How to pick school?

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
deckoff8
Posts: 23
Joined: Tue Nov 08, 2011 11:12 am

How to pick school?

Postby deckoff8 » Tue Mar 06, 2012 10:06 pm

Hey guys. Since acceptances are rolling in I guess it's that time to ask what schools to pick. It is a highly individual question, and obviously everybody is going to put different emphasis on different aspects, but I was just wondering how people were generally gonna consider their options. I know most people say research fit is really important, but what if you're not sure exactly what you wanted to do? Or a professor you know is doing stuff you find really interesting, but you really don't like him that much as a person? Since I started this thread, I'll give my thoughts.

To me, it seems professor personality is not that important. Obviously you don't want to be with somebody you loathe, but since that's more of a working relationship, it seems like it doesn't matter if you guys are immediately best friends after meeting. Research topic, however, seems really important, since I think I'd rather work on something I find really interesting with a professor I only mildly like than working on something I don't like that much with a really personable professor.

With that said, I do think school vibe, and the rest of your classmates, is very important. While you don't see your professor everyday, it seems like you are going to see your other students a lot over the next 5-7 years. Am I wrong in thinking that atmosphere and friendliness of other students should be a huge motivating factor?

Those are the 2 things that really came to mind. Would love to hear other people's opinions on this subject.

dragoonlp
Posts: 54
Joined: Thu Mar 25, 2010 4:38 pm

Re: How to pick school?

Postby dragoonlp » Wed Mar 07, 2012 12:07 am

Very good topic. Let's discuss this... I have the question too.

mrcrzister
Posts: 11
Joined: Wed Mar 07, 2012 3:54 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby mrcrzister » Wed Mar 07, 2012 4:01 am

I am also undecided and here are key factors that matter to me at this point.

0. Strong in my research interests. For example, I am interested in topology and algebra.
1. Size of the department (# of tenured or tenure-track faculty) should be at least 30+ in various areas so I can explore when i come there.
2. Supportiveness of the department: Do they want you to succeed or what fractions of entering class graduate after 5 years? I want to go to graduate program to get a PhD and I will work hard for it so I really need a supportive department.
3. Money $_$

Let me know if you have anything to add on to it. Comments and concerns :) Glad to hear.

YNWA2406
Posts: 22
Joined: Fri Nov 11, 2011 9:18 pm

Re: How to pick school?

Postby YNWA2406 » Wed Mar 07, 2012 10:35 am

mrcrzister wrote:I am also undecided and here are key factors that matter to me at this point.

0. Strong in my research interests. For example, I am interested in topology and algebra.
1. Size of the department (# of tenured or tenure-track faculty) should be at least 30+ in various areas so I can explore when i come there.
2. Supportiveness of the department: Do they want you to succeed or what fractions of entering class graduate after 5 years? I want to go to graduate program to get a PhD and I will work hard for it so I really need a supportive department.
3. Money $_$

Let me know if you have anything to add on to it. Comments and concerns :) Glad to hear.


I agree with these, and I also want to add location. Not necessarily that the school is close to a beach or anything like that, but if the school is close to other schools or other research institutions and readily collaborates with them. That's part of what Maryland's AMSC is so high on my list right now, they work together with so many different federal research institutions and it'd be a great opportunity to work with some of them.

echo
Posts: 18
Joined: Fri Dec 16, 2011 7:41 pm

Re: How to pick school?

Postby echo » Wed Mar 07, 2012 3:13 pm

All of the above are good suggestions. I might add three things:
1) Make sure that your department has faculty interested in the things you are. If you do not have an area of interest, go somewhere with good faculty in all areas. On a similar note, there are some departments that are really good in certain areas and not so good in others. Before committing to such a school make sure that you are interested in their area of specialty.

2) Ask for a list of recent job placements or somewhere you can get that information. Connections are really important. These lists will also tell you which professors in the department have students who get good jobs. If you want to get an academic job pay really close attention. Also make sure the students who get good placements are working in areas you are interested in.

Quality of life is important, but remember this is only a 5-6 year sentence whereas getting a lousy academic job could be a life sentence of teaching calculus all the time in the middle of nowhere.

