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Taking a chance on a dream, or continuing a winning streak at home?

School #1 or School #2?  

5 members have voted

  1. 1. School #1 or School #2?

    • #1 (home school)
    • #2 (dream school)

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Thanks in advance for any advice.

I've narrowed the field to two programs. Both are comparably funded in relation to the cost of living, so that's not a major issue for me.

I'm doing well academically at my current school (#1) and have a blueprint for the future here, but I also have the opportunity to attend what was easily my first-choice school (#2) at the beginning of the application process. Now that I've been offered the opportunity to go to #2, I've developed some misgivings about the culture there and concerns about losing my connections with professors at #1. Here are the details:

School #1:

  • This is my home school, where I've forged strong relationships with great professors.
  • Rankings and prestige don't mean much to me, but this is a respectable top-10 program in my field, and it's well-regarded in academia. I got comments from faculty interviewers at many other schools about its relative strength.
  • I have a solid publication record from this school. I'm also fairly confident that my recommendation letters from some famous professors here were what pushed my application over the top, and one of my concerns is that I'd be weakening these connections if I go to School 2.
  • I'll probably continue to publish often if I stick around here, but it could come back to bite me later: I've heard that tenure and hiring committees are pretty big on ensuring capacity for independent research, and it might raise some red flags if all of my pubs are coming from the same research group.
  • I'd have the chance to work with a professor whose career is rapidly accelerating, who has collaborations across the world, and who is in the process of radically reinventing the field. I've published with them before and am a huge admirer of their work. They've accomplished more in a few short years than most academics do in their entire careers. They're extremely well-connected and the sweeping ambition of their work is a great fit for my objectives, since I'm trying to diversify my skill set and increase my exposure to different schools of thought. Academic placement record is impeccable. I've heard their mentoring style is pretty hands-off, which works well for me at this career stage.
  • I'm a relatively known quantity here, so I wouldn't have to expend much effort to prove myself or to get my pick of project.
  • Although I've been productive here, I have also been quite miserable. The culture is cold, rude, and oppressively homogeneous, and there's no place for (non-academic) creative exchange. People recoil if you share anything personal, which was hard to get used to. Socially, image is everything: it's all about meticulous and exhausting impression management and making vapid references to pop culture, but maybe that's just inevitable. I've gotten to the point where I've just given up trying to keep up with it. This school is in a highly urbanized area, which doesn't mesh well with a person who likes to go on hikes and enjoys some peace from time to time. I've made a few friends during my time here, but most of them will be leaving come summer, and nobody's planning to stick around for more than a year.

School #2

  • It's been a long-running dream of mine to attend this school. It was definitely a long shot, and I am still stunned that I was admitted.
  • Rankings and prestige don't mean much to me, but this is a highly regarded top-5 program in my field, and its brand has a global reach.
  • There are probably close to 15 or 20 faculty here with whom I could see myself working. Among them are the people whose papers really led me to fall in love with my field in the first place. There are academic superstars who have headlined top conferences, and it's not just one or two of them here--it's more than I can count on my fingers, and more than a few were open to taking me on as a student. Pretty much all of them are hands-off mentors. I guess it comes with the territory of academic success, but not a problem for me at this career stage.
  • Obviously, I wouldn't come in with the good faculty relationships here that I'd have at School 1.
  • I loved my experience on visit day and personally had great interactions with current students (many in the groups I'm most interested in joining), but I've also heard some horror stories about the culture here (research groups competing with one another, students in the same group sabotaging one another's projects, people being very protective of their work, having their work stolen).
  • I'm really big on openness and accessibility in research. The leaders in the push to make my field more open are at this school, but I also picked up some vibes of the aforementioned inter-group politics and rivalry during my visit. A little alarming, since programs will typically take some care to hide that sort of thing during visit days.
  • Rather than working with a single mentor, my objective here would be to try and plug into several different groups and design an interdisciplinary project. The institution has a great funding mechanism in place to encourage this type of venture. But the number of unknowns leads me to question its feasibility: if inter-group rivalries run deep, it could easily thwart this plan and lead to some major disillusionment before I even begin my dissertation. (That said, there are a lot of exciting groups to fall back on if this isn't feasible.)
  • I don't know much about social life on this campus since my only exposure has been the curated environment of interview day, but my peers who used to work nearby tell me that I'd love the surrounding area, since it's got some great hikes and integration with natural scenery. However, I know literally nobody who currently lives in this part of the state.
  • This program has the best connections to non-academic opportunities and provides an excellent pipeline to alternative career options should academia not work out.

I'm looking at very different grad school trajectories at School 1 and School 2. School 1 offers continuity along my current trajectory--all work, all the time. (But at least I know that the work would be enjoyable.) The aim would be to push out as many quality papers as possible, as quickly as possible, and hopefully wrap up my studies more quickly. (Cue somebody telling me that this is the wrong attitude, things will not go as planned, etc.) At School 2, by contrast, the objective would be to try and make as many connections in the field as possible, and to do a more interdisciplinary dissertation, even if I'm not publishing as much and it takes longer to complete my studies.

Thanks again.

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