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Relieved to have decided ... yet crushed

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I don't know why I'm writing this, but I'm overwhelmed. It's the week of decision deadlines and I've been sitting on two PhD offers for over a month now. I emailed my potential advisor at "Program A" indicating that I'd like to accept their offer, and was feeling confident about it until after I pressed send. I thought this would lift a weight off of my shoulders, but I'm instead just flooded with emotions and doubt: "Did I make the right choice?" "Am I really sure?" "Am I good enough?", etc. I'm trying to tell myself this is a temporary feeling, but it's like my indecisiveness this past month is now just imploding on me. Maybe if I outline details of each program, some words from others can reassure me:


"Program A"

- The top program in my field (one in the geosciences), with superstar faculty 

- Good funding package ($2600/month for 5 years to TA or RA, including summers)

- Huge alumni network, most finding academic positions themselves

- Intellectual environment where everyone's always engaged in the science

- However, notorious reputation for its rigor. Students aren't the most outgoing and work constantly. Coming from a SLAC undergrad and small R3 masters program, this intimidates me greatly. I worked hard to get where I am today, but this place feeds me a new kind of imposter syndrome.

- Nevertheless, I also don't think I could reasonably decline such an opportunity to go here. My feelings towards this place are a mixture of the before mentioned intimidation, but also a sense of accomplishment for getting an offer. Some have said I'd be crazy to let this one go.


"Program B"

- Ranked ~50 in my field (if US News is your thing)

- 1 well-known advisor who is somewhat more invested in his students I would say

- Decent funding ($2000/month for 4 years to TA or RA, summers not guaranteed)

- Less stressful environment to me personally, and a more appealing location

- The alumni network, however, is much smaller in my field, particularly in academia

- My masters advisor says they'd prefer this program to the other, but fellow students and post-docs I've talked to say they'd take Program A without hesitation.


This is really me saying "Do the pros of Program A outweigh my hesitations?" and "Do the pros of Program B outweigh the regret I may feel about turning down the more prestigious offer?". Well, pragmatic me only hours earlier jumped on Program A. I wish I wrote this post before I sent that email ... but now all I hope is that I'm making the right choice.

Edited by BroHar
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I think program A is a no brainer! Besides, if they accepted you that means that they think you'll do great! And I'd tryst their judgment, since the admission committee definitely know what they're doing. 

However, at the end of the day it's all about the fit: where and with whom do you see yourself working better? 

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1 hour ago, BroHar said:

This is really me saying "Do the pros of Program A outweigh my hesitations?" and "Do the pros of Program B outweigh the regret I may feel about turning down the more prestigious offer?". 

Since none of us know you personally, it is impossible for folks here to know how you will handle the pressure you put on yourself while at Program A (objectively better). If you stick with A and continue to feel anxious about excelling there, please consider seeking the help of a threapist both before and during your studies. There is no shame in it and my SO did this when s/he was in a similar situation (small school -> top school). You are certainly capable of succeeding at A, you just need to convince yourself. :)

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Wow, do I feel your pain. I don't want this to sound hackneyed, but it's true that every situation is unique. Let me share what I've seen and been through in the four years I've been at a small top-rated engineering college, coming from a very small Geoscience department as an undergraduate (4.0 with research experience). I just defended my MS thesis yesterday and am working on a PhD as I type.

Advisors... I've met two 8th-year PhD students (that's EIGHT, I did not mis-type that) that warned me about older advisors who are less invested in the success of their PhD students because the tenure-track chase was no longer an issue for them. My current MS advisor is similar to what they explained and I have to agree with this. I was also advised not to go to a certain Geology program in Iceland because of someone's direct interaction/work with the faculty there. They simply do not go out of their way to make time for you. Again, this is a general observation. Now, my PhD advisor is new faculty, tenure-track, and plugged into new research and constantly keeps updated and goes out of his way to help his grad students. If it weren't for him and would have gone elsewhere for a PhD. Is your advisor hands-off? Micromanager? That can make a HUGE difference, and you'll have to asses that against your own personality and needs.

Department resources in terms of faculty and instrumentation... It did not hit me until 1 full year into my MS that research costs can be expensive. What are you researching and what instruments are available to you and what funding do you have? I have three years of RA funding but will pick up a year of TAing, that is typical for PhD students. I know funding is "King" (as they say) but good advisors who write successful grants often have more for students that need it. You have to show your advisor over time that you're making progress and drawing some potentially significant results/conclusions.

Where? Some people can't picture themselves in Arkansas for five years. This is entirely personal. Are you someone easily affected by your surroundings? By the moods of others? Remember, this is for the long haul. It may take you 3-7 years to complete a PhD degree, for various reasons. 

