Tuesday, February 10, 2015

SK's guide to grad school visitation weekends

CJ here: A very interesting post by SK on "grad school visitations".

Thanks to Chemjobber, I spotted the "Guide to Grad School Visitation Weekends" on the chemistry subreddit.

Many moons ago, I too went through the grad school recruitment process, and there is so much I wish I had known then. I'll re-cap and expand upon some of the more salient points brought up in the reddit thread, and also include some gems that I think are important but have not yet been covered.

Getting into grad school is a big accomplishment for sure, and right now it's all "reimbursed economy class!" and "free drinks at a halfway decent bar/restaurant!" You're living high on the hog! But remember, the purpose of this visit is to figure out where you want to spend the next 5+ years (which is all but certain to have a profound effect on your future). You can and should absolutely have a TON of fun on a recruitment weekend, but remember that fun is a secondary objective.
  • If you are going to a visitation weekend, you are effectively a spy. Like, actually a spy. Ditch the connotations of a black leather catsuit and mission impossible winch system, because those are not for spies. A real spy is successful because they blend in - you have no idea they are spies. (At least, so I am told. I have never met one in person that I was aware of. A further testament to their spy-eyness.) You are there to extract as much information as possible, in a limited timeframe, and as politely as possible. The department you visit is (hopefully!) not going to actively mislead you, but they are going to to do their very best to 'tidy up the place' during your time there. The goal is to ask some necessarily hard questions to see what things are really like, without coming off as the jerk who just grilled everyone the whole time. You do want to make a good impression if you actually choose to come to this school.
  • Consider how the order of operations is presented, and what the real order is, i.e the operations the department will likely present is: You apply to the department, the department accepts you, the department offers you a visit and shows you around, you attend school and shop around, then you formally select a PI. The real order of things: you work for your PI, in their lab, which happens to be in the department. Catch my drift? Even though you have to jump through a few hoops before you actually settle into a lab, you should be zeroing in on who you want to work for as early as possible. This should ideally start during your visit, and it's important because...
  • Find out how grad students actually select a lab. This may seem trivial, but I assure you it is not. If all of the incoming first years get into the lab they want, it's no problem. If everyone can't get into the lab they want, then there is some jockeying for position to put students into remaining labs that fit their interests but also still have space. Unless you have several professors that you would LOVE to work for, it is the sad reality that some people wind up doing PhDs in labs that were their second or third choice by a pretty big margin. Is that how you want to spend 5 years? Don't be one of those people.
  • Another "fallacy" of the admissions process: selecting the project you work on is one of the last things you do as part of the admissions and grad school entry procedure. This has always struck me as a little backwards. When you get a chance to speak to professors, they're probably going to tell you about their interests, what they've done, and what they're currently doing now. Try to figure out what they want to do next. See if you can get a feel for the actual type of project on which you would work. You haven't even accepted an offer or joined their group, so some may be reluctant - you gotta play it cool. On the same theme, when it comes to meeting professors overall: ask the basics, because they are important. But outside the differences in their research, if you're asking basic questions, most professors will make their labs sound kind of similar (or at least, natural trade-offs. Big lab vs small lab, etc). You have to think outside of the box. Ask questions that have definite answers, and you will get much better data. eg "Most students graduate in 5.5 years" could mean what you probably think it means. Average of 5.5, with some standard deviation. Maybe it means "Well, yeah, most students graduate in 5.5 years. The second most graduate students graduate in 7." You're a scientist, right? Think of this as an exercise in experimental design.
  • Talking with grad students over recruitment: they will be more honest than professors. There is no guarantee they will be 100% honest. They'll hem. They'll haw. They usually try to be diplomatic about telling you that "Prof. Soandso is possibly the devil," and instead "Oh, Prof Soandso is tough. He's not for everyone, but some people really like him." Maybe they'll hint at things, but offer no useful follow up comments when asked directly. Sometimes there is pressure from the PI to bring in some new recruits, sometimes the pressure is self-imposed by grad students themselves - having newer students in the queue to help nudge senior students out of the lab. An actual quote from a current grad student: "we are going to do whatever it takes to get you to come to our university, to join our lab, so that we can graduate." So there it is. It's not everyone's mindset, but be aware that it's out there. As above, you have to ask questions that will draw out answers. Find out who is willing to keep it real with you, and who's just giving you a sales pitch. 
  • DO ask grad students about their day-to-day. Minutia may be boring, but it's what you're going to be doing most of the time in grad school. Cheesy as it sounds, part of grad school involves pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge. Try to find out if students can effectively do that without reinventing the wheel. Needlessly making cheap commercially available reagents (within reason), monkeying with frequently faulty equipment, or recycle everything like you're on an episode of "Hoarders" just steals time away from you making progress. Anyone who tells you that "it builds character" is either a chump, or they're lying. 
  • Don't talk about yourself too much. You're in, you don't need to impress anyone. Answer questions about your background honestly when asked, but don't gloat. Frankly, no matter how much of a hot-shot you are/were as an undergrad, the counter effectively resets to zero once you're in grad school.
  • Pay no mind to your peers. Be polite, of course, but you're going to run into people who obviously didn't get the "don't talk about yourself" memo. This isn't prison, and you don't need to fight the biggest opponent there to assert your dominance. That's for your first day on campus after you accept an offer. (Joking. Mostly.) 
  • Email someone. "Reaching out" they call it in the business, which is effectively code for "just ask, you idiot!" Pick a grad student or two - the more senior the better - in labs you're interested in (that you did not interact with over the visit weekend), and email them. Just ask if they mind if you ask them a few questions. If they agree, you're golden. If not, or if they don't respond, bugger off. Don't keep pestering the grad students, for they owe you nothing. And don't ask more than one or two people in the same lab, either. Grad students talk, and you'll be labeled as the weirdly over-eager kid who blew up the entire lab's inboxes.

