Secrets the academy doesn't share
Hello, fellow outsiders. Academia draws you in with promises of "diversity and inclusivity", but slams the door in your face when you don't know how to navigate the extremely murky process that is getting into graduate school (or getting a postdoc, faculty position, tenure...what some may call a leaky pipeline is more accurately described as systematic weeding of those who don't fit a 19th century description of a scholar).
I've received and given advice over the years that provides clarity to the process of breaching this barrier to terminal degrees, and I want to share it with more people than those who know to ask for it. I'm sure there are more things than I know about, after all - I'm 1st generation myself - but here's what I know and what I've benefitted from. We need a community with diverse voices if scientific fields are to become truly forward-thinking.
I do want to highlight one (of many) resources that I've found both helpful and cathartic: www.smallpondscience.com. You can find so much more on #AcademicTwitter, including paid graduate school opportunities! Sign up for Twitter you won't regret it.
How to pay for graduate school
I can't say this enough times, but IF YOU WANT A PHD YOU SHOULD NOT PAY OUT OF POCKET FOR IT unless you are independently wealthy. Masters degrees are harder to find with full salaries attached but they are out there and worth looking into. The National Science Foundation funds training grants specifically to provide career opportunities and a full salary to exceptional masters students at certain universities (it changes based on who is awarded these training grants), and you can find more information on the NSF website. Advisors will advertise on listservs and/or twitter if they have paid open positions, so keep an eye out! Don't be afraid to move somewhere you weren't expecting (even to other countries) for one of these opportunities.
Picking the right advisor
The right advisor has your best interests at heart, the majority of which will not be related directly to your research project. You are about to embark on an extremely stressful journey, and you want someone by your side that is flexible, understanding, listens to you, and wants to work together to promote your success (NOT theirs, at least directly). This success will be in whatever career path you want, even if that changes throughout your degree. Yes, including outside of academia. The right advisor will foster a community and a culture within their lab that has values aligned to your own. You may want to be in the lab of the most amazing scientist working on your dream project with more $$$ than you've ever seen, but later find out they are just an awful human. There are lots of these, so do your homework. The best way to do your homework is to contact current and former graduate students and postdocs. Do this independently of contacting the prospective advisor - you want to obviously suss them out on your own (either virtually or in person, if you're lucky enough), but the community/lack thereof that this advisor has created will be extremely telling of its potential fit for you. Something that is increasingly important is looking at an advisor's online presence: do they have statements of inclusivity on their website? What kind of tweets are they sending at 2 AM (or 9 AM, because they're just that oblivious)? You can learn a lot about a person from some light online stalking.
Questions to ask students/postdocs in a prospective lab:
How often do you collaborate with other lab members on projects and/or people outside of the lab? Does your advisor help you make external connections?
What is the dominant lab culture? This can refer to working habits, outside-of-work gatherings, how students interact with each other (mentor each other or compete for projects)
Do you meet with your advisor regularly (how often) and do you form a plan for progress regularly?
What do you do at lab meeting?
Does your advisor expect a certain amount of research output (papers) before you graduate?
What is normative time in your lab? (should be around 2-3 years for masters, 5-6 years for PhD - if not, question further)
Would you change anything about choosing this lab, and why/why not?
How much outreach do you do, and what communities are you passionate about engaging with? [if this is important to you, and it should be]
What are your plans after graduation, and how are you/your advisor preparing for that now?
How many students are usually [employed] in the lab, and do you feel like you are supported in your work, time-wise?
Do you often feel under-supported, financially, in your research? Does the lab have the adequate equipment for you to do your research, or do you seek it out elsewhere?
Does your advisor help you apply for grants in your name and/or do you co-write grants with your advisor (for no official credit)?
What conferences do you go to, and does your advisor pay for it? Does your advisor meaningfully introduce you to their colleagues/friends at the conference beyond a simple "hello"?
How long has your advisor been at X University? Were they a professor somewhere else before this? (you can somewhat discern how long someone has been in a position from their title online - Assistant Prof = pre-tenure <5 years, Associate/Full Prof = post-tenure >5 years; but sometimes websites are not updated frequently)
Is your position as a graduate student funded by your advisor, and how much do you teach? (if someone is teaching every semester, their advisor is not paying them! they get their salary from the department)
Along the lines of the previous question...is salary guaranteed for a certain amount of time, and by what means (department, advisor grant)?
What is the cost of living and do you feel that your salary is adequate to support you?