Funding and choice of advisor! A solid department is important, one that has faculty that share your interests. I have heard both good and bad things about, say, Oxford from a grad student and an undergrad student. But knowing the reputation it has and knowing that my personality can put up with a lot of nonsense and hassle, I would go there. I know I would have regrets if I didn't. Plus a lot of professors I've spoken with really do think that high-prestige schools can bring you much needed connections. That is, again, a generalization. But at my small undergrad department, I was a stand-out. And *that* helped me get into the school I'm in now. 

You're not going to be able to anticipate every consequence of your choice. You can play the odds and make a choice based on what you'd tell someone else in your situation to do. 

Also, your perspective about your experience will evolve over time. Some PhD experiences are relatively straight-forward with little drama and others (and I'm watching this happen now to fellow grad students) have to deal with moody advisors and broken equipment. 


Good luck!





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As you've presented it, without a doubt program A. Not even a question. Don't worry about what's this or that. Go with what makes sense based on the numbers and people who know you. Gut is important, but it doesn't mean it can't be wrong. Pull the trigger. Plunge that plunger. You got this.

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PROGRAM A!!!! For sure.

What scares you most about Program A is that it sounds like it will kick your butt a little. That's awesome, because while yes you may have longer night studying in the library, if your goal is to be as good as you possible can be in this field, getting your butt kicked a bit is exactly what you need. It doesn't sound like you are afraid of working hard, but of failing. That means there is something really great on the line. And they wouldn't have let you in if you weren't capable of succeeding. Start giving yourself pep talks, find out what kind of support you need to succeed (friends? family? a dog? ice cream? a few days off the grid after finals?), and build up that confidence!! The best way to get rid of imposter syndrome is to embrace your success, not shoot yourself in the foot by limiting your possibilities.


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I did my undergrad at an institution with a heavy workload that really kicked my butt at times, and for me, it was one of the best things I ever did for myself. In addition to what I learned from my studies, I learned so much about myself and what I was capable of. Obviously grad school is different than undergrad and only you know how you handle pressure, but I would say that if your goal is to learn as much as possible, choosing the more intimidating program can be helpful for that!

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On 4/10/2018 at 3:23 AM, BroHar said:

I emailed my potential advisor at "Program A" indicating that I'd like to accept their offer, and was feeling confident about it until after I pressed send. I thought this would lift a weight off of my shoulders, but I'm instead just flooded with emotions and doubt: "Did I make the right choice?" "Am I really sure?" "Am I good enough?", etc.

I felt EXACTLY the same way after I hit send on my email accepting one of my two offers. After accepting, it took me a few weeks and a lot of conversations with friends, my masters advisor, my partner, and my therapist (and even a few posts here on GradCafe) to finally feel OK even though I knew I made the best decision rationally and emotionally.  

After struggling for weeks, here is what I figured out: I did not think I deserved it. I was accepted to my dream school, something I had been working towards for years, but for several reasons, I couldn't let myself be comfortable having it. Once I realized that, I could address the absurdity of my issue directly and now I feel confident. Based on your internal questions/doubts and your struggle with impostor syndrome (a biggie for me too), I wouldn't be surprised if you are experiencing something similar. 

But the truth is, you have value and deserve to let your light shine for the world to see. You deserve to go to your first-choice school, to work with superstar faculty, to learn and thrive in an engaging intellectual environment, and to receive compensation for your work and contributions.

When you lay out your pros and cons, program A clearly stands out from program B. Have you asked yourself the simple question of where you want to go (or don’t want to go) and observed your visceral reaction to the two programs? Your decision to choose program A might not have been as pragmatic as you believe.

Also, why do you think you are less prepared for the rigors of a competitive research program because you went to a SLAC for undergrad? I went to a SLAC. I worked for a few years and then went to a large R1 university that is top 3 in my field for my masters. I had no problems adjusting and I think the SLAC prepared me very well. In fact, I have observed (and my mentors and advisors have commented) that, in general, I tend to ask more questions, have more developed critical thinking skills, and possess a greater depth of understand about my own personal interests and goals than many of my peers. These are valuable traits and I feel I have my SLAC to thank for embracing and strengthening them in me earlier in my academic career. That is not to say that people who don't go to SLACs are not as strong in these areas, but in my first-hand experience, most undergrads at my master’s university are not getting the same attention I got from my SLAC.

I second the comment from Entangled Phantoms about finding a good therapist. It is immensely helpful and provides a level of support you’d be hard pressed to find elsewhere. I’d recommend someone who has experience working with graduate students. Cognitive behavioral therapy is very helpful in working through self-doubt and impostor syndrome issues. Your school’s health center could probably recommend someone.

So congratulations, BroHar! You made a great decision. You deserve to be at your new program and you are going to thrive.

Edited by indecis
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