Choosing a graduate program can be a tricky and stressful decision.
I found that my two different graduate school experiences (M.A. and Ph.D.) were very different, and the qualities that made them different were tough to gauge beforehand by looking at school websites, brochures, and curricula. Ultimately, both programs had excellent professors, excellent curricula, and beautiful buildings and grounds; my experiences in each program, however, were very different due to tough-to-measure factors that were tied to the community “vibe” in each program.
In one of my graduate programs, the students seemed to view themselves as competing against one another (even though the program did not create such pressures). In classes and hallway conversations, they were often trying to one-up each other by sounding smarter and more persuasive. The professors were excellent teachers; however, there seemed to be subtle tensions among them, which likely created the lack of collaboration among them in their teaching and professional endeavors. This created an unhealthy climate that made a tough go of the graduate school experience.
In my other graduate school program, however, the student culture was quite the opposite: students viewed themselves as tackling one of the most challenging endeavors of their lives, and worked together to help each other succeed. While this made logical sense (as professors were not limiting the numbers of A’s in their classes), it made community sense and emotional sense as well. We banded together. We validated one another’s comments during class discussions. We encouraged each other in online forums. We participated in study sessions. So, when times became tough (which was often), we never felt alone in our struggles. And while the professors were excellent teachers, there also seemed to be a camaraderie among them that carried over into the way they taught and the way they collaborated on scholarship.
Such factors made for two VERY different graduate school experiences. As I look back upon the first-described experience, I see it as a hoop that I jumped through, a stage that I took simply to get to another stage. Yet as I look back upon second-described experience, I see it as one of the best experiences of my life: a time that I will cherish, a time that formed me and my fellow classmates in ways more than just academic.
So, as you consider which graduate school to say “yes” to, how can you gauge beforehand the community “vibe”? Consider contacting students who are in the program, and asking them some non-leading questions. For example, if you ask a leading question, like, “Is there a competitive nature among students?” then you might be more likely to get a kneejerk “yes” answer without them really having wrestled with such a question beforehand. However, if you instead phrase it as, “How would you characterize the student community within Program X at your school?” then you are more likely to get a better, more accurate answer.
Also, try to talk to several students from each program, rather than just one or two. Also try to contact students who have just graduated. As you communicate with them, pay attention to patterns in what they say.
This then brings up the question of “How do I get such students’ names and contact information?” Program directors and department secretaries are often happy to give you the contact info of one or two students, which then can lead to a few more contacts. A program director’s or secretary’s willingness to give you such contacts is often an initial indicator of a healthy graduate-program community. (If, however, it seems like pulling teeth, then that might be a sign of an unhealthy graduate-program community.)
Best of success to you as you narrow down your graduate-school decision!