Should you visit campus?

Absolutely!  Prospective graduate students tend to have several potential programs in mind, but it is certainly not necessary—or even feasible—to visit them all.  I suggest visiting your top two choices.  This becomes more important if you are looking at doctoral programs, as you’ll be living in the respective place for longer than if you are doing a master’s  The internet can give you a great sense of campus, your prospective department, and the city where the campus is located, but it can only provide you with so much.  You need to determine if you can actively picture yourself living and thriving in a particular place.  If there are things intrinsically important to you and that keep you sane, make sure it will be available in your new location.  A campus visit can show you what the campus and community have to  offer.

Many students are concerned when to visit.  You can visit at various times: before applying, after you have been accepted, or once you’ve made your decision.  Some graduate programs require an interview, so be prepared to use that time constructively to see the town and meet other people in the department.

Here are some tips to get the most out of your campus visit:

  1. Start by contacting the secretary or assistant in your prospective academic department.  He or she will help determine a good day to visit when faculty and graduate students are able to meet with you.
  2. Spend some time researching the department (hopefully you’ve already done this!).  Take note of faculty research interests, classes you’re interested in, and even other graduate students.  If there are particular people you’d like to meet with, mention this when you contact the department secretary.  He or she will either set up meetings for you or provide you with contact information.
  3. Use time with faculty members and other graduate students to get a sense of the department and the environment. This is a good way to see how you fit within the department.
  4. If there are particular places on campus you’re interested in seeing, see if you need to request a tour ahead of time.
  5. Plan on giving yourself a full day, especially if you have meetings with multiple people in the department.  You don’t want to rush your experience and allowing yourself at least one day will give you time for seeing the town as well as campus.  Personally, I stayed the night, had meetings early the next morning, and used the afternoon to apartment-hunt.

Some Fundamentals of Funding

There is no shortage of information regarding graduate school funding.  There are plenty of websites completely devoted to educating people on how to fund their graduate education.   Most of them will tell you to get creative in your search, to be thorough, and point you in the direction of some common sources of funding.

If you’re interested enough in graduate school to be reading this blog post, chances are you’ve already spent some time determining how you’ll pay for school.  Rather than tell you about funding sources you’ve already found, here’s some other things to take into consideration when looking at funding options.

  1. It’s important to know how funding works and how it is awarded.  Funding types (teaching assistant, research assistant, graduate assistant, fellowship, etc) vary from institution to institution as well as by type of program.  Universities also use different terminology, so it can be difficult to compare one program to the next.  For example, at some institutions, teaching assistantships are reserved for those in a doctoral program, while administrative or student life assistantships are reserved for students in higher education administration programs.  At other places, anyone can apply for any form of funding as long as he or she meets the criteria.  If you can’t readily find this information on a university’s website, be sure to ask someone in your potential department how funding works and where to find university-specific funding information.
  2. Think of a funding source as part of your pathway to future employment.  For most of us, funding is in fact a job, so it’s not too much of a stretch to think in this way.  But more importantly, take into consideration how you plan to put your hard-earned graduate degree to use.  Do you hope to be a professor at a teaching university? Or are you more research-driven?  Consider how your funding source will prepare you for future employment.
  3. Many types of funding come with an expiration date.  For instance, some fellowships are for 1 year, while many departmental teaching assistantships are renewable for 4 or 5 years.  Keep this in mind when weighing your decisions of which department is right for you.
  4. Once you’ve secured your funding source and are enrolled in school, don’t forget that although your funding is a job, your first priority is your own academic work.  It is very easy to get distracted with your job and prioritize it over your academic success.
  5. If you’re overwhelmed by the problem of funding, take a deep breath and contact someone at the universities you’re interested in.  Don’t be afraid to say you are confused by the system; it is confusing!  Departmental assistants are a great place to start; they seem to know everything.  They can usually point you in the direction of someone who knows how to help you.  Universities have offices staffed with great, knowledgeable people who can help—and want—you to succeed.  Make sure you take advantage of the resources they provide.

Puppies make everything better

If you have a furry friend, or are thinking about adopting one (because shelter pets are the best pets!), Bloomington has much to offer you and your beast.  There are numerous vets, a shelter run by fabulous people, parks, doggie day care facilities, an agility group, an amazing local pet food/supply store, and a dog park. Below are a couple pictures of my best friend, Molly.

Getting a Recommendation letter

Recommendations letters are one of the most important components of your graduate school application.  While your GRE score signifies your ability to do well on standardized exams, recommendation letters tell a prospective program who you are and how you’ll fit within their department.  Here are a few pieces of advice:

  1. If you’re even thinking about attending graduate school, go to a professor’s office hours.  Share your academic interests with him or her.  Take the initiative and help the professor get to know you. The better you get to know each other, the better he or she can speak to who you are.  Plus, getting to know a professor will help you learn more about graduate school, provide you with a mentor, and might even help you secure some undergraduate research projects.  Recommendation letters need to show:
    1. Your critical thinking skills
    2. Your writing abilities
    3. The type of scholar you wish to be
    4. Your work ethic
    5. Your ability to collaborate on projects

Thus, it’s really important to start putting in the effort now and find a professor who can address these characteristics.

2. If you attend a large university, it is likely you’ve taken classes taught by graduate students, or simply have more contact with grad assistants rather than the course professor.  Although this grad student may know you better, it’s really important to secure letters from professors.  Prospective departments want to see your abilities, as determined by an established scholar in the field.

3. If possible, get letters from professors with whom you’ve taken multiple classes.  This way, professors can speak to your abilities across time and with different challenges.

4. Do your research!  This means knowing why you want to attend a particular graduate program and why you’re right for each other.  Share this information with those who will be writing your letters.

5. Be respectful of letter writers’ time.  Bring them all the information they need, including addresses, any necessary forms, or web addresses if applicable.  Most importantly, give them plenty of time and don’t forget to thank them.

A different approach to picking an advisor/mentor

When selecting a faculty advisor, many students chose someone based upon shared academic interests.  While that is certainly one way to go, I suggest a different route.  Choose someone you simply get along with, someone whose office you’ll enjoy popping into once in awhile.  When it comes time to do your qualifying exam and dissertation, you’ll be seeing plenty of those you’ve chosen to work with academically.  You can still put this person on your committees, as I did.  One my favorite people in my department is Kip Schlegel.  His area of expertise is white-collar and organized crime, which isn’t a perfect match with my research areas, bullying and LGBT issues within the criminal justice system.  But he and I have a unique shared interest: I grew up farming and raising cattle; he and his wife currently run an organic beef farm just outside of Bloomington.  While I could talk to him all day about farming, I also sincerely appreciate his insight and opinions on my academic work.

Every department is a little different, but you’ll probably be meeting with your advisor a few times per year to discuss which classes you should take, which minor is right for you, how your teaching is going, plans for completing your program; etc.  So don’t worry too much if your academic interests aren’t aligned perfectly; just pick someone you feel comfortable talking to, which will be really nice for those hectic graduate moments.