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One of my friends recently asked for some advice on figuring out where to go to grad school, and I figured, that given that most of those decisions are due next week, I would just share some advice with everyone.

From my experience, there are three major deciding factors:
First (and most importantly) — are there people working or teaching in the department who do the kind of work that you want to be hired to do when you finish? Are there people there who will help you get where you want to go? Could you see yourself either working with the people in the program in the future, or at least doing their kind of work?
Second — does the school have the specific track or program you are interested in? Grad school is much different from undergraduate programs in that it is a professional training school. Graduate school will prepare you to do very specific tasks and take very specific jobs. Whereas undergrad is often about learning how to think and how to learn, grad school is about learning how to manage a needle exchange program, how to analyze public heath policies, or how to set up a health clinic in a refugee camp in Libya.
Third — cost, especially if you are thinking about a program like public health. Unlike medical school or law school, you almost certainly will not earn a six figure income after you graduate. Given that a lot of post-graduation salaries with a public health degree are in the $30,000 — $50,000 range, you do not want to be in so much debt that you cannot chill and enjoy life a bit when you finish, so the financial aid that you are offered is important.

What about location?
Yes, I think that is also important, but maybe not as important as the first three items that I outlined. I have narrow experience with this, but I can offer some insight on what it was like for me to be a grad student in New York City.
Mostly — it’s hard, like really hard, with moments of complete awe thrown in from time to time. I didn’t live in student housing when I went to Columbia, and it might be easier if you do, but the housing is pretty hard to get in NYC. If you don’t live on campus, the rents are often astronomic. Further, Columbia’s School of Public Health is in Washington Heights, which is not glamourous the way you might imagine if you have ever watched Sex and the City, though it does have a great immigrant population that is incredibly friendly. The grocery stores are less than ideal; there is a lack of good fresh fruits and vegetables and it is almost impossible to find something like sun dried tomatoes. And like I said, doing things in NYC is hard — buying a gallon of milk is hard, unless you have it delivered, and buying a used couch off a friend is nearly impossible. (How are you going to move it if no one has a car?) All your furniture needs to be delivered. Also, Washington Heights is way, way, up town, it’s at least an hour to time square, an hour and a half to the lower east side, and two hours to Brooklyn (if you take public transportation), so even though you are right near EVERYTHING, it can all feel slightly out of reach. A person who lives in Washington Heights and has a girlfriend in Brooklyn will refer to it as a long distance relationship. New York City is darker, cloudier, rainier and way colder than I imagined. And even though I grew up in Colorado, I had never worn long underwear as regularly as I did in NYC, because not only is it rainy and COLD, but you have to walk around a lot (especially, if like me, you are working and going to school and trying to have even a little bit of a social life). The apartments have roaches (even the student housing) and both of the places I lived became infested with bedbugs. It’s totally possible to live comfortably in NYC — to shop at very nice grocery stores, take cabs around, go out to AMAZING dinners, see great shows, get your furniture delivered, and live with minimal roaches and bedbugs, but it takes way more money than I had.

All that said, I made great friends in NYC, from all over the world. I spent whole evenings sitting on rooftops, drinking red wine and eating chocolate and contemplating the world with my best friends. I went out to great brunches, ate the best dinners of my life, saw phenomenal shows, went to the coolest clubs, and spent days just hanging out at the UN — experiences that you don’t get if you go somewhere where it is easier to live. I also loved my immigrant neighbors in Washington Heights — I love that the nephew of the bodega owner on my block got tears in his eyes and said that he would need at least a week to plan my good bye party when he heard I was leaving and that the Dominican Democratic political activist who owned the hardware store on the next block offered me advice on everything from my career to starting a family. And I loved the morir sonandos that you can buy on the street. But I always felt like a tourist (a good tourist), but still, it never really felt like home.

One of my favorite things about going to grad school in NYC is that everywhere else I will ever live will feel really, really easy. $1500 for a one bedroom on a tree-lined block of DC?? Sign me up!! That, and because I really wanted to know what it was like to live in the city, and now I do.

So, there is some advice to the masses that are making this decision in the next couple of weeks. What do you think are important considerations? Did I miss anything?

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