Grad School 101: Make visiting weekends work for you

By Emily Elia: Visiting weekends are a great opportunity to get a feel for the culture of a graduate program.

Rice's recruiting weekend. Students in paleontology hall.

You made it through the meticulous graduate school application process, and now you are invited to a visiting weekend at a graduate program! Visiting weekends are a great opportunity to get a feel for the culture of a graduate program, meet faculty, and engage with current graduate students. They can be exciting and fun, but they can also be overwhelming! In some cases, visiting weekends are part of an interview process. In other cases, visiting weekends occur after you have already been accepted to the program. Though the former is certainly more anxiety-inducing than the latter, visiting weekends still often hang heavy with the feeling of wanting to make a good impression regardless of whether or not you have already gained acceptance to the program. On top of wanting to make a good impression, you also want to make sure that you learn what you need to learn about the program in order to make the best decision for your graduate career. However, it can be hard to know what questions you should ask in order to gain valuable information, and you don’t want to return home with a head full of unanswered questions.

Due to Covid-19, visiting weekends may now look different, too. If your visiting weekend is completely virtual, you should still try to make the most out of it! Below, you’ll find advice about how to make it through a visiting weekend whether it be in-person or virtual along with a list of questions that you may not know to ask.

Have an “elevator pitch” prepared about your research interests.

During a visiting weekend, you will be asked this question constantly: What are you interested in studying? Faculty and current graduate students are interested in knowing your research interests, and many introductions kick off with this question. You do not need to have a perfectly crafted answer, especially if you are still unsure about what exactly it is you would like to focus on in grad school. Nobody is expecting you to have a dissertation outlined yet! However, it can help your nerves to have a few sentences prepared ahead of time that explain your interests. You will be meeting a lot of new people, and it can feel overwhelming, but you can help quiet some anxiety by having a go-to answer ready.

Educate yourself on the program’s faculty.

You probably did a lot of research about every program you applied to, but it is easy to have forgotten all that information by the time a visiting weekend rolls around. Take the time to go back through the program’s faculty to refresh yourself on who people are and what they study. During your visiting weekend, you may have meetings exclusively with faculty that are related to your own research agenda, or you may have meetings with what seems like a more random selection of faculty. Outside of scheduled meetings, you also may still interact with various faculty members throughout your weekend. For these reasons, it is best to read up on all faculty members, not just the faculty members you believe you might work with if you were to attend the program. Not only will you appear prepared and interested in the program, you will also provide yourself with talking points to help facilitate conversation. Visiting weekend is tiring for everybody involved, and, like the visiting students, many faculty are also spending all day in meetings with a lot of new faces. They get tired, too! If you have questions prepared ahead of your faculty meetings, it can help the flow of the conversation despite the information overload everyone is likely experiencing.

Don’t skip out on events geared toward campus culture and social life!

A big part of a visiting weekend is seeing if you mesh well with the graduate student culture. While the academic piece is highly important, you also want to make sure you choose a program where you will be happy, and a visiting weekend is really the best way to figure that out. You also want to get to know the current graduate students, because they may turn out to be some of your future friends! Do you have a positive impression of the current graduate students? Are they nice to you and to each other? These things may seem trivial compared to academic concerns, but it will be pretty difficult to complete a graduate degree if you are surrounded by people that you constantly clash with, especially if you attend a program that is small in size. Current graduate students can also help answer some of your questions about grad school life.

For virtual visits, don’t just pop into the “necessary” virtual sessions of the visit; take the time to attend other events put on by the program/university, too, such as virtual happy hours. At some universities, the campus culture plays a huge part in the overall grad school experience, and you will not want to miss out on learning more about grad student life. Virtual visiting weekends will not be able to replicate what you would get to experience in-person, but trust that graduate programs are already working hard to capture their campus experiences in a virtual way.

At Rice, campus culture is a huge part of grad student life! A big part of visiting weekend at Rice is showing off the university’s tight-knit and lively grad community. For example, GSA typically hosts its much loved Culture Night during a weekend in February when many of Rice’s programs host their visiting weekends, allowing prospective students to experience a piece of grad life during their visit. If you choose not to attend any sessions on student life, you may miss out on a lot of valuable information about what grad life may be like at that university.

Take notes about your impression of the program in order to compare your experiences.

You will likely attend multiple visiting weekends at the handful of programs that accept you or extend an interview to you. While on these visits, you will be overwhelmed with information, and it can feel like a total blur when the weekend ends and you return home. Take time to jot down your impression of the program when you have a quiet moment at the end of each day during your visit. When it comes time to choose a program to attend, having these notes will help you compare your experiences accurately. Many visiting weekends occur in February to March while the deadline for selecting a graduate program is typically mid-April, so having notes to revisit will also help jog your memory of a trip that may have happened two months prior by the time mid-April arrives.

What questions should you ask? Here are some to consider.

Knowing what to ask can be tricky! It is a good idea to have two sets of questions: questions for current graduate students and questions for faculty members. There are some questions you may have about the program that the faculty cannot really answer for you, and there are other questions that current students may not know the answer to. Furthermore, there may be questions that are more comfortable to ask of current students than of faculty. Below are two separate lists of questions for each group that will help you get a more complete sense of the grad student experience within a program.

To ask current graduate students:

  • Is the grad student environment more competitive or collaborative?
  • Do you feel like you have to compete with other students for resources?
  • What is social life like amongst graduate students? Are students friends with one another?
  • Do you receive any funding to attend conferences?
  • Does the program offer any kind of professional development resources for grad students?
  • What is your relationship with your advisor like?
  • Can you make ends meet on your stipend?
  • What is campus life like?
  • What are most graduate students' living situations like? What kind of apartments can people afford with their stipends?
  • How do you like living in [city/town]?

To ask faculty members:

  • Do faculty members publish with grad students often?
  • What are your research facilities like?
  • How many advisees/mentees do you usually have at one time?
  • What do TA and/or teaching duties typically look like for your graduate students? When are students expected to start TA-ing and teaching?
  • What are quantitative methods classes like, and who usually teaches them?
  • Does the department and/or university provide funding for research expenses such as experiments or fieldwork? If not, do graduate students typically find funding to support their research?
  • Where do your PhDs typically get jobs after graduation?
  • How long does it take your typical student to complete their PhD?
  • Is funding provided during summer months, or only during fall and spring semester?

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Approaching the Application

Grad School 101: Writing the Personal Statement

Grad School 101: Asking for Letters of Recommendation

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a fourth-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.