You got In! Now What?
1. What's The Money Situation?
Caveat: If the program pledges to find you funding after the first year, or if you have other forms of funding through an external grant or fellowship, it might be worth going.
As for the stipend, don't be shy about asking a program representative how current students fare on X amount of dollars a year. Any school should offer you health insurance as part of your funding package, but you are still expected to stretch a paltry sum over rent, utilities, transportation, books, school supplies, travel, conference expenses, and social activities. Oh yeah, and food.
Forget about dental. There's Groupon for that.
If they aren't paying a living wage, you need to consider borrowing money or getting a job on the side. If you are being offered a Teaching Assistantship, programs often ban second jobs, since you are expected to devote your time to studying and teaching.
In Other Words: Can you afford to go there?
2. What Is The Department Culture?
Alternatively, if you see other graduate students silently raging at their desks or weeping as they leave a professor's office, you might want to investigate if this is par for the course here.
I loved the department culture of my PhD program. The professors were welcoming and typically kept their doors open. My classmates understood the critical importance of interrupting each other while we worked to quote Arrested Development for 40 minutes, before giving up on getting any more reading done. It wasn't any kind of rare occurrence to hear people happily greeting each other in the hall or catching up in over the copy machine.
In Other Words: Do the current students hate their life, and can you see yourself being relatively happy there most days?
3. Do You Mesh Well With Your Adviser?
- What's my working style? Do I like being left along until I'm ready to present my work, or do I want someone to give me deadlines and check my drafts along the way?
- How much help do I need in terms of research? Do I want an adviser who takes an active role in my project? Do I want an adviser who has very similar research interests, or is it better to have our own discrete topics?
- Do I want a famous adviser and have his or her name as part of my academic genealogy, even if it means you will likely have to compete for his or her attention?
- Do I want a famous adviser, even if he or she is considered tyrannical and mean-spirited by other students and colleagues alike?
- Do I want someone who I work with on a purely academic level, or do I need an adviser with whom I am comfortable sharing personal thoughts and struggles when it is interfering with my work?
- Do I want an adviser who acts more like a parent, a cool uncle, older sister, or that distant grandparent you see every few years and consider decently nice but aren't really close with?
I was incredibly lucky with both my master's and PhD advisers. Both women were perfect matches for what I wanted in an adviser - people who supported my off-beat project ideas, didn't mind meeting with me frequently, but trusted me to work independently most of the time. And both acted in a semi-maternal way that made me feel comfortable to speak up when I was struggling, whether it was school-related or not.
Above all, both my advisers had my back, and proved it over and over again. My master's adviser helped me protest an unfair grading situation. My PhD adviser was so amazing that she frequently championed graduate students' causes, whether or not she was directly advising them.
Everybody has different working styles. So if you like to be left alone, you might pair well with a scholar who is too busy to meet with you regularly. Conversely, if you need to feel like you have a rapport with your adviser so that you are comfortable discussing your work with them, find someone who prioritizes cultivating a relationship with his or her students.
And think long and hard before committing to work with someone who has a reputation for being abusive and angry. Find a way to surreptitiously speak with current students about the program faculty's personalities, and especially get a sense of what others think about your prospective adviser.
In Other Words: Can you picture yourself working with this person for years, and it being a supportive, productive partnership?
Wait...What If I Don'T Like Any Of My Choices?
At this point, you have a few options:
You can enroll anyway and see if you like it better in a few months. I do not recommend this option since graduate school is hard enough without hating it from the very first day.
You can call this year a wash, and reapply next year to different programs. Yes, you spent a fair amount of money on applications, but it's worth the loss if you get into a program you love a year from now.
You can reexamine why you are going to graduate school in the first place. Has anything changed since you wrote your applications that no longer makes it an attractive choice for you? Are you contending with major life changes or financial problems that necessitate a different path for now?