Here are just a few of the commonly overlooked considerations that you should think about when looking at graduate schools and why they really are important:
- What role will you play in the design and execution of your research?
- How many students will be working under your major advisor?
- Even if you are getting paid, are the professors winning grants?
- What do the students have to say?
These questions often seem secondary to simply getting accepted and paying for school. Unfortunately, many students find out how important they really are the hard way - after they have already enrolled at a new institution.
The goal of most graduate students is to either publish their research after completing (or even during) school, or to simply use their research as a way to prove their talents to potential employers or other schools. When you finish graduate school and apply for a job or decide to go on for a Ph.D., your graduate research plays a large role in getting you hired or admitted. This is why it is important to know your involvement in the planning and execution of your thesis research. There are always exceptions, but usually the best way to get the most out of your research is to make it your research. Be involved in the idea process, the planning of experimental methods, the research and the conclusions. Well, isn't that how it always works? Not really. Graduate students may find that they are not really involved in any particular research project, but instead simply do the tasks of the day for the laboratory or professor and eventually a “thesis” is culled from this work. Situations like this make it difficult for students to conduct high quality research. Talk to a few professors about specific ideas they have for future student research.
At some institutions, professors will serve as major advisor to many students. When visiting schools, you may speak to professors who have 10-12 graduate students working under them. It is not unheard of for a prospective student to hear that a professor will allot 20 minutes of time a month to meet with him. In general, this is undesirable. When you begin your research, there will be a lot to learn and you will usually need to spend time with your major advisor going over methods, equipment, ideas, etc. Having a major advisor who cannot give any time to you will often make it very difficult to get research of any quality started and completed. As always, there are exceptions, but this type of situation may make life more difficult than you might imagine. Again, talk to some professors before you apply to a school to get a feeling for how crowded the labs are and how many students each of the professors mentor. Fortunately, we do not have this problem in our program. Because of the large number of fine researchers and laboratories on Fort Johnson, many students work directly with their major advisor almost every day.
Almost every new graduate student in the marine biology program at The College of Charleston is offered the opportunity to accept a teaching assistantship. The question of whether an institution can offer you financial support is obviously important. However, it is also important that someone is offering the researchers you will work under support too. Research can be very expensive, especially if it involves things like taking ships to sea or buying new equipment. This money often comes from writing and winning grants. As a marine biologist you will learn more about this process than you ever wanted to know. If the professor or laboratory you work with cannot find support, your research may get put on hold, or even canceled. This does happen! It can be a sensitive subject, but ask. Remember, it's your graduate degree.
Finally, ask the students! If anyone knows the answers, it's them. Contact a few second or third year students to find out what they think. This may be the most important advice of all. Your contact at the school should help you with this. If you are going to call at all, make sure to call more than one student.
This page points out some of the things that could happen. Overall, graduate school is a great experience. Just make sure you take the time to choose the right school.