grad skool rulz #26: what should I do during the grad school visit?

On June 3, 2011, I said that I was ending the grad skool rulz. Totally wrong. People keep asking me about things I hadn’t thought of before, so I kept on writing! This week’s question: What should I get from the campus visit after I have been accepted to a PhD program?

Usually, the campus visit is a brief one or two day trip where you show up to campus and with current graduate students and faculty. The visits vary a great deal in quality. For example, when I visited Chicago, I had to pay my own way and it was very hard to make appointments to meet people. During one appointment, I asked about graduation rates and this senior professor simply said that such statistics weren’t important. Now you understand the genesis of the Rulz. In contrast, Indiana has one of the most highly organized graduate programs around. Students who visit meet with professors, grad students, and they go to seminars. And of course, we have a great record of placement and publication with students that we freely talk about.

So what should you expect or demand from your visit?

  • Ask for money. A lot of graduate programs will provide funds for air fare and the like.
  • Accommodations – Don’t pay for hotels, most programs will have a current student host you.
  •  It is normal for faculty to meet with potential students. If no one is around to meet you, it is a bad sign.
  • Meet with the graduate chair. At the very least, you can get some information on the mechanics of the program. Also, ask for placement and graduation rates.
  • Meet with current graduate students. Often there is  a lunch attended only by students. The idea is that students can candidly talk about their experiences.
  • Attend a class or seminar.
  • Meet with senior faculty, the folks who mentor most graduate students. Ask them about current research and current students.

Now, how should you evaluate your visit? A few rules of thumb:

  • You can safely ignore about 90% of what people say. The faculty all say that their program is the best, even if students fail to get jobs. It’s rare that graduate students openly admit how much they hate life and how their friends in older cohorts are being weeded out and failing to get jobs.
  • You should closely pay attention to what people actually do. Did the faculty take the time to meet with graduate students, many of whom will not matriculate? If so, it shows commitment. Can your graduate student host point to a master’s paper or dissertation chapter that was promptly read? Or a paper that the faculty helped him/her publish?
  • Pay very close attention to the total number of people that the program places in an average year. My rule of thumb is that a program is effective if # of tenure track jobs = 50% of incoming cohort size. The reason is that 50% of people won’t graduate for a variety of reasons. The issue is what happens to the 50% who manage to finish.
  • It is a bad sign if the faculty will only talk about the one guy who made it to an Ivy league position. It is a good sign if they can point to multiple students who made it to R1’s, Liberal arts, and good regional universities. Don’t look at a biased sample.

Consider this an open thread on grad school visits. And of course – buy the GRAD SKOOL RULZ!!!

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Written by fabiorojas

February 25, 2013 at 3:50 am

15 Responses

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  1. Should students consider themselves a marginal candidate at a program if faculty do not personally reach out to them by phone or email?


    Graham Peterson

    February 25, 2013 at 3:54 am

  2. No – it could be a sign of disorganization within the program or lame faculty. You’d be surprised how many profs are incapable of answering email.



    February 25, 2013 at 3:56 am

  3. So, by my calculations, you only think a graduate program is effective if 100% of its graduates get tenure-track jobs?


    Philip N. Cohen

    February 25, 2013 at 12:53 pm

  4. +1 on Fabio’s suggestion to ask for a complete list of placements. My program is redoing its web page so I’ve done a lot of snooping around on other departments’ pages. The best placement list I’ve seen so far is Cornell’s, which at least attempts to track outcomes for all PhD’s earned over the past 10-15 years, academic or not. (Cornell’s cohorts are presumably quite small, though, making it easier from a logistics standpoint.)

    Too bad this practice isn’t more widespread, but without pressure from prospective graduate students, it’s not going to happen. Aside from the time it takes to track grads, the high-status programs that consistently underperform in their placements have a vested interest in sticking with cherry-picked lists.



    February 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm

  5. Any thoughts on negotiating offers? I was admitted to my first choice with very good funding, but I also received comparable offers from other excellent schools, and would like to leverage them if possible. Is there an etiquette to this?



    February 25, 2013 at 4:24 pm

  6. It depends. If you have bad funding or no funding, having another offer may prompt some action. But if you already have a decent package, negotiating may not yield much. Never hurts to ask, especially if you are nice about it. But don’t expect a lot.



    February 25, 2013 at 6:08 pm

  7. While it never occurred to me to leverage my offers, I had several friends who did. I have the sense they just said that they’ve narrowed their decision to 2-3 programs, not-your-school is offering a better financial package, and are you able to make me a more competitive offer?

    When I was looking at schools, I talked to many, many faculty and many, many grad students about their programs. My conversations with faculty were about seeing whether they actually listened to my ideas and whether they seemed like decent people. Some faculty said, “Oh, yes yes, wonderful idea, you are magical!” and it was clearly bullshit, others gave gentle criticism but thought Their University would be a good place to pursue that kind of question, which was more palatable bullshit, some seemed like great humans, some seemed were assholes, and others left me with no particular impression.

    The reason I bring this up about the faculty is this: You know how Anna Karenina starts, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I got pretty much the opposite impression from grad students: “Happy grad students are all different, but every unhappy grad student is unhappy with their advisor.” Usually this meant serious personality incompatibility, but it could also mean the professor left for another school, and, more rarely, there were irreconcilable political differences that manifested in intellectual disputes (at least, according to the students I spoke with…entirely possible it was incorrigible students, not faculty).

    I decided that, as a risk management strategy, I should just go to the place that (controlling for other important factors like location and financial package) had the most faculty I could work with. This ended up being an extremely good strategy — I ended up parting intellectual ways with my first advisor, my second one left the program, my third advisor left the program, and when I went back to my original advisor, she informed me she was retiring and not taking new students! Things ended up working out well with my 4th advisor, but I think this is a good cautionary tale not to put all your eggs in one basket just so you can work with most-famous-dream-to-work-with-professor. Because she might leave. Or be an asshole. Or both.


