So, clearly, the biggest question in going to graduate school is: “how is it that Indiana University is the best fit — for me AND for everyone else?!?” Really, though, figuring out which university to attend may actually be the second most important question because knowing who you want to work with is arguably a bigger deal. Why?
Here’s how I think of it: first, your department is more important to your graduate training than your university. Second, in most cases your mentor will be more important to your training (and almost always more important for your career) than your department. So you want to take the time to make sure the stars are aligned for a smooth run…
Claire already offered three crucial considerations, so instead of rehashing them I’ll throw in a couple more with a handful of associated gut-check questions that are great to answer as early as you can:
4. Try to develop a clear understanding for what you need and expect in a mentor…
So what does this mean? I’d suggest you try to figure out whether you and your mentor have similar approaches to: (a) communication (e.g. do you both check email neurotically, sometimes, never?). Also, do you prefer//can you stomach direct communication (e.g. “this paper is far from your best effort// this paper was so bad my dog vomited repeatedly while I read it out loud”)? (b) forging a personal relationship (e.g. are you both invested in setting up a strictly professional relationship or would you like to share personal narratives with one another?) (c) are they “possessive” mentors? (i.e. do they want their students to only work with them? Or a few other, specific faculty?)
5. Try to make sure you and your would-be mentor share a vision about what kind of career you’d like and whether this is plausible:
So, in this regard I’d suggest you consider: (a) your career goals (e.g. academic/non-academic? R-1 or liberal arts college?); (b) their placement record (e.g. my mentor’s former students now serve tables// are the UN Secretary General?); (c) department politics (yeah, sorry, but this is a reality at most places: does your mentor work with everyone? If not, why? Is that okay with you?); (d) their training and your intellectual needs (e.g. do they hate stats and do you need stats?); (e) whether and how they support their students during their graduate careers (e.g. do they have access to grant money? Do they co-author with students? Write strong letters of rec?)
Of course, if you find that you and your mentor aren’t on the same page it isn’t the end of the world, not by any stretch… First, plenty of folks have good graduate experiences with subpar mentoring and, second, you can definitely find a replacement if your relationship becomes unworkable… That said, here’s hoping you and your mentor are a match made in (cream and crimson) heaven!