Bill Atkinson
Theoretical and Computational Simulations of Quantum Materials

Questions you should ask before going to grad school

Thinking about graduate school in physics?  Here are some questions you should ask yourself.

  • Why do I want to go to graduate school?  Perhaps you love learning, or perhaps you want to pick up some skills to help you get a job.  It's ok if the answer is  "because I want a PhD", but be aware that a PhD doesn't guarantee you a job at the end.  Data collected by the American Physical Society shows that about 10% of students who complete a PhD become university professors.  The other 90% have to find jobs outside of academia.  Which leads to the next question ...

  • What do I want to get from my degree?  It's ok if the answer is "I'm not sure", but it is something you need to think about while you are doing your degree.  There are a few nice options available to students in Canada:
    • Complete your MSc, and then think about where you stand.  Having an MSc doesn't overqualify you for jobs, and you will have time during your degree to think about what you want.  Do you even like research?
    • Look at industrial partnerships.  Mitacs has programs geared towards graduate students.  Note that you and your supervisor will need to find an industrial partner, and that is easier in some fields than others.

  • I've found someone I might be interested in.  What now?   At some of the larger schools, you can be admitted to graduate school without having a supervisor chosen.  However, at most places, you need to have a supervisor first.  In this case, you need to contact the researcher and find out whether they have available spots in their group.  Before you contact them, spend a couple of days doing your homework.  Learn something about the field, and about the work being done by the potetial supervisor.  What is it about this research that interests or excites you?  Why are you a good fit for their research program?  What prior knowledge or skills do you have that makes you useful to them?  Perhaps you did very well in a course that's relevant to their research; perhaps you have undergraduate research experience. 

  • I have a potential supervisor lined up.  What should I ask them?  Here are some questions you can ask them.
    • How independent do you expect me to be?  Some supervisors see their students several times a week, others might see them once a month.
    • Do you have a project in mind for me?
    • Where are your former students now?  Where a student winds up depends largely on the student's preferences and personality, but it also tells you something about the character of the group.  Do the students' career paths match your own interests?
    • Will you be able to send me to conferences?  Networking matters.
    • At what level will I be funded?
    • Can you put me in contact with some of your former/current students?  When I interviewed for graduate school, I was sent to lunch with a group of current graduate students.  It was a great chance to find out what the department was really like.
    • Can I come visit?  If the supervisor really wants you, they will pay for some or all of your visit.

In the interest of full disclosure, here's where my previous graduate students have ended up:

  • Several of them have permanent jobs teaching at colleges or universities.
  • Some have gone on to professions where they use their technical skills  (e.g. high performance computing).
  • And some are working in fields where they sit at the interface between technical people (e.g. programmers and engineers) and non-technical people (managers).  This is where the ability to communicate difficult technical concepts clearly is extremely valuable.