When deciding where to go to graduate school, students often ask questions about where to apply. Some students express interests in Ivy League universities, attracted to the prestige. Some students confine their applications to universities close to home. Other students have a wide pool of applications, focusing on research and faculty interests.
To help undergraduates that are considering to apply to graduate school, we asked current graduate students at The University of Texas at El Paso to weigh in on the factors that guided their decisions for where to apply to school.
What was the most important thing that factored into where you applied for graduate school?
Shelby: I picked all of my schools based on the specific program and faculty within the program. When I first applied, I was very interested in Legal and Forensic psychology. When I attended a conference before applying to graduate school, I made a note of where people giving talks I was interested in were at. I also looked at research I found interesting and found where the authors of the publications had either graduated from or where they were teaching.
Naoko: Research interests that the professor had matched with what I was fascinated with. If I was not with someone who studies what I really like, then I imagine that the graduate school life would be more intense.
Joseph: The most important factor when I applied to graduate school was my family. I have children and my support system was very important. I have been able to go to school while my family helped take care of my children. I also looked at schools for my children, and also used that in my deciding factor. I also looked at who I wanted to work with and what area of research I wanted to do.
Mandy: Living convenience. Going to UTEP, I could still live with my family and I wouldn’t have to worry about getting use to a new place where I had no friends yet. If the campus life is vibrant enough, I would recommend living on campus where you can be more integrated into the campus living experience. My ideal experience would be going to school in the same city as my family lives, but live on campus. This way I could go home to visit whenever I want and see friends I already have in the city while still leading my own independent college experience.
Miriam: The most important thing that factored into where I applied for graduate school was fit. Specifically, research interest fit. All of the programs I selected had a common characteristic, they were all producing research in the area of culture, identity, and social issues. I knew when I applied to graduate school that my situation was temporary, thus aligning myself to a research expert that was as passionate as me about the same issues was very important because I would be receiving training from them.
Sandra: My research interests matching with those of several faculty members in the department. In addition, I wanted a program that emphasized quantitative methods.
Were there any “deal breakers” for you when considering graduate school?
Shelby: Not really. I was *hoping* to get into a fully funded Ph.D. program, but applied to a couple of unfunded master’s programs as well as back up plans. I mainly was just looking to continue my education and conduct independent research with a faculty mentor who shared my research interests.
Naoko: Scholarships (stipend) for international students. There are a few schools that don't offer scholarships to international students, or offer less to international students than to U.S. citizens.
Joseph: There were multiple deal breakers. One of them was the cost of living. When applying for schools I compared the cost of living expenses for the different possible areas I would live in. Another was the cost of daycare. For instance, I compared the cost of after-school programs and daycare for areas that I could not take my support team with. Also, mentor availability also was very important to me. For example, if a prospective mentor had too many students that meant that there would be less one on one time for me.
Mandy: Not at the time. I was really only considering UTEP. Now that I’ve been through graduate school, a deal breaker would be if I saw that students of a mentor I’m interested in working with weren’t graduating on time or close to on time. I would also look closely at the mentor’s recent professional activities and publications. If it looks like they haven’t been up to much recently and/or if their publications don’t look like they really make a substantial contribution to science, that would be a deal breaker.
Miriam: Probably the biggest deal breaker for me was/is lab culture and environment. Being in a supportive and motivating environment makes a huge difference when it comes to your professional and academic success. I spend a lot of time with my lab mates and advisor, and having a strong, productive, and positive relationship with them has complemented my academic growth and promoted my success. If you are looking into a graduate program, I highly recommend you speak to the graduate students before finalizing your decision.
Sandra: Yes, I was only interested in schools that guaranteed RA/TA positions, out-of-state tuition waivers, tuition scholarships, and health benefits.
Did you consider location at all when you applied to programs? Was location a deciding factor when choosing which program to attend?
