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Dealing with the aftermath of deciding

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I am coming off of what feels like a string of amazing luck and yet I can't quite bring myself to feel happy about anything, because it has required a set of incredibly difficult decisions about my future. I applied to six PhD programs split between Canada and the US and I was lucky enough to be accepted to all of them. I visited each school and weighed the pros and cons of funding, POI, cost of living etc. and it ultimately came down to deciding between attending the program where I did my MA and a large, well-respected American ivy league school. I really tried not to let the "prestige factor" impact my decision, but everyone I spoke to still weighted it pretty heavily in terms of post-grad work and also spoke very highly of the program I ultimately selected. At the same time, this program offered full tuition coverage and a guaranteed stipend while the Canadian program offered great funding, but I would have to pay the tuition costs every year out of that stipend. I later found out that I was awarded a doctoral SSHRC that they would have let me keep the whole amount of, meaning that I could have been making equal to what I would make at a an early-career level position at any major museum. But, I didn't find out about the scholarship until after I had to make my decision. 

Now I'm dealing with the struggle of less financial security, because my chosen school doesn't really allow me to combine their stipend with my external award, and the costs of visas etc. that also would have been covered by some of the other American schools I declined. For reference, the major American competitor was a school of equal calibre, but one that I had heard very negative things about. It seemed to me that people in the program were not happy in general and not a single person I knew recommended that I should attend. But, they offered a larger financial package (in part due to higher cost of living), guaranteed access to campus housing and a better healthcare package than the school I chose. 

On top of ALL of this, I was blessed to be offered a year long contract position at a major museum as a curatorial assistant for a job I applied to mostly out of duty and did not expect to hear back from. 

In the end, I decided to turn down the position because I already have considerable museum experience and felt that I really should just get started on my PhD instead of delaying one more year. 

But now I am left feeling unsure about ALL of my decisions: did I pick the right school? Should I have taken the job and deferred my PhD (but I would have lost the scholarship)? Is it too late to change my mind?

How do I come to terms with my incredible good luck and feel good about my decisions instead of feeling gut wrenched by overanalyzing everything?


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We all have regrets when we make a big decision like this one. No one can tell you if you should've made a different decision. If you want, you could contact the major American competitor and see if they still have a spot for you, especially given the external award. They may say yes, they may say no, but you won't know unless you ask.* That said, money isn't everything. I took a less financially secure PhD offer because I had confidence both in myself and in the people I'd be working with that I'd become a better scholar if I went to that program. Was it a gamble? Yes. Did it work out? Yes, because I made it work out. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there were times when I wished I had the extra money but a PhD is about far more than the money you receive while doing it. You have to think long-term about all of this and make the best decision(s) for your future. Before you go chasing the money, use a cost of living calculator to make sure you truly understand the difference with the higher cost of living. And keep in mind the negative experiences people had and whether that would also be your experience. Extra money may not help much if your program is full of people who are unhappy about being there.

*If you do go that route, I'd see if they're still willing to offer you the original funding or if you'd be relying solely on your Canadian award your first year.

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  • 2 months later...

Hi Anxious art historian, 

You are suffering from what I know intimately as "The Paradox of Getting Many Good Things" - a condition I made up and a name that is nonsense but something that does happen often... at least to me. 

You started out in your post that you've had amazing luck with your acceptance. Congratulations! You truly seem like an amazing individual, capable of amazing things. But before you can conquer graduate school and your phD program, first, you have to figure out all the logistics of school, finances, etc. etc. ETC. Yes, these are all stressful decisions. Yes, they are all a nightmare to figure out. They will affect your life. BUT since you are so amazing and brilliant, I believe that you will make the best, smart decision that you can at the time you need to. Do you believe that?

You have gotten many good things and you can't feel happy. Do you know why? Because you have too many good things. You would think that having too many good things would just make you feel, well, good. But in reality, they can drive us crazy. One good thing might be better than the other (i.e. the doctoral SSHRC) but whether you get a little stipend of a huge one, the main point is this: these are all good things. So remember that. Revel in that. 

Now, after that, do this: try visualizing, writing down, or talking with someone about what your ultimate end goal is. You are studying to receive a phD... but for what purpose? 

Then, think about everything you need to do to make it happen. Write the very basic necessities that will sustain your studies and life during this academic period.  Be clear on what you are doing, why, and what you need to make it all happen. And then don't let any of the minor details, no matter how attractive they may be, cloud your judgment. It seems like you have this sort of intuition already, as indicated when you turned down that curatorial assistant job. So simply reaffirm your purpose, what you need to get there, and trust yourself. 

As for your questions..

Did I pick the right school? - Sit by yourself and think about why you chose it. Only you know the answer and why you chose a school over another. Prestige can be important or not depending on what you study and your personal preference. 

Should I have taken the job and deferred my PhD (but I would have lost the scholarship)? - This goes back to your purpose. Financial insecurity is really scary but that is part of phD programs. Either it's not worth it or the phD is an investment for the future. 

Is it too late to change my mind? - For your particular situation, I don't know. I want to say no, that dropping out is probably not difficult but it will have consequences so just be mindful of that. 

Also one last thing. You said that you heard back at different times regarding the scholarship and acceptance; you found out about the scholarship after accepting offers, which sucks. All I can say is that that is unfortunate but for some instances, timing is off and it is against us. You could try to negotiate and communicate your disappointments and maybe something good could happen? But overall, just realize that there are some things you can't control and keep moving. 

Anxious art historian, good luck with everything. It really is amazing that so many lucky (but earned) situations happened to you! All you need to do is to trust yourself and then pave the way to move forward confidently. 


Edited by greenpoint001
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