These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.  The quotes are sorted by discipline.  You can see the response from other disciplines.  These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program.  Students responded to the question:  "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "

The quotes are sorted into six categories.  Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments.  These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments.  They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program.  The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline.  You can see the relative distribution here.



Know yourself and know what doctoral study entails

12.4% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


I think a lot of people come to graduate school because they either don't know what to do next, are not ready to get a job, or think that they want to be a professor (and that is all they know if they have been in school for their whole lives).  I would think clearly about why to go to graduate school and then get the most out of it by planning and meeting goals.

I have started to think that graduate school should be treated more as career development: What skills do you have?  What skills do you want to develop further?  What sort of career do you want to have?


Be very thoughtful and do your homework before going to graduate school.  I had very little idea what academic research was about before I entered the program.  Fortunately, I learned quickly and managed to adjust before I dropped out, but I think the experience could have been much better and I could have learned more if I had done my homework before entering.   

Know the professors in the program you will apply to and select your advisors rationally.  I chose much more haphazardly.  Fortunately again, I chose a wonderful advisor who helped me grow as a scholar and a person, but it could have been much worse.


I think I would work very hard to describe what the day-to-day experience of a graduate student in my field.  I think students entering the program are always woefully under prepared for what is to come.  In particular, I think not enough is done to point out that apart from questions about intellectual ability, graduate school is an extreme experience that places large emotional demands on the student. 

When I see students choosing research projects I don't see them addressing these things like:  How quickly do you need feedback or measures of your progress?  Do you rely on external interest in your work to motivate yourself or is it enough that the project be worthwhile in some abstract sense?  What will pursuing this project look like on a day-to-day basis?  Do you enjoy that as much as you like the idea of the project?  Do you like to work collaboratively or alone?  Would you rather work on several smaller projects or one large one? 


Know exactly why you are going to graduate school.  Do not use graduate school as a method to keep from entering the real world.  You will waste your time and the department/faculty's time.   

Constantly reiterate to yourself your motivation for being in grad school. 


Make sure that you really want to go to grad school and that you know what you are getting into before you start. 

Make sure that you know the environment of the research group you are joining--in addition to liking the research, you must like the people in the group as well as the advisor.


Be very certain you want to be in graduate school.  People who are most successful in grad school have a reason to be there, i.e., they know what type of job they want and realize the degree is necessary. 

Graduate school is not difficult, but you must be willing to put in the effort to get through.  It requires an immense amount of self-motivation.


I've seen people enter graduate school for wrong reasons.  Basically the wrong reason to embark on a course of research is in the hopes of getting a better job.  If future jobs are an important issue, students should be shown that a masterís is the best route.  A Ph.D. is really demanding and can be a very frustrating course of study.  It should only be undertaken if you really enjoy research.  A Ph.D. does not guarantee a job.


Donít do it.  The hours are too long.  The training period is way too long and you just get really tired of being this poor.  In chemistry, the job market is okay, but not great.  I love chemistry, but I just am not sure that it is worth this.


Investigate the program thoroughly

23.5% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Visit the departments you are considering to get a good feel of the environment there.  Talk with current students 'off the record' about their experiences in the department.  After doing these things, if you do not have a really good feeling about the department, you should consider a different university.  In my experience, tense environments within a department are slow to change and more importantly, make graduate studies in that department difficult.


Be very careful when selecting a research group.  Talk to students in the group about their experiences and also to students in other groups about the reputation among students of your potential advisor. 

Pay attention to how long it takes people to graduate.  You may not think it matters now, but it will. 

Get a clear idea of what will be expected of you and ask other students and faculty whether it is reasonable.


Get all information about the department and the faculty of interest, NOT only the chemistry, but the entire working/learning environment.


Ask faculty how much teaching you will do, and have them describe all the hoop-jumping you will do to get your degree, or have them point you to students in those phases of their careers.  Learn the practical side of achieving a degree at each institution you're interested in. 

If you aren't sure that you want to enter academia after grad school, take time off between undergrad and graduate school to work in industry, and pay attention to the life of the Ph.D. chemists that may be around you.  Then you'll have something to compare with academia. 

Ask grad students you encounter if they think the faculty have a unified expectation of the requirements placed on the graduate students. 


I would strongly encourage prospective students to hold off accepting an offer from a  program until such time as they could gain admission to one of the top 10 or 20 programs in their field of interest, even if that meant putting off graduate school for years, because the prime value of a graduate degree to one who earns it is the name of the program that awarded the degree.   

I would encourage prospective students to only consider research with an advisor who a) was extremely well-established in the field, b) had substantial funding, and c) was willing to commit immediately to funding all work the student might take on from that funding.   

I would strongly encourage prospective students to only consider programs with multiple advisor systems, such as was recently established at Harvard.


Understand the job market

12.8% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Before you start have a pretty good idea of what you want to do after graduate school, or at least which options are reasonable for you.  That way you'll be better able to take advantage of everything (courses, advising, other students, workshops, resources,  student groups, governance) that will help you prepare.  Remember, graduate school is training.  You are here to equip yourself for what is coming next. 

Donít be afraid to ask other students and faculty for help.


Make sure that you have explored all the options of what you can do in your field.  For instance in the sciences, people think of teaching, research or working in industry.  For instance with chemistry, one can work with food chemistry, cosmetics, and forensic science, art forgery and art conservation. 

Realize that you can change your mind about goals, careers, and advisors.  Most importantly, make sure that the advisor you choose is someone that you respect and can work with. 


Think really hard about what you hope to gain from going to graduate school, if the years of stress/abuse and near poverty are worth it in the end.  If you donít hope to teach, itís easier to get a job in industry if you don't have a Ph.D., especially in chemistry. 


Identify early in their graduate careers what their ultimate career goals are and to work aggressively through their time in grad school to make themselves the best prepared for their future goals as possible.


Understand and get funding

9.7% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Money is a big issue.  It's very important that the job has funding for you as a grad student and for your research.  You don't fully appreciate money until you don't have enough to buy supplies or you have to teach.  There is nothing wrong with teaching; however, when you have to teach for funding, you don't spend that much time in lab and then your advisor wonders why you're not in lab doing your experiments. 


Make sure you are adequately funded.  Make commitment for research assistantship. 


Find out about funding as well as TAships, RAships, and how they are appointed. 

Most importantly, get to know the department secretary.  He/she will know almost everything, and can help you out a great deal.


Pick an advisor that has money to support you.  Teaching is valuable, but it takes time away from completing your work.  Students who have to teach to support themselves become very frustrated with their slow progress.  If the advisor doesn't have money to support you, chances are he doesn't have sufficient funds for equipment/supplies, which will slow things down further. 


Try to obtain external/internal fellowships. 


Investigate how well-funded your potential advisor is currently, and how diligently he/she pursues grant funding. 


Select your advisor carefully

34.9% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


The choice of the advisor is extremely crucial in my field.  A great deal of time should be dedicated to learn as much as possible about the advisors and how they fit the needs, personality.


Try to match your work style with that of your advisor.  For example, are you someone who needs structure to progress productively?  Then try to find an advisor who will provide such an environment; don't select someone who just lets you randomly roam.


Choose an advisor who will:  Be a great teacher and a knowledgeable researcher.  Be available most of the time.  Help you develop as an independent scientist.  


Pick an advisor you are compatible with, in their research and attitude.  Also make sure you get along with the students in the group since you spend the most time with them.  Make sure your advisor is available to talk with you if necessary, within a reasonable time.


If your program has a rotation, take advantage of it.  If you have picked an advisor, then all I can  say is no matter what happens, keep your eyes on the prize.  If things go really bad, switch if you can. 


Cultivate a close professional relationship with your advisor and make sure he/she is always involved and aware of your progress.  This is why an advisor with a good, accessible personality is essential.


Find out about advisorís personality.  Find out customary time to Ph.D. in a given research group (not just departmental average).  Evaluate group morale.  Find out advisorís expectations explicitly.


Make sure you get a good advisor; one who is there to teach you, not make you their indentured servant.


Make sure that the advisor you are interested in has funding and a good track record of getting funding.  Though this is not a problem I have encountered, I have seen it with other students. 

Make sure that your career plans are made clear to your advisor early on, especially if your advisor has followed a different path than you intend to choose.


Pick an advisor who is an expert in the field that youíre going to study.  Make sure he has the time and inclination to be a mentor.  Make sure you pick someone who wonít exploit you excessively and who is willing to go to bat for you (even at his own expense, if necessary), but donít worry too much if you donít have a warm, fuzzy relationship with him. 


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

7.4% of the chemistry students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


If you arenít sure that you want to enter academia after grad school, take time off between undergrad and graduate school to work in industry, and pay attention to the life of the Ph.D. chemists that may be around you.  Then youíll have something to compare with academia. 


Make sure you take time for yourself before starting your doctoral program.  It really helps provide a sense of perspective, which you will need. 


If youíve never had a job/internship take the time before or during graduate school to do this -- get some perspective about what you want to learn in graduate school. 


Know exactly what you want to do while in grad school.  This may mean taking time before entering (i.e., working in industry or as a technician) in order to fully gauge the commitment and time it requires to get a Ph.D.  If one just jumps in, there is danger of spending far too much time getting paid far too little money and ending up overqualified and disillusioned with the entire system.


Quotes from  other disciplines.   | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.