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Big Midwestern state school or elite, jaw-dropping private?


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Like so many others in this subforum, I need some help/perspective in deciding where to go. I've been *really* lucky, and I've narrowed my acceptances down to the two I'd most like to attend. Fundamentally, the choice comes down to a decision concerning the immediate direction of my training (I'm in biosciences and need to decide between working with humans or working with an animal model, though I intend to do both in the long run), because I can always focus on the other during a postdoc. I'm also trying to weigh cost of living, etc., as the fit with both schools is otherwise phenomenal.

School A: big Midwestern state school which has a very good reputation in behavioral animal research in my field. There are a wealth of faculty with similar interests, and one guy in particular who would be absolutely spectacular with whom to work (he actually does both animal and human stuff, so it would make the point above moot). The school is more limited on the human side, but good opportunities are still available (and the research coming from the few human labs is high quality). Seems to be a highly collaborative environment--the faculty are excited about their research and seem pretty engaged with the student body. The program is moderately structured with a side emphasis on professional development (grantwriting, etc--very appealing), but there is enough flexibility so as to allow students the ability to create the opportunities they want. Good fit with the social culture. The cost of living is extremely low, but the weather is terrible.

School B: smaller, elite private school with the wow-factor associated with the name (can't believe I got in, truthfully!). Incredible reputation for the field overall, and there are several faculty in my subfield with very quality research (and a good match to my interests). Much better fit with the human researchers--there are only 2 people working on the animal side of things--but the opportunities with the human labs are pretty diverse and interdisciplinary. Also seems to be a highly collaborative environment, but I've heard from people who have teched there that it really depends on the lab/PI (and that egos can sometimes get in the way). The program has as little structure as possible, which makes it super flexible but also more difficult to access supplementary opportunities (again, like grantwriting). Again, good fit with the social culture (although it may be more...intense (and perhaps competitive)...than School A). The cost of living is insanely high, but the climate is amazing.

So what do I do? Considering a good research fit with both schools (albeit in different areas of analysis) and good vibes from both, do I go with School A, which has a slightly-less-prestigious name/reputation (but would challenge me by forcing me out of my human-research comfort zone), or School B, which has name power and is super strong in human research? All thoughts and comments welcome. :)

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School B seems the obvious choice to me - better climate AND better prestige factor (I'm all for the brand name). The drawback to it seems to be that it also has some inflated egos, but a few of those will probably be found in most places, and as long as they don't hamper YOUR work it shouldn't matter!

Congrats on being a position to have these options in the first place though!

Edited by 2010international
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While no expert on the subject, I understand that if you can make it at a big state school in the sciences, you can make it anywhere. From what I have heard, the science departments in the big state schools are the best training grounds for success after you are degreed. For what it's worth, from someone not in the field...

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you already know my opinion on the matter! ;)

(school B, obviously)

I'm sure you'll be happier either place, but come on, who wants to slosh through a foot of snow/ice/rain when they can ride their bikes to/from class and hang out with a bunch of really awesome people?

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Congrats on such phenomenal acceptance success!:D I actually joined your school A and I am pretty happy with my decision but if I were accepted to your school B (I didn't even apply there!) as well it would have been quite a dilemma. It seems like you are more inclined towards school B, so you should probably go with that choice. Out of all "elite" schools I've heard the best things about it (as in, inflated ego issue is not that big of a deal and people are generally very nice). In any case, you will succeed in either.

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If the above poster is correct about there not being much of an ego problem, I'd go for Stanford. Since you know you'll need supplementary work on professional growth such as grant writing, I'd bet you could find it for yourself there, even if it isn't built into the curriculum. Also, a competitive atmosphere can be good; those will be the people you're up against in the future!

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I'd recommend rejecting both and re-applying next year to a little-known but exciting school but with tremendous potential in your field: the University of Phoenix.

Joking aside, I'd say Stanford. I think even by describing it in your thread name as an "elite, jaw-dropping" school your decision is already made.

It's a good one, so enjoy it!

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I'd recommend rejecting both and re-applying next year to a little-known but exciting school but with tremendous potential in your field: the University of Phoenix.

Joking aside, I'd say Stanford. I think even by describing it in your thread name as an "elite, jaw-dropping" school your decision is already made.

It's a good one, so enjoy it!

Bahahahahahahahahaha. I laughed out loud at this. No... really. Its been far too long since I've heard a good "UofP" reference. Bravo.

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On just the plain old topic of research fit, I might be wary of choosing b/c of animal research possibilities if you have never done work with animal models. From my own experience, working with animals is a whole other game. I have a psych background but I did work in a wet neurobio lab for a little while. Although I found the research intellectually stimulating, the actual bench work was infuriating. Yeah human subjects suck and can be hard to deal with and it's much harder to do real experimental manipulations that will speak causally, but at least with