5 Things to Ask on Your (Grad School) Campus Visit

Posted on Posted in Graduate School, Teaching

It’s that glorious time of year– graduate school decision season! You submitted your carefully-crafted applications to the social science or humanities programs of your dreams back in December or January, and waited through a long and frigid winter (okay, not really), and finally– FINALLY– got some good news in the form of “fat envelopes” earlier this month (do they still do fat envelopes, or is it a long email now?). Now you’ve been invited for the all-important campus visit to give you a chance to get to know your potential future mentors and colleagues. Regardless of whether you were accepted to one program or twenty, you have some important decisions to make, and should aim to make the most of these visits. Ask questions. Lots of them.

When I went in to graduate school, I was completely clueless about what I should be asking. None of my family members have been to graduate school, and academia functions differently from other industries (or at least, appears to on first glance). It’s certainly important to consider what intellectual or scholarly resources will be available to you in any given program (do faculty interests align enough with yours? too much with yours? what are the library collections/ facilities like? what’s the process of achieving candidacy like?). However, there are also some practical considerations that I think all prospective graduate students need to make, but which might be eclipsed by the starry-eyed promise of a “life of the mind.” Here is my advice, from the fairly recent hindsight of spending nine years in a social science PhD program.

1) What funding is available, how many years will it last, and what options are available to me when it runs out?

It is entirely possible to graduate with a PhD and zero debt. It is also entirely possible to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (whether of savings or loan money) to get your degree. Recent reports discuss both extremes. Karen Kelsky over at The Professor Is In collected thousands of individual stories– some of massive amounts of debt, some of insane luck, some of incredibly hard work– in a spreadsheet.

When I applied to graduate school, I assumed that you paid for it the same way people paid for undergrad: scholarships, loans, or savings. I had no idea what people were talking about when they talked about funding, and I definitely had no idea that it was something that could be negotiated (in some cases). In some countries, PhD positions are advertised and filled the same way any job is. However, in the US PhD students are often conflated with college students, obscuring the ways they actually function as employees (sometimes literally, sometimes virtually) of the university.

Contrary to the assumptions I made as a prospective grad student, there are two main ways to fund your PhD education: teaching assistantships (in which you are literally an employee of the university), or fellowships (in which you are virtually an employee of the university in that they’re paying you a stipend to do research. It’s kind of like a scholarship, but more specialized). Ideally, you’d have a combination of the two. It’s nice to graduate with some teaching experience, but it’s also nice to have time to focus on your research without added obligations (and teaching– even as a TA– takes a LOT of time and effort). Not all programs can promise that you’ll get TA positions or fellowships.

If there is no funding from the department or university, the other alternative to taking out loans is applying for an external fellowship. There are several “big” ones, and even more “small” ones, but most are very competitive. They are definitely not guaranteed.

A faculty member in my grad department explained to me why it was “better” not to guarantee funding to graduate students– it prepared them for the cutthroat process of applying for research funding as a future faculty member. There is some validity to this argument– yes, applying for grants is a skill that you need to acquire for a future academic career, and which is best acquired through practice. Yes, having a competitive element to funding arguably encourages (ahem, forces) students to improve their research plans in pretty much every way. And yes, having some fancy external research grants headlining your CV demonstrates to future employers that you’ve got grant-writing chops and can bring in that little bit of extra prestige (at least, in theory).

But as a (hypothetical) faculty member, you also have the security of a salary, insurance, and likely a retirement plan with matching contributions from your employer. If you don’t get those grants, chances are you’ll still get some money from your department to do your research. Most importantly, you have a roof over your head and you’re not going to starve. As a graduate student, you don’t generally have these securities unless you have a partner with a career (entirely possible). It is important to decide how much risk (i.e. potential debt) you’re willing to assume in order to earn your degree. Funding is a polarizing topic, and ultimately how it plays in to your choices about grad school is totally dependent on your personal situation.

Here are some possible funding scenarios, and additional things you should consider if you’re confronted with one of them:

  • Nothing at all. Students are expected to take out loans. I’ve never heard of a PhD program that came right out and admitted that they had no support available to their students. That said, you might tactfully ask current graduate students if there’s an unofficial/ unspoken policy of expecting people to use loans to fund themselves. Maybe wait until the beer and wine is flowing a bit more freely. If people report that most students have taken out loans, you should carefully consider the total amount you anticipate borrowing against your possible future earnings– google for the average starting salaries in your field– before you decide whether it is worth it to you to pursue the program. There are, of course, other options, including maintaining an outside job while you study or applying for external fellowships.
  • Nothing guaranteed, but the potential for a “partial” tuition waiver and small stipend through teaching assistantships. A partial tuition waiver means you will still have to pay a chunk of tuition, which can be quite expensive. Chances are your stipend will not cover this and living expenses. You may have to find additional employment or take out a loan. On the plus side, it may be easier to win smaller external fellowships than the “big” ones, which could be sufficient to fill in the gaps in funding.
  • Nothing guaranteed, but the potential for teaching assistantships that pay for full tuition and provide a stipend. This sounds great (and potentially it is!), but you need to ask some more questions. Things like: “how many graduate students each year are turned down for teaching assistantships?” and “is there a limit on the number of terms I am allowed to TA?”. You’ll also want to ask about the availability of health insurance and additional grants or fellowships that you can apply for at the university level (as well as external ones). IMO and experience, it’s totally do-able to get through a graduate program with this level of funding. You have to plan very carefully, you have to be resourceful in searching out external grants/ fellowships/ paid internships, and you have to work your butt off, as with the two aforementioned scenarios.
  • Guaranteed funding through some combination of teaching assistantships and internal fellowships that pay for full tuition and provide a stipend. Great! But there are still questions you should ask. First, how many semesters are guaranteed? Are there additional university-wide grants or fellowships that you can apply for to extend your funding? After the guaranteed funding has ended, are there other TA positions available? Is health insurance included as part of the package? Does this include any research or travel funding? (And I should note, full funding doesn’t mean you get to sit back and relax… you’re still working your butt off ;))

Other things to ask about funding:

  • Is there funding to cover living expenses over the summer?
  • Is there funding to cover research expenses over the summer?
  • Is there funding to attend conferences?
  • Is there mentorship available for grant-writing (which you will want to do even if you have captured the unlimited no-strings-attached internal funding unicorn)?

For more on funding, grad school, and finances, read this interview over at Savage Minds, which makes excellent points about earnings potential and long-term financial repercussions.

2) What kinds of career paths do your graduates pursue? Are faculty prepared to offer mentoring for non-academic career paths? 

PhD programs in the social sciences and humanities traditionally prepare you for a career as a college professor. And the job market for college professors is, let’s put it gently, not the most robust right now. You can thoroughly depress yourself with the burgeoning genre of “quit lit“– providing detailed and often angry accounts of why the author decided to leave academia. Or you can go in to a graduate program with a pragmatic approach and acknowledge that, in the process of training for a particular career, you’re going to pick up a variety of skills that can also transfer to other careers.

An excellent thing to ask– either faculty or graduate students– is what kinds of careers program alumni have pursued. Sometimes this information is available on the department website. Alumni who have pursued careers outside of academia can provide valuable advice and networking opportunities if you opt to go the same route.

In an interview recently, I was completely caught off-guard by a question about how I would mentor graduate students for non-academic careers. Don’t get me wrong, this is an excellent question, I was just pleasantly surprised to be asked it in an interview for an academic job. I think ultimately it reflects well on that program that they are thinking about the future employment prospects of their students. When you’re considering graduate programs, that’s a quality you want an abundance of. Does the program build in opportunities for career mentorship? When you ask questions about future employment at your campus visit, do faculty get defensive, or are they encouraging?

Other things to consider: does the department make it possible for students to pursue internships with governmental or research organizations, either during the summer or during the academic year? Does the university have any “alt-career” mentorship programs geared toward PhD students, either through the graduate school or through individual centers on campus? All of these things will provide you with networking opportunities and practice in using different professional vocabularies, something that’s valuable whether you stay in academia or venture into the “real world.”

(Warning: campus career centers are often woefully underprepared to help PhD students in the social sciences or humanities, whether for academic or non-academic jobs. The kind of mentorship I’m talking about was a dean’s initiative at my graduate university, implemented through the “Graduate Student Success” office.)

3) Are there opportunities for graduate students to participate in departmental governance? 

Understanding how an academic department works is an important part of your professionalization if you plan to pursue an academic or administrative career (not to mention contributing to the all-important “interpersonal skills” section of a non-academic resume). It also, in my opinion, indicates a certain level of respectful rapport between faculty and graduate students that means they see you as a future colleague, which is part of a healthy educational environment.

Participation in departmental governance can take a variety of forms. At the most basic level, you should ask if there is a graduate student interest group that governs itself. This would be within the department (different from the union, discussed below), addressing things like the cleanliness of shared workspace, organizing practice job talks, and making sure the grad student lounge has a working printer.

The next level up would be whether a graduate student representative is allowed to attend any faculty meetings– both to share graduate student concerns and to get a grasp on the major issues facing the department. In my grad program, we were allowed a representative at relevant faculty meetings– i.e. meetings where things that concerned graduate student life would be discussed. That’s pretty generous in the world of departmental governance.

At the highest level, you should ask if graduate students participate in major decisions like hiring new faculty. In my grad department, students had a collective vote in hiring decisions, a representative on hiring committees, as well as group meetings with job candidates. In some other departments, graduate students are allowed to participate in interviews, and may even have individual (rather than collective) votes in the hiring decisions.

4) Is there a graduate student union? 

A graduate student union isn’t a make-or-break thing, in my opinion, but it’s a good indication that graduate students at that university enjoy a higher standard of living than their un-unionized peers. At my former university, the union was responsible for our amazingly wonderful free health insurance, dental insurance (let me repeat: we had dental), and a wage that kept pace with inflation and allowed us to live reasonably comfortably in a college town. This is all awesome, awesome stuff. It should be basic, take-for-granted stuff, but it’s not. So you need to ask about it.

By comparison, a friend at an un-unionized university had health “insurance” that could only be used at university facilities, and for which he had to pay out of pocket.

Regardless of whether the graduate students are unionized, you should ask about the availability of health insurance. Do you have to pay for it? Will it cover you during international travel (especially relevant if your research requires international travel)? Will you have to pay to “extend” your coverage over the summer?

You should also ask about stipends versus cost of living near the university. You may have to do your own googling for that, but if your stipend is $1000/month and average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment is $1200/ month… well, that’s not a great situation.

5) What kind of work space is available for students?

This was not high on my list of concerns going in to graduate school, because I prefer to work at home and didn’t really care whether or not I had an office. But it became a very VERY big deal for pretty much every other student in my department during my last year of graduate school. Office space was available only for students who had completed their research and were writing up– there was limited collective work space for other students.

Again, I didn’t really mind… during my first three years of grad school, I preferred to work at home with my cats, anyway. But if you have a chaotic living situation (loud roommates, children, or needy pets, perhaps) or just want that extra distinction between “work” and “home” and need a space to lock up your books and computer on campus, office space is something you’ll be interested in. And it’s not a given.

Incidentally, that same friend at the un-unionized university I mentioned above had a gorgeous tower office overlooking the main campus quad. And a leather chair. Trade-offs, I guess!

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Red Flags

Run fast and far if you encounter these warning signs. The best case scenario is that they are a result of poor planning or poor communication. The worst case scenario is a toxic departmental environment. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for a successful or enjoyable graduate school experience.

1) Not a single faculty person shows up to the student-faculty mixer during recruitment/ prospective student weekend. Ugh, really? REALLY?! Do they even want students in their department? (And yes, I’ve heard of this happening.)

2) Faculty are unavailable to meet with you one-on-one. They might have a legit reason, like being sick (or having a sick family member), or being on sabbatical, or being out of town. But if multiple faculty members turn you down for meetings during recruitment weekend, the same as above applies.

Relatedly: if you have your heart set on working with ONE person, that’s problematic on your end. Meeting with one faculty member should not make or break your grad school choice, because you’ll need to cultivate a variety of mentorships over the course of your education.

3) The graduate students spend the whole time complaining. I mean, yeah, graduate students gripe. It’s what they do. But they should also express some positive sentiments, especially when asked point-blank questions about the quality of the program. For example, “How is your relationship with your advisor?” might yield answers such as, “My advisor is really great! She applied for this grant last summer and hired me as a research assistant.” Or “I’m really interested in [obscure time period + obscure region] art, and was really lucky to find an expert in [related time period/ region] art here to work with” rather than “I’m not sure, I’ve only spoken to them once in the last three years.” You get the idea. If they seem unusually miserable/ malnourished, or are vocally complaining about big issues (like not having insurance/ a place to live) that’s a very bad sign.

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Fellow graduate school alumni: what do you wish you had asked about?

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