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UW-Madison (Pharm sci) vs. UMN Twin Cities (Med Chem) vs. Vandy (IGP)

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Hi all,

I've been accepted to phd programs at UMN Twin Cities for med chem, and UW-Madison for Pharm Sci. In addition, I'm interviewing at Vanderbilt for their IGP program in biomedical science in April. I feel the need to pretend like I've already been accepted to Vandy as my interview is very late and I won't have much time to decide after I visit (if I don't get an offer then the decision gets made for me I guess lol). In the mean time I'm trying to rule out either UMN or UW. Both UMN and UW check all the boxes for me and I suspect Vandy will too. I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of things that give a strong edge to one program or another.

Some quick points:

-UMN and UW are both offering fellowships and the total amount of money they are offering is the same as well. Vandy's base stipend is equal to what UMN and UW are offering me so I'll likely be offered the exact same amount from all three schools. My money will go further in Madison, but Minneapolis and Nashville aren't NY or San Fran and seem to be plenty affordable.

-There are at least 3 professors at all places I could seriously see myself working with, but none that swayed me 100% (caveat that I haven't met anyone at Vandy in person yet). I feel confident that I could fit in well with the culture of the departments at UW or UMN.

-Having the option to either stay in my comfort zone or branch out of my organic synthesis background into biochemistry or cell biology is really important to me. All programs put a heavy emphasis on interdisciplinarity, and supporting students who want to try out new areas. At UMN and UW I spoke to many grad students who did that successfully.

I haven't decided whether I want to pursue academia or industry yet so it's important to me to be in a program that has a strong record at preparing and placing alumni in both areas. Vandy is bent more towards academia in their placement record while UW and UMN have very strong records in both areas. The professors at UW and UMN were both very supportive of their students who wanted to leave academia. I also met with several students at both places that acquired industry internships. I'm not sure about Vandy yet, but TA'ing at UW and UMN is not intensive, and I wouldn't even have to do it at UMN due to the fellowship.

-UMN and Vandy have much heavier course loads, but I think I might prefer that. If I do branch out of my comfort zone the extra coursework could come in handy.

-The grad students at both UMN and UW seemed genuinely happy. I explicitly asked many about their worst experiences in the program and all of their answers were mild, and they all emphasized that they felt supported and happy.

-UMN and UW have amazing new facilities with all of the technical support and resources you would expect from highly-ranked, well-funded programs at large state schools. I feel safe to assume the same will be true of Vanderbilt.

-I'm a North Carolina native so -20 weather will be new to me if I move up north, but I haven't been fretting about that much despite my family and friends reminding me that Minnesota/Wisconsin are cold at every opportunity. My bigger concern is with lack of sunlight. It may sound trivial, but I predictably have a minor bout of depression in late January to early February even in NC when it starts getting dark at 5 PM. I haven't researched it too much, but I imagine lack of sunlight could be an issue for me at higher latitudes.

-I've lived in Chapel Hill the past 5 years and lived in Charlotte before that. Madison felt kind of like a mixture of Chapel Hill's college town vibe and Raleigh's mid-sized state capital feel. I didn't get a chance to explore the greater Minneapolis area, but its downtown felt much like Charlotte's in size. Nashville lies somewhere between the two. I loved Charlotte and I love Chapel Hill and Raleigh too. I don't think I would have any shortage of things to do in any of the three cities, and they all seem suitable to me and places where I could be very happy. Access to outdoor rec and state parks is important too, and Wisconsin and Minnesota seem totally saturated with those opportunities which is great. Madison has great proximity to larger cities, but I was a little concerned when I asked some of the other students what they liked to do outside of Madison and they basically said "there's nothing to do outside of Madison" (please don't take that as a slight against WI; it was a small sample size after all).

I'm having trouble making a decision because the areas that the schools differ in (like course load of program, or locale) don't matter to me enough to really pull me one way or the other. I feel myself inclined towards UMN but I'm honestly not quite sure why, and I'm not totally convinced that it isn't because it was the last place I visited. If anyone has some strong feelings they want to share about these schools or cities in general I would greatly appreciate the feedback. Also, if you felt extremely ambivalent about programs that excited you I'd love to hear your rationale for deciding one over another.

Thank you!

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I think I was in a similar position about a month ago. I am also a Chemistry major, and I am planning to pursue a phD in Chemistry-Biology interface filed. I got accepted to Cornell (more biology based) and Upenn (more chemistry based) bio/chem programs. Similarly, both schools check all the boxes for me. Luckily, I found one professor at Cornell who graduated from Upenn, and one professor at Upenn who did a postdoc at Cornell. They both gave me very neutral but essential views on both institutions. Check the school websites and see if you can find someone like that. 

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Thanks for the feedback, that's a good idea. I'm sure there's some significant overlap between UW and UMN due to their proximity and the fact that both schools have strong biomedical science programs. I did talk to a grad student at UW who did her undergrad at UMN. She said she liked UMN better, but Minneapolis is where she grew up and she said that biased her. Do you mind if I ask what it was they said that swayed you one way or another (assuming you've made a decision of course)?

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