Sweat pants, pubs, and libraries: You know you’re on Campus When… (Or, How to Pick a University)

(Sadly, this post lacks current pop culture references because it was written in March while riding on a train back to Ottawa after my Epic Campus Tour. To compensate, here is the latest episode of Snooki & JWOWW)

Photo effects courtesy of Instagram: campus art.

In my hunt to set myself up for the best possible graduate studies experience, I’ve gone through a process much like they would on a very boring, academically themed reality TV show. Instead of audience voting, impromptu models, celebrity critiques or the distribution of roses, I created giant charts and visited the most viable options in person multiple times. I went on campus tours, ate free cookies at orientations, listened to graduate presentations and faculty webcasts, hopped subways, buses and trains… All in hopes that on the first day in autumn when I sharpen my pencils for morning class, I have a feeling deep down that I explored all the possibilities and this was the best decision. Even more importantly, when I have that first stress-filled, freak out moment (e.g. the sub-par grade, the impossible exam, the conflicting deadlines, the lack of savings in my bank account), I will know for sure that this is still where I want to be.

That being said, all decisions are only our best approximation of how we hope the future may unfold. And, in the timeless words of my colleague, “It’s just a Master’s.” With this in mind, I’ll share with you some lessons learned about how to become familiar with potential graduate schools.

1. Always speak to actual students, preferably without faculty nearby.

Pestering current grad students makes sense.  Keep in mind that they are often under stress, lacking sleep or enduring an existential crisis (maybe even one invoked by sociological theory – waking up in the middle of the night and wondering, what if I am a commodity fetishist?) but sometimes a school’s best and worst attributes are shared over some beers in the pub. However, invitations to chat aren’t just handed out at the beginning of the day. You must endure orientations, on-campus presentations, and networking during breaks. Don’t flake out early and go shopping no matter your proximity to the nearest H&M (even though Ottawa still doesn’t have one). Ask students about the classes, their supervisors, faculty you’re interested in working with, why they picked their current school and if they would do it again.

2. It’s not all on the website – nothing beats a walk on campus.

Appointments tend to help if you are visiting in person. When I dropped in on administrators, some of them were surprised and less than helpful. At one particular school I asked about the experience of being a grad student and was told, “I don’t know what you want me to say, it’s all on our website.” A couple of others at least humoured me and printed out copies of webpages for me to take along. However, in giving people this chance to sell the university as a tangible experience rather than just a concept, some really did drive it home. I also learned tidbits about campus safety, strikes, ongoing construction projects and other factors in student life. While it’s pretty valuable information, no one ever advertises on their website that your tranquil study time in the library will be punctuated by a jackhammer over the next two years.

For the one overseas university to which I applied and could not visit in person, I scoured the web for everything. I even took virtual walks around campus and the city using Google Street View. Whether in person or online, the whole point of this is to get to know the university well enough in order to understand what it would mean to study there. I tried to give myself the opportunity to fall in love with a school.

3. Talk to professors, in fact, talk to anyone who will take the time to chat with you.

Even though students are more likely to tell you straight up how it is, professors are the ones who will be grading and supervising you throughout your program. Understanding two things about professors helped me to approach them for appointments:

a) It’s not worthwhile to get all nervous asking to meet with a prof or even asking former professors for references. They’re totally accustomed to it, and the whole thing will be less awkward if you know this and can be casual about it.

b) Professors want you to succeed. If you succeed, the professor looks good, the university looks good, the people who fund research look good – it’s all win-win. On top of this, the professors I know really do want to help students to have the best future possible.

Here are some questions I learned to ask professors:

  • Can I speak to a graduate student who is under your supervision? See Lesson #1.
  • What kind of supervision style do you have? Eg. hands-off vs. very involved. You will want to have figured out your style of working in order to know which type of supervision best suits you.
  • How long do your graduate students generally take to complete their degree? Usually this is entirely out of the supervisor’s sphere of influence so go easy on them.
  • Is there funding available for research assistants to work on your projects? Meaning: Might you employ me for the summer so I’m not entirely broke?
  • What methods and theoretical frameworks do you usually apply to your research?
Of course, you will definitely want to be able to speak a bit about your research interests and gauge their reactions. For further questions, check out this list from YorkU.

4. Ask the questions that matter and put weight on the factors that are most important to you.

At the end of the day, no school is perfect. Since no student is perfect either, we’re all a good match. After gathering as much information about each university as is possible, you’ll have to decide what your deal-breakers are and what you are willing to compromise on. For me, it came down to needing a YES to each one of these big questions:

  • Is this program best-suited to my research interests and career aspirations? Are they offering courses that I want to take?
  • Will this set me up for the next stage in my career? Will I be able to get into the PhD program that I have my eye on?
  • Is there a professor who carries out research in my area of interest and would s/he be able to supervise me?
  • Is this going to be an adventure? After four years in a cubicle, I’m looking for excitement!
Thus has been my journey so far. While these tips may not work for everyone who is returning to school, I hope they might give you a few starting points from which to make your decision. Good luck and may the (discerning) force be with you!

Image courtesy of Wookieepedia 

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