Friday, August 19, 2011

In pursuit of a Ph.D.: How to choose a graduate school program

Part I of a three-part series in which graduate students at Washington University discuss their thinking behind choices they made at various steps in obtaining a Ph.D. in science.
Undergraduate classes inspire
Kristina Stemler, a graduate student in the Developmental, Regenerative, and Stem Cell Biology Program, took a Developmental Biology course back in her undergraduate institution, and this decision directly influenced her career choices.  From this, she "was instantly hooked on questions that pertained to organismal development and adult homeostasis."  Corinne Decker, of the Immunology Program, agrees that her undergrad classes played an important role.  "I decided to pursue Immunology at WashU after I had a few really great Immuno classes in college," she says. 
Research lab experiences do not always dictate future choices

Interestingly, the field of research conducted in labs prior to graduate school may or may not have an impact.  Kristina's undergraduate research appears to have made a positive effect; she performed research on topics highly relevant to those studied in her graduate program.  And, she was also part of the Genomics Education Partnership founded by WashU, in which she learned genomic finishing and annotation.  This experience was the one that gave her great insight into the WashU graduate programs, influencing her decision to attend the school and continue her investigations of developmental biology.  Corinne, however, has a different story to tell.  Her undergrad research experience was not at all related to immunology, her current graduate research.  But since she was interested in the subject from other avenues such as her courses, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in it. 
The impressions faculty make can be critical
Both Kristina and Corinne are in agreement that the faculty at WashU is an important reason for why they chose to join the programs.  "I knew that I would receive support and encouragement from the great faculty that I interviewed with," Kristina says.  Corinne adds that she was "very impressed by how happy and down-to-earth the students and faculty seemed."  Additionally, she liked that there were so many professors in the program, and because of this she felt confident that she could join a lab in which she was interested.  Haiyang Yu, who is in the Molecular and Cell Biology Program, adds that when he was weighing his offers, the fact that the program at WashU was the "largest and strongest" was the deciding factor for him.
Collaboration and extensive interaction attract students
Clara Moon, a Ph.D. student in the Immunology Program, was highly impressed by the "collaborative atmosphere" she found while interviewing at WashU.  "I thought [it] was great, especially for scientists in training," she says.  Indeed, ease of collaboration and interaction can be a deciding factor for students looking at various graduate school programs.  For Kristina, the knowledge that she would be able to interact with other students – both in her program and in a different but related program – through student-run seminars at WashU was a plus for her. 
Life in St. Louis
Coming from rural Pennsylvania, Corinne cites the fact that "St. Louis is a very affordable but not too intimidating of a city" is an important reason for why she chose to study immunology at WashU.  Thus, the surrounding areas of any school can definitely make a difference in deciding which graduate program to attend. 

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