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How do I choose which graduate school to attend?

  1. Mar 17, 2013 #1
    I have so far been admitted to three graduate programs in pure math. Without being too specific, all three schools are top-40 programs (one of which is also top 20, and another is top 30) - these numbers have been extracted from the NRC and US news rankings for graduate math programs.

    As I am an international student, I cannot travel to these places, so I really want to act quickly to free up some of the spots for people on the waiting list.

    All three schools are solid in my fields of interest (Topology and Geometry). I've also been told that faculty members I might be interested in working with are available to advise students.

    I would appreciate any pointers - how do I choose? Based on location? Or do I just go by the rankings here? Please feel free to PM me if you are interested in discussing this at length.

    Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 17, 2013 #2


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    Everyone has their own set of uniquely weighted parameters to maximize in this problem. Some things you may want to do if you haven't already done these before applying:

    (1) Email potential advisors. Initiate a dialog to help define a project. Try to learn about their supervisory style and what they expect from graduate students and then figure out if this will mesh with your learning style. Also look at what they've been publishing recently.

    (2) Email other graduate students. Ask what their experiences have been like so far and if they would recommend the program and particular advisors.

    (3) Research recent graduates. Are they ending up where you would like to end up?

    (4) What other things are you interested in beyond graduate studies? Student government? Sports? Anime club? You're allowed to give some weighting to extra-curricular interests - particularly if a balanced lifestyle allows you to excel in your studies.

    (5) Look into costs of living. This can be a major factor in some places as your life five years down the road can be pretty heavily influenced by whether you're paying $600 per month for rent or $1200.
  4. Mar 19, 2013 #3
    Thanks Choppy - this is very helpful. Are you also in Pure Math? Because I think it would probably be too ambitious of me to start talking about potential thesis problems right away. I would much rather know, for example, if they plan to stay in the department, or in some cases if they are about to retire. Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to phrase that to them.
  5. Mar 20, 2013 #4
    I highly agree with these points. I did exactly this, even more than needed, and it narrowed my schools and advisers down quickly. After I gained this knowledge, I turned down some very prestigious schools because they didn't have what I was looking for.

    DO NOT GO BY RANKINGS. It's what you want and only you. Rankings will do nothing if your adviser is a awkwardly social dimwit.
  6. Mar 20, 2013 #5


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    No, not in pure math, I'm in medical physics, but I've been around the academic block.

    You don't need to propose a thesis project right away. I was thinking more along the lines of asking questions like:
    - What projects are your current students working on?
    - Are you planning on supervising more students in the near future?
    - Do you have any projects or ideas for incoming students?
    - What are you working on right now?

    It's worth noting that you may not get an answer. Some professors I'm sure receive dozens or more of such queries per week. Some don't want to answer to avoid giving any impression that they have a desire to work with you if you have not been admitted to the program. But most departments will have at least some kind of point person who deals with recruitment of new graduate students... an associate chair of the department, a graduate advisor, chair of the graduate admissions committee etc., and if nothing else you can at least talk to this person.
  7. Mar 26, 2013 #6
    Thank you Choppy - I've emailed a faculty member those very questions, and received a very enthusiatic and detailed response a few hours later. To my surprise, a couple of his graduate students ignored my query (it has been around a week since I emailed them).
  8. Mar 27, 2013 #7
    An enthusiastic and detailed response from a potential advisor is a very, very good sign. You need someone who will become your champion at some point down the road.
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