Choosing a Ph.D. program – what’s important and what’s not

If you are in your early twenties, you will be told often that many of the decisions you make will stay with you for the rest of your life, so be careful. I’d say do your best, but most decisions can be changed, so don’t worry too much. Choosing a career is important, though. So is choosing a graduate program once you think a Ph.D. might be for you. But don’t make the mistake of thinking there is only one perfect program, because there are lots of really great Ph.D. programs even among the subset that have the attributes most important to you. Now all you have to do is narrow down the things that are most important, then apply to three to six universities with programs that appeal. Sort it out after the interviews.

For me, graduate school in the Zoology department at the University of Texas at Austin was, the most intense and glorious learning and discovery period of my life. It felt so good to discover that my paint-dotted wasps had done something completely unexpected. I paced those trails of the Brackenridge Field Laboratory thousands of times, patrolling from nest to nest, taking roll call and learning. It was not a solitary experience because UT made it easy to involve undergraduates in research. It was not a confusing experience because my fellow graduate students and my professors were always interested in my stories. My work would have suffered without their, usually gentle, criticisms. My cohort of grad students and my major professors have become life-long friends. I also learned well what others have discovered, that I should keep up with the literature, attend seminars, hear and share new ideas. There were some things I did not learn well, mostly because of my own devotion to field work, and impatience to finish. I did not learn how to write effectively. I did not learn much about the whole business of being a professor. I did not learn how to collaborate extensively, though I think that was less common then. But I managed to pick these things up later.

Should I get a Master’s Degree? Don’t get one, or at least don’t apply for one. The M.A. or M.S. is not a necessary degree on the way to a Ph.D.. It is something you might get with a thesis, or you might get after you’ve passed to candidacy, the stage in getting a Ph.D. where you’ve finished all exams and coursework. We do not generally offer funding to people that apply to get a Master’s, and you want funding. This degree can be very useful in more applied fields where it is a terminal degree for going into industry. It is not the terminal academic degree, so just go straight for the Ph.D.. I usually think that people applying to us for an M.A. or M.S. are simply poorly informed, and encourage them to switch to a Ph.D.

Can I restrict my choice to a certain part of the country? Wherever you did your undergraduate work, moving to the East Coast or the West Coast might be enticing. Staying close to home might be attractive or necessary. You may have a spouse or other family considerations that keep you in a certain area. This kind of limitation is acceptable, since there are numerous excellent programs. But I caution against this kind of limitation if you don’t have to make it. In particular, there are a lot of fabulous programs in the middle of the country. In my own broad field of evolution and ecology, going right down the middle, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Chicago, Washington University in St. Louis (my home and the best!), Illinois at Urbana Champaign, Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas, and Rice University (my longest home) are all outstanding, to name just a few. One of these or others in the heart of the country might be your best choice.

Should I consider a Ph.D. outside the U.S.? Most European universities teach and learn largely in English these days, so they can be considered. Make sure you can get funding since many places have limitations to EU citizens, but maybe you have dual citizenship. The Ph.D. degree is also often very different from an American one. It can be a contract to do a specific project in three years, with no course work at all and little freedom to choose your project. There are quite a few great programs, so look into this if there is a professor in Europe whose work enthralls you. I have less experience with Ph.D. programs outside Europe and so cannot competently tell you about them.

What do I look for in an advisor? The ideal advisor guides you through all phases of your Ph.D., then supports you through the rest of your life as you apply for jobs, fellowships, or special opportunities. She or he is also a leader or a rising leader in the field, teaches expertly, and has assembled a great group of other grad students, post-docs, and undergrads. You will learn from these people as much as from the advisor. You should of course absolutely love the research questions and approach of this advisor. The advisor should give you freedom to make your own discoveries, yet guide you when you need guidance. Often your first projects will be in areas suggested by the advisor, while later ones will be more independent. Your advisor should be happy and funded. The lab group should meet regularly to discuss articles, present research results, and for fun.

Why are the other grad students so important? The other grad students are the people you will learn from. They are likely to be better at the statistical package R than your advisor. They are likely to know the ins and outs of the program. They will help you with your grant proposals. They will discuss journal articles informally. They will collaborate. The program you choose should have a lively bunch of fun, very smart, very hard working, very creative grad students. These will be your friends for life.

What should I choose for my research? At the stage of applying to graduate school, you probably won’t know exactly what you want to study. If you do, you will probably change your mind. I sure did. I was always interested in social behavior, but this has varied a lot in terms of specific questions, organisms, tools. Who knew 20 years ago that I would be studying genes for cooperation in amoebae? You should choose a dynamic area that is at least somewhat popular. This might be something for which tools for advancement have recently become available. You should balance breadth with depth. This is hard to do, so you need to read and keep reading, deep and broad.

Isn’t there a single best university in my program? No. Undergraduate programs are broad and can be ranked, though this is not easy either. Ph.D. programs do not have expertise in all areas. You should choose one that is good in what you are interested in. This is as likely to be Wash U, Nebraska, or Arizona State as it is to be Harvard, Princeton, or Yale.

