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Research vs Environment

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School A: a good school. It was a wonderful location – everyone was so friendly and welcoming, and I got a great vibe from the university. I could see myself making friends or at least hiking buddies quite easily. Mountains, hiking and snow nearby, although the summers will be super dry heat and it never really gets cold. The entire visit weekend was very organized, and I was able to talk with grad students about their research group. Everyone kept mentioning work-life balance and how it was very possible. People seemed more relaxed and easy-going. Professors conduct weekly meetings in a hands-off manner but still interact with you when necessary. On the negative side, there’s only one professor who I’m interested in working with. The lab space was organized and had good equipment. Most of the analytical department is electrochemistry based and I have no interest in that. The cost of living is much cheaper, and I will be able to either save money or continue paying off my student loans. Big school meant more teaching as well.

Pro: Positive work environment and personal life. Good mental health.
Con: Less interesting research.

School B: a top 10 school. It had amazing research – I found many groups that I could see myself working with and the professors were passionate about their research. Although I immediately felt how people were unhappier and stressed out. You could feel the competitiveness. The town did not interest me at all and campus was decent enough with some older buildings. The surroundings were meh and it is at least a 2-3 hour drive to do some real hiking and maybe experience snow. The summers are hot and humid. The chemistry building is old and equipment more outdated, but the analytical professors were relaxed. The most interesting research was with the biological sciences in their new building with good equipment. But their students seemed even more stressed and I was warned off by multiple students in their group by the high expectations of the professor and weekend work. Then again, I’m much older than these young grad students who have never worked a real job before so it’s hard to know how rough it would be for me. Work-life balance wasn’t really a big factor. Professors seem to be more absent with travel and their own projects.

Pro: Fascinating research.
Con: Stressful environment. High demand on your time.

Any tips as to making a decision? I'm really torn.

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I had a very similar decision to make.  For me it came down to Oregon State University vs UC Berkeley.

Oregon State is fairly small (when compared to my current school which is the third largest university in the country) and the graduate program is also very small (currently 11 students), but the research is more interdisciplinary and it is still rated very highly for the program.  I have to teach, but it will only be for 1 to 2 years max.  I really like the advisor I have there and the entire atmosphere of the campus, grad program, and surrounding city were amazing.  On top of that, I love the outdoors and hiking and backpacking so location-wise it is beyond ideal.

On the flip side, Berkeley is the top program in the country and many of their faculty members (including the advisor I was given) have published in top journals (e.g. Nature, Science, Cell, etc).   However, the advisor is super demanding and micromanaging and I would have to be a GTA every semester of grad school acting as the primary lecturer for classes of undergraduates.  While the stipend at Berkeley is VERY high, the price of living is also high and I would have to make a lot of compromises overall.  

I ended up choosing Oregon State because while rankings and prestige do matter, I need to be able to find a work-life balance that allows me to be happy.  Additionally, I will learn many of the same skills there as I would at Berkeley, plus other skills like computer programming or analytical chemistry techniques that I wouldn't get because the program at OSU is so much smaller, so inter-department collaboration is necessary.  At the end of the day the deciding factor was what would make me the happiest and make grad school the most bearable over the next 4-6 year of my life (i.e. environment).

I know my situation is a bit different but I hope this is somewhat helpful!

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Ugghhhh I am in a similar, but also different, situation between my choices. I mean it's great that I have options, but my indecisive nature is definitely going to be a detriment in this decision process.

School A I have already visited and while when I initially left the visit I felt like I didn't feel any different from before I went, now that I have had time to process it I am really excited and please with what I observed on my visit. They also really emphasize a good work-life balance like your school A, @singinglupines. This is a big appeal to me because I almost feel like my current environment (at my master's) made me feel guilty for doing anything for fun ever... I would love to be able to plan fun things to do without feeling guilty about it and I know I could have that there. Also research and advisor fit there is fantastic. Overall, the people in School A's department seem like a great crowd to be around which would be a welcome change from the fairly negative people that are in my current program. For the specific subfield I am hoping to go into I think I might have the best opportunities for experience and knowledge in this subfield at School A. The location is fantastic and I would be able to experience a lot of new things that I never have before and I really want to gain some new life experiences during my PhD. However, cost of living is high and the stipend I am guaranteed each year is not a lot compared to cost of living. So I worry that the experiences I would want to have at this place could be limited from the amount of money I am making...

Okay so School B I have not yet visited so it's really hard to be as excited about it but.... I have been awarded a fantastic fellowship there that would mean I would be making almost double at School B than I would at School A. Also cost of living is much lower, so I would probably be putting a lot of money into savings... Maybe I shouldn't be comparing yet until I visit School B but its hard not to and unfortunately I won't be visiting School B until the end of the month, ugh. I feel like my advisor at School B could be great but I haven't yet met him, though my interactions thus far have been fantastic. I do worry about research fit though - mainly because I think the project I could be doing there is a lot more abstract in my mind since I haven't talked it through one-on-one with my advisor yet. However, my advisor doesn't have experience in the subfield I want to gain more experience in so I would have to find that experience in someone else in the department and those someone else's are still an unknown entity currently. I also don't yet known how work-life balance and personalities in the department are there yet. As for the location of this school I definitely think I could be very happy there but it is similar to past areas I have lived in so I don't think I would be gaining as many new experiences at School B than at School A. Though if I am making enough to save money conceivably I could pay to take myself to places to have those experiences. I'm just very uncertain about research fit currently at School B mostly though.

So ultimately I am struggling most with how much to factor in a very cushy stipend in at School B, vs. what appears to be awesome research and environment at School A. Maybe I should just try to keep it out of my mind until I visit School B, but it is so hard not to think about considering I need to think it through since I am terribly indecisive. Ultimately though like you @singinglupines I keep swinging back and forth, and currently my pendulum is swung towards School A since I have visited there and they've gave me their program pitch and everything.

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@FishNerd I feel you! At least in my case the stipends aren't that different although cost of living is higher in the one. Visit weekends do make a difference though. Exactly, I don't want to feel guilty for having fun! I guess at some point, I'll just have to put my foot down and show that although I work hard, I play hard as well haha.

I can't stop thinking about the research at school B, it has me so excited, so I guess that's my real answer right there. Being passionate about my research does lead me to be happier anyway, and the flexibility of having choices will be good.

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On 3/16/2018 at 1:36 PM, singinglupines said:

I can't stop thinking about the research at school B, it has me so excited, so I guess that's my real answer right there.

Yeah research fit is what I keep coming back to as well which is why I'm so excited by my School A! Maybe I will be just as excited by the research at School B when I visit and flesh out what I will be doing there a bit more, but as of right now I really really want to do the research at School A. I ultimately am in science for the research and not money, so while the money at School B is freaking phenomenal, if I really feel like I'm gonna like the research at School A much better I think I'm gonna go for that. But I guess I have to wait until I visit School B to know for sure about my decision.

Edited by FishNerd
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