grad skool rulz #3 – choosing the grad skool

Get the entire book – Grad Skool Rulz: Everything You Need to Know about Academia from Admissions to Tenure – for only $2. You can read it on personal computers, Nooks, Kindles, iPads, and smart phones.


My last post on gettting through graduate school (grad skool rulz #2) triggered an interesting email exchange between Omar and myself. Omar pointed out that many top programs have a “survival of the fittest” attitude. This made me think of the following rule. Controlling for program prestige and other factors, you should choose the graduate program that scores highest on the following scale:

  1. Toxic Graduate Program – Some departments provide no support for students and seem happy pitting students against each other in zero sum games (e.g., grading exams on a x% fail rule). Signs of the toxic graduate program: nobody has graduated in a while; placement is bad; low morale among students and faculty; etc. Only go here as a last resort.
  2. Benign Neglect Program – This characterizes most graduate programs. A few good students get support from the faculty, but otherwise, it’s “every man for himself.” Signs of benign neglect: program has no consistent record of grduation or placement, but you see the occassional success story; people talk about individual supportive faculty, not about any system for helping students.
  3. The Workshop System – The program has a clusters of scholars, who work with “apprentices.” This is common in areas like demography (UNC), orgs (Stanford, Northwestern) and medical sociology (IU, Florida State). Not a bad deal, but if you aren’t in the workshop, it can be lonely and tough. Signs of a good workshop system: faculty routinely publish with students; leaders in specific areas (like orgs) frequently produced by the dept; big grants to support research and grad student assistants.
  4. The Supportive Overall Program – The program has a well thought out set of courses that exposes most students to what they need to know to survive in the academy. Or they have so many workshops that they can absorb most serious graduate students. Signs of the overall system: few involuntary drop outs for failing exams or fighting with faculty; strong placement in multiple specialties (not just the ones tied with workshops); consistent publication by grad students in good journals; high morale in a broad cross section of the grad student population; support for different career paths (research, liberal arts, private sector).

Like I said, there are other factors that should go into your decision (e.g., program prestige, financial aid, intellectual fit, etc), but this four point scale should clarify a major issue for you. Also, as with any career decision, the quality of the person matters the most. Some fantastic persons have survived highly toxic programs because of intelligence and persistence. Similarly, a flaky person will definitely fail in a supportive program. Last comment: these situations can be short lived as faculty enter and leave a program. A program with a few solid workship may degenerate into a toxic program when the most active faculty retire or leave. A toxic program may turnaround with a cohort of new professors ready to make things work. So get current information and make sure that there will be effective faculty at the school for the next 5 or so years so you can work with them.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 30, 2007 at 5:37 am

10 Responses

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  1. Fabio, I don’t think these options should be ranked along a single dimension, as you’ve done. Rather, each has benefits and costs. In economics, for example, some programs are known to flunk out half the students. But then again, they admit twice as many students as they wish to matriculate. The competitive pressure is intense, but this is a good option for a student who doesn’t look that great on paper (GRE scores, college grades, etc.) but can shine when given the opportunity. At the other extreme, the nuturing program is good for people who prefer a more relaxed, less intense environment, but is much stricter at the admissions stage. So, if you’re not sure your test scores and undergradate grades are the best predictors of your ability, and you go to the best type #4 program that will admit you, you may end up worse off than if you’d gone to a higher-ranked, type #1 program.

    Peter Klein

    January 30, 2007 at 3:19 pm

  2. [...] grad skool rulz #3 – choosing the grad skool [...]

  3. [...] 31, 2009 · Leave a Comment Though I did not apply it, I agree with Fabio Rojas’ advice about prospective graduate students choosing the right graduate program.  But where should [...]

  4. [...] a clue about the quality of this relationship. In that respect I find the following link helpful: grad skool rulz #3 – choosing the grad skool Second, I generally agree with Haread's strategy of looking at graduates at +5 and more years. [...]

  5. [...] warns about “toxic” grad programs where departments provide no support for students and seem happy to pit students against each [...]

  6. nice post….thanks


    January 1, 2012 at 3:25 pm

  7. [...] warns about “toxic” grad programs where departments provide no support for students and seem happy to pit students against each [...]

  8. [...] that time of the year when people have to choose a PhD program. Here’s my original post on how to choose a graduate program. Of course, you should buy a copy of the Grad Skool Rulz, which tells you what you need to know [...]

  9. [...] See Grad Skool Rulz #3 as well. [...]

  10. [...] warns about “toxic” grad programs where departments provide no support for students and seem happy to pit students against each [...]

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