Tips for Visiting Grad Schools
I visited quite a number of graduate schools during my application process and, in doing so, gained some level of proficiency in it. So I thought it might be useful to some people if I wrote up some tips on this process. As I only visited grad schools for math, this is specifically geared to math grad school visits, but these suggestions should be more or less applicable for visiting any grad school.
1. The best time to visit is usually shortly after they accept you. Then they are normally willing to pay for some or all of your trip. Also some schools have special weekends planned and I would recommend visiting on those days if possible. Also try to avoid visiting when the school is on break. Ask the secretary which days would be best for a visit (some schools are dead on TuTh, others on Fridays). If you have an option to stay with a grad student, I recommend this to get a better feel for the place.
2. Try to visit for two or three days. One day (sometimes even two!) is not enough time to visit the department, school and surrounding area.
3. The department secrectaries are usually very friendly and helpful, so if you have any questions regarding planning your visit or when you're there, try asking them.
4. Look on the web to see what professors you're interested in talking with ahead of time. Send them an email to try to set up an appointment. You may also want to do this with graduate students (either pick them off the web or ask the professors in your field if they can recommend grad students who would be good to meet with), depending on when you're visiting. Grad students usually aren't a problem to find if you're there for two weekdays or a special weekend, but they can be slippery around breaks and weekends (all you'll find will be the ones who work hard and then you might get deceived into thinking they all do :).
5. Before you meet with professors, find out what their research interests are and prepare some questions for them.
6. You'll probably also want to meet with the graduate student advisor, and he/she should want to meet you, so this should be set up automatically. (I don't know why I wrote this then.)
7. Almost all of the things that you consider important for visiting colleges are important for visiting grad school. You're going to be here for 5 years or so! In particular find out about housing, transportation, cost of living, food and the social life, on- and off- campus.
8. Make notes after your visit of the things you liked and disliked about the school. After you visit them all, you tend to have a somewhat selective memory, biased towards (or against, depending how your visits went) the schools you visited most recently. Additionally, remember that as you visit more, you know more what to look for, so you didn't really give each school a "fair shake."
Questions for the Grad Student Advisor:
1. Ratio of professors to students? Do students have a hard time finding advisors? (If there are too many students, students may often not get their first choice.)
2. International/National student ratio? (you may not care, but it helps get you a feel for the department).
3. Male/Female student ratio? (this usually isn't an issue--but it is at Caltech!)
4. Average size of incoming class & percentage that drop out?
5. Expected time to graduate?
6. Curriculum & requirements? (you should probably read these before you get there, but ask anyway)
7. Where do the graduates go? Academia? Industry? Out of choice? (These questions are very important.)
8. Find out the details on your fellowship/teaching assistantship/research assistantship and how it will continue in later years.
9. What are you allowed/required to teach and what are the responsibilities?
Questions for the Professors in your field:
1. Ask about their research interests, of course! If you're really interested in working with them, express it. Then if they're planning on leaving soon (and they're nice), they'll tell you so you can take that into account.
2. How many students do you have? What kind of things are they working on? (In math, professors and students often aren't working on the same problems.)
3. Do you usually recommend problems for your students, or do they normally look for their own?
4. When do your students usually start on their research? How long does it take them to finish?
5. Where do your students go after they graduate?
Questions for the Graduate Students:
Try to talk to several grad students to get different points of view. You don't want to only talk to the one student who hates it when no one else does, or vice versa. Also students who knew more coming in will think it easier; and international students will tend to give you quite a different impression than the American/Canadian ones, particularly if they're not that comfortable with the language or the culture here.
1. Check the answers above with the graduate students.
2. What are the first & second years like?
3. How much time do you spend on school work?
4. What's your advisor like? (Do they really check your work and make helpful suggestions? Are they hands-off? Hands-on? How often do you meet? etc.) Is it hard finding an advisor?
5. How is the food on-campus and in the area? (You should try eating where the grad students usually eat, or at least visit the on-campus dining facilities.)
6. What do you think of this school? Is it a friendly department? Is there a lot of pressure on the students?
7. What do you do in your free time? What's the social life like on-campus and in the area? On-campus/local clubs & organizations?