Graduate School Dealbreakers

Since I’m in China, I’ll be missing one of my favorite parts of the year – recruiting new graduate students. To make up for it, I’m writing this post as a recommendation for prospective students. I’ll walk through a series of questions that in my opinion help identify “deal-breakers.”

These questions hardly represent the totality of factors that could go into your decisions. I’ve left off, for example, personal factors like distance from family that may or may not play a big role in your decision. Instead, I’ve tried to boil it down to the most basic yes or no questions and I’ve given them an order that reflects not so much their importance as the extent to which answering ‘no’ to one would fundamentally invalidate ‘yes’s to those that follow.

Is it financially feasible?
I’ve been asked before how come PhD students receive stipends, especially as undergraduate tuition has shot through the roof. It’s a big, complicated question, but also a simple, personal one: if I didn’t receive financial support for my studies, I wouldn’t be able to be in graduate school right now. If you’re a prospective grad student, then, like me, you’re probably not in it for the money. (And if you are, get out now!) But that doesn’t mean that financial considerations are unimportant. On the contrary, whether you can afford living expenses will have a significant impact not just on how long it takes to finish your PhD but whether you will be able to finish at all.

If you’ve received a funding package, congratulations. But that’s not the whole story. You have to take stock of the amount of money you’ve been offered. Will it, along with any other source of income, be enough to allow you and your family to live in the area of the school, cover existing expenses (like student loan debt), and maintain a standard of living acceptable to you? If not, is it possible to supplement this income some other way? You’ll also want to think about the duration of the package. Chances are, it doesn’t cover the full length of time you’ll be in school. This may or may not be a problem. It depends on how you can reasonably expect to “fill in the blanks.” Does the department or another unit on campus offer write-up fellowships for the last year of the dissertation? Are there internal research grants you can apply for? What kind of support will you get for applying for outside fellowships, if you need to? Do advanced students earn money teaching their own courses either at this institution or other ones in the area? You also need to consider what conditions are attached to your funding package. Under what conditions could your funding be cut? How much of it will come from serving as a TA? Are TA positions guaranteed? Will you have to teach every quarter in given years, or do you have more flexibility in scheduling your teaching?

The questions could go on and on, and it’s impossible to anticipate every financial eventuality. If you’re not sure how funding a PhD is going to work, it doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Now is the time to ask questions, though. Sure, you don’t need to work out all the specifics, but if department staff and faculty can’t reassure you now, don’t expect much more from them a few years down the line.

Can you rely on your proposed adviser?
A lot of thinking about where to attend graduate school revolves around how well a student’s interests align with the expertise of their proposed adviser. That’s fair. But at the point at which you’ve applied to and been accepted by a given school, I have my doubts about whether a misalignment of interests is going to be a dealbreaker in the decision process. However, possessing an interest in certain topics (i.e. those you’re interested in) or even being a good scholar doesn’t automatically make a professor a good adviser. There are a number of factors that are harder to judge and are best discerned through conversations with others who know said professor professionally and through your own, albeit limited, interactions. I think they’re summed up by asking whether you feel you can depend on your proposed adviser. If your adviser is not someone who is going to look out for your best interests, have your back, and communicate clearly with you, then you should steer clear.

The dependability of your adviser is important in oh so many ways. Some are mundane: can you count on your adviser to return your emails? Some are more extreme: how will your adviser treat you if they take a job at another institution? Others straddle the line between the inevitable and the hypothetical. For example, how will your adviser react to your project changing? Everyone’s project changes or at least grows. Will your adviser facilitate the development of your project or keep you tethered to their own ideas about what you should be doing? Sometimes a project changes so much that it necessitates switching to a different adviser, or at least adding another faculty member to the committee. Is your adviser someone who will help you work with other people? Or do they have a reputation for not getting along with colleagues and being overly possessive of their students? You can’t answer all the hypotheticals, but you can do your best to ensure that you’re pairing yourself with someone you can count on, whatever the questions wind up being.

Is the academic community a good fit?
There is an adage that in graduate school you learn more from your classmates than your professors. Beyond specific things you “learn” from each other, the value of relationships forged with peers cannot be overstated. In graduate school your circle of colleagues will extend even beyond classmates and instructors with whom you take classes, and it will be decisive in terms of both how “successful” you are and how much you enjoy the experience. It makes sense, then, to pay close attention to how well you will fit into a given community when deciding where to go.

