By Shaquilla Harrigan
Congratulations on your recent graduate school acceptances! You’ve done the hard work of making your case to graduate admissions committees and getting admitted. Now you must decide at which program you will continue your scholastic journey. One of the most crucial parts to help you decide program fit is the campus visit. While my campus visits had the added challenge of navigating a blizzard, they would have been hectic anyways. These two-to-three-day department-sponsored programs are jam packed with a lot of useful information to help you decide which graduate program would be the best fit. Here are some tips to help you make the most of them.
1. Get to know the graduate student coordinator/administrator.
Throughout the application process, you’ve likely already been in contact with the graduate coordinator. Now that you’ve been admitted, the coordinator will help organize logistics for your visit and answer university procedure questions. During your visit, make time to chat with the graduate student coordinator and other department administrators. They can tell you the ins and outs of the program, help you with paperwork, and generally point you in the right direction. During my visit days, the department administrators were incredibly kind and made me feel welcome. Once I started at Penn, Audra and Katee helped me transition to the program and Philadelphia more generally.
2. Email professors in advance of the visit to schedule meetings.
When trying to meet with faculty during your visit days, you have two things working against you: notoriously unwieldy professor inboxes and overbooked calendars. You want to make sure you reach out to any faculty member you’d like to meet during the visit as soon as you know the visit day schedule. The agenda will have time for faculty meetings, but often, professor schedules don’t align. Additionally, you will want to see if faculty are open to meeting over Zoom if you can’t get a meeting while you are on campus.
3. Ask about internal funding and funding opportunities across the university.
In your PhD acceptance letter, you will receive details on your base funding package. While the four or five year guaranteed stipend and tuition coverage seems like a long time, those years fly by quickly. You want to see if your department offers funding for attending conferences or conducting research. Also, you should seek information about other funding sources within the university. It’s easier to get funding when you already have funding and it’s less competitive to apply to intra-institution funding. Don’t forget to investigate support for applying to fellowships and ask whether your school has coordinators for national funding sources like the Foreign Language and Area Studies grants. When I was comparing programs, I took note that my current department has an endowment for summer research funding and that the graduate school of arts and sciences has grants for conference travel that is guaranteed for each student every academic year.
4. Ask about program graduates’ job placements both in and outside of academia.
Yeah, you haven’t even officially started your program, but it’s a good idea to begin thinking about post-graduate school plans earlier. If you are going to make this major investment into your education, you want to know if it will make you a more competitive job applicant.
5. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.
If you’ve been accepted to multiple programs with similar offers, it can be difficult to decide which program to select. This is when negotiating comes into play! Some programs have discretionary funds to improve their offers to impressive candidates. You can negotiate for release from teaching assistantship responsibilities, a research fund, travel and conference fund, a stipend increase, or a paid research assistantship.
6. Pay attention to program requirements and rates of completion.
In graduate school, your precious time is stretched between several competing priorities. You are trying to glean as much knowledge and training from your coursework as you can, conduct research, and raise your profile as a scholar. Program requirements can help you achieve these goals efficiently, or they can hinder you. You also want to know if students are graduating at a rate commensurate with the discipline standard, or if they are taking more or less time because of program requirements. At the time I started my PhD at Penn, students were required to take 20 courses. That is on the higher end of coursework among peer institutions, but other perks of the program made me overlook this. Additionally, our department’s graduate student advocacy group petitioned to reduce the number of courses. Now, students are only required to take 16 classes (that shaved off a whole semester of classes!).
You also want to check if you can transfer course credits from prior graduate school experiences. Some of my friends at Penn had masters from related programs and were able to waive out of a few of the more introductory classes.
7. Don’t choose a program because you ‘should’ go there.
Instead, choose a program because you fit there. As you review your offers, you are going to get a lot of advice on what you SHOULD do and where you SHOULD go. However, what is a major consideration for one person may not be a major consideration for you. Ultimately, this is your journey, and your priorities matter most. I especially say this about program rankings. First, if the programs to which you’re accepted have similar rankings and reputations, then other factors like location, proximity to family and friends, and cost of living can take precedence. Lastly, program rankings aren’t stable and won’t necessarily determine your postgraduate prospects.
8. Make sure there are tenured faculty members who share your interests or methodology.
When I was working on my graduate school applications, I didn’t know that requesting to work with non-tenure, non-standing faculty was a faux pas. Additionally, one of the professors I mentioned in my research statements was an assistant professor. By the time I started my program, this professor had moved on to another institution. Luckily, I had other faculty members with whom I had common interests. If I only applied to Penn for that one assistant professor, my application would have been weaker and I would have come here without a faculty mentor who could advise me.
9. Do you like the city your program is in?
I don’t think I can emphasize how much physical location ended up mattering to me. Both PhD programs I was considering had similar rankings and levels of prestige, but I felt far more comfortable with the prospect of living in Philadelphia for the next five to seven years. Living in a major city with racial diversity, an international airport, and proximity to friends and family have significantly improved my mental health. These things are also important for my graduate school success.
10. Take (voice) notes of your experiences!
During my visits, I took notes and voice memos of my experiences. These helped me remember seemingly small details and “in-the-moment” reactions to different things happening to me. Don’t forget to have a notebook and pen handy for quick jot points.
11. Go in knowing how you make decisions.
Some examples of decision-making styles include seeking counsel, making lists, or presenting options aloud. We all have our rituals that enable us to feel confident and sure when making decisions. For each style, set parameters for the types of information you will consider and instructions for friends, family, and mentors in responding to your process.
12. Keep everything organized.
During your campus visits, you are going to be receiving a lot of folders and flyers. These documents may come in handy weeks later when you email prospective programs.
13. There’s no need to (humble) brag.
You are exceptional and the bomb dot com. So is everyone else who was accepted to these graduate school programs. Bragging about your previous accomplishments and the prestige of your undergraduate institution makes you look insecure. Besides, you will learn quickly that graduate school will have several humbling moments where the pedestal you put yourself upon means you have a longer way down to fall.
14. First impressions are lasting…even at the program you don’t choose.
Remember, these campus visits are one of your first formal entrées into the academy. You will encounter fellow prospective students, current graduate students, and faculty at future conferences or other discipline-related events. Always be kind, courteous, and professional. You’ll thank yourself later when you hear horror stories years later about others who made terrible first impressions.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading Shaquilla Harrigan’s other graduate school-related articles on ProFellow.
Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.