ask a scatterbrain: visit days

This question is particularly aimed at grad students: what kinds of things would you have liked to learn about grad programs before enrolling? I’m curious what kind of things are helpful at visit days. Obviously on our end it is a recruitment effort. But it is also important to match well with students. So, what’s helpful on visit days? Any things you wish you knew?

11 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: visit days”

  1. What is the completion and placement record (don’t just list those three students who got fabulous jobs four years ago — what did the past 5-10 years look like overall)? What is the typical publication outlet for grad students (with or without faculty collaborates) — not just the “greatest hits” of the past ten years of grad students (though those are important as well). What percentage of students are funded in the summer? What are the benchmarks for obtaining funding past the guaranteed funding window?

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  2. To this day I remember a faculty member pointing out that my department has a number of “young” faculty members who “are eager to work with graduate students” to publish. Compared to my alternative choice, this potential investment in graduate students was very appealing and has resulted in significant mentoring and multiple publications. It is less quantifiable than some of the other statistics, but, for a student who is sitting in front of you during a prospective visit, and hoping to remain employed over the next 5+ years, it is very persuasive.

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  3. I like the suggestions above. Something that I didn’t think about in the past but might be important in terms of funding as budgets are cut back is cohort size. If recent cohorts have been larger than normal then there may be a lack of funding when all of those students get to the advanced stages of the program.

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  4. Some thoughts on recruitment: Meetings with faculty members are great, unless you have no idea who they are and they don’t do work on anything you care about. Too much of that is just grueling. Build in some unstructured time for recruits to spend with each other, with the current grad students, and just on the campus and in the city.

    As for what’s worth knowing – the graduation and placement stuff is key, especially in comparison to other similar programs.

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  5. Average time to graduation
    Percentage of admitted classes that complete the degree in 5 years
    Placement record broken down between higher education and other placement.

    Of course all you ever get is estimates.

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  6. I second trey1. The most important thing is % completed in 7 years, % in academic jobs, % in different academic jobs (Soc programs, professional schools, liberal arts, etc). All else is secondary. What the point of even enrolling if no one ever finishes? or gets decent employment?

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      1. it’s gotta be a good fit with your personality & intellectual projects too. a dept where everyone finishes on projects you find vacuous ain’t gonna do you any good.

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  7. The best advice that I got during my recruitment was to figure out the top person that I wanted to work with at each school that I was accepted at. Then, cross each of those people off. Finally, look at the lists after crossing those people off and figure out where the best fit is.

    That was the best advice that I got — the academic job market is just too fickle to rely on working with one person, and sociology doesn’t have the tradition of natural sciences where someone takes their students with them if they move (although I have seen arrangements work out). It turned out to be good advice for me: I ended up working with my top person, but the other two people on the list left the university and retired within two years of starting.

    In the “what I wish I’d known then category,” I wish that I knew to ask how many students published — either alone or with faculty — while in graduate school there. The more I look at it, the more that single indicator seems to stick out for me as an indicator of the best graduate programs.

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  8. i echo dan on building in unstructured time. my current dept has a current grad student host a dinner at their house for all grad students & prospectives; that’s generally a success.

    REALLY important for me was staying with a current grad student during my visit.

    sitting in on a class or two (a real one) was also important to me. but that’s easier to do when you’re not attending the giant recruitment weekend – which i’m actually not sold on as an event. i visited 1 school in november, before applications were even in, and 1 school at their recruitment weekend in march – i went to the former. the benefit is seeing what the real day-to-day is like, rather than what kind of dog & pony show they can pull off. for someone like me, it’s possible to OVERDO the impressiveness; i was turned off by what seemed to be too much veneer.

    for what it’s worth, one of the other things that decidedly turned me off about the school i didn’t go to was that they hosted a dinner at the chair’s house and it seemed that they only invited certain current grad students to the event (i believe that’s true, but it could have just been the widespread impression – the effect is the same). prospectives were left with the distinct impression that 1) some people who might have had negative things to say about the program weren’t invited, and 2) the department was in the habit of making these kinds of evaluations of its students. not an atmosphere i wanted.

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  9. I concur with everything that has been said (particularly 1,7,& 8). I just have two additional points:

    1) Please do not ask about other schools the perspectives have been accepted to and then proceed to discuss all the negative things about that school. Although obviously rude, it comes off as petty.

    2) Although it doesn’t apply to most perspectives, benefits (i.e. health insurance) can provide a huge financial difference. When I visited one campus they bragged about how much more stipend I would get there than other schools until I asked about health insurance (for me, a partner and my child). Compared to every other place (especially a couple where health insurance was provided by the university without a premium) the monthly premium easily offset any gain in stipend and actually would have required a loan to cover the difference (or we would need to get on Medicaid). And although this may not be a top priority, as is often shown, it is hard to be productive when dealing with expensive (or bureaucratically difficult) health care needs. Grad school is stressful enough without adding that worry!

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