discuss whether you will be housed at a research center or working with an individual faculty member. There are pros and cons to each: working in a research center might give you more ready access to your advisors and provides you with a dedicated work space. Working for an individual faculty member might provide you with a more flexible work schedule. Depending on what is more appealing to you, this is definitely worth consideration.
Next, talk to other students in the program. This will give you a better idea of “student life:” how easy will it be for you to take the courses you want (particularly if you think you might want to take coursework in other departments), how much support doctoral students are given by faculty and administration, how long students typically take to finish, what their experience has been with the program, and so on. I cannot stress enough the value of information you can get from current students—you will be them in a couple of years, so they can give you the best insider’s perspective. Some programs may give you the opportunity to meet the other people who have been admitted to your program. If you have this chance, take it! By talking to your potential cohort and current doctoral students, you gain a better idea of how you will fit and also how you will get along with other students. While this isn’t the most important factor in your decision, the other doctoral students will be your main support system as you work toward your Ph.D., so if you can find a program where you really enjoy the people, it is a definite perk!
I would be remiss if I did not discuss financial support. You are likely to get different offers from different programs. While this should not be the determining factor, it should be an important consideration in your final decision. Most awards will be contingent upon you performing some kind of work, usually as a graduate research assistant. This work is valuable for your own development as a researcher, so find out what type of work you are expected to do. The more you can be involved, the better for your development. That being said, find out the amount of time you are expected to work each week. You still need time to go to classes and complete assignments, and later in your career, time to work on your dissertation. If the work requirements seem too large for you to accomplish this task, then you should consider if it’s the wisest choice for your education and career.
So before deciding on what Ph.D. program is the best choice for you, do your own personal research. Find out where the best programs are that fit you and your future career. When narrowing down your choices, talk to your potential advisors and fellow students, and consider the financial support system available to you. Taking your time and thoroughly exploring your options will get you into the right Ph.D. program and start your career on a positive foundation.
This article was contributed by Sarah Cordes, a first year doctoral student at the New York University Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.