If you're a frequenter here at Chemjobber, you'll be familiar with a lot of doom and gloom associated with grad school. Maybe you've read the exchanges with Vinylogous about mental health in grad school. It doesn't have to be this bad for you, but the honest truth is that everyone I've found on the other side of a PhD has said "it sucked, but I learned a lot." So, it's most likely going to suck. HOW it sucks is the variable part. You want to do everything possible early on so that when you're 4 years deep into your PhD it's sucking the right way. Stop snickering - if you get to talk to a senior student who hates everything about grad school and wants out, you'll see what I mean.

If you've already made your decision before attending any visit weekends, then that's great. Go out, have fun, and maybe you'll be surprised by a different school in the process. If you're actually using the visit weekends to help you choose, then happy hunting, and choose wisely. Picking a grad school once is easy, but undoing that decision to try somewhere else is a bit harder.


  1. "You want to do everything possible early on so that when you're 4 years deep into your PhD it's sucking the right way." Nailed it.

    I used to tell myself regularly in graduate school, "this is my life now." There's a kind of blindness that comes with the lifestyle—like "yes, I'm sitting here at 8:30 pm in the student union watching undergrad improv and writing things up, and that objectively sucks." Find something that excites you enough that you can ignore that objective suckitude, and just plunge yourself headlong into work. (Easier said than done.)

    1. Or the next level of suckitude, "it is 8:30 pm, I have 65 more Organic I quizzes to grade before morning and this undergrad has been whining in my ear about their Organic grade since office hours at 3:30.".

    2. I guarantee he's a pre-med student. They are the worst.....whining about every single little point like med-school admissions depended on it.

    3. I've had great success with looking the little weasels in the eye and saying, "You know, the more you annoy me, the harder I grade..." Of course, the dumber ones might complain up the ladder, so do it judiciously - the one class where we had premeds and quizzes (and way too much of both), the profs didn't want to deal with their crap either, so we did as we pleased.

  2. Testy McTesterson.

  3. "…everyone I've found on the other side of a PhD has said "it sucked, but I learned a lot." "
    Survivor bias. The attrition rate in grad school is pretty high, and I imagine many of those people wouldn't recommend grad school. I made it all the way to the end and got my PhD and I would only recommend grad school to someone I really hate. Grad school sucks, but the most infuriating thing is it doesn't have to suck. The sucking comes from sources you can't really control. Most of the people who washed out were drinking the Koolaid and thinking happy thoughts right up until they had a mental breakdown and quit. It's the disgruntled pessimists like me who seem to make it farther, because we run on pure spite and there's no motivating force more powerful than that.

    1. "because we run on pure spite and there's no motivating force more powerful than that. "

      that, or, in my case, my complete lack of skills outside of research and teaching in the sciences. And here I thought these may lead to a lucrative career. If only I had drunk the Koolaid, I would be a richer, happier man.

  4. I've always been partial to Vinylogous' treatise on the subject:


  5. I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed grad school and never tell people that it sucked. I got to do lots of exciting chemistry, meet cool people, publish papers, go to conferences, and get paid (albiet a small amount) to get my degree. I had good support from my wife, family, and friends, and never had to worry about making ends meet, so I imagine that helped my mental stability. I had maybe one or two moments where I was really nervous (passing cumulative exams and my research proposal), but I knew that my adivsor had my back. Our lab was really laid back and as long as you got results, you didn't have to be there 10-12 hrs. per day or weekends. I know a lot of people have bad experiences, but I also know that I'm not the only one who had an overall positive experience.

  6. I don't usually comment here unless I feel I have some unique contribution to make but I feel it is important that offer my perspective. As a sixth year grad student in a synthesis lab, I will say that grad school has been hard. There have definitely been long hours, plenty of frustration, and some serious low points. I have also loved my time here. I have learned to think in a way that I don't think I would have been forced to develop anywhere else. I have spent over five years doing what I love (most days) to do. I have had a supportive lab of wonderful friends and a PI who has been both a great mentor and a patient boss. I have also had a loving wife and am raising kids now on a grad-student stipend (it can be done if you are careful and are willing to sacrifice some of your wants for things that are more important to you.) While I do have a job lined up after graduation and that colors my view somewhat, my lab mates would attest to the fact that at no point have I regretted my decision to come to grad school. I would do it all again if I could and I think the PI that I chose to work for has made all of the difference.

  7. Take this with you:


  8. a) If they treat you to something extra special (i.e. paid trip to a local amusement park or big concert or both on the Saturday).this means they really, really want you. OTOH, they may really, really want you because (1) a certain PI has lots of grant money but, (2) said PI has a group that is totally dysfunctional and can't hold people...

    b) Point blank ask the time slot when each research group holds their group meeting so you know in advance whether the PI you're thinking of is the type to hold them on Saturday morning at 8 AM.