My first two postings on Comparing and Evaluating Graduate Programs discussed the importance of gathering information about admissions data, faculty size, requirements and graduate level courses in the programs that you are comparing, as well as funding, teaching, time-to degree, health insurance and career support. This article will continue to explore what you need to know to make informed decisions about which schools to apply to, and finally, which offer you accept.
In major metropolitan areas graduate student housing may not be a critical concern because there is an ample [sometimes overpriced] housing stock in the surrounding urban area, but in more rural communities housing options may be limited and you may need to commute, support a car, and pay for parking. Does your school offer married student housing? Four or five years of rent controlled graduate housing [with free Internet and electricity and heat, all of which may be part of the deal] is certainly worth asking about.
Summer classes serve two functions: if your graduate program 'exists' during the summer you may be able to take graduate level courses and make progress toward your degree; you may also be able to land a course or two as an instructor to earn extra money - this is a consideration for students in the humanities and social sciences who are usually not funded during the summer. Larger schools may offer these summer opportunities and there is no harm in asking about them so that you can plan ahead.
Graduate school applications, especially if you apply to several schools, can get expensive, so check to see if you are eligible for any kind of fee waiver [McNair scholar, alumni, minority, etc.].
Disability accommodations may be crucial for your continued education; if you had accommodation during college and want or need to continue it during graduate school you need to check on how to apply for one and whether you will need to update a diagnosis because in some cases your accommodation might need to be verified by a recent diagnosis. You are better served knowing the answer to questions like this before you arrive on campus and classes begin, instead of waiting until you have no time and other obligations once school is underway.
Campus visits either before or after you are accepted into a program are important and while they may be expensive, they are worth making. Visiting before you have applied, has several advantages: 1) you may discover that you hate the campus, the town and the program [or conversely that you love them]; 2) you can meet faculty, explore facilities and have a chance to make a good impression and sell yourself as a desirable candidate. If you visit after you are accepted, and you have more than one acceptance in hand, you can decide whether you [and your spouse?] can spend the next 'n' years at this school. Post-acceptance visits may sometimes be underwritten or subsidized by a school, so do not hesitate to ask for travel money. Schools sometimes have graduate student open houses with tours, dinners and presentations about the campus - ask if they are sponsoring such an event. The cost of a weekend trip from California to New York may be prohibitive, but if you have been accepted to a school in New York and one in Philadelphia, for example, see if you can schedule them for the same weekend, get some funding from each school and combine the funding to make the trip doubly informative and half as expensive...if you can.
Meeting with students at a school may be as important as meeting with the faculty. They will probably be candid and forthcoming with information about the program, so ask and ask and ask [that means ask more than one student the same questions]. What is advising/mentoring like in the program...is there a congenial social environment within the program [competitive or not]...do graduate students serve on committees in the program [how else will you be trained to be a faculty member someday if not through close mentoring and meaningful apprentice programs?], are classes stimulating, is the library well stocked and are the librarians helpful? This is just a short list of what you can inquire about.
If you are assiduous in gathering this kind of information your decision about the program you attend, especially if you don't have many choices at the end of the day, will be made in a more comfortable and satisfying way.
Milton Kornfeld, Ph.D.