Shelby: Location was a very low factor on my list. I did contemplate it occasionally, and went out of my way to apply to a couple of schools near my boyfriend at the time. Ultimately, though, my decision was made based on the program and prospective faculty mentor. Graduate school is just a temporary period before starting your career, so I didn’t have any qualms about location.
Naoko: Not really. I tried to be open for everywhere to increase my chances.
Joseph: Yes, I considered areas that I had family that had been settled in those areas. Yes, when all was said and done I selected to stay in town because I felt it would have been more beneficial for me and my family.
Mandy: I definitely was and it continues to be as I search for jobs. I have since widened my geographical criteria because there just aren’t enough jobs in my field in the city I’m from, but living near family is important to me so I factor it in to my job searching.
Miriam: My personal experiences living on the border are the reason why I decided to come to UTEP. However, staying in El Paso was not a deciding factor for me. In my experience, my decision centered around the training offered and the resources available to be successful in developing a strong/meaningful program of research. As a Latina, being a part of the Social Cognition Lab and working with Dr. Zárate has given me the opportunity and tools to develop a line of research that advocates for my community. The training I receive at UTEP, not El Paso, is what guided my decision.
Sandra: Yes, I knew I was okay with being away from home (aka California), but I was also aware of the fact that I didn't want to be too far from home in case if there were ever any emergencies. Also, I just didn't think I would adapt well to places that had little to no sun throughout the year.
Does location factor into your career goals? Did that play a role when you were considering graduate programs?
Shelby: I currently don’t have any plans to be bound by location when applying for jobs, but I still have 2-3 years before going on the job market. Who knows what might change! When I think about my career goals, I primarily have focused on the *type* of job I’m looking for (tenure track professor, in a research oriented program that allows me to mentor Ph.D. students). Location will likely only become a factor if I’m considering two equally good offers.
Naoko: No, because I want to have a job I really like. I wanted to stay where I was when I started considering graduate programs, but one of the reasons why I didn't stay there was because someone told me that it'd be better to show your ability to adjust to new people and new place by going to a different location, and this choice would work in my favor when I apply for jobs.
Joseph: As my children have become much older location will not limit my decision for future career goals. Yes, location eventually played a role in my final graduate program decision.
Mandy: Being near my family and living somewhere I enjoy the climate are valuable to me. I also value being able to work using the skills I’ve learned in graduate school. I am less bounded by choosing a specific career and more bound by living near my family and/or somewhere I enjoy the climate, city, and nearby area.
Miriam: For now, I can say that location has not factored into my career goals. I am confident in the training I have received and I am looking for a job that will enable me to do what I love. However, in comparison to grad school, I will probably give more consideration to location for a job given that it is a "permanent" situation whereas grad school is "temporary," five years and you are out.
Sandra: Yes, I always knew I wanted to eventually go back to California. Based on this, my mentor advised me to leave California for graduate school so that I could be more competitive if I ever decided to come back.
In addition to insight on how location factored into her grad school decisions, Mandy also gave some great advice about seeking out prestigious mentors, and other things to look for in graduate programs. While prestige can be a useful tool for networking, it doesn’t always indicate that the prestigious mentor will be supportive and involved in your graduate experience. Mandy speaks from her experience at having a well-known mentor, and gives some other useful tips for students to consider as they consider graduate programs. Here is what she had to say:
Shelby Curtis is a 3rd year doctoral student transferring from UTEP to UNR (to follow her faculty mentor), studying personality/social psychology, and originally from Phoenix, AZ. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Naoko Tsuboi is a 2nd year doctoral student at UTEP, studying bilingual memory. She received her undergraduate degree from UC Davis, and is originally from Japan. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Joseph Negron is a 3rd year doctoral student at UTEP, studying bilingual reading processes. He received his undergraduate degree from UTEP as well, and is originally from Chicago, IL. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miriam Alvarez is a 5th year doctoral student at UTEP, studying social psychology, and is originally from the El Paso area. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Sandra Oviedo is a 5th year doctoral student at UTEP, studying health psychology, and is originally from the San Diego area in California. She can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org.