What Else to Consider in Your Graduate Program Search

Formal portrait of Fiona Laramay, author of the post and Ph.D. student in environmental science and engineering.

By Fiona Laramay
​Ph.D. student in Environmental Science & Engineering

When I was looking at grad schools, other than admissions and faculty research areas, I really didn’t know how else to compare them. Now that I’m in my third year at Clarkson, I’ve realized there are some important characteristics that have made my experience incredibly positive but I didn’t really know to look for before. Emphasis on collaboration, interdisciplinary research and preparing grad students to analyze problems and effectively defend their answers have characterized my research experience in particular at Clarkson.

So far, my research has included mechanical, electrical and civil engineering components, along with my primary focus on chemistry. I’ve learned some computer-aided design (CAD) and taken engineering courses far outside my undergrad biochemistry comfort zone (and I survived). The point being: the subject of your research may not always simply be singular. The resulting product of that research will be much stronger if you have been able to learn as much as possible about the related areas.

But that brings up a second point: the importance of independent and collaborative work.

More than likely you will be asked what your hypothesis is, the experiments you will run to test it and why. If your work is always prescribed for you, learning to defend it effectively becomes much harder. Having the experience of formulating the question, using the literature and other resources, designing the experiments and presenting it all to your advisor is preparation for your thesis defense or a future job. In other words, seek out a university and faculty that encourage independent work. And of course, there is a caveat to that advice: you will also need help and feedback at some point. Thus, there is the importance of collaboration.

At Clarkson, collaboration is emphasized everywhere. I have worked with faculty, staff and graduate students across campus and in our own lab group.

I’ve heard from friends attending other universities about the hyper-competitive culture on those campuses, both between labs and within them. My experience here has been improved by listening to other graduate students and faculty, considering their feedback and learning to more effectively communicate my own ideas.

At Clarkson, collaboration has looked like faculty co-writing grant proposals or papers with students, faculty helping students (and other faculty) in other fields, and graduate students sharing resources and assisting each other in the lab.

Collaboration also comes through in university support for research. When my advisor and I had the idea for a reactor to treat groundwater in the subsurface but needed funding to build and test it, staff in Division of Research and The Shipley Center helped us find non-traditional funding sources. As a result, not only do we have funding, we even co-founded a startup. When I said Clarkson emphasizes “interdisciplinary research,” I wasn’t kidding!

I never expected to learn about financial models or investor pitches in grad school but it turns out there are other students doing the same thing here.

The real question is, how do you figure out which schools have these opportunities? Contact their graduate students. Many universities have a webpage listing graduate students in different departments and their email addresses. Alternatively, contact the person in charge of graduate admissions for the department and see if they can connect you with someone. Look at faculty webpages, read their papers and take note of who their co-authors are and what universities/departments they are from. None of these are perfect metrics, but the more information you have, the more informed your decision will be.

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