Posted by Jason Polak on 19. September 2017 · Write a comment · Categories: advice

Choosing where to get your PhD is an important decision. If you continue onto academia, your PhD might be the longest time you spend at any one institution until you get a permanent position. The most obvious choice is apply to the high-ranking schools. However, you should consider far more than that. Here, we’ll look at some of the important factors to consider, with the context of mathematics in mind. However, most of what I say applies to some other fields as well.

Represented research areas

Unlike choosing an undergraduate program, where the curriculum doesn’t differ much around the world (though it certainly can vary greatly in strength or intensity), a PhD will be on a very specialised topic. So, if you go to a school where analysis and statistics are the main topics represented and you like algebra, you probably won’t like it. This can be worse for those places where you don’t have to choose an advisor until the second year. So I suggest you look at the represented research areas on departmental websites and see what catches your interest. Unfortunately, some math department websites look like they were coded on a Super Nintendo, if that were even possible. So:

Make sure someone is actually doing something you’re interested in at prospective schools!

If you’re at the undergraduate level and not sure of your interests yet, it could be a good idea to consider a masters program first before starting a PhD. I enjoyed doing a masters degree first, even though in the long run it is more expensive.

Total school atmosphere

If you’re lucky enough to be nearby some schools you’re interested in, you should visit them, meet some professors, and even sit in on some classes and departmental seminars. Just walk around and see what it’s like. Some schools have a much nicer atmosphere than others. You should also get a sense of the surrounding city. This is true especially if you are a very independent worker: having an enjoyable city will in fact make working much easier. Conversely, living in a place you dislike for several years is quite draining.

Sadly, living temporarily in cities you don’t like is very probable in at least one stage of climbing the academic ladder.
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