Choosing the Right Grad School

by danah boyd

Last Updated: October 28, 2009

Discussion: Comments on this essay and related advice can be viewed at this blog post.

Choosing where to get your PhD is not the same as choosing where to get your undergrad. The reputation of the school matters and the awesome-ness of your peers matters, but the MOST significant factor in your sanity and success is your relationship with your advisor. I cannot say this loudly enough. In grad school, you're going to be in a fraught power-laden relationship with an eccentric academic over an extended period of time. No matter how awesome that person is, no matter how cool their ideas are, if you and your advisor don't click, watch out. And may I strongly encourage pre-emptive therapy?

Academics are not known for their management skills. And even social science and humanities types who pride themselves on their ability to observe others and deconstruct the craziest text may not actually be equipped to engage in productive communication when it comes to negotiating power in their own lives. Thus, you should take it as a given that all academics are at some level dysfunctional. This does not mean that they're unlovable. Personally, I love eccentric people. But be prepared for it. And be prepared for working with someone who is not prepared to ever articulate what they need or want from you while they simultaneously need it and want it.

There's huge variety in professor types. Some professors are micromanagers and are going to want to know everything you're doing at every moment in time. Others are going to ignore your emails, sweep in every 6 months, and want to see what you've done. There are advisors who are good at mentoring you through the thinking to choose your project and there are others who expect you to come to them with fully formed ideas. There are those who are going to want you to follow every rule in the book and make conservative leaps; there are also those who are hoping you will find a new way around every wall out there. There are professors who are trying to build their dominion and you will be tasked to do work on their projects; others are curious to see which crazy direction you'll take. For each possible mentor and student, there are styles that work and styles that don't. The key is to find compatibility. And that's damn hard given that you can't really do a trial run so easily.

The problem with choosing a grad school is that it's basically a blind date based on an online dating profile. On paper, the compatibility seems obvious. But reality is often much more complex. And you actually have to work at it. The problem is that your advisor is going to be far less committed to working at the relationship than you as a student are going to want them to be. So there's going to be a lot of accommodation on your part. Again, not always a bad thing. Lots to learn, lots to learn. But you have to really reflect on your own needs and learn to articulate them and make certain that you and your advisor can see eye-to-eye on how to best proceed. If you expect them to understand you, you will fail. You need to do work. And I don't just mean academic work. PhDs require a shitload of self-reflection, something that no wannabe grad student ever imagines as part of the process.


So how does this relate to choosing a grad school? First things first, do NOT choose a program based solely on it being "the best." What's best in rankings may not be best for you and the last thing you want is to come out of grad school depressed, miserable, and cranky (although many scholars do). You need to find a place that will allow you to explore the questions you're interested in in a way that works best for you. Success is about taking the available resources and finding the way to make a meaningful intervention while staying sane. Success is about finding the right advisor to help get you through.

You need to find the perfect advisor, but it ain't going to be easy. Most professors do not have time to meet with applicants. That said, there are some who expect that kind of communication. Current (or former) grad students can be a good way to find out about the personality of an advisor or program, but it's also important to realize that they too may be overwhelmed.

Another major issue is that you don't want to choose a program based solely on ONE potential advisor. At the very least, you need to be comfortable with at least two of the faculty as potential advisors because if the first one doesn't work out, you're going to need a backup. Three is much more ideal. You also need to know that you could build a committee. Committees range depending on the school, but assume you will need 4 people to sit on your committee. Does that department/school have at least four people that you could work with?

The other issue in all of this is that people think that they need to find an advisor who shares their interest in the same TOPIC as they do. Topic is the least important factor in choosing an advisor, at least in the social sciences. What you really need in terms of scholarly compatibility is METHOD and THEORY. You need someone who can help you hone your methodological skills and can help you make sense of a theoretical frame in which to base your work. And you need an advisor who gets you on at least one of those levels. If someone shares your topic but not your method or theory, it's gonna be disastrous. So choose people based on method and theory, assess compatibility based on method and theory, choose classes based on method and theory.

OK, given this, here are a few concrete steps:

Applying to PhD programs takes a different kind of work than applying to ugrad programs. It's not about the school or the classes or the students. It's really about the faculty. You want to find the right faculty who can support you in your endeavors. And this ain't easy.

Once you're in a PhD program, make sure that you create a channel of open communication between you and your advisor (or the faculty more generally if you're not assigned an advisor). Make it clear what you need and want and find out from that person how they work best. Find a way to communicate BEFORE there's a communication breakdown. Make sure you're on the same page. And keep that conversation channel flowing over time.

One other thing... don't feel badly if you need to drop out of your first PhD program. (I expected to get my PhD at MIT but left after my Master's.) Sometimes it doesn't work out. There are other programs. But make sure you're networking in the field starting the first day of your first grad program. Know the people, know the different departments, be attentive to a world beyond your grad school. This will all help you succeed.

Anyhow, hopefully this helps. Grad school can be quite fun and hugely intellectually beneficial. But it's also exhausting and having the right fit really really matters. Finding that is hard, as is the case in finding any other partner, lover, collaborator. You've got to work at it. And you can't just take it for granted. Good luck!

In the meantime, make sure that you read PhD Comics for a good laugh and Eszter Hargittai's Ph.Do column for some sound advice on being a PhD student.

(Note: I will update this as my thoughts evolve over time so as to be as helpful as possible on the topic.)