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crystalcolours

Major indecision about attending program - advice appreciated

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So I just found out I didn't get into my first choice. Ouch. 

I'm extremely undecided about whether I should attend my second choice. The schools in a nice area, the programs fully funded, and I really clicked with the personality of my POI. However, our research interest match is only so-so. I like what they do, but I don't know if I love what they do. This person has never had a grad student before, and therefor I'm not sure what to expect in terms of mentorship. The really risky part though is that I found out on my interview from another source that this persons husband is applying for jobs out of state, and she may not be here that much longer. I'm not sure what would happen to me if my advisor left while I was in the middle of the PhD program. 

I'm really torn about whether I should attend this program, or whether I should just take the year off and reapply another cycle. 

I won't list names of schools or anything because that would be weird. 

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I would recommend emailing your second choice POI and discuss what kind of studies you actually want to do. Maybe she doesn’t do that now, but would be open to it? Also, are there any other faculty in the dept that you would want to collaborate with or may have that expertise? If so, and your POI leaves, you might have the option to follow her or stay in that program depending on how far along you are at that point. You could even bring it up the possibility of what would happen if she changed locations. It’s a very reasonable concern.

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I'd personally contact him/her about research interests again and at least ask whether he/she is open to some things you want to explore. I've been pushing for some ideas that are partly (but certainly not fully) overlapping with my current supervisor and showed how it relates to his stuff. Also you can ask this person about their future plans (both in terms of research and careerwise) to maybe not make it too obvious/awkward? And also maybe what she expects of a grad student? This may be informative as well to learn more about their mentoring style (like how independent, how much you're expected to do yourself, etc.)

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I may be an outlier here, but I would say don't settle on a place that is not your first choice (it's a different story if you feel like your second choice is also a great fit, but from what you described, it doesn't sound like the case). I know sometimes you just want to go to a PhD program just for the sake of getting started on your PhD, but if it's not the right fit, you may be wasting more time there than if you had just waited. Your PhD is the last degree (probably) that you will get in your life. You want to be happy and proud of where you are.

I say this because my friend was in a similar situation as you. He was rejected from his top choice school, and only got into one PhD program. Great funding (like, crazy good), amazing advisor, but the research interest match was so-so, and the program is new (they've only had one cohort graduate). Long story short, he feels that nothing is keeping him there (again, research interest fit was not great), and he will be leaving the program and reapplying to his top choices. His advice to me was "don't settle."

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5 minutes ago, ilikepsych said:

His advice to me was "don't settle."

I really think this is worth reiterating, regardless of the nature of the program (neuro, cog, clinical, dev etc). Ive heard many success stories of people holding off for one more year and really hammering in their efforts to attain their top choices. I also cant imagine committing to a program where I felt really unsure of fit, because I think that the gusto and passion you feel for the subject matter is what keeps your head above water when you're in the trenches around the 2nd and 3rd year. On the other hand, I can understand how this decision may be hard if it's beyond your second time applying, or you feel a certain pressure to start school (social pressures of age/kids/family etc). Its a tough decision either way, but remember that unlike undergrad and your gap years in research, your graduate work will likely pave a much more concrete narrative towards your career, so committing to things of little interest now has potential to impact your internship, post doc/professional placements and research fit. 

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"The really risky part though is that I found out on my interview from another source that this persons husband is applying for jobs out of state, and she may not be here that much longer.'

That is the most concerning part for me. I have seen this happen essentially to 2 of my colleagues, and I think it'll happen again with a different professor. Basically, it isn't pretty. The chances of you moving with that PI to another university is also rather low logistically, unless you've been in the program for a few years or are crucial to their lab. 

Also, this notion that you can move to another person's lab if there's an issue with your mentor...yes in theory it's possible and does happen, but it also often doesn't happen. PIs tend to have their labs full or close to full at big research universities. Or they want to take a student who specifically applies to their lab and has relevant experience already, rather than accept a student from another lab who has a somewhat different research background. 

I would really, really consider this factor along with what everyone else said. I know you feel a strong pull to maybe accept the offer, because you're worried about throwing away an opportunity (that may not be available later). At the same time, a faulty decision here that leads to issues later will result in you losing even more time and more significant stress. 

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