Does your advisor and/or the department pay a summer salary? (most are only obligated to pay you during the academic year but still require you to work during the summer, since that's the most productive research time)
How does your advisor feel about flexible hours and/or working from home? Can you leave for a holiday and does your advisor respect that you are "out of office" without guilting or threatening you?
Another point I want to make about the "right" advisor is thinking about what academic family they come from, and how that might suit your future career goals. That's right, there's a whole mafia-style network behind almost every academic. And it pays to be in the "in" group. There's actually a whole website dedicated to keeping track of academic family trees, and you'll find that most are circular (people do their masters, PhDs, and/or postdocs within the same family). The reason these family trees are circular is not by accident: academia is all about who you know, and the opportunities presented to you are directly correlated with who you choose as your advisor. This isn't to say you can't find opportunities on your own - you can - it just becomes a LOT easier when your advisor calls up their buddy from grad school that happens to be the director of a field station or museum that you desperately want to be a fellow at. For me, having an academic family means that I have an academic aunt/uncle/cousin at almost every university I can think of that will answer my emails enthusiastically solely because I say "hello, I am the former student/postdoc of XX". When you are looking for your next position, whether it be a postdoc or a faculty job or even a research technician job, this becomes extremely important.
Lastly, what if you find your dream advisor but they don't have space in their lab? Well, you can wait a year, or you can ask whether they can refer you to their colleagues with similar interests who might have openings. They'll be happy to do so!
Picking the right school
Something I STILL can't figure out online (because it is simply not freely available) is which departments do rotations and which departments require you to find an advisor before you apply. But now that you know this exists, you can ask it of anyone you email! So, pro tip: if a potential advisor doesn't email you back after some gentle reminders, email the graduate coordinator for that department and ask whether they do rotations. This just means that the first year, you get to have a trial run in multiple labs, and therefore don't need to form a bond with a particular advisor before you apply.
The first thing I'll stress (again, like in picking your lab) is that finding a community with values aligned with your own is paramount. Do the graduate students have a union that represents their rights as researchers and educators? Do they ever go on strike, and is that supported in action by the faculty union? That's a really important one. Does the university/department have graduate students involved in decision-making? Is there a diversity committee and what are their goals? Along the lines of questions to ask graduate students: what does the "typical" graduate student look like (do they have families, do they work 24/7, do they hang out after work)? You are trying to assess department/university culture in the same way you have done for the advisor's lab.
The next, inevitable truth is that the name of the university does matter, especially if you are looking to become a faculty member. Much like the academic family tree, it becomes a matter of perceived prestige and how that can open doors for you. This has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of education/research you will experience, but it has lasting impacts for your future. A study that came out the year I was starting graduate school highlighted that most tenure-track (permanent) faculty members come from a very small list of schools...something to think about if that is your goal.
Something that is mostly relevant to those who seek masters degrees - there are rankings of research universities that have to do with how much money they bring in: R1, R2, R3, and so on. R1 universities are the largest, and the ones that grant PhDs (in addition to the rest of the degrees). They typically have the most prestige, but often have more than their fair share of "ivory tower"-ness. That is to say, they have problems with racism, sexism, harassment, etc. AND the ability to cover these things up (you know, with all of that $$$). There are plenty of good people at those institutions though so don't let that scare you away by any means. R2 universities typically grant masters degrees, and have the second-most amount of research funding, but they are primarily focused on teaching so your advisor will have a heavier teaching load. This can impact the lab's research productivity, but you can also have a great experience learning from someone who does a lot of mentoring (presumably, although this is obviously an individual experience).
How to answer [inappropriate] questions
People are nosy, and people make mistakes. You are bound to get a question that is either too personal or just plain weird - and it is absolutely fine to not answer it. Some people get around them with jokes, and while it is satisfying - I do not recommend bluntly calling out that it is inappropriate. You need to play the game, unfortunately, to become an insider. To be honest, anyone who makes you feel uncomfortable in this very early stage is not worth entering into a long term relationship with. Because that's what this is. Your advisor and your lab is becoming your family, in a lot of ways, not just because you spend 24/7 with them but also because they will be there to support you socially and emotionally throughout your graduate school journey.
If it's someone in the department that you meet at a social hour that's saying inappropriate things...well that's a different story. Most likely there are those people at every university (sadly) and you need to find out whether the greater community is supportive enough to drown out these people who are trying to make you feel like you don't belong. Tl;dr - be the polite outsider you are trained to be (dodge questions, make jokes, or play dumb until they realize they're being inappropriate), until you become an insider and then unleash your opinions fervently so that future generations don't have to endure the same scenarios.
All this to say...good luck. I genuinely hope to see you in my community soon, and if you have more questions my (virtual) door is always open.