Questions to ask when choosing a grad school

‘Tis the season for graduate school acceptances! With final decisions due in about a month, you’re likely weighing your options. Ultimately, it is a personal decision and only you can determine your priorities. Members of COMPASS have gathered some questions that might help guide your thinking.

Internal check-in

  • Am I happy with my options? Would it be worth taking another year to apply again?
  • Should/can I defer for a year?
  • Why am I doing this? What are my my motivations for attending grad school and my long-term career goals after grad school?

Program structure

  • How is the program structured? Do I like the timeline to candidacy?
  • Where do graduates from this program end up? CNGLS may have this data.
  • Do I want to take the required core classes? Am I allowed to take additional classes?
  • Are there advanced options if I already have a Master’s or took grad-level courses? Are “advanced options” just upper-level undergraduate courses?
  • Am I able to rotate in several labs? If so, how are rotations structured?
  • What happens if I don’t find a lab within the expected time? What is the process if I want to switch labs later in the program?
  • Is there an option to earn a Master’s if I decide to leave the PhD program?
  • What are the publication requirements for the program?

Culture and expectations

  • What is the culture in the department? How does the department build community or promote collaboration?
  • Are there opportunities for me to present my work? Are there frequent seminars in my areas of interest?
  • How do PIs view their roles as mentors, advisors, and committee members? Are there more than two PIs I would consider rotating with?
  • Do graduate students generally feel comfortable seeking input and mentorship from faculty in addition to their main advisor?
  • Are there professional development resources for multiple career paths?
  • How are careers outside of academia perceived? Will I be able to access information, advice, and career development resources for these career options?
  • Are there mental (and physical) health resources? Are these issues taken seriously by the community and are they openly discussed?
  • Are the graduate students happy? Is there informal or formal peer mentoring?
  • Can I envision the grad students in the program as my friends and colleagues?


  • Would I live there even if I were not in grad school? Where do most graduate students live (near campus, on-campus housing, etc.)?
  • Is there public transportation? Is the town bike-friendly? Will I need a car?
  • Are there opportunities for my hobbies and interests?
  • Do I want to be this distance from family and friends? Will I have access to a support network to maintain my mental health?
  • Can I afford to live there with the offered stipend?

Gut feeling

  • What was my first impression?
  • Are there external pressures affecting my decision?
  • What was my lasting impression after the interview?
  • Do I believe that this program prioritizes my development and well-being as a scientist and human?

Sara Wong

If you have problems answering any of these questions, do not hesitate to ask current graduate students, especially ones you met during the interview weekend. They are your best resource for learning about living situations, culture of the town and institution, and graduate school in general. One useful question to ask is if there is anything current graduate students wished they knew before making the decision. It is likely that there are things you do not know to ask about. For questions about the program, it is also advisable to contact the department chairs, professors you met during recruitment, professors you did not meet but might be interested in rotating with, or the faculty that organized the recruitment weekend. If a program is invested in you as a student, they will respond to your questions.


About the Author:

Sara Wong earned her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology from the University of Michigan, where she studied organelle transport. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Utah, where she studies mitochondria. Email:; Twitter: @sarajwong

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