These quotes are some of the responses made on the Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.  The quotes are sorted by discipline.  You can see the response from other disciplines.  These quotes supplement an article of advice for selecting a doctoral program.  Students responded to the question:  "Knowing everything that you know now, what advice would you give others entering or in the early years of graduate school? "

The quotes are sorted into six categories.  Generally, there are a half dozen comments per category, the alternating colors are different student's comments.  These categories were applied by us, as we read through the thousands of comments.  They are the most common categories of advice pertaining to the selection of a doctoral program.  The frequency with which various kinds of advice emerged varies by discipline.  You can see the relative distribution here.



Know yourself and know what doctoral study entails

17.9% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Make sure this is what you want to do.  Have a strong idea of what the field is about, not just vague generalities.  Make sure it fits in with your life goals. Know what academia is like; ask around.

Choose your advisor carefully; try many out if you can.  Choose an advisor you get along with academically and personally.  Pick a department where you could work with many of the faculty, not just one.  Get to know the faculty early.


Don't expect grad school to be like undergrad schooling.  They are completely different.  All is not realize this in grad school. 


Be sure that you are educated about the challenges that you face in your field of study, both in graduate school and beyond  (e.g., licensure requirements, competition for jobs), and feel strongly that this career path is worth all of the challenges and potential risks.

As frightening as the negative information may be, it will be very useful to you in deciding what program to attend, if any, and what sub-specialty to  pursue.  More information up front is likely to make your graduate education more beneficial, as well as more pleasant.


For those thinking about entering grad school, I would caution them against it unless they are quite certain it is what they want to do.  They should be “in the know” about the kind of work their graduate studies require (e.g., long, solitary hours) and what career opportunities exist for those in their field, because it is often not as rosy a picture as  people might believe.  In my area, jobs are scarce, low-pay; competition is fierce.  It is not enough to be interested in the subject matter.  For example, I love my subject but do not care for the research process.  This leaves me in a difficult position in a program that prioritizes research and publishing over teaching and other more applied practices.   

It is also important to be certain, because grad programs (at least mine) can be very unstructured, thus requiring students to be independent, self-disciplined, and focused.  One must be able to provide his/her own structure and organization.  The flexibility of an unstructured program can be good for some people, allowing for freedom and creativity, but it can decrease productivity and increase anxiety.    


Be sure that it is worth it to complete education beyond the Master's degree.  I found out that in my field, Master's level practitioners can do almost as much as doctoral level practitioners, and they may actually be more marketable.


Make sure you understand that a doctorate is a very specialized degree--it is NOT simply an advanced liberal arts degree, which will influence what you can do with it afterwards.


Realize that you are not on a quest for Truth but that this phase of your career is only a passage and not the end.  The best advice got from my father was don't worry about failing out for no one really fails out of grad school.  The main reason that would keep you from graduating is despair.  Grad school is mainly a test of perseverance and endurance.


Investigate the program thoroughly

20.1% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Be sure to do plenty of research about the institution, department, and advisor with whom you plan on working with before making such a serious long-term commitment to join that department and work with that advisor.  Sometimes students (like me) are so excited to get into a great institution (based on rankings) that they'll settle on who they work with and what research area.


Meet with many graduate students in the departments they are considering.  I'd tell them to ask these students questions about their research, their interests outside of the department, faculty attitudes towards students, and the feel of the graduate student community.  New students should be sure they are entering a program that will satisfy them both intellectually and personally.  (Also, I'd tell them to ask about drop-out rates and student placement upon program completion).


Better explore the programs they are interested in attending and to look for programs that best fit their focus.  In my field, most programs claim to be built on the scientist-practitioner model; however, there is very little practice in most programs.  This is a problem for me because I am oriented toward applied research and consulting.  Select a program that best fits your interests and career focus.


Make sure you select an institution that meets your needs. 

Speak with a faculty member about the specifics of research and mentoring possibilities before accepting a position.

Consider the demographic makeup of the town before entering a program.

Be honest with yourself about the level of commitment you can offer to your educational career. 

Speak openly about funding issues. 

Ask as many questions as you can so that you can make an informed decision.


Find out whether you have guaranteed funding (even in the summers), and for how many years.  Also, find out whether tuition is waived or not.

Examine the publication history of the professor you are choosing as your advisor.  Has that person published recently and regularly?  Does that person put their graduate students on as authors?

Find out what the average time is for how long students take to graduate (our average is 7 years -- ouch!).


Students should be very clear about the type of program they are attending.  The focus may be research, practice or a combination -- they should know if their interests are compatible.  Also, they should be familiar with the research interests of all faculty in the program and be comfortable with the framework and/or orientation of the faculty.


I wasn't aware of all the requirements of graduate school, including prelims and internship.  I would recommend that they talk to people in the graduate field they are interested in to find out what sorts of requirements there are. 


Find out as much as possible about the reputation and resources of the universities they are applying to. 

Find out as much as possible from students already in the program. 


Understand the job market

11.7% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Find out what higher ed is and can do for you first--before even finishing an undergraduate degree.  Complete any assessments on your interests and life goals.  If you go into higher ed, anticipate where you'd like to end up and do as much research as possible (different jobs, faculty roles and responsibilities, institutional cultures.) 

Pick up as many ancillary skills as possible--management training, business stuff (budgets, administration), grant writing, teaching, etc.   


Take a careful look at the job opportunities at the end, and be realistic about the economic cost/benefit tradeoffs for your training.  I had my head in the sand and am regretting it a bit now.  My future earning potential simply will not make up for not being able to begin my career until I'm in my 30's. 


