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  • Heidi Waite

How to Choose a Graduate Program

[Topics were inspired by questions from mentees & discussions with the UCI's Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Ecology Group]

Yay! You’ve been accepted to 2+ graduate programs. But now its decision time. How to choose?! I struggled when I was making my decision, for sure. I wanted to make this post with a list of the sorts of things I considered when making my decision.

Once I heard back from schools, I made a list of things to consider and then ranked them based on my own priorities. Your list and rankings may differ and that’s okay! I just want to give an example of what it might look like.

  • Lab/research – my first consideration was the lab. I wanted to make sure I would be working on research that I liked and found interesting. It’s a good idea to make sure there is at least one other professor in the department doing research you have interest in. Though rare, sometimes students change lab due to incompatibility or other unforeseeable circumstances. It’s good to have a backup.

  • Location – This one was important to me. As someone whose research takes place mainly on the coast and beaches, I wanted to make sure the university campus was close enough to the coast for local research. Additionally, you’ll want to think about living costs associated with the uni’s location. For example, Irvine CA is not a cheap place to live, however, the university provides subsidized graduate housing that make it a bit more affordable. I had to compare this to the funding package I was offered as well.

  • Funding – Another important one for me! I ended up going to the program that offered more support. You’ll want to compare your fellowships and Teaching Assistantships (TA) between schools. And as stated above, think about how funding compares to the cost of living.

  • Faculty Mentoring Style – Faculty have many different mentoring styles, but generally they tend to be more hands on or hands off. What works for you really depends on your personality, but it’s essential that yours and your advisor’s style match! This is a very good question to ask other graduate students in the lab during interviews.

  • Lab mates / Lab environment – You’ll be working closely with your lab mates and in the lab environment, so you really want to make sure that you fit in and feel comfortable.

  • Department Environment – Similarly to the lab environment, the department will be your home base during your graduate school career. You want to make sure that it works for you. Is there a social atmosphere? Do graduate students from different labs know each other? What is the department’s diversity initiatives like? Do these things matter to you?

  • Program Structure – Make sure to look into what’s expected out of graduate students in the program. How many courses are required? Are you interested in that coursework? A requirement of TA hours? I was accepted to one program that had coursework that focused more on oceanography and chemistry, when I really wanted to do marine biology and ecology. I ruled this program out eventually.

  • Family obligations – Can your partner or family members move to this location? Can they find a job? Is there family housing? Can I live this far from home? Etc.


It is truly a difficult decision, but I find making a list and talking it over with friends and mentors is the best way to figure it out. Good luck!

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