3) Find out how much teaching work you will be doing. Even if you are on fellowship for the first year, you will be doing a substantial amount of teaching. There is usually a stated amount of hours you are supposed to be teaching ~15-20, but you will find that the actual amount of work varies widely based on your assignment and is usually substantially less. Ask the graduate students how much time they actually spend teaching. It's important to keep in mind that even if you love teaching, the type of work you'll be doing as a TA is usually the bottom of the barrel.

deckoff8
Posts: 23
Joined: Tue Nov 08, 2011 11:12 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby deckoff8 » Wed Mar 07, 2012 9:33 pm

I posted a question similar to this on gradcafe, a question about whether personal relationship or exact research interests were more important when picking an adviser, and here's an answer from "Eigen" that I got that I thought was really good.

I'll also tag in that I think the personal relationship is more important than the exact research area. Someone that you can learn from and work with on a regular basis is a huge boon, and a relationship that you will carry through to the rest of your career.

The exact research field, on the other hand, is something that will most likely change several times through grad school, post-docs and faculty positions. In fact, it can often be great if your real passion is close to but not exactly what you work on in graduate schooll. There's an expectation that you'll change topics to avoid being too derivitive of your advisors work/your graduate school work, so it can be nice to be able to shift slightly into something you're really passionate about.

Working with someone that you get along with but has a slightly different focus can also help limit micromanaging, and really help you develop your own independent research, as they can be there to be supportive and helpful but not overshadowing every detail of what you do.


That seems to make a lot of sense to me. Obviously you won't know immediately from the visit how well you'll get along with the professor but I think you can get some ideas. Anyone got comments on it?

wine in coffee cups
Posts: 19
Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:01 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby wine in coffee cups » Wed Mar 07, 2012 9:53 pm

deckoff8 wrote:
Working with someone that you get along with but has a slightly different focus can also help limit micromanaging, and really help you develop your own independent research, as they can be there to be supportive and helpful but not overshadowing every detail of what you do.

That seems to make a lot of sense to me. Obviously you won't know immediately from the visit how well you'll get along with the professor but I think you can get some ideas. Anyone got comments on it?

Will chime in that I'm finding talking to the current students of potential advisors to be very useful for understanding their personality and mentoring style, more so than talking to the professors themselves, even. The students who I've spoken with who changed advisors seem to have universally done so because of work style clashes, not because of the research itself, and they've been very helpful and forthcoming about these things that I otherwise would have never heard about.

gromov
Posts: 38
Joined: Sun Feb 13, 2011 6:49 pm

Re: How to pick school?

Postby gromov » Sat Mar 10, 2012 6:12 pm

What do some of you think has been the most effective way to get these desired responses from professors' students? For one thing, I don't even know of a universal way to look up a professor's students, aside from perhaps the former students via something like the math-geneology site.

wine in coffee cups
Posts: 19
Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:01 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby wine in coffee cups » Sat Mar 10, 2012 7:24 pm

gromov wrote:What do some of you think has been the most effective way to get these desired responses from professors' students? For one thing, I don't even know of a universal way to look up a professor's students, aside from perhaps the former students via something like the math-geneology site.

The obvious thing to do is just ask professors which of their current or recently graduated advisees might be willing to give you some student perspectives. My preference is to keep it low-tech and personal rather than do this over phone/email: chat with lots of current students during the campus visits. Besides asking them questions about their projects, how they like the area, TAing duties, and such, I talk about the faculty I've been meeting with and the kinds of research I'm interested in. The people (both faculty and students) at these admitted student events are eager to help and have been great about introducing me to the right 4th/5th year students to talk to at the departmental receptions.

deckoff8
Posts: 23
Joined: Tue Nov 08, 2011 11:12 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby deckoff8 » Sun Mar 11, 2012 2:23 am

Quick question: Is it a bit too forward to ask professors how many of their recent students graduated/got jobs after? That seems forward. I should probably save that question for the students right?

wine in coffee cups
Posts: 19
Joined: Thu Jan 26, 2012 9:01 am

Re: How to pick school?

Postby wine in coffee cups » Sun Mar 11, 2012 10:02 am

deckoff8 wrote:Quick question: Is it a bit too forward to ask professors how many of their recent students graduated/got jobs after? That seems forward. I should probably save that question for the students right?

The conversation goes roughly like so: "Prof. [name], I am pleased to be admitted to [school] and very interested in learning more about your research. One of the reasons I am drawn to [school]'s program is because it would seem to give me a solid foundation for [specific type of placement/all types of placement]. I am curious if you might share some comments on the directions your students have taken. If you have some time, I'd really appreciate hearing a bit about how they've transitioned from researching [topics A and B] under your advising to their current positions."




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