Finding Great Grad Programs for You

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Finding Great Grad Programs for You


Brad R. Conrad, Director of SPS and Sigma Pi Sigma

The most important thing to know about searching for a grad program is that there isn’t just one “right” program for you―there are likely many places where you could thrive and excel. The key is to identify what is best for you and your goals. Keep in mind that the overall purpose of attending graduate school isn’t to get another degree, or even to get a job in a specific field, but to further your career and life goals. There are probably many pathways and many programs, degrees, and advisors—sometimes wildly different ones—that can help you achieve your goals. The following questions highlight some factors to consider while exploring programs. The more honest you are about your needs, preferences, and goals, the easier it will be to identify programs that will help you be successful. 


Questions for you

Physical location

  • Would a coastal, midwestern, or mountain location be best?
  • City, rural, or suburbia?
  • Warmer or colder climate?
  • How far from home are you willing to go?

Department culture and vibe

  • Would you prefer a larger or smaller program?
  • Which of the following are non-negotiable for you in a program?
    • Diverse student body
    • Outreach opportunities
    • Active grad student group
    • Close-knit community
    • Diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts
    • Interdisciplinary research
    • Industrial partnerships
    • Accessible faculty


  • What kind of research would you like to do?
  • Would you like a larger or smaller research group?
  • Would you work best with a hands-on advisor? A results-driven advisor?
  • How often do you want to see your advisor?
  • Would you like to work with a national lab, industry lab, or observatory?

Your future

  • What do you hope your life looks like in ten years?
  • What kinds of programs could get you there?
  • Where would you like to work after graduating?

Questions related to programs

Exams and research

  • What percentage of students who start the program finish?
  • When do students have to select an advisor?
  • Are there opportunities to partner with industry, other disciplines, or government labs?
  • Is there a qualifying exam? If so, when is it given? What percentage of students pass?
  • How is the department addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion?
  • What kind of career preparation services are available to students?
  • How are struggling graduate students supported?


  • Are fellowship, teaching, or research positions available?
  • How much are the stipends? For how many years is funding guaranteed?
  • Are tuition and fees waived?
  • Is there health insurance? How much does it cost?

Questions for potential advisors


  • What is your work style?
  • How often do you travel?
  • Do you have funding for additional students?
  • How often do you meet with students individually and as a group?
  • Could you connect me to some alumni from your lab?

Expectations for students

  • How much time do your students spend in the lab each week?
  • Do students typically work nights, weekends, or holidays?
  • How long does it take students in your lab to graduate?
  • How often do your students travel?

Questions for grad students in the program


  • How much time do you spend each week on homework? Research?
  • What do you like best about the department? What would you change?
  • What do you wish you had known before you started?
  • If you could do it over, would you choose the same program?
  • Is there a graduate student group?
  • Are graduate students unionized?


  • How do students find out about research openings?
  • Is it common for students to change research groups?
  • Can students work with faculty outside the department?
  • Can students do research at national labs or observatories?
  • Who are the advisors to avoid?

Life outside the program

  • How expensive is housing?
  • Where do grad students typically live? How long is the commute?
  • What do grad students usually do on weekends?
  • Do students study together? Hang out together?
  • Is the stipend enough?
  • Do I need a car? Are there parking fees?

This list is far from exhaustive, but I hope it helps you think about what you want out of your graduate program—this is all about you and your future. Happy grad school searching!

This article is adapted from an earlier version that appeared in the 2021 issue of GradSchoolShopper magazine.



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