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pnc95

Choosing Between Schools Advice

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Hey guys!

So I have been fortunate enough to have a choice in PhD programs to attend in the fall, but I'm a really indecisive person. This is a big decision, and I'm so worried about making the wrong choice and regretting it. I've basically narrowed it down to two schools, but don't know what should be the deciding factor to make my choice. 

The first school I really like how the program is set up and the location, but they don't have the exact research I was hoping for; although, they do have good research that I could see myself liking if I tried it. The second school has a ton of the research that is exactly what I'm interested in, but I don't really like the location and the way the program is structured.

Should I make my decision based on the research or the area? I don't want to be stuck in an area for 6 years that I'm not comfortable with, but at the same time there is a chance I could like it since I've never been to an area like that. I also don't want to rule out the one school based on research because I'm sure there's other options that I would be ok with. One of the schools is considered a prestigious school, but I wasn't sure if that should affect my decision.

Any help is appreciated!

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I was advised by multiple people on my interviews that mentor is ultimately more important than the research you are doing.  Yes, you want to do research you like and are interested in, but what you get out of your time as a PhD student is going to depend on how well you are mentored and the connections you will be able to build.  I don't know what you mean by not liking the second school's program structure.  Do you know what the mentors would be like at each school in the areas of research you would be doing?  One of the schools I interviewed at had a few students transfer out of the program I would probably end up in, and that was a huge red flag for me.

Location differs from individual to individual.  Location was one of the most important factors for me, but for others it's not a big deal.  I personally wanted to live in an area that I liked and had very affordable cost of living.  I'm taking a big pay cut going back to school and don't know if I would be comfortable rooming with random people and living off of ramen.  I didn't want to live in a massive city either.  This took some schools out of the equation for me.  But, there will be times when you are relaxing and not working in the laboratory, and when you have that free time, do you think you will enjoy living where you are at outside of the lab?

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@pnc95 I'm in a very similar situation as you. Better program fit vs. better research fit.  @StemCellFan how do we make a decision based on mentors accurately? We can get some info from graduate students on visits and based on the 30 minute or so interaction we had with them on, but I don't feel like I could accurately make a strong judgement until I actually work with them. So when it comes to rotations, I think choosing a better mentor vs. better research fit makes sense. But when it comes down to an initial school choice, I'm in the same boat as pnc. Program fit vs. research fit, and not sure what to weigh as more important

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57 minutes ago, catsareme said:

@pnc95 I'm in a very similar situation as you. Better program fit vs. better research fit.  @StemCellFan how do we make a decision based on mentors accurately? We can get some info from graduate students on visits and based on the 30 minute or so interaction we had with them on, but I don't feel like I could accurately make a strong judgement until I actually work with them. So when it comes to rotations, I think choosing a better mentor vs. better research fit makes sense. But when it comes down to an initial school choice, I'm in the same boat as pnc. Program fit vs. research fit, and not sure what to weigh as more important

As far as mentor choice, it's true that you don't really know for sure until you go through rotations.  I've been basing my observations on this by talking to students or meeting the faculty myself, but yeah my advice on this is probably better suited for someone trying to pick their thesis lab after rotations!

 

As far as program vs. research, I don't know what is objectively more important.  For me, research fit would outweigh the program structure, unless it was terrible in my eyes (i.e. students typically graduate on the 7 year end rather than 5, no students have been successful in securing pre-doctoral awards, you're constantly taking required classes throughout your PhD, etc)

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18 hours ago, StemCellFan said:

As far as mentor choice, it's true that you don't really know for sure until you go through rotations.  I've been basing my observations on this by talking to students or meeting the faculty myself, but yeah my advice on this is probably better suited for someone trying to pick their thesis lab after rotations!

 

As far as program vs. research, I don't know what is objectively more important.  For me, research fit would outweigh the program structure, unless it was terrible in my eyes (i.e. students typically graduate on the 7 year end rather than 5, no students have been successful in securing pre-doctoral awards, you're constantly taking required classes throughout your PhD, etc)

The one program does have an average grad rate of 6.7 years, but they put a lot of work on making sure we know what we can do with our PhD once we leave. The other program has a more national average of 5.5 years, but doesn't do as much with career options

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On 2/27/2018 at 5:03 PM, catsareme said:

@pnc95 I'm in a very similar situation as you. Better program fit vs. better research fit.  @StemCellFan how do we make a decision based on mentors accurately? We can get some info from graduate students on visits and based on the 30 minute or so interaction we had with them on, but I don't feel like I could accurately make a strong judgement until I actually work with them. So when it comes to rotations, I think choosing a better mentor vs. better research fit makes sense. But when it comes down to an initial school choice, I'm in the same boat as pnc. Program fit vs. research fit, and not sure what to weigh as more important

I was stuck in this position recently trying to choose Notre Dame or UNC BBSP. I really love both programs and the research and mentors at both programs. There is a way that you can see if the mentors will be a good fit for you during interview weekend. First, I was fortunate that both programs paired me with mentors that I am strongly interested in meeting. Both ND and UNC have impressed with so much with all their resources and research that it literally came neck to neck between those two programs. What made the difference is that at one program, all 3 prospective PIs knew my research background in cancer immunology as a master's student with publications and oral presentations at national conferences. Those 3 PIs described their research themes in their cancer research labs with their powerpoint presentations they showed me in their office, but they took a further step in telling me how I would fit with their research themes and exactly how they would help me accomplish my future career in academia with specific teaching mentorship programs within their biology Ph.D. program. I also was able to see their labs in person, talk with the grad students, and those PIs gave examples of how they helped their former and current students accomplish their career goals. I think it is very important for PIs during interview weekends to actually understand an applicant's background and tell them exactly how they are going to fit in their lab and show strong enthusiasm for you. If PIs do that, that's a heavy extra factor I took into consideration. Everyone's decision will differ based on what their preference is. I personally would choose a better mentor over better research fit, but the mentor should be in my area of research interest. In other words, as one example if you are very serious about going into cancer biology, don't choose a mentor in neuroscience or biochemistry UNLESS you want to really want to explore that area just for the sake of choosing a better mentor. In a Ph.D. program, it is highly critical to have the best possible mentor that you like, but in your area of research interest unless if you truly interested in exploring other areas of research. 

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