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Between an Ivy and a Hard Place


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Hey y'all! I'm a prospective Computer Science PhD student interested in natural language processing. I've been accepted into a certain Ivy with a great reputation in a great location, but a location which happens to be extremely expensive, as most east-coast cities are. I've also been accepted into another school (henceforth Great School) whose research interests are a bit closer to mine and with a similar--if slightly lower--level of prestige, and in a much cheaper (but also much more dangerous) location. This is a 5-year program, so I want to make sure I'll be happy where I end up. How should I decide?

  • Ivy's location is more expensive, but it's been my dream to live in an east-coast city for a long time now and this would be my chance. Great School's location is very cheap, but very dangerous.
  • Ivy's overall computer science reputation is better, but Great School's natural language processing reputation is better.
  • Ivy's research interests are close to mine, and there are multiple faculty doing work I'd like to be on. Great School has research even closer to my interests, and tons of faculty doing things I'd kill to do for a living.
  • Both schools are covering my tuition. However, I'm getting approximately the same stipend in both places, and Ivy is in a much more costly location. At the same time, however, I have lived in Great School's city for a summer and absolutely hated everything about the surrounding city, despite somewhat liking Great School's campus.
  • Ivy's faculty seem to have a reputation for neglecting their students, despite being friendly overall; I have had to fight for their attention, but they are always great about answering my questions when they get back to me. Great School has been trying to recruit me hard and they are very accommodating toward my interests and concerns, and they seem much more interested in me as a researcher.
  • The faculty I'd be working with at Great School are cited noticeably more than those that I would be working with at Ivy.

This is essentially a decision of quality-of-life versus quality-of-work. Basically, I'm deciding between research quality/faculty compatibility and location/prestige. I know that research should be the most important thing, but Great School's location is just so antithetical to everything I want from my home city. Ivy has a wonderful reputation and a location I've been dying to get to for a long time, but I'm worried that the research experience itself may not be as smooth, despite being amazing overall regardless. Both have great alumni connections in companies I want to work for upon graduation, and it's hard to go wrong with either, really. Any input would be wonderfully and genuinely appreciated. Thanks y'all!

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I think you shouldn't be worried about outing yourself. Where is Great School located? There's Pittsbugh and there's Champaign. I can see never wanting to live in latter, but the former, I am confident, would grow on you.

I would take Great School because of the research fit and because I know I would quickly start to loathe living in Boston or NYC on a graduate student stipend.

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Without knowing what you're talking about, it's difficult to say whether Great School's location is really "very dangerous". If I were you, I'd talk to current students and faculty about whether it is dangerous in reality or not. And, either way, I'd go with research fit, which means Great School.

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tl;dr this is a HARD problem. Before I started grad school, I would've told you Great School, no question. Now that I'm done and did a postdoc in a small college town that was OK at best and work in industry in a city I love...I don't know, man. Location and quality of life, IMO, is so important. I'm a big fan of treating a PhD program as a phase of your life - not some temporary, supra-existential chunk of Limbo time, but as an actual period of your life in which you deserve to be happy and develop yourself as a person and not just a professional. Balancing the two of them is really important.

I'm tempted to say that if you really believe "it's hard to go wrong with either," then why not go with the place where you really want to live and where you are pretty sure you can be happy?


The long version:

1. Fit is king. If Great School has research interests that are closer to yours, then it seems like it's probably a better fit for you.

2. I went to an Ivy in a very, very expensive city (Columbia, in New York). You get by, and can even thrive. I lived with roommates and/or in small apartments the entire time I was there, but there are unparalleled opportunities for work and play in large cities. It just kind of depends on what you value, what makes you tick. If you like lots of space and wide-open vistas, a tiny apartment in Boston or Philly or New York may drive you nuts. If you want to eat greasy pizza at a hole in the wall at 3:12 am or get Sri Lankan food delivered to your door or take in world-renowned ballet or opera in your downtime, then a big city is kind of the only place you can do that.

