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Deciding on a PhD Program: Confessions of an Admitted Doc Student

Student Success New Professionals and Graduate Students Graduate
May 24, 2022 Steven Feldman

Just over one year ago, I wrote a blog post for NASPA titled, “Three Self-Reflection Questions That Will Get You Into Grad School.” Apparently there is no better way to manifest something than to write it into existence. In the year since, I have applied and been accepted to grad school for the third (and hopefully final) time. Much to my own surprise, after applying to eight programs, I received six offers of admission. So I am glad to hear that I wasn’t entirely out of my mind when I wrote that blog post. And it also means that now I can offer you a sequel to my last post! So in this post, I thought I would share how I made my decision about where to go for my PhD program.

Perhaps most obviously, funding and advisor choice were two of the most important factors. I refused to go anywhere that was unable to provide me with full funding for the duration of my time in the program. Most people assume that PhD programs are always well-funded. The unfortunate reality is that even some of the top programs in the country aren’t always able to offer funding for all admitted students. Although some students may choose to accept a program with just one or two years of funding with the understanding that they will apply for additional funds for their remaining years once they get to that point, that was an added step that I was not willing to do.

So that helped me narrow down the list a bit. Next, I considered the kind of work that I would be doing as part of my funding package. Knowing that I am interested in faculty positions after graduating, I prioritized programs where my graduate assistantship would be doing research or teaching as opposed to working in a more traditional student affairs role. I also weighed who’s research team I would be joining and whether that position would have opportunities for publications and presentations at national conferences (plus the funding to send me there).

I also considered where I wanted to live for the next four, five, hopefully not more than six years of my life. For example, my top three schools ended up being in three different states and in three different settings: one urban, one rural, and one suburban college town. On top of that, they were all different distances from home, with different climates, and with different political landscapes. As an added consideration, I also thought through whether there was a music scene on campus and if there was an LGBTQ center. As a queer musician, I knew that those would help me get a sense of what my social life might look like outside of the program. Finally (and this will seem really petty), I considered the general appearance of the campus and surrounding neighborhood. While some might say this shouldn’t matter that much, I did my first graduate program at a school where my department’s building was designed to look and feel like a prison (I wish I was kidding but you just can’t make this stuff up). I dreaded spending time on campus and so now I know that that’s something I can’t overlook when deciding where to go.

But at the end of the day, what really helped me choose where to spend the next chapter of my life was a gut feeling. The truth is I am sure that any one of the programs I applied to could have prepared me to be a faculty member. I have no doubt that I would have felt supported by any of the folks who would have served as my advisor. Once I removed the schools that weren’t providing full funding, I was left with several options, all of which I could have made work if I wanted to. And so when all major factors looked pretty equal in my eyes, I had to ask myself, “Where does my gut tell me I will be happiest?” I know that probably sounds about as useful as all the folks that say “trust the process,” but when all is said and done, your experience in grad school is what you make of it. Sure, different programs will have different enticements. But every program will have positives and every program will have negatives. Your success in a PhD program will be in large part what you make of it. So choose a school that you think will make you happiest and go out there and do the wonderful things that the field of higher education is desperately waiting for you to do!

Author: Steven Feldman (he/they) works as the Associate Director of the Center for Trans & Queer Advocacy at West Chester University. In their free time, they enjoy playing Pokémon Go and drinking iced coffees from Dunkin’. Steven can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter at @sfeldman990.