When I advise undergrads about graduate schools, I take into account the usual things, such as what the student thinks might be his/her specific interests for graduate research (and therefore which schools are good in that field). I also consider my opinions about which places have good advisers in that field, based in part on what I know about the previous experiences of graduate students working with a particular adviser or group of advisers.
And of course it is important whether the student is certain he/she wants to go directly into a PhD program, definitely wants to stop after the MS, or maybe will do an MS first and then see how things go (leaving open the option of a PhD later).
If the student has any personal issues that restrict options to a geographic area or to a set of universities that would also be suitable for the continuing studies or employment of a significant other, I can adjust my recommendations as necessary.
Although I do not claim to be a perfect match-maker between students and grad programs, I have done pretty well over the years in terms of helping students find a program that matches their scholarly interests, personalities, and other personal preferences.
I still have things to learn, though. This year I learned the following:
1. The economic crisis has shifted the ground at some schools so much that places that used to offer decent financial packages for stipends, tuition, and benefits now cannot. I don't know the details of the economic situations at particular institutions (although, for state universities, I can sort of guess based on what state they are in), but I wish I knew more so that I could have adjusted my recommendations accordingly.
Example: A talented undergrad asked for my advice about graduate schools. We talked about options on more than one occasion, and I suggested that he go to a conference in the fall, sit in on a range of talks in the fields in which he had an interest, and meet some people. At the conference, I introduced him to some potential advisers at one particular school that I thought was a really good fit for him. I knew that the professors to whom I introduced him were excellent scientists and also great advisers who cared about their students. The student talked to them at length and got very excited about the research possibilities. That institution was his top choice for a graduate program.
He applied and was accepted, he visited the department, and .. the financial offer was so inadequate that there might as well not even have been one. The student would have had to get a job and take out loans to make it through grad school (just as he had done as an undergrad), and no one should have to do that in the physical sciences.
If I had had any idea how bad the offer would be, I would not have made this "match". And I would have suggested that the student apply to many more places than he did. He had applied to more than one, but by mid-April, his options were few and unappealing. This was shocking because he is an excellent student and should have had his pick of graduate programs.
I felt like I had made a serious error in my advising, with possibly grave consequences. The story has a happy ending, though. I sent out some e-mails and found a colleague who was still looking for a graduate student and was pleased to have a strong recommendation of a possible candidate; the student now has a good financial offer at a really good place with a dynamic research group. It was only by luck, however, that I was able to fix my error and help work out a good solution.
Next year I will try to be better informed about economic issues before making strong recommendations. I feel very sorry for faculty in economically distressed departments that can't put together decent financial offers, but students need to look out for their personal economic situations as well. Those of us advising students on potential graduate programs can't just send them off an economic cliff because we only consider our usual criteria when making recommendations.
2. I have never really considered time-to-degree as a factor in my recommendations of certain graduate programs or advisers. These are difficult data to evaluate for a program or a particular faculty adviser; there are so many factors, including many related to the student. Even so, I learned this year of a particular program/adviser that I previously enthusiastically recommended owing to the interesting research and research environment, but now this place is off my list because the time-to-degree for many students is twice what it should be.
If a student asks my advice about that place I won't say "Don't even consider it", but I will strongly recommend that they talk to other students, look into the time-to-degree issue, and consider very carefully whether they want to invest what might be an unusually long time in their graduate studies. Students should do that anyway, no matter where they apply, but having this information in advance will affect my specific suggestions of graduate schools.
I hope all those involved in the grad admissions process this year -- professors and students -- had as successful a year as possible given the economic situation. I am happy with how things turned out for me and my research program, although I made my usual gamble and accepted more students than I thought would actually accept. They never all accept; except when they do. This year they all did. This has never happened to me before. That's fine, though. They all got good financial offers of guaranteed support, we are going to have fun, and we are going to be writing more proposals than we expected.
6 months ago