How to Decide Which PhD Program Offer to Accept When you Have Multiple Offers

Hi people! It’s that time of the year when acceptances are rolling in from Ph.D. programs and excitement is bubbling in the hearts of recipients. Someone I am mentoring (my God, does this read as pretentious as it sounds?) told me she received an acceptance into her first choice PhD program! Such fantastic news. I am very happy for her. The visiting/open day (or whatever it is called now) will be happening soon. For those who don’t know much about the process, it’s a day when grad programs invite accepted students to come visit their program after being accepted but before deciding whether to in fact enroll.  They understand that prospective students may have 3 or 4 or 5 (or even more for some lucky people) programs to choose from and need information to make a decision. Part of attending the grad students day/visiting/open day is gathering that information.

My mentee wanted to know if I had any advice or suggestions for questions she could ask professors/students about their departments. Why yes, I do! I have of course replied her with as much advice as I had, but then the idea came to write this on a broader platform for anyone out there needing similar advice. First of all, this is a fantastic position to be in. It’s a great problem to have: deciding which of the great programs to attend. You should approach it from that position of privilege. It’s time for the programs to woo you and seduce you. But, don’t be caught in the trap of the seduction. I will tell you why and then how below.

You should not be caught in the trap because you are going to spend the next four, five, six, (or for some unlucky people, even more) years in that program. It is an important decision to make. It may even determine your future career, but I’m getting ahead of myself. In a lot of ways, it is not very different from the decision about who to marry. Here too, in the “dating” stage while they are on their best behavior, there can be a fog that prevents you from seeing who they really are. But like any wise person, if you’re patient enough you will try as much as possible to collect pertinent data that empowers you to see through the smoke and mirrors and make the best decision. Here are some indicators you need to collect data on:

1) Funding: The most important thing to know here is to NEVER EVER EVER EVER choose a PhD program that is not funded. As you already know, the Ph.D. is not some gateway to making bank (I am on the other side and can tell you this for free). Getting a Ph.D. is not a guarantee to a good life or a financially buoyant life.  It's our physician counterparts that are that lucky not us. The warped part is all those years you spend in grad school could be used to work, earn money, build wealth, and save money for your retirement. The Ph.D steals all that from you. It would be abhorrent to then pay for the opportunity cost of a Ph.D. Not to mention, as far as I know while in the Ph.D. program, you work with your faculty supervisors to produce knowledge. That should not be free labor, please. Even after a foundational guarantee of full funding for a number of years, ask whether they have additional funding for things like conferences or other professional growth. Do their students get external fellowships? What happens, if God forbid, it takes you much longer than [the guaranteed funded years] to complete your degree? If you want to do field research, are there opportunities, whether intramural or external funding for that? How do current students fund their field research? After the basic guaranteed funding for a number of years is taken care of, none of these additional questions are ultimately a deal breaker. It would just be helpful to know the situation and which program offers what as you make your decision.

2) The department itself. Talk to current students as much as you can. What is their feel of the program? Are they enjoying it? Do they feel supported? Talk to more than one person and make sure at least one of them is not white. During my program, I realized the white men were having such a swell time. And once I talked a [white male] colleague who touted our program as amazing and that "he was really enjoying our program", while I was completely depressed and shattered. We had the same “mentor” at the time, took the same classes; we were in the same program but our experiences were the complete opposite. These programs have a way of creating very safe spaces for white people. So if you’re not white, it would be helpful to get even deeper information. Now, these students you talk to are still in the department so they may not always be completely forthcoming (for fear of reprisal) so you would have to read in between the lines and pay attention to what they are NOT saying more than what they are saying.

3) Professors. Do professors work with students? Or are they more focused on their own career? My advisor was really really really dope about working with students and there was a demonstrated track record of this. This is really easy to prove so ask along. Do professors apply for grants with students? Have they published with students? How does this normally work? Apart from these, are professors even interested in grad students? What are their personalities like? Are they sociopaths? Psychopaths? Are they generally available to students? How do they talk to and behave around grad students? Let me be as nonspecific as possible: I heard of professors that would trash grad students in front of …well, another grad student. They would gossip about the students and say really mean and childish things,. Do the professors hate each other? Listen, I know from experience that when two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. Selah.

4) Now on to the question about whether a program has a professor that works in same areas as you. This one is tricky because even you are more likely to change your research interests. I just realized writing this that I didn’t *change* my own research agenda after getting into grad school. Huh. Totally unplanned and surprising, just knowing myself. However,  most people do change research interests and that’s fine. On the other hand, you don’t want to be in a program that has no professors doing work you want to do. That would be challenging. So make sure there are a couple of professors doing work at least tangentially related to what you do. It shouldn’t be just one professor because what if he or she leaves? So, ensure there are professors with works that align with yours, and maybe not necessarily a 100 percent match with what you do (again, my advisor works in different areas from me but we made it work since we at least had some overlapping interests).

5) Lifestyle. This one is VERY important. Come closer. Don’t put your life on hold because of the Ph.D. Take care of yourself. I don’t think I will ever do a grad school post without at least highlighting this. So check that these programs allow for life outside of phd-ing. I think you can get a feel from students too. Do they have other interests they are pursuing? This is not necessarily a deal breaker. And it’s something you can customize for yourself. It is important to live and enjoy as much as possible. Part of this is not feeling ashamed to select a program because it’s close to family. Or it's in an area with good schools for your kids. It may even mean choosing a slightly lesser ranked program but in the end, it is still just a degree. Not a life calling, not an anointing, not the be all end all, just a degree

6) Finally, where do their students end up? What do their students do after? Actually, first things first, what is the attrition rate? Attrition rates are already abysmal for phd programs generally, but is anyone at least finishing? How long does it take their students to finish? And finally, what do they do after? Is this the kind of program that frowns on opportunities outside academia? First, that’s lame. Second, that’s unrealistic. You can still decide to go to such a program, but know it will be a hard fight to navigate. So figure out where people go after graduating. It may not determine exactly where you land but may paint a good picture.

Alright, that’s it folks. That’s all I have. Listen, in the end you have to go with your own gut. You can’t ever connect the dots looking forward, it almost always only makes sense looking backwards. So if you’re a praying person, pray, have faith, and make a decision. The important thing is that you decide. You pick one.  Or maybe you even only have one admission, that’s perfect; you only need one anyway! 

We already have a post on how to succeed academically in grad school and planning for the academic year. So once you make your decision, make sure you check that out too.

Good luck! Exciting (and yes, frustrating) times ahead!



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