Evaluating your Graduate School Offers (PER edition)

By Nick Young and Cami Monsalve

If you are reading this post, it likely means that you have been accepted to at least one of the programs you applied to so congratulations! Today’s article is the second of a two part series about applying and selecting a graduate program, specifically in PER.  Let’s get to it!


Not to add a lot of stress, but your thesis advisor can make or break your graduate school experience. Perhaps one of the best ways to think about picking your thesis advisor is through an analogy, provided by Cami’s undergraduate research advisor. The relationship between a graduate student and their thesis advisor is like a marriage. Both you and your advisor will need to work together to be successful and will need to have healthy communication and expectations. Just as you are probably selective about potential spouses, you should be selective about your thesis advisor.

When meeting with your potential advisor, you will want to know what their expectations are. Not clarifying expectations can be a major source of conflict in research relationships. For example, you will want to know about expectations around working hours, working on weekends, how often you are expected to be in the lab, how often you expect to meet with each other, how much you are expected to publish and present at conferences, and whether taking time off is allowed or encouraged (if it isn’t, you should think twice about joining that lab).

You will also want to think about what you want to achieve with your PhD and whether your advisor will be supportive of that. It’s not too much of a secret that some academics have a negative view of those who earn a PhD and then work outside of academia. In actuality, most people who earn a PhD will not become professors so you will want to know if your advisor’s beliefs reflect that fact and they support their students regardless of their career ambitions.

When you pick a thesis advisor, you will become a part of their lab which means there is another set of dynamics to consider (returning to the marriage analogy, think of the lab as the family). As part of the lab, you may be interacting with postdocs, other graduate students, or undergraduate students. As such, the dynamics of the lab can be just as important. Do people work together or work by themselves and is the environment competitive or collaborative? 

Lab mates can also serve as informal advisors who support your work and your development as a scholar. Recent work from biology education research suggests that in terms of skills development for graduate students, postdocs play a larger role than faculty do. This doesn’t mean you should pick a lab based on its postdocs, but it is a reminder to consider both the lab and your thesis advisor when making a decision.

If you’ve been reading closely, you might have noticed this section is called “mentoring” but the sentences use “advising.” Why does that matter?  Despite these terms often being used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. An advisor is someone who directs you. For a thesis, this is important because the thesis project needs to fit within the university’s guidelines so you want someone who will make sure you are fulfilling those requirements.

A mentor on the other hand is someone who guides. This means they allow you to choose your own direction and support you in your choices. Ideally, your thesis advisor will also be a mentor but that isn’t always the case. However, while you are often limited to one or two advisors as part of your program, you can (and should) have multiple mentors. These mentors are often informal but help you in certain areas. For example, you might have a mentor who helps you with teaching, someone who helps you with career planning, or someone who helps you with service and outreach work. These mentors can be other faculty who don’t supervise your research, staff members, postdocs, and even other graduate students.

Talking to other graduate students

While faculty often have an idea of how their graduate programs operate, the people who know best are the ones currently in it. If you have already had a visit day, you hopefully had some time to talk to just graduate students without any faculty present so you can get honest insights into the program.

When talking to other graduate students, you will want to ask both about the program and the surrounding community. For example, what they like and don’t like about the program, are they happy in the program, are there red flags in the program (if multiple grad students tell you the same thing, believe them. As much as we might like to think it will be different for us, it probably won’t), is the stipend enough to live on, is the community a nice place to live and does the community support their social appetite (e.g. activities, recreation, types of food/music/services).

You might also want to ask about relevant university services or opportunities that are not formally part of the graduate program but are nevertheless important. For example, professional development opportunities, health and fitness services (mental health too, more on that later), support for marginalized groups at the university (e.g. a women in physics group, multicultural center, LGBTQ+ resource center), and writing or statistics centers.

Program Requirements

Most PER programs are part of physics departments, which means that you will likely have to complete the traditional physics requirements and possibly some PER specific requirements. A recent paper looked at the national landscape, but each program will have slightly different requirements.

Some departments have a preliminary or placement exam over undergraduate physics to help them determine which courses you should enroll in as a first year graduate student.

For your courses, that will again depend on the specific program. In general as a physics graduate student, you will take some combination of classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, electricity and magnetism, statistical mechanics and some electives. As a PER graduate student, you may also be expected to take a PER course, graduate education courses, or qualitative and quantitative methodology courses. Some departments have a timeline for when courses must be completed (typically by the end of the 2nd or 3rd year) so you will want to ask about that.

After completing your coursework, you will complete candidacy, which as you probably guessed, varies by department. Candidacy usually involves some combination of written or oral exam, a thesis proposal, or a literature review. As part of this process, you will also start to or form your thesis committee, which are the scholars who will provide feedback on your research during the rest of graduate school and ultimately decide when/whether you will earn a PhD. 

In terms of exams, some departments have shifted to multiple, smaller exams throughout the first and second years instead of one large exam after all courses are completed. You will want to know about the structure and also the timeline for expiration. For example, if you haven’t graduated within so many years, do you have to go through candidacy again or repeat any requirements?

Finally, you will want to know how often the requirements change and how easy it is to check in on your progress. If the requirements are constantly changing, you will have a frustrating experience.