Ideally, over the application and recruitment process you’ll have the opportunity to connect with more advanced graduate students in your field. How helpful do you think they will be in terms of showing you the ropes once you’re on campus? Obviously it’s difficult to assess members of your potential cohort since you don’t know who will wind up there. But you should be able to gather at least some basic information. Are there other students in your field? Do the personalities and research interests of other potential members of your cohort complement yours? In terms of professors, you might want to look at whether there are faculty members beyond your ostensible adviser with whom you would want to take classes. Do the department and other parts of the university (like area studies centers) create spaces for you to meet and interact with colleagues?

The answers to these questions will go a long way toward shaping your experience in graduate school. However, it’s harder to pin down lack of potential community as a dealbreaker. Wherever you go, there will be people with whom you could work productively, and you should have opportunities to engage with colleagues beyond your institution sooner rather than later. Before you commit to graduate school, though, you should seriously consider what kind of opportunities to build productive relationships will be easy to come by and which you’ll have to make for yourself.

Will the department/institution prepare you for future employment?
Yes, you’re just entering graduate school and getting a “real” job is practically an eternity away. And who wants to hear grim statistics about academic job market on recruitment day? So why would you want to hear or ask about professional training at recruitment?

There are a couple reasons. First, while it seems really distant now, your prospective institution’s ability to prepare students for the job market will be super important when the time comes. The best time to find out about that ability is not when you’re five, six… years into a PhD. Second, I honestly believe that preparing for the job market isn’t just a distraction that should be put off until the last possible moment. Some parts of “professionalization” are technical and infuriating. But others prompt productive thinking about questions that can direct and validate the immense amount of effort you will be pouring into your studies: What can scholars in my field contribute to society? Is becoming a professor the only way I can imagine being happy? What skills does being an academic require? Which of those skills do I personally need to concentrate on developing? etc. Finally, statistics suggest that there is an uncomfortably high probability that you will not finish your PhD. Unless your institution has a proven track record of making “attrition” a rarity (I dare you to ask about this), then it’s responsible – at least to yourself – to consider whether you will be prepared along the way to seek employment beyond graduate school.

Does the curriculum accord with your level of experience and aspirations?
Graduate programs are set up to look similar in terms of basic requirements but in actuality function in very different ways. Consequently, the way a program actually works can be suitable or not for specific students. There are two difficulties. The first is identifying your own potential weaknesses as a student. Yes, you are undeniably awesome and surely have great potential. But it’s not like you applied and they just handed you your PhD. People come into graduate school with vastly different academic, professional, and life experiences, not to mention skills. Figuring out your particular strengths and weaknesses without falling into the trap of building your identity around how you compare to others is not easy.

The second difficulty is predicting how the expectations of your program will mesh with the areas where you need to grow. Will the program nurture you or pummel you? Or neither – will it, perhaps, simply let you slide by without achieving the kind of growth to which you should aspire? For example, it is standard for history PhD programs to require language examinations. But the implications of specific requirements and how they are enforced could have significant consequences, depending on the student. Do you need to pass an exam in only one language or a second one too? When do you have to take the exam? What happens if you don’t pass or postpone the exam? Does the program support opportunities for further language learning? Another big question is writing graduate-level research papers. If you don’t have much experience, then it would really help to know how much guidance you can expect and from whom. Or, if you’ve got a decent idea of what you’re doing, then you’d want to know how much freedom you have early on to work on projects relevant to your dissertation interests.

I put this at the bottom because, if you’ve been accepted to a particular program, then you, your advisers, and your department should be able to handle issues like this as they come up. But ‘should’ is the operative word. If you’ve got a concern about a specific element of the program requirements, ask about it now; test your potential department and adviser to see how effective they are at helping you navigate what can be a complex and flummoxing process. Remember, it’s their turn to impress you.


I suppose this post is a bit of a divergence from the point of this blog, since it’s not a direct reflection on my life as a PhD candidate. But, then again… It does reflect what I’ve found important in grad school. Moreover, I’d suggest that these factors don’t stop being dealbreakers when you walk through the doors of an institution. I’m glad I can say that working towards a PhD is financially viable for me and my family, that I trust my adviser, that my institution has helped me build some really wonderful relationships, that my program is committed to preparing me for employment after I leave, and that I am confident that I can fulfill remaining requirements. If not, I wouldn’t be in grad school today.


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