Lesson #1 - Do Your Research
You say you want to go to grad school because you like to do research? Well prove it! There are three crucial subjects to research before even applying to any graduate program: the field, the department, and grad life in THAT department. I'll admit to knowing none of these things before I started and that may be the biggest mistake I made in grad school. So let's look at these big 3 in a little more depth.
I'm not talking subject matter or content here. You should already have some of that or you shouldn't be looking at that field in the first place. The research I'm talking about is job-related. What jobs are out there for people in this field with the degree you want? What do those jobs pay? What is the progression to those jobs?
These questions may seem base if you're buying into the whole "noble life of the mind." Two points to keep in mind: 1) the ability to feed oneself post-degree is vitally important and 2) the "life of the mind" is an out-moded concept with no bearing in current academic reality, if it ever existed al all. So, let's talk about what would be awaiting you at the end of grad school.
- You can be a college professor. If this is your dream, I suggest you do two things. First, shadow a professor for a day or two or ask them to candidly tell you about what their life is really like and what they needed to do to get there. And two, look up the stats on how many people in that field go into grad school, how many actually graduate, how many jobs are offered each year, and the liklihood of getting one of those jobs. I'll give you a headstart, 50% or less get jobs as tenured faculty - in the social sciences and humanities it's less.
- You can get a job outside academia. If this is your goal, check and see if you need a master's, doctorate, or professional degree to do that job. If you don't, do NOT take on the debt of grad school. Very few people get funded the whole way these days. If a grad degree is that important to you, do a non-traditional one and pay for it as you go. It then becomes an expensive hobby but you'll have a life on the outside, an identity not tied to your studies, and likely be generally happier and healthier for it.
Having some idea where you're going ahead of time can save you a LOT of grief down the road. If the answers you get to these questions do not inspire you to go to grad school, don't despair. If you just want to read more deeply on a subject you love, all you need is a library card. They're cheap (or free!) and you have the freedom to read up on whatever you want. No one can say that about grad school!
Once you've decided to continue on your grad school quest, you need to pick a department for your studies. There are lots of departments out there with grad programs in whatever field you want to study. So, how do you decide? Here are some questions to ask of every department:
- Do they have people specializing in what you want to study? If you want to study ways to increase crop yields and a department only specializes in zoology and microbiology, you may want to look elsewhere. Find people whose research interests you and check out their departments.
- Does the department have funding for their students and for how long? Grad student debt ranges from astronomical to absurd to soul-crushing. If a department cannot fund all of its incoming grad students RUN! That's no place you want to rack up debt. Ideally, you want a department that will fund you to finish but, at the very least, you need one that will fund you to ABD (All But Dissertation). What type of funding is also good to know but we'll get to that.
- How does the department rank? Academia is NOT a meritocracy. Where you graduate from matters. If you want to be a college professor, you really need to aim for a top 5 department. To the rest of the world, Ivy league looks better than state schools which look better than regionals (give or take whether an alumni of your school is on the hiring committee). Yes, there's a hierarchy. No, it's not fair. But who told you life was fair? Whoever it was, I assure you, they lied. Find them and smack them upside the head with a fish. You'll feel better.
Life in the Department
Now that you've narrowed down the department options, go visit those places. Don't just talk to professors when you're there. Talk to the grad students, old and new ones, away from the profs. Go to lunch or happy hour with them. Get the dirt. You're better off learning it now rather than when you've tied yourself to that department for any length of time. Some important information to try to learn:
- What's it like to work with the professors in the department? At some point you'll have to work with other profs in the department and it helps to know what they're like. This also tends to lead to people dishing about the politics in that department. Do some profs just not get along? Are some not allowed to be in the same room together? These may be signs of a snake pit. You really want to try to avoid those. In a similar vein, do the grad students get along? Do there seem to be factions? Are you shepherded away from some grad students? These are also signs of snake pit behavior. Watch out for fangs.
- What is the funding like in the department? Is it more TAs or RAs? Do they take a lot of time? Some TAs and RAs don't take time and you get paid for doing very little. Others will have so much work that you'll be filing grievances with your grad union right and left, if you have a grad union there. You should ask about that too. Does the department guarantee funding for any specific length of time? Do they deliver on that guarantee? My department claims they fund everyone for 4 years but I've only received funding for last summer - 8 years into my program. The rest of my funding I've had to find on my own.
- What is it like to work with your potential advisor? I cannot stress this one enough. You're initially signing on to work with this person for nearly a decade. You better learn something about that life before you apply. Is s/he reasonable both in their requests of your labor and their advice? Does s/he provide a lot of opportunities for research? With funding? Is s/he a decent human being? Ethical? You may not want to ask some of these questions outright, unless you either are that comfortable with the grad students or you get the feeling they're warranted.
There are two types of danger signs when talking with grad students that should set your hair on end and your fight running in the opposite direction: 1) If grad students either damn their professor(s) with faint praise or they are clearly hiding something or hedging what they're saying (very deliberate word choice is a clue). 2) They tell you outright s/he is evil, despotic, or otherwise unreasonable. If grad students have reached the point of #2, they are so fed up with their advisor's dictates that they are willing to risk you babbling something incriminatory should you happen to see that advisor again. This is a bad sign. You cannot change an advisor. They are no fixer-uppers. These behaviors are a sign of abusive relationships. Take head.