Picking a Ph.D. Program

In the United States, most graduate schools require that you accept their offer for employment or study by April 15 to begin in the summer or fall. With that deadline just three short weeks away, I thought now would be the prime time to help you make the right choice. I am a second year Ph.D. student who continued in the same lab where I was employed and studied for my Master’s. I have a great advisor (the main professor I work for) and wish that every student gets the same.


Students can unknowingly fall prey to professors who made important, mind-blowing discoveries, are well known throughout the university or community in which they reside, or maintain well-respected and huge laboratories. While these people can produce impressive work, think twice before selecting them as your mentor for the duration of a doctoral program. Someone who is constantly being interviewed or participating in numerous, cutting-edge research projects can be extremely hard to get ahold of when you are looking for guidance. Your advisor is someone who you will need to work with for the next 3-5 years or more, so pick someone whose personality aligns well with yours.

Stray from choosing a scientist for their papers or scientific stardom. Be aware that some toxic advisors are on their best behavior during student visits and can become very difficult once you commit or face challenges in your research. Here is an article about an abusive professor who was described by some as charismatic on campus (warning: article contains disturbing details). Interview former students, pick up on oddly silent or small labs, and definitely read any articles you can about your advisor or campus culture. If you need to be able to potentially switch labs or professors if your situation becomes toxic, make sure there are other labs you can switch to or other accountable people in your department that you can report to. I cannot stress this enough. Choose friendliness over fame.

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A great program will help you finish your degree. On the other hand, a sign of a toxic advisor is a professor who does not want you to finish that degree, and therefore, does not want you to succeed. There can be many motivations for someone to do this, none of which make sense, but I will try to explain. Sometimes professors get comfortable with having a smart student to help them produce papers, process samples, teach classes, etc. Eventually they realize that allowing this student to graduate will leave them with too much work, and so they begin to stall them, and stop giving them the guidance that they need to learn and graduate on time. Graduating on time (aka “finishing your degree”) is incredibly important and should be your main goal as a Ph.D. student. You are there to learn, but staying too long in a Ph.D. program can be financially damaging and means you are potentially missing out on opportunities outside of academia. Your advisor should express wanting to help you meet your deadline and learning goals. A program with specific rules surrounding this is a green flag! My current program has deadlines for taking the preliminary and qualifying exams and for defending the dissertation. While these can be stressful because they are putting a time constraint on students, they can also signal to the university which professors are potentially holding students back, such as with this case at UW-Madison.


After looking out for the points that I already mentioned, you will want to make sure you are in a good program. Graduate school is different than college because you cannot simply get a general education – you need to become an expert in a certain subject area. Sometimes that requires moving across the country. For instance, if you are studying coral reefs then you should consider relocating to a school with access to a living coral reef. If you are studying coastal engineering you should consider programs on the West or East Coasts. Additionally, though some schools may not be in proximity to certain resources, they may have long-standing research abroad programs or partnerships with organizations that can help with research. Competitive schools will likely offer higher stipends because they have more funding, so go somewhere that is good at what you want to study, but that will also be happy to have you. Consider whether the stipend is suitable for living costs and what other expenses you might incur living there.

Despite being aware of red flags, some students still have bad experiences in graduate school. Your safety and health are always the most important. If you are in a dangerous situation, consider leaving and getting outside help (i.e., therapist or lawyer) such as in the Smithsonian case.

When I was considering graduate schools, I actually only had one offer. It turned out to be the institution and program that were perfect for me at the time. Consider yourself lucky if you are spoiled for choice. Let me know what criteria you used below!

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