With a little over a month to go before the PhD application deadline (get your apps in before December 15th, folks!), some students are still finalizing which programs they want to apply to. I know I’ve written many blog posts about how to choose a graduate program, but to be honest, applying to a PhD program is unique in some ways. With that in mind, I thought I’d focus on a few things that you should be thinking about as you select which PhD programs to apply to, and ultimately, how to choose which graduate program to ultimately attend.
- How you align with faculty. It’s certainly not uncommon to have research interests that don’t align perfectly with the work actively being done at Heller: if everyone was looking at how the same issue affects the same population using the same methodology, we’d all be doing the same research. It’s not uncommon for our students to have interests that don’t neatly fit into one of our concentrations (for example, students interested in Education Policy bridge both Children, Youth, and Families and Economic and Racial Equity), but still find plenty of faculty members to support their research interests. As part of your research into PhD programs, I would recommend browsing faculty in your program of interest and asking yourself, “Who would I want as my advisor? Who would I want to serve on my dissertation committee?” This, by the way, can be broader than just your specific issue: faculty who have worked with the population that you’re interested, or are using similar research methods, might still be a good fit for you, even if they’re investigating how a different policy problem affects that population. You can find PhD faculty as well as their areas of interest here.
- What network you want to build. As you move through the program, you’ll be building a professional network, not just with Heller faculty, but also with your cohort and within your concentration. This is a network that can assist you not only while you’re in the program, but after you leave the program as well. So, when trying to choose a program, I would ask yourself what kinds of people that you want to be helping you through this journey and beyond. Are students doing research in areas you’re interested? Are they working, or have they worked, at places that you’d be interested in working at after graduation? Does the community seem collaborative and supportive?
- The funding package. Make sure you read the fine print: At Heller, All full-time PhD students receive a funding package that includes all tuition and fees, the individual health insurance premium, and an annual stipend of $21,000 for the first four years of the program. One thing I would note, however, is that unlike many PhD programs, this funding package and stipend is not dependent on working as a teaching assistant or research assistant. Many of our PhD students, however, are interested in working as a research or teaching assistant (and I would say that most PhD students do work in one of those roles at some point during their program), but in those cases, students are paid directly, just like with any other job. Many other graduate programs may either a) not cover fees, which can be in the thousands of dollars, b) require you to work for a certain number of hours, which can inhibit your ability to work on other projects or manage your schoolwork, c) aren’t renewable/only for a year/is contingent on benchmarks that are unreasonable.
It’s easy to get caught up in a school’s prestigious name, a high ranking, or a too-good-to-be-true scholarship package. But a PhD program is a big commitment: you’ll likely be spending more time in your PhD program than you did in your undergraduate degree, so you want to make sure that it’s the right fit for you. Looking at these three things is a good start when it comes time to make this decision!