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

20.9% of the sociology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Don't think of graduate school as a continuation of undergraduate life: it's not school, it's a job.   

Don't think of yourself as a student, where the most important thing is to get good grades and pass your classes.  Far more important is to get to know faculty and to portray yourself/be known as a good researcher.  

Truly decide beforehand whether your selected field is something you are interested in doing for a career.  This may sound like either an ominous task, or perhaps an obvious one; but, if you begin to see that you’re not as interested in your field as you originally thought, get out as fast as you can, because academia is only there for the diehards. 


It really is not for everyone.  I takes a long time (6 years minimum), it’s not as fun as when you were an undergraduate.  It’s a hell of a way to spend your 20’s--still being in school and still being a poor student.  The emphasis is on doing your own independent, empirical research, not on taking classes.  In addition, funding may be hard to come by, taking out more student loans may be the only option.  Finally, consider how much money assistant professors make.  One should be serious and committed and should realize what they are getting themselves into. 


I wish that someone had explained to me that the purpose of graduate education in Ph.D. programs is to train us to become academic faculty at research universities.  That's what this process is about.  If that's not actually what you want to be, you really have to fight to make this experience prepare you in the ways you want.  I sometimes ask my undergraduate students to look around at their professors until they find their most mediocre teacher--that's what graduate programs are training us to be.  I do not regret my decision to pursue a Ph.D. but I would have felt less disillusioned if I had understood this from the beginning.


Decide exactly what you want out of graduate school before you go.

Do not expect that there will be time for you to explore and find the thing that is right for you. 

Once you know what you want, apply to schools that will give it to you.  Ask both faculty and students if their department can fulfill your needs.  But, do not just choose a school based on the academic reputation.  If you have to make a compromise realize that you can teach yourself many things, but you need an atmosphere that is constructive and open.  You need people who will give you time to work on your own work and are willing to support you while you do.   


Students who want to get a Ph.D. should be ready to be trained for an academic job, and realize that Ph.D. programs are apprenticeships for academic jobs.  They are not programs for people with general interests in the discipline or general interests in learning more and going to school more. 

Students should be very careful about what kinds of courses are required and what departments offer.  Our department is narrow and some people get here and are disappointed and frustrated by our requirements.  A little research ahead of time would have prevented their feelings.

Don't do it unless you want to become a professor.  Be sure that is the career you want before you consider graduate training.  Spend more time weighing what you want out of your career before going to graduate school; you'll have ample time to decide what you want to study once you get there.

If you don't know why you are doing it, don't do it.  Grad school is not a cost-effective place to find yourself.

Get funding lined up before--if you have to worry about this while doing core courses, or if you have work and support yourself and your family you might as well forget finishing.

Find a school that fits your projected career needs.  Most institutions and their faculty share the same questionable assumption--that they are there to churn out new professors and faculty members.  If that is what you want, fine, but the truth is a majority of grad students do not eventually wind up in academia. 


Investigate the program thoroughly

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


Listen to the experiences of advanced students in relation to specific formal administrative claims, e.g., departmental requirements, funding commitments, opportunities for research.   

Realize that certain sub-fields within the department have excellent track records for preparing/supporting students.  Other sub-fields do not. 

Ultimately, you should enjoy what you are doing while you are doing it. Graduate school is five to seven years of your life.  It is not just preparation for your life in the future.   

The old saw about the importance of your advisor is true. Select yours carefully.  The goal is the degree.  Examine yourself critically--what are your needs?  They might be substantive: the development of a research strategy, orientation to a subject, use of methods.  They might be material: support on a grant or as a T.A., help identifying and jumping the administrative hoops.  They might be emotional: getting a kick in the ass, getting a shoulder to cry on.  Your advisor should be the one person who will fit your needs.  Their sub-field is a secondary consideration at best.     


Think carefully about whether you have strong leanings toward either teaching or research (or toward one type of theory or methodology, e.g., quantitative vs. qualitative research methods).  Then find out as much as you can about the general attitudes/ leanings of the department/program and/or certain faculty members within the program.  If your main focus/goal is teaching, and you happen to be in an institution that's very heavily research-oriented, then there may well be a bad fit between your aims/goals and those of the program/department you're in.  If you can find one or more faculty members within the department who are likely to be more supportive of your interests (compared to the general attitude in the department), then that may be enough to off-set any discomfort or difficulties you encounter--especially if the individual(s) will be a strong advocate(s) for you.  Don't be afraid to put your needs/desires above those of your advisor, or your department/program, if or when it seems necessary. 

Find out as much as you can from other graduate students--especially if there is a seemingly supportive environment among the grad students.  If there is, they can be one of your best sources of information about the program.  Also, they have a wealth of informal information, such as what it's like to work with certain faculty members (their personal quirks, how closely they supervise their advisees, how they treat/interact with advisees, how available they are to advisees in general, etc.) 