    Actuarial Decisions

    February 25, 2013 at 6:24 pm

  8. Thanks, Actuarial. That’s why I recommend against going to a campus to study with one person. Also, many campus budgets are constrained especially for grad students, which are the equivalent of trainees. So there isn’t much room for bargaining.



    February 25, 2013 at 6:35 pm

  9. Actuarial (and rest): so you had substantive research discussions with faculty? I’ve felt obligated to keep these conversations superficial, and mostly about programs culture and such. I’m afraid to (1) sound stupid in pitching my ideas, and (2) create controversy (which is strange because I usually express ideas with a blunt knife). I’m also switching over from econ, where the advice to undergraduates is too essentially *never* contact external faculty as an undergraduate, and not send a writing sample lest you become a happy-hour joke for the admissions committee. I feel ex ante like I’m just bothering these people.


    Graham Peterson

    February 25, 2013 at 6:48 pm

  10. @ Phil Cohen: Actually, yes, I do. It’s called having standards. In practice, even the best programs fall short due to bad market conditions, people choosing others careers, etc. However, I have seen programs (e.g., Indiana) that consistently place almost all PhD candidates who seek academic employment. it’s extremely hard but it’s an achievable standard of excellence.



    February 25, 2013 at 8:49 pm

  11. One thing I haven’t heard discussed so far is fit with the program. There has been a lot of discussion about finding “the best” program with the best placement record, and that is certainly important when evaluating programs. Beyond looking at rankings and reverse engineering a school’s placement record webpage, there seems to me to be vast and very important differences between even the “best” programs in terms of student life, expectations, and work with faculty. There are departmental philosophies for training graduate students which seem to vary greatly and influence graduate life at an almost genetic level. My knowledge is, as it must be, limited to a few bits of direct knowledge and the indirect reputations that precede programs, so take my examples as hearsay. But, I think the general nugget is there. Programs have different philosophies and different philosophies work best for different students

    Let me start with my own program, the University of Chicago. It follows a philosophy similar to a Berkeley or Columbia (or so said their reputation at the time it found my ears) where you are attached to an advisor and they help you navigate the program requirements and mold you into thinking like a sociologist. But, that’s about it. The rest, they leave up to you to figure out on your own. This may mean making new connections with other faculty, taking odd courses, or spending months in the field on your own doing your research by yourself. It’s a long leash that works for certain kinds of people. Princeton (again by reputation) offers a slight variation of this where, as best I can tell, the leash is kept relatively short the first two years and seems to remain fairly close throughout the program. Professors work with students closely and the department requires a publishable paper by the end of their second year; hence, many of their students publish in AJS and ASR before they graduate. After that, they can go on to find their dissertation. At another end of the spectrum, are places like Stanford which has the reputation of close work with faculty throughout all of a student’s time in the program. I’ve heard it described as an apprenticeship system, the mentorship seems so close.

    This closeness spectrum is only one dimension of the philosophical differences among programs which deeply shape the graduate student experience. I fell in love with Minnesota and Notre Dame for completely different reasons which I’m sure work better for different students. Public sociology was in the air at Minnesota when I visited. Chris Uggen ran the department at the time, and I could sense it when I talked to him. But, I could also sense it when I met with Joachim Savelsberg, David Pellow, and Doug Hartman. It was (and I would bet still is) a department that cared deeply about training students to answer the “so what?” question. Notre Dame on the other hand was beginning to throw money at graduate education and had a ton of excellent new hires. They had, and still have, Omar Lizardo, Kraig Beyerlein, Daniel Meyers, Rory McVeigh, Lynette Spillman, David Hachen, and Christian Smith (can you guess my concentration yet) and their students advertised that you could buy a house in South Bend with the university stipend. It was a department that was very young, energetic, and hungry in a university willing to give you its full support for doing good sociology.

    Departments have very different philosophies for training graduate students and, in my opinion, the most important factor is whether that philosophy is most supportive of the kind of graduate student you want to be. That’s why my best advice for students visiting graduate programs is to look at the other students in the program. Ask yourself, “do these people look like me?” It’s two questions really. Do people like me go here and do I want to become someone like them? The question is not about whether the program places people or wields respect, but the kind of person you want to become now that you’re dedicating at least five more years of the prime of your life to making yourself into a sociologist.


    Jason Radford

    February 26, 2013 at 4:54 am

  12. That’s extraordinarily useful, Jason. Seriously.

    But can you talk a little bit about the differences between Chicago, Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, Notre Dame, and Minnesota? ;)


    Graham Peterson

    February 26, 2013 at 6:50 am

  13. Agreed, great comments Jason. That’s precisely how I made my decision. I looked at the training/program structure, the intellectual culture of faculty, and at the way the grad students talked about their work and about sociology. After a few visits, it quickly became clear to me which students I admired most, and the program structure I would thrive in.


    First year grad

    February 27, 2013 at 1:14 am

  14. To add girth to Jason’s comment, this article highlights that people tend to overestimate the value of quantitative benefits while underestimating the value of qualitative benefits. This makes the establishing of indifference points and estimating one’s own utility function quite difficult. People are thus likely to make non-optimal decisions in picking graduate programs when focused on the dollars.


    Graham Peterson

    February 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm

  15. One caveat to all this: don’t confuse “placement” with “treatment effect.” It’s entirely possible for a department to have great placements and actually have a *negative* treatment effect because they get the first draft picks every year and make them all a little bit worse. Fit and climate are much more important than rank.


    Steve Vaisey

    February 27, 2013 at 9:01 pm

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