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Accepting Graduate Admissions Offersbeginning grad school

If you have been offered admission into a graduate program or programs of your choice, then congratulations!  Your path to graduate studies is assured.  However, just as you engaged in a process of research and deliberation before choosing which programs to apply to, you are now faced with another set of decisions: which program to attend (if you have more than one offer) and which faculty advisor to work with (if you have flexibility, which is the case in the graduate program in this department).  Your decision should not be taken lightly – it will shape your life for the next 2-6 years or more.  Accordingly, here we discuss some considerations to keep in mind when deciding on which graduate school to attend. 

Your Priorities in Graduate School Are Different

It is important to appreciate the differences between undergraduate and graduate school experiences.  At the graduate level, your advisor and how your graduate program is structured is far more important than the reputation of the university, the types of classes that are offered, the student organizations that are available, and so on.  Your primary occupation will be conducting research, and thus it is critical that you select an environment that enables you to do so productively and successfully.  

In many cases, your graduate advisor and the lab you join outweigh almost all other considerations (for example, your fit in the lab vs. your fit in the program or the department).  Some students think that they can select a graduate program to attend as if they were attending an undergraduate institution; you will be better served by having a more specific focus on your priorities at the graduate school level.

Bottom line: who your advisor is, and what lab you work in, in practically all cases outweighs the program ranking, overall reputation, etc.  Many new graduate students make the common mistake of not carefully researching their advisor and lab environment -- with consequences for the graduate experience.

Which Graduate Program Should I Ultimately Attend? 

First you should return to the criteria that shaped your original list of programs to apply to.  As mentioned in our webpage on that topic, your considerations may include the type of program (in other words, how it is structured), your match with faculty there, financial considerations, program life, and program metrics (for example, how long it takes on average to complete).  

However, now that you have been accepted, you can do a more in-depth examination of just the programs that have given you an offer of admission.  You should also now be better informed courtesy of your interview experiences.  Your firsthand experience of being present at the program will help you visualize your potential life at that institution.  Additionally, you might also weigh:

Your compatibility with your future lab and likely faculty advisor.

How well did you get along with your potential advisor during the interview?  Do your personalities mesh well?  Do you communicate well with another?  How about labs  did you get to know the lab environment that you may be working in?  What is the state of the research projects in the lab?  You may consider following up with likely faculty mentors if further information is needed, or by asking graduate students in that program.

The advising style of your likely faculty advisor.

Do you have an idea of what his or her advising style might be? Some advisors interact very closely with their students; others are more hands off.  Which do you prefer?  Some advisors carefully manage their students' progress, others let their students chart their own course.   

How busy is your potential advisor – will there be time to meet with them regularly?  If your advisor is very well-known, he or she may be constantly away giving talks, meeting with distant collaborators, or engaging in public communication.  Alternatively some very busy advisors are well organized and still able to devote time to helping their students.

Research and career level of your likely faculty advisor.

How many publications does the likely advisor have, and are they in reputable journals?  Are the graduate students that work with the advisor also authors on those articles?  Is the prospective advisor an assistant, associate, or full professor (in other words, are they tenured – thus having job security?).  Knowing these details will help you predict your likelihood of successfully publishing research and having stability in graduate school.1  

Keep in mind that there are positives to each level of faculty advisor; newer faculty have the benefit of the most recent training (i.e., newest techniques; latest research), whereas more established faculty have more experience and are likely higher profile.  In some cases, graduate students working with a newer faculty member may be less likely to be overshadowed by their advisor's prominence, and may receive more credit for their accomplishments.

Other graduate students in the lab or in the program.

How well did you get to know the other graduate students who will be your classmates or labmates?  Did you get along with them?  Did you feel that they would be supportive?  

Did you have a chance to speak with others in the lab that you are interested in joining, or in the program more generally?  You can also follow up after the interview with additional contacts.  Are students happy with the program, their research, their advisor, and so on?

The program structure and requirements.

What are the coursework and teaching requirements?  Is there sufficient time to conduct research?  How many departmental obligations will you have (for example, graduate students are often assigned to help chaperone invited speakers, staff colloquia and other events, and serve on committees).

Research and career prospects.

What is the track record of published research, students successfully completing the program, and students attaining post-graduation employment in the program and under your potential advisor?

Tips for Accepting and Declining Admissions Offers 

By a resolution adopted by the Council of Graduate Schools, April 15 is the deadline for students admitted with financial aid to make their admissions decisions.  Given that most admissions offers are made by the end of March, you will have a few weeks to decide on the program that you wish to attend.   Here are some suggestions for managing that process:

  • Do not rush into any decision unnecessarily. Take the time to carefully consider any offer.  Also, if you are waiting on multiple institutions, then patience is advised.  It is better to have full knowledge of all your possible options before making a decision. 
  • When accepting an offer, follow all instructions carefully. In many cases, you can accept the offer through an online portal.  Alternatively, you may have to do so in writing or via email.  It is critically important that you clearly communicate to the program that you have decided to attend of your intent.  If you have any questions or confusion, contact the program directly to request clarification. 
  • Politely inform other programs of your decision to decline. Do so courteously.  Even if they are disappointed in your decision not to attend, programs will appreciate having the clarity of a clear decision from you.

Further Resources

How-To Videos     

Recommended Reading

APA Videos on Graduate Applications

Advice on Choosing Graduate Advisors

Further Resources


1 Choukas-Bradley, S. (2011).  A student's perspective on applying to graduate school in clinical psychology.  UT-Austin. 
Prepared by S. C. Pan for UCSD Psychology