Ask questions of current students when deciding on programs.  Ask how many students finish per year and what are they doing now, try to get commitment re: funding, does department "play well with others" or will you be penalized if interested in interdisciplinary work?  What training or support provided for development of your research interests?  Does department have a mentoring program?

Pick a graduate program/school that offers areas of study you are interested in.  For example, if you enter sociology and want to specialize in medical sociology, then make sure your program offers substantive courses in sociology of health care as well as faculty who do this type of research and teaching. 

Also, try to pick a school in a geographic region you will be happy in. 


Before applying to grad school, find faculty members whose work you want to emulate, then contact those faculty members and develop relationships. 

After acceptance, decide on a school based on the faculty person/mentor and prestige of program.  The prestige ranking of the department, as well as the mentoring and networks that good faculty provide are the 3 most important aspects in completing a dissertation and getting a job in academia afterwards.

Research programs, visit schools, find out about the qualitative vs. quantitative debate in the discipline (if applicable), talk with prospective mentors, and look for rifts in the department. 

Be willing to be a bit flexible in choice of geographic location--you won't be there forever! 


Understand the job market

10.0% of the sociology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Don't expect that the work you do in grad school will land you a great university professor job -- good jobs are few and far between these days and there are a lot of unemployed and underemployed Ph.D.'s.  Learn some skills that translate as useful outside of academics (in sociology, for example, statistics and survey design are useful in government, business, and private research institutes).  General teaching skills would also be useful.  Be prepared to be “exploited” as an adjunct instructor for a while before getting a “real” job.


Don’t be afraid to consider non-academic options, even when the department doesn't support such choices.  Perhaps you cannot publicize such choices, but don't waste your time being convinced to go the academic route if your heart isn't in it.  Try not to tie your self-worth exclusively to your  success/choice of the academic job market. 


Understand and get funding

15.1% of the sociology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Consider funding very seriously when making a decision about which graduate school to attend.  This is a long process no matter what, which means many years of just scraping by -- the more money you can get guaranteed the better.


Get enough financial support so you can progress through dissertation stage without conflict/distractions.


Ask direct questions, before choosing a school, about how they get funded to do fieldwork/archival work.  Most who utilize quantitative methods have much easier access to data for their research.  The rest of us (and there are a significant proportion of us across the social sciences) need outside funding.  So, if there is not a lot of cash available at the school you are considering, ask directly about the kind of support and mentorship there is for writing grant proposals. 


Secure fellowship or scholarship funding. 


Think seriously about what being admitted without a financial commitment will mean to you financially as well as how it will affect faculty's perception of your potential.

 Save up some money first so that you have cash reserves to fall back on and can attend professional meetings as you wish. 


Select your advisor carefully

25.7% of the sociology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Try and find a mentor right away.  Preferably, someone you can work with and whose interests match yours, but even more importantly, someone who is genuinely interested in watching out for you and seeing you succeed.  This would be someone who not only helps you academically, but helps you  professionally (i.e., encourages you to go to conferences, apply for grants/fellowships,  network, helps to make all of those implicit rules of academia explicit, etc...) and mentally/emotionally.  


Look at the placement record of your school.  Work with faculty who help their students get jobs. 

Look closely at how faculty and students interact -- try to find faculty who help students do research and who publish with their students.


Find out the scoop from other students on any faculty member you might be interested in working with.  Work with faculty members who known for building students up, not tearing them down.  It's important that your advisor have interests and experience related to your dissertation, but it doesn't need to be exactly the same topic, it can be really helpful when your advisor isn't so invested in the research because convincing them of its importance helps you figure it out for yourself, and once you go outside the department, you will surely run across people with different priorities and you'll have to convince them.


Before you pick an advisor, go and speak with him or her and find out if you get along.  Talk to other students in the department you are applying to, understand that many grads are bitter, but listen carefully, especially to what they say about the advisor you want.

Don't be afraid to switch advisors if it's not a good fit.   


The most important thing (even more important than the prestige of the program or university as a whole) is to find a professor whose work you like and respect, who is willing to work with you, and who will have time for you when you are there (i.e. who isn't on sabbatical, overworked, retiring, etc).  I had that, so I had a great grad school experience even though some professors weren't as accessible.

Identify a major sponsor within the department to fund your schooling and promote your career.  However, it is also important to not put all your eggs in one basket. 


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

7.7% of the sociology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Even if you're “sure” of what you want to do, try some other things that seem interesting.  Give yourself a couple of years to do this. 


Get some work experience before jumping immediately into graduate school.

Take time off (1-3 years) between undergrad and grad school to travel and work at a ”real” job.  This is especially useful if you develop a marketable skill to bring in a little money when funds are low or debt is building up.  It also gives students a very different perspective on the whole Ph.D. experience.


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.