Stipend, Insurance, and Student Fees

As a graduate student in PER, you should be getting a stipend to cover your living expenses as well as your tuition paid. The amount of your stipend will vary based on the university but you will want to consider whether it is enough to live on. Many programs have some type of restriction on graduate students seeking outside employment. For example, our program requires students to get our thesis advisor’s or the graduate chair’s approval before we can take another job. When considering if it is enough to live on, consider the cost of living in the area and how it compares to your stipend (using a calculator like https://www.bestplaces.net/cost-of-living can help you compare offers).

Your stipend should also include some type of health insurance but again, that will vary based on the university and program. Some will only cover your health insurance, some will cover health, dental, and vision, and some will cover health with options to purchase dental and vision. Make sure to take these expenses into account when considering the stipend.

Also, don’t forget about mental health services! Graduate students report higher mental health concerns than the general population. In fact, a Nature survey found that 1 in 3 PhD students reported seeking professional help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies. You will want to consider whether your insurance will cover treatment and what options your university has. A large university should have some type of counseling or therapy options which may be free or low cost. 

Next, you will want to know about student fees. While your tuition should be covered as part of your funding package, you may still be responsible for student fees. These can range from tens of dollars to thousands of dollars. Current graduate students will know about these so make sure to ask.

Finally, you will want to consider taxes. While this probably isn’t something you need to ask about upfront, it is good to know how taxes work once you join a program. Your stipend is income so you will need to pay taxes on it. Depending on your university and funding source (more on that later), if taxes aren’t taken out by your university,  you may need to make quarterly payments so you aren’t charged a penalty at the end of the year. You will also want to be aware of any local or state income taxes you may have to pay and how those work based on if you change your residency (some programs will ask you to so you can pay in-state tuition). A tax professional will know best, but these are things to keep in mind so you don’t get any end-of-year surprises.

Funding Sources

As a graduate student, your stipend will likely come from one of three sources: a teaching assistantship (TA), a research assistantship (RA), or a fellowship.

As a TA, you are expected to help with classes. In physics, that often means leading recitation sections for introductory courses, running lab sections, or grading homeworks and exams. These tend to be geared towards 1st and 2nd year graduate students who aren’t too involved in their research yet but they may also be used in place of an RA if your advisor doesn’t have money.

If you are offered a TA, you will want to know what the workload is. As a TA, you aren’t supposed to work more than 20 hours a week so your teaching job shouldn’t take more than that. Depending on your thesis advisor, you may still be expected to participate in research activities such as group meetings, which are not counted in your teaching hours.

As a RA, your main duty is to do research. What type of research depends on the source of the funding. If it is from your advisor’s grant, you may have to work on a specific project that may not be related to your thesis while if it is from a university fund, it may be less restricted and you can focus on your thesis research.

One thing you will want to know about your advisor’s funding is how long it lasts for. When researchers win grants, there is often funding for graduate students and postdocs written in which means once those grants expire, so does your funding. Ideally, your advisor will keep winning grants so you won’t have to worry about funding running out but it does happen on occasion. While your department may be able to provide you a TA for a semester, taking time away from completing your degree, especially near the end, can be detrimental.

Finally, you can be funded through a fellowship, which means you have earned your own funding. Many programs offer some type of first year fellowship to entice prospective students to choose their program and there are many national ones as well (with the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program being one of the most well-known). With a fellowship, you don’t have to teach and your research isn’t tied to a specific lab or project which means you can easily switch labs or do your own projects. Even if you have a fellowship, you will still want someone supervising your work, meaning you will still be working with your advisor or PI. But, they aren’t paying you so you have more flexibility in what you do. 

PER-specific questions

While most of our tips and advice have been broadly applicable to graduate school, there are some PER specific things you will want to keep in mind. First, even though PER is a mature field with people with PER PhDs graduating their own PhD students, some departments and academics still don’t view PER as a legitimate area of study. That is, they are not supportive of PER work being done in their department, view PER as the “easy” way to get a physics PhD and/or view PER people as not “real” physicists. If this is the case at the institution you are considering attending, you will want to think twice if that institution is really the best place for you.

Second, because some types of PER are classroom-based, your teaching and research can overlap. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, you will want to be aware of how much overlap you want. For example, in our research group, one PhD student’s research centered around modernizing introductory physics labs. As a result, she served as the head TA for the course for multiple semesters because it related to her research and was beneficial for her to be training all of the other graduate students on how to run the course. For some types of research, it will make sense for you to have some TA or instructor role while for other types of research, it does not.

Finally, you will want to know about PER specific opportunities as again, your teaching and research overlap. Some departments with very active PER groups will have research-based, active learning sections of their large enrollment courses or other non-lecture courses, which means there may be opportunities for you to gain teaching experience outside of the traditional recitation or lab courses most graduate students will teach in. For example, at our institution, we’ve both had the opportunity to teach in a studio-based introductory physics for the life sciences course. Also, instructors often can put in requests to the graduate chair to be assigned a specific TA which means that if you are interested in TAing a specific course, don’t be afraid to ask the instructor about it.

Closing thoughts

These are just some topics to keep in mind when deciding on a graduate school. Most important though is what you care about. Ultimately, you will be spending 5-6 years (on average) as part of the program and you have to determine what you hope to get out of the program. Most programs do have a decision deadline of April 15th so don’t wait too much longer to determine whether to accept the offer or not.

Nick Young and Cami Monsalve are graduate students in physics education research at Michigan State University.

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