What to look for: Perspectives for prospectives’ campus visits
Prospective grad students get to be jetsetters this time of year, visiting programs all around the country that have accepted them. Congratulations to them–you really deserve to be wined-and-dined a bit, after all the hard work and anxiety of the last few months! With the benefit of hindsight and experience (both as the woo-ed and the woo-ers), we wanted to provide a few (hopefully) helpful pieces of unsolicited advice on what to look out for when you prospectives are trying to make sense of your visits, since the whole process can be wearying and daunting.
Please jump in with any questions, prospectives! And, for those of us on the other side, feel free to offer more unsolicited advice–as well as any funny stories you have, in the comments section below.
1. Don’t feel intimidated: There are a bunch of scary and scary smart people you’ll be meeting in the few but very action-packed days of your campus visit, from (obviously) the faculty to the grad students to your fellow prospectives. You’ll naturally be in awe of the faculty, particularly the big names who probably got you to apply to the school in the first place, and you’ll probably stay that way through a good part of grad school. But you’ll also come to realize that they’re living, breathing people behind the voluminous CVs, important books, and glamour-shot dept website JPEGs. The sooner you come to this realization, the easier your grad school future will be, since these are the folks you’ll be taking your classes with and asking for advice.
As for the grad students and your fellow prospectives, don’t let them stress you out or fool you into feeling inadequate. A natural part of these visits is some friendly comparison and healthy competition, whether it’s over your undergrad alma maters or the size of your package–fellowship, that is! You’ll find out that it’ll be more of the same once you start grad school, too. Some of the intimidation may come from attempts to be helpful, particularly from grad students who can’t help but overload you with information about the program and the profession. Just keep in mind that the grad students you meet are only a few years ahead of you and maybe your age, too (since the more advanced students either aren’t around or working on their dissertations). They might seem to know so much more than you do–especially since some of them will directly or indirectly tell you so–but they really don’t. You’ll get to that point soon enough.
You also might find that some of your fellow prospectives are already sizing you up and preparing their climb to the top-of-the-class, as if such a thing existed. So maybe they know more about biopower than you do or are talking to faculty about the Frankfurt School in ways you can’t or are working to get a better deal because s/he is the one of two who got accepted at the Johns Hopkins Humanities Center (yes, I met that guy!), but don’t get psyched out . And you know what? No one can predict who’ll be the most “successful” students (however you measure that) or be getting jobs 6 or 7 years from now. Hint: they’re probably not the ones who are acting like they’re junior faculty while they are still doing coursework. Just remember you all start from the same place, so give yourself as much credit as you’d be inclined to give someone else.
2. Are they working it for you?: Grad school can inspire an idealistic attitude, which, of course, isn’t a bad thing. But don’t let idealism eclipse other important factors you should weigh in your decision, particularly more mundane matters like cash money and how well the schools are treating you. I addressed money and first impressions at much greater (probably too much!) length earlier, but the gist of it is that your instincts and gut feelings can tell you a lot. Just how hard the hard sell is can be telling, since this is one of the few times the dept wants your attention more than you need its. To put it another way, if they aren’t working it for you now, don’t expect them to look out for you later on, since nonchalance now means neglect later. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t have some perspective and put your BS sensor on high–I’ve been told that it’s a good idea to talk to at least one naysayer among all the true believers–but let them schmooze you at least a little bit.
3. Don’t dismiss the superficial: You might think things like how nice the grad students’ apartments are or the proximity to good restaurants and shopping are frivolous reasons on which to base what seems to be a very serious decision. Well, you’re probably right, but they might not be bad things to factor into your decision, since you’ll be stuck with the choice you make anywhere from 5-8 years. Basic day-to day things, such as whether the grad students seem happy, like where they are and like each other, will become more important than you think right now. Grad school is very insular whether or not you try to do something about, so make sure that the decision you have to live with takes into account where and how well you’ll live.
“Suitcase” by Frizabela from Wikimedia Commons, public domain