What about coursework? I view courses as a great way to get the tools you want, or the breadth in another area you couldn’t easily pick up on your own. I love discussion groups, seminars, readings, whether or not they are for credit. I am not a fan of long lists of required courses for graduate students. A semester-long survey taught by all the people in your immediate program to introduce you to the opportunities in your department can be good, as we did at Rice. Courses in experimental design and statistics, or techniques like genomic analysis are also great. I would avoid any program with more than a few required courses. I would completely rule out any place that has two years of courses that take most of your time. After all, you were well educated as an undergraduate, have already begun research, and that is why you want to go to graduate school.

Do programs differ that much in their requirements? Yes, they do. Coursework varies enormously. The form and rigor of exams varies. You should work hard, learn the material, and we should in turn respect that with collaborative learning, not weed-out exams. Make sure when you matriculate that you print out the requirements for the degree down to the details of exams and be sure this will be honored even if the department changes the requirements later. I have heard of places that change the rules in the middle, and then force the old students to follow the new rules. Make sure that does not happen to you.

How will I pay for my graduate education? You will get a fellowship. You will teach. You will apply for an NSF predoctoral fellowship, or HHMI funding if you are not a US citizen or Greencard holder. Talk to the students about how their funding goes. Some universities will give you a letter guaranteeing funding for four or five years. This is best. But even schools that don’t do that may fund you well. Find out exactly what teaching entails, whether it is enriching or grueling and how many hours it takes. Your undergrad loan payments are usually deferred during grad school, but you don’t want to take out any more loans.

What kind of teaching experiences should I look for? Most of us spend a lot of time teaching. It can be fun and exciting, or a total burden. Which it is depends on a lot of factors. One of them is how well you are educated in the teaching process. Some universities are paying a lot of attention to this, helping graduate students to become effective teachers. Washington University in St. Louis has an excellent teaching center, lots of workshops, and specific teaching opportunities in addition to the traditional teaching assistantships. We have the CIRTL network, and a teaching center with lots of opportunities. We also have the Gephardt Institute for Public Service that facilitates outreach teaching at various levels. Other universities have similar programs, but this varies a lot, so be careful.

Why is a focus on teaching so important? You may think it is research alone that motivates you, but teaching is a part of everything we do. It is a part of running an effective laboratory. It is involved in clear publishing. It is a part of all careers at higher levels, since teaching includes training others. Excellent teaching requires that you put yourself in the place of someone else who does not know what you know. So many poor teachers imagine that they are teaching themselves at an earlier age, and so do not reach most students. Good teaching requires good listening, a talent that will help you throughout your academic career. Finally, if you decide the frustrations of research are not what you want to have central to your career, the joy of teaching can take a more central place. To get those jobs, you need to demonstrate that you know how to teach. I would worry about any Ph.D. program without direct access to undergraduates and teaching them. This is the case at some Ph.D. granting independent institutes, and for many medical schools.

How about health insurance? If you are not still on your parent’s health insurance look hard at the graduate student health insurance policies of the universities you are considering. Some are better than others. This is unlikely to be the key deciding factor, but could help you decide if you are really torn between two places.

How long should I plan on taking to finish? Once you get your Ph.D., you should plan on having a job within 5 years. There are kinds of post doctoral funding that end at 5 years. So, you want to be poised for success when the Ph.D. is done. Have your papers published or submitted. There should be several of them, some with you as first author, some with you as collaborative lower author, some that are reviews of a specific area you love. So, the Ph.D. period is more flexible than the postdoc period, but still try to finish in 5 years. Choose advisors that agree with this goal and help you attain it.

What if I do not like the program I have joined? If you hate the program, you can leave. This might be immediately, or after getting a Master’s degree. Try not to alienate people since they may be good reference writers in the future, though it that were the case you many not be wanting to leave. Try to decide if the problem is your advisor, the program in general, or you at this stage in your life. Maybe a local move to another advisor or program can help. Most of us want you to be doing what you most love, therefore wanting you to switch programs or advisors if that helps.

How do I choose? Visit all the universities you are considering. They should fly you in for a visit on a day when others also come. Otherwise go at a different time. Weigh all the things above, and see what feels best. Odds are, you’ll love your Ph.D. years.


Owen Gilbert, my Ph.D. student, with David Queller, me, and Larry Gilbert, my Ph.D. advisor.


Alan Templeton, my other Ph.D. advisor.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Managing an academic career. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Choosing a Ph.D. program – what’s important and what’s not

  1. Jason says:

    This is very helpful!

  2. oikosjeremy says:

    Very useful, I agree with most but not all of what you say. You inspired me to post some further thoughts:

  3. Svi says:

    thank you so much for all the helpful advice!

  4. This is great, Joan! I’ve been meaning to make an advice page for the undergraduates students in Gail’s lab, and your post spurred me to do so! I really appreciate the time you took to cover so many aspects of the process. I’ve included your thoughts, the page linked in the comments, and four other points of view from John Thompson, Eileen Lacey, Stephen Stearns, etc.

  5. Jia-Xing Yue says:

    Great post and good to learn that HHMI has a fellowship for international students. I should get prepared to apply for that! 😛

  6. Benny says:

    Thank you very much for this article, very helpful, even for me as a prospective European PhD student!

  7. B says:

    Currently a graduate student (master’s level) at the Univ. of Texas at Austin… It was nice to find this article. Hook Em!

  8. Truly no matter if someone doesn’t know then its up to other viewers that they will help,
    so here it happens.

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