Practical Advice for Choosing the Right PhD Program

Having just�¯�¿�½selected a PhD program, I will offer advice in this article on choosing the right one.�¯�¿�½ Of course, I have no idea how it will all turn out, but I am confident that the way I went about the process will give me a halfway decent chance at success.�¯�¿�½ After all, choosing a PhD program has far-reaching implications.�¯�¿�½ It might sound extreme, but what happens during your course of study in the right (or wrong) doctoral program will significantly impact the rest of your life.�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½

I do realize that all disciplines are different; my area of Urban Planning in the social sciences is surely quite different than say, Biology in the hard sciences.�¯�¿�½ But I do think that some of my specific and not-so-specific thoughts can be generalized to apply to most any academic area.�¯�¿�½�¯�¿�½

First and foremost, start the process of searching for programs as early as possible.�¯�¿�½ I would argue that the junior year of undergraduate or very early into a Masters degree is time to begin researching prospective programs.�¯�¿�½ Personally, I am going straight from undergrad to doctoral school, as is the case with many students with the ultimate goal of teaching at the university level.�¯�¿�½ An integral part of this research should involve discussing your situation with as many professors as possible at your current institution.�¯�¿�½ I suggest seeking the advice of old, tenured veterans and new professors alike.�¯�¿�½ The former have been through the wars and know lots of people and�¯�¿�½places, while the latter have likely very recently gone though precisely what lays ahead for you.�¯�¿�½ Two key components of my search and selection process came directly out of consulting with one professor of over thirty years and another in just her second semester of teaching.

The wiley veteran questioned my list of potential schools.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ I started out like most people do with the biggies on my list – Harvard, MIT, Penn, all of the big Ivy League schools.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ While my prof did believe that I would be competitive at such institutions, he directly asked me why I was applying to these places.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Was it based on name alone or on some other substantive reason?Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ I stated that they had good enough programs, but yeah, it was largely based on name.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ He argued effectively that I might be better off looking at the schools with “lesser” name recognition, but with faculties that will be more accessible and helpful and programs that match up better with my specific research objectives and career goals.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ The younger professor simply turned me on to the school that I have decided to attend – the place where she got her PhD just a few short months ago, The University of California at Irvine.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ As it turns out I never even thought of UCI, but their program is a perfect fit, almost as if it was designed to meet my particular criteria.

And to that end, if it is not already obvious, the fit of the program is of paramount importance when selecting a place for doctoral study.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ While other institutions have solid Urban Planning programs, none are structured the way UC-Irvine’s is.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ My research interests cross between Urban Planning, Urban Studies, and Environmental Psychology.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ UC-Irvine’s School of Social Ecology contains four units:Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Planning, Policy, and Design; Psychology and Social Behavior; Criminology, Law, and Society; and Environmental Health, Science, and Policy.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ This structure is unique and set up in a way that makes it superior to any other schoolÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½I looked at.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ And itÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½almostÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½goes without saying, but the professors in this school have research interests that are completelyÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½in line with my own, a true key for successfully completing the PhD as I understand it.

Once you have a short list of schools, and my list ended up containing only three names for very specific reasons, I suggest visiting them very early.�¯�¿�½ By very early, I mean before you even send in an application.�¯�¿�½ Look at it this way, if you have already visited the school and meet with faculty and students, you only serve to bolster your application.�¯�¿�½ You will be better equipped to write a sound statement of purpose than you would be otherwise.�¯�¿�½ Aside from official campus visits, find other ways to connect with faculty and students of possible schools.�¯�¿�½ Use email.�¯�¿�½ Better yet, go to conferences where they will be and introduce yourself.�¯�¿�½ It got to a point where one UC-Irvine faculty member commented that if I came in and sat in one of their classes, no one would even think twice.�¯�¿�½ This might be funny, but the key here is that I got to know these people and we established a certain level of comfort with one another.

And my last point might be the most important.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Most of us will spend about five years working on our doctoral degrees.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ I have looked at this thing from the standpoint that says, “Wherever I go must be a place where my whole family will be happy.”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Five years is not eternity, but it is a substanial chunk of time.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ One school I visited turned me off from the get go.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ I asked myself, “Are these people the folks I want to be around for the next five years?”Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Frankly, they did not seem very happy and oddly, they let it show.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ They seemed indifferent to whether or not I would choose their school.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ On the other hand, the facutly, staff, and students at UC-Irvine come off as generally nice people to be around.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ In academia, just like in many professions, I think this is hard to come by and when you find it, it ought to be valued.

Again, my situation is specific to me, but the guidelines I have set out are applicable to most academic disciplines.�¯�¿�½ Start early, do lots of reaseach, talk to lots of people, and strive to find the program that looks as if it was made just for you.

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