3. I will always appreciate and never regret the seven years I spent in New York. Life-defining opportunity, even while broke. Location in grad school is far more important than I gave it credit for before I was applying.

4. Doing research that you would kill to do is one of the only ways to maintain your sanity in graduate school. When you wake up in a cold sweat early one morning during your third year wondering why you are doing this to yourself, remembering that you are asking and answering the questions you are passionate about is what soothes you back to sleep (or, more likely, eases you out of bed to get a coffee and start reading). I'm half-joking, but seriously, there's something really special and joyful about digging into something you LOVE for five years straight. You want to be at a place where you can really do that. It sounds like Great School is. Is Ivy?

5. I went to an Ivy that also had a reputation for neglecting its students, which in my opinion was mostly true (it depended a lot on the department). In my opinion, this also wasn't so bad...but that depended a lot on the student and the professor. I had mentors who were pretty good to really great, and they would make time for me if I was proactive about seeking it out (but wouldn't necessarily come find me on their own, which I don't see as a problem). I had excellent research mentorship from people at the top of their field. And I would say in my case, it pushed me to be more independent: to come to meetings with mentors prepared with agendas and notes; to seek out multiple mentors from different institutions to give me what I needed when my main ones were missing in action; to think deeply about what I wanted and what my research interests were (and not my mentors'); to gently push back against things I did not want to do. Is this a pro over having a more nurturing mentor? I don't know. I have some friends who had super nurturing labs and mentors and that experience sounds lovely. It also sounds smothering, to someone who never had that. I kind of liked the fact that my mentors didn't really care where I was or what I was doing at specific hours of the day as long as I was turning in good work consistently. I'd also say that the 'friction' required to get stuff done has helped me in my professional career afterwards - I'm much better at pushing things forward and taking a proactive approach (and bringing attention to myself and the stuff I'm doing) than I would've been otherwise, and it's been noticed.

The advice I always give students looking at my program is that if you're already a person who's got well-defined ideas about what you want to do and a sense of self-assured independence, attending a department with somewhat-neglectful (I say that sort-of-affectionately) faculty isn't necessarily something that will destroy you.

6. Citations, or publications? Do the professors at Great School publish more prolifically than the faculty at Ivy? take note of that. You need publications, and one of the best ways to get them early on is to jump onto a publication a professor or PI is doing.

7. Is the Ivy actually a more prestigious program in your field, or are you just attending to overall prestige?

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Alright, by popular demand, I'm gonna de-anonymize the schools: the choice is between Columbia (Ivy) and Johns Hopkins (Great School). Whereas it seems like Columbia has a better overall CS reputation, Hopkins has a better NLP reputation, especially in machine translation research. I think I'd be happy doing NLP research at either, but my research fit is better at Hopkins.

However, Baltimore is definitely not my favorite place due to its smaller size, lower-quality public transit system, relative lack of cultural/social opportunities, and worse overall cultural fit for me. (And to address @rising_star, it is quite dangerous, especially the northern parts of Charles Village. I got cornered and mugged at gunpoint within my first hour there during a summer internship at Hopkins despite paying attention to my surroundings). Meanwhile, New York is my dream city, and I think Columbia's campus is much nicer, if smaller. I don't mind paying a fortune for a shoebox if the location is great, but the funding is more...precarious at Columbia, despite my fellowship. It is also difficult to get anyone at Columbia to respond to my emails stating my concerns; they said I'd be covered for 3 years, but that the latter 2 will depend on my advisor securing grants. I wanted to clarify what the precise conditions of this were so I could make an informed decision, but no one will respond to me. Hopkins has explicitly guaranteed full tuition coverage and a stipend, even after my fellowship has expired; they also always respond to me within the hour.

I agree with juilletmercredi in that location will make a big difference; this is, after all, 5 years of my life. I don't want to hate it in Baltimore. However, NY is definitely expensive, and I could easily visit on weekends with the money I save by going to Hopkins. I could also live in DC and commute to Hopkins, but the apartments in DC near the MARC train station are pricey.

Thank y'all for the input thus far! It is much appreciated.

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