It is that time again…offers to potential graduate students have gone out and I am biting my nails. Who will accept? Who will decline? I cannot image (well, actually I can, but let us pretend for drama’s sake) how our dear doctor is doing? Pacing the floor? Biting his nails? Staying up late worrying about what will ever happen to his lab? Emailing possible students encouraging them ever so gently to say “yes” to the offers? What will they decide?
For most of these folks with offers on the table, reality has already set in. They have made their big steps, steps towards their personal investments in their futures. The real stress starts with making that difficult decision on which program to choose. I want to take a moment to point out that these are different levels of decision-making. The first involves making a choice that is not yet life-changing or has no ultimate consequence. For example, deciding to apply to graduate schools. The second involves choosing to engage in a particular action that affects your life and life-style, is life-changing, or has ultimate consequences. For example, saying yes or no to schools that have provided an offer. This latter decision requires much more thoughtfulness and engagement and is often stressful. It is difficult to choose a program that will assist with career goals, fit in with a life-style, or accommodate your personal life.
I realize that these decisions are intense and can be life-changing. Here are some things to think about:
Location – Have you visited the school and community? Do you like the location? Do you have or think you could develop a sense of place? Does that matter to you? How about the climate? Do you already have friends, family, or acquaintances there?
People – Have you been able to engage with other folks in the lab or with the professor you would be working with? How many times have you been able to speak with her/him? Are the professor or other lab members willing to engage with you? How have you been treated so far?
Cost – How much will you have to pay out of pocket and can you handle it? Is the project a funded project already or will you be expected to assist with obtaining funding? Are you offered a graduate assistantship? With or without teaching? A full research assistantship? Is your tuition paid for?
Curricula – Have you looked at the available classes? Are those classes actually being offered during your time there? Just because a class is on the books (in the catalog) does not mean it is offered. It does not hurt to verify when the last time a preferred class has been offered. If it has been over three years, unless you hear it will definitely be offered the next semester, it is probably only a place holder.
Activities – Will you be required to teach, to be a mentor (have undergraduate research assistants), assist with writing grants, assist other graduate students? Would you start research and/or classes right away? Or will you initially just take classes with time to develop your research questions and designs?
Expectations – Have expectations been presented to you already? Is there a program in place that you can jump right into and you are not making significant decisions on research design and what data are to be collected? Or, will you be participating in developing a new program, and implementing and managing it? How involved are you expected to be (their expectations), and how involved are you expecting to be (your expectations)?
Interference – Do you have any specific realities in your life that you should consider for any of the above? Do you feel that these realities interfere with making the preferred choice? Does it really? Or can you develop a workable system that would allow you to maintain your life in and out of school with the least amount of resistance? Here, interference is not like in sports. Do not think of it as a violation or penalty. It is a reality that you believe you have to recognize as a part of your decision.
For all the categories except interference, order them in importance then assign a weight to each in which the total of all possible points is 100 points. Then, for each school independently, rate how well the school accommodates these categories. For example, if Cost is a 10 pointer for you, you may consider one school gets a 5 (less fits in to your financial situation/preference) and another school gets a 10 (fits your financial situation/preference). Add up all the points for each school to obtain a total.
Next, for interference, on a scale of 1 through 100, assign points to your specific realities relative to your category weights in which it would fit. For example, say you rate Location as a 40 because you and your significant other live near a school you applied to and your partner cannot easily move or transfer. What proportion of these 40 points would you consider a reality situation for you? 35 points? For the school that is close to where you live, you would enter in plus 35 points. For the school that would require you to move, you would enter in minus 35 points.
Add up all the points. You may confirm your preference or not (if you had one), have something to help you make a decision, or decide to continue to stew in some way.
One of the realities about making a choice between schools (and in most life choices) is that you may not feel you have enough information. You may have been admitted to multiple programs, but you are unable to answer all the questions above to your satisfaction to decide. For example, only one program has current funding, while the other may not know until after your response due date. Sometimes we must make decisions with the information we already have.
Many programs have different response due dates that do not necessarily accommodate your timeline. Mostly this is because of limited funds or limited number of positions available for new students. If you are unwilling to take a chance on a program without more information or cannot decide, do not forget about those other decisions you have probably forgotten about by now: take none of the offered positions. Wait a little longer. Defer your application. Possibly you are not necessarily ready? Or the programs you applied to may not be the best options for you right now? You could take graduate level classes as a non-degree seeking student first. Get your feet wet. Many programs allow a student to take a few class credits as non-degree seeking. Some of these credits can be applied towards a degree program at that same school once you start a program or can be transferred to a different school (depends on the school and program).
It is only once the potential student makes that decision to say yes that reality sets in for me and for the lab. Managing an ecology laboratory has its ups and downs. There is a lot of planning and, uhm, well, managing. I also work with and assist students and their projects. And more students means more will be going on, more planning, more organizing, more gear, more schedules, and lots of questions. But partly, this is why we are here. To help. I am actually looking forward to seeing what offers are accepted. We have potentially a great new set of folks coming in and I am excited to see what they can do.