Don't look to your advisor for career advice if you don't plan to work in academia as a career.  With this in mind, expect to take personal initiative to carve your own career path and create your own professional networks.


Make sure you really want to be a professor (including teaching, research, etc).  Otherwise, it is not worth it financially to go to graduate school.  I really enjoyed my grad program, but now that I am finishing I'm not certain I will enjoy being a professor.  It's a rather high-pressure job, with low financial compensation compared to other jobs that require advanced degrees.


Keep an open mind with regard to career options. There are a number of academic career options in industry worth considering.  


Understand and get funding

9.5% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Figure out funding for the entire duration of the program before you start, don't just assume that it will magically materialize after the first few years.


If possible, insure your funding for at least five years before you agree to enter a program.

Talk to current and recent students who work with your advisor.


Keep on top of financial opportunities when you hit dissertation stage.  I didn't find out about many dissertation fellowships until I was well into, or even finished with, the dissertation.  I looked for assistantships available within the school, rather than fellowships available from outside sources. 


Make sure you know where your funding is coming from.  Make sure there is real support for your research: facilities, resources, assistance. 


Obtain as much outside funding as you can, but do work on an RA with your advisor if you can.


Funding, funding, funding!  Find schools that offer full support.


Find out whether you have guaranteed funding (even in the summers), and for how many years.  Also, find out whether tuition is waived or not. 


Select your advisor carefully

30.7% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


Do lots and lots of research on your potential advisors before selecting grad schools to apply for enrollment.  Too many applicants pick the region and the school first, then look for a faculty member who will fit in that school.


I would suggest that if they want to get done in a timely manner they should try to choose an advisor (or switch to an advisor) who has a good track record of getting people through the program.  At my school this often tends to be the profs who are most active in publishing.

It’s also important to remember that everyone has some sort of problem/issue with their advisor (at least everyone in my program!)  It's important to keep some perspective on which problems are major and which are a mere nuisance/part of the “process.”


My program assigns each student a faculty advisor at the time of admission; your progress through the program is almost entirely dependent on that mentor.  The advice I would and do give entering students is to give the greatest weight to the working relationship with their advisor, over the reputation of the program, funding available, the reputation of the program, funding available, and the mentor's reputation and productivity.  All of these things matter little if your advisor is unavailable, uninterested, and unhelpful in facilitating your development as a scholar and professional in the field.


Choose your advisor carefully; try many out if you can.  Choose an advisor you get along with academically and personally.  Pick a department where you could work with many of the faculty, not just one.  Get to know the faculty early.


Find faculty who are studying areas of interest to you, and who have a working style similar to your own (i.e., is it a self-driven environment, a collaborative one, or a very directive one?)


Take responsibility as much as you can to get what you want out of your program.  If your advisor doesn't know about something you are interested in, pursue it yourself.  Be proactive in shaping your career.  Also, try to find an advisor who will be concerned with your career -- one who will put you in contact with important people, and give you opportunities you couldn't develop on your own. 


Make sure you select an advisor that you are comfortable with, or change advisors if it doesn't work out.  I changed areas and advisors at the beginning of my third year.  This slowed me down but I have learned more and developed marketable skills as a result of this change.  In addition, I expect to collaborate with my advisor for many years following my Ph.D.  This is such an important relationship and will determine your future success.


Pick your advisor carefully!  A good relationship with your advisor makes it possible to put up with the difficulties (personal and academic) that *everyone* faces in graduate school.   


Given that some faculty view you as a source of labor to advance their research, and do not make explicit what their expectations are, make sure that you know the faculty member that you are being assigned to quite well.   


Have 2 co-advisors in case one doesn't work out--it leaves you less vulnerable.


Take time off between undergraduate and PhD studies

7.3% of the psychology students surveyed offered advice about this topic.


My advice would be not to come to graduate school right out of undergrad and to be absolutely sure that it is what you want.  One should have experience in the field and working in a lab with grad students to know whether it is the right decision.  It is very difficult and the only way through is to be very internally motivated because there is little emotional or other kind of support, and you can hardly live on the extremely low pay.  Also work with someone whose work you really like because it is easiest to just do the same work -- you'll finish much faster. 


I took five years off between undergraduate and graduate school and I think it was very helpful for me.  I worked in many different jobs and realized I enjoyed research most, so now I don't ever second-guess my decision to come to graduate school.  It also helped me feel more confident about my ideas and actions because I was already comfortable being in a responsible position.  Many people think they will never go back to school if they "get out of the deep" for awhile, but for me, it made it easier to go back and stay in the program once I started graduate school again.  Having the 5 years off allowed me to get some things out of my system.


Take time off.  Don't go straight from being an undergrad to a grad student.  Take at least a year off and do something completely unrelated to your field of study just for fun or do something that will help you choose between 2 fields of interest or do something boring but lucrative so that you will start grad school with some money but knowing you want to be in grad school away from that boring job.  I wish I had taken time off!


Take time before entering grad school and be a research assistant in a big-time lab.  See what it's really like and what kind of questions you'll really get to answer. 


Make sure that graduate school is the path that is calling you.  Make sure that academia is something you can see yourself doing in the future (as a career). If you're not sure whether you want to go to grad school or not, take some time off and do something else, whether for fun or for work.  See if you like being outside of the academic setting.


Quotes from  other disciplines.   | Article of advice for selecting a doctoral program | Distribution of quotes in all fields. | Survey of Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.