You Got In, Now What? My Personal Musings on Choosing a Graduate Program

WOOHOO, you did it! You got into a graduate program! You have decided to take the next step in your academic career, and your hard work has paid off. You have succeeded in being accepted into a program, or even several programs, and you are high on life! But after you come down from your burst of excitement and happiness…you may have some important decisions to make…

Which school are you going to accept? And worse, which schools are you going to turn down?

After recently facing this daunting next step, I wanted to shed my thoughts on the matter of choosing where to go for your next degree. However, before diving into the deep end, I fully disclose that I am not an authority on the matter and that I possess my own biased opinions on the subject matter. But perhaps my opinions can add perspective while you face your own decisions. In my experience, deciding which graduate program to accept came down to three pillars: Advisor, funding, and program rank! Others may argue that there are more things to consider, such as location or time-to-degree. Personally, I have found that the decision still comes down to those three criteria. You already know you like the programs you applied to and know that your research interests overlap with the faculty members in the department. Yet, narrowing your selection down to one school after being accepted can be difficult. Thus, for some hopeful clarity and guidance, here’s the ArcShark’s reasoning behind each pillar!

1: POTENTIAL ADVISOR! To begin, if you haven’t visited the school(s), start planning now! I personally did not visit ahead of the application process when I applied to M.A. programs. I was in the final semester of my undergraduate degree, and I frankly couldn’t afford to take time off of school to visit a school that may not accept me (nor did I have the money). Out of the seven schools I had applied to, I received two acceptances. I could not decide between the two schools, so I reached out to the graduate coordinators and arranged visits. As a side note: some schools do offer small funds for travel, some don’t, so take this into consideration when setting up visits and it is definitely worth asking the department’s graduate coordinator. After visiting both schools and talking with my potential advisors, my decision became clear as day. There was one advisor and program that I definitely clicked with, and actually visiting the university and department allowed me to visualize where I would be living for the next few years. During my PhD application cycle, I contacted and met with potential advisors during the spring and fall semesters leading up to application due dates. I cannot stress how important it is to chat with your potential advisors! Not only does it give them a chance to get to know you and your research, but it also allows you to see if you can actually work with them for the next five to eight years. That’s a LONG commitment! It’s like going from a first date into marriage! And you want that marriage to last during your tenure in that graduate program. Trust yourself when you are talking with a potential advisor. See how they respond to your proposed research and what opportunities they could provide for you. If I didn’t click with a potential advisor, I saved my money and did not apply to that program. And those conversations with your potential advisor can help make a decision on where to go for graduate school. In my case, I was accepted into three graduate programs, and I knew that I would have been thrilled to work with each potential advisor, thanks to my conversations and meetings with them. Thus, my ultimate advice is to visit your potential school or skype with your potential advisor – it can provide you with needed clarity.

2: SHOW ME THE MONEY – aka Funding! Plain and simple: You should not have to pay for your graduate studies! In my opinion, if you aren’t provided a form of funding, it is not worth taking out more student loans. Graduate school is stressful enough without the burden of paying tuition and rent. So, if you are stuck choosing between two graduate programs and one provides funding and the other doesn’t – the ArcShark says follow the money! If none of the programs offer funding, I suggest looking into alternative forms of funding (many other university departments hire graduate assistants) or potentially apply the following year for the hope of securing a funding offer (some programs have seperate application forms for funding). If both programs offer you money, compare the packages. How much is your monthly stipend? How much does it cost to live where the university is located? Can you afford to live on that stipend? How long is the funding guaranteed (read the fine print: 1 year guaranteed with the possibility of renewal for the following years is only 1-year on paper)? What kind of stipulations are placed on the funding? Is health/dental insurance included? Use these questions to weigh-out your opinions. I received two very similar offers, stipend-wise, for my PhD studies, but after weighing out hidden costs and various stipulations, one funding package was more desirable than the other.

3: RANK! What do you want to do after you graduate with your advanced degree? In my opinion, this is where the rank of the program comes into play. If you are seeking a job in the government sector or in the CRM world, there are certain programs that tailor their graduates to be competitive in those realms. Degrees in Applied Anthropology or Public Archaeology may be of interest to you, as they tend to train their students for those career paths. However, if you plan on joining the world of academia, the track record and rank of PhD programs weighs heavily (whether we like it or not) on future academic job prospects. Tenure-track jobs are hard to come by and the number of PhD graduates in anthropology continues to grow each year. This has created a highly competitive job market for those holding PhDs in anthropology. Recent articles on tenure-track hiring trends in anthropology and archaeology have shed light on the track record of institutions placing their graduates into jobs (Speakman et al., 2018Speakman et al., 2018). I’ve been told time after time by my advisor and other mentors that the program you receive your PhD from should get you looked at by the hiring committee. I have heard horror stories about 100+ people applying for a single tenure-track job… that’s INSANE! But if University “X” has a better reputation for producing high-quality anthropologists than University “Y,” then it makes sense why individuals from some institutions make their way onto the long and short-lists for jobs and eventually land some of the coveted positions. While this is not necessarily true for every tenure-track job listing, and a person with a PhD from any university can land a job, I personally operate under the mindset of giving myself the best possible advantages I can. And if some top-ranking universities have established a reputation for their graduates getting jobs, then I definitely recommend aiming yourself for those groups of schools. Ranking played an important factor in my own PhD selection process because, at the end of the day, I would love a job that allows me to continue pursuing what I love (#archaeology4life). I asked every prospective school about their graduate placements and how many are currently in tenure-track positions. So, I recommend that if you are stuck between a couple of schools, take a look at their rank from reputable sources to see what their track record may be in regards to job placements!

To provide my own backstory for some clarity, I applied to four PhD programs. All four programs had similar strengths in zooarchaeology and stable isotope studies (aka my bread and butter), and each school had usable lab space to conduct the research I was interested in. Each school also had connections to the Near and Middle East, the geographical region I wanted to continue working in. I visited each school and met with my potential advisors. I worked hard to put together competitive application packages for each school and crossed my fingers. Luckily, I was accepted into 3 out of the 4 schools and realized that I had some decisions to make. While the other two programs were equally amazing in terms of my potential graduate advisor and available funding, I selected my dream school because I connected well with my potential advisor (and I’m SO excited to work with her), I was offered full-funding with a livable stipend, and it was a highly reputable program with a history of placing their graduates into tenure-track positions. To me, everything else was secondary, and that might not be the case for you. That was just my own personal experience, based on what I want to gain out of my PhD program and graduate school experience. I recognize that I was incredibly lucky, and each program would have been fantastic. Still, my decision came down to those three pillars.

So, if you find yourself choosing between whether you want to accept your acceptance offer or are choosing between several schools, hopefully, this post gave you some important items to consider while making your decision. And remember, there is no right answer! Simply make the decision that best reflects what you want for your professional and academic future.

Till next time,

Keep on swimming

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