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

25.0% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Don't commit to doing a Ph.D. unless you are absolutely sure that is what you want to do.  It is time-consuming, selfish (time-wise) and can be expensive.  If you are unsure, do the master's degree. 

Once you have made the decision to commit to a Ph.D., pick a project that really interests you!  It is a long haul and will get boring if the project is not something you really love to research!  Don't do a project that someone else wants you to do or that you think may get you a job.  You will most likely be told what you have to work on when you get a job so enjoy your opportunity to choose what you want to do now. 

Jump in with both feet!  Graduate school in the hard sciences is not a Monday through Friday 8:00 to 5:00 job.  If you want to compete at the Ph.D. level it is a 60 to 80 hour a week job.  However, most of us who finish wouldn't trade the experience for anything!

Take at least a year off between college and graduate school. 

Try to come to decision about graduate school independently; it's easy to be influenced by professors, parents, etc., but grad school is a long haul and in order to get through, you need to be really committed.

Look around for mentors (older students, other faculty)--don't rely on your advisor for mentoring!

The primary purpose of a Ph.D. is for going into academia.  If you're not sure at the outset that you want to be a professor, or lack a clear alternative path that requires a Ph.D., you should wait before going to graduate school.  Five years + is a long time to work for something if it doesn't directly contribute to your life's goals.


Investigate the program thoroughly

13.4% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


It is extremely important to visit prospective graduate schools to look for a fit with the faculty and potential advisor, the research, and the atmosphere in the department and school.  You want to make sure you will be happy where you are at, because otherwise your research and performance will suffer.  The best way to ensure this is to go visit, talk to students and faculty, and just get a feeling for the place.


Try to develop a good understanding of *what* exactly it is that you'll be doing in grad school and how you can tailor that most to your benefit and direction.  Get informed from other grad students as to amount of workload, interaction with advisor, number of courses, type of research, housing, etc.  These are all crucial towards one's enjoyment of grad school, and not having a good idea of what it entails or being disappointed by inaccurate expectations changes the experience for the worst.


Be sure of where you are going!  If something seems amiss, don't do it!  I was warned by three different grad students not to come because things were not good here, but I came since this was the only one I was accepted into.  In hindsight I should not have come.


Understand the job market

14.3% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Make sure that 1) you love your field enough to commit years to it, and 2) that you are aware of the real-world job prospects when you finish.  That is, if you pick a field without much money, you will probably have to give it all up years later unless you are truly a uniquely gifted and very hardworking individual.


Obtain work experience!  Experiment with your discipline in an applied way.  Gauge the job market.  I've seen many Ph.D. students finish and then realize their employment options are limited.


Be prepared to work harder than you ever have in your life.  Graduate school is orders of magnitude harder than undergraduate.   

For Ph.D. candidates, publishing papers, attending conferences, and writing funding proposals is worth all the time and work.  Without these things on your CV, forget about getting a faculty job at a research university.


I entered into a program in a field that is currently and has been depressed for multiple years.  I think it was extremely fortunate that I found employment that was supportive of my degree program.  I also feel it's very dishonest that universities across the country continue to accept students into Ph.D. programs when there is a glut of Ph.D.'s, and very few job opportunities.  My advice would be know what the employment market is and what chances there are for fulfilling your goals.


Understand and get funding

13.4% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Find an advisor who has money and is still active in the research area you wish to pursue.


Ask about funding, especially for summer. 


Not all grad students remain in their area.  I have had to go out of my department for research funding.  Fortunately, it has been a terrific experience for me.


Availability of research funding should play a major role in deciding which program you enter. 


Select your advisor carefully

36.6% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Be selective when choosing an advisor.  Degree of interaction and guidance can vary greatly from one professor to another.  Make sure your needs are compatible.  Talk to his/her other grad students.  Talk with currently enrolled grad students when choosing a program or an advisor.  Grad students will be able to give you the most informed and honest impression of student life at that university or with that advisor. 

When applying to grad schools make contact with at least one professor and visit if you can before admissions decisions are made.  Often these decisions are influenced by whether a professor has spoken on your behalf. 

As well, the research interests of individual professors and their willingness to work with you should be a major factor in choosing a grad program.  I have seen grad students arrive only to find that there were no faculty members with the necessary expertise or the faculty member was not interested in taking on any more students at that time.  Under these conditions, a student can succeed, but he/she must be extremely self-motivated!


Select your advisor only after significant experience with him/her.  Mine was nothing like I expected from classroom contact.  Ensure your advisor has time for you and is personally interested in your research.

Choose advisor based on more than the research quality.  The ability to interact with students in a meaningful way is just as important.   Make sure the advisor has the time to properly oversee the research.

You should wait at least a semester, maybe two, before you make a final decision on an advisor.  Do not feel obligated to stay with the faculty member who sponsors you.  See how all the faculty operate.  Take some classes from various faculty members, then decide.  Choose one who likes to teach.   You will be able to learn from him or her.

Talk to the faculty before you enter the program.  Definitely talk to the students to find out about the atmosphere in various research groups.  Have an advisor that you want to work with, so that you won't waste time finding the right advisor and research topic.

Communicate with your advisor, and set deadlines early on in your dissertation writing.  View your advisor as a research mentor and source of funding for your specific project,  and look to other faculty/staff/students for moral or other support if necessary. 


Thoroughly research your advisor, consulting previous and current students and finding out what type of working relationship is developed over the course of a doctoral student's career.


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

5.4% of the geology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Personally, it was extremely beneficial to leave the academic environment for a few years to work in the private sector.  I would encourage all prospective new graduate students to consider discovering alternative work environments.


If you are at all unsure about wanting a Ph.D., do a Masterís first. 


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.