The Perfect Program

Read on for advice on where to start and what to look for when researching a graduate program.
01 January 2007
Erin M. Schadt
With so many factors to consider, searching for a graduate program can be overwhelming.
The most important first step?or perhaps pre-step?is to take a look at yourself before you take a look at prospective programs. Assess your own priorities first: is it research area, then possible adviser, then location? Or do financial considerations trump them all? These are personal questions that only you can answer. Take the time to examine what you are searching for in a program before making big decisions.
One challenge to graduate program research is simply pinpointing factors to consider in your search. Here is a rundown of some of the key elements.
Degree Goals
First things first?you need to decide if you want to pursue an MS or a PhD. For some, that's an easy choice, but for many, that choice is not so simple. In very general terms, the MS is sufficient for careers in industry or government, and a PhD is desirable for careers in academia.
This is painting the picture in very broad strokes, however. If you have an idea of what type of job you'd like to seek once graduated, check out CVs of people in the field?especially those who have graduated more recently. This should give you a better idea of what is typical to the field you'd like to pursue.
Program Factors
Great?you know what type of degree you are going to work toward, now the choice of institution begins. Academic and laboratory quality are clear factors, but finding a respected optics program is one thing and making sure it's the right program for you is another.
Know your personal technical interest areas. Even if your undergraduate degree only gave you a limited look at photonics research, it's a good idea to know what areas appeal to you, and which you'd like to investigate further.
A thorough understanding of department requirements, the average time it takes to complete a degree, and the percentage of students to pass qualifying exams on the first try are all important to investigate. Make sure to find out if there is a teaching requirement and what the expected time commitment is for such a requirement.
Understanding how the program?and your education?is funded can't be emphasized enough. Research the program's funding track record. Has it been consistent and is it sufficient? Find out if there is a stipend for housing, insurance, and other living expenses, then explore whether this is a realistic amount, what more you'll need to live on, and the options for supplementing this.
Finding out what alumni go on to do after graduation is also relevant. What is the likelihood of receiving a job fresh out of the program? How supportive are programs to the job search?
Researching the professors involved in the program is a crucial step and should go hand in hand with researching the program itself. Find out the active research areas of potential advisers, see if you can get a sense of their personality and of their support of students after graduation.
The catch here is that when applying for and even upon entering programs, there are no guarantees what adviser you'll receive. Choosing a program that has a variety of professors you'd be happy with is best.
Practical Considerations
There are a myriad of other practical considerations as well. Will sub-zero temperatures or months of rain be impossible to handle? Then there are geographic locations you'll want to scratch off the list. Do you have a significant other to consider? If so, make sure you and your partner are honest with each other about your possibilities. You may be the one entering the program, but your "better half" should be vital to the decision.
Gathering Opinions
Thanks to the internet, researching the considerations listed so far is increasingly easier (see sidebar), but don't underestimate human contact. Once you've got your choices narrowed down, contact a few students and ask them about their experiences. Keep reading for a list of questions that are important to ask both current students and professors.
Researching graduate programs is hard work, but hopefully these guidelines will help make the effort a little easier.

Start the Search
There are numerous resources for finding graduate programs. Here are some highlights:
Optics Education Directory
Published by SPIE and OSA, this directory details hundreds of undergraduate and graduate programs in the many fields of optics and photonics around the world.
This is available in print or searchable online at
Grad School Shopper
The American Institute of Physics (AIP) maintains the website, which details physics programs all over the United States.
AIP Statistics
The AIP also provides statistical research on education and employment in physics in the United States available at Especially interesting is "Core and Breadth in Physics Doctoral Education." The report has an interesting section that invited individual universities to share their best practices.
Women in Grad Programs
The American Physical Society Committee on the Status of Women in Physics has an interesting site at, which provides a glimpse at the atmosphere for women in different grad schools. About 120 schools filled out surveys revealing the ratio of female-to-male students, faculty, and information women, in particular, may want to consider.

Questions to Ask Current Students, Professors

The acceptance letters have arrived, you've narrowed down your choices, and now it's time to really scrutinize the schools and programs.

This is the opportunity to visit campuses, explore the programs, and talk to students and professors to gain their perspectives. Whether during an in-person visit, or by email or phone, this human contact is invaluable for unique insight on the next few years of your life.

Provided here are some sample questions to ask students and professors.

Questions for Current Students
  • What are classes like - what's the average class size, and how engaged are professors in their classes?
  • What's the atmosphere like between students, is it more collaborative or competitive?
  • How much time do students spend, on average, as teaching assistants?
  • How is the adviser selection handled? Do students have much choice in what research group they join or adviser they receive?
  • What's a typical amount of time that students take to complete their degree?
  • Do stipends cover expenses such as housing very well? If not, what's the availability of ways to supplement the stipend?
  • In general, do you like it here? What do you like the most/least? What surprised you most once you got here?
  • What kind of free time do you have? Is there any opportunity for life outside of schoolwork?
  • What is the community/location like? Do you feel safe here?
  • For women: What's the male/female ratio among students and among professors?
  • How do you find the atmosphere for women here? Have you ever felt uncomfortable as a woman in the department?
  • Is there a support network for women, either formal or informal?
Questions for Professors

It's important to do your homework ahead of time, and have questions tailored to the type of research being done at the university. If there is a particular area of research you are interested in, make sure to find out how much research is being done in this area.

  • Where do you see your research going in the next few years?
  • Is research funding consistent?
  • How many students do faculty typically supervise?
  • What's the process like for finding/choosing an adviser?
  • In the next five years, do you foresee taking a sabbatical or retiring?
  • How long do students typically take to complete their degrees?
  • What kind of support do advisers give post graduation, during the job search?

Erin M. Schadt, SPIE Professional Managing Editor

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