Selecting Graduate School

Written by Sundar A. Christopher –

At the book signing at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco and at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in New Orleans, I fielded questions on how a student should go about picking a graduate school. This is a relevant and a challenging question to answer at times since the every student filters life differently. Nevertheless here are some guidelines to ponder about before making that final decision.

I will assume that you are interested in doing research as part of your graduate work and, therefore, I will provide guidelines based on that premise.

1. It is good to have a general idea as to what type of research you want to pursue. If you are passionate about severe weather research, then you need to pick a department that has faculty, students, and staff that have a strong portfolio in that area. Some departments are especially strong because they not only have good faculty but excellent measurement tools including radars and mobile instruments to study severe weather.

2. If you are interested in field work, then definitely check out the individual faculty member profiles to see if they have participated in that component of research.
3. Make sure that the department offers the breadth and depth of courses. If you are interested in satellite remote sensing and if all you see is one generic course on radiative transfer and remote sensing, then that may not be the correct match for you.
4. The biggest factor is the adviser that you will be working with. Does this person want to mentor you diligently? Check out their web pages and the team that they are working with. Make sure that the faculty are publishing in high quality peer reviewed journals, traveling to conferences and other venues to give invited talks and fully engaging with the research community.
5. Talk to some of the students in that team. Social media probably works to connect, but travel to conferences and network with these students.
6. Make sure that the adviser has a vibrant research program. OK. Let me say this upfront. A faculty member who is just starting out may not have a vibrant program so look at their peer reviewed publications and research portfolio.
7. Pay for the visit to the University. It is well worth the time. The department may sound good on paper (the web!), but if no one has the time to talk to you during your visit…You get the point!

8. Yes, research assistantships are competitive but do not pick one school over the other simply because the stipend is *slightly* higher that the other one.

Sometimes you may not be able to land a research assistantship immediately but you can get a solid research driven academic degree in some departments that will position you for an excellent career.

9. Ask if the department provides teaching assistantships. This may be of interest to you as well where you work with a faculty member to lecture, coordinate labs and grade papers.

10 If you want to know how a an assistantship works check out this blog. There is plenty of information.

11. Find out how vibrant the student community is – in the department. A vibrant student community is active in recruitment, organizing seminars, and promoting their department. Check out their on campus and off campus activities.


About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Science at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and Professor in 2007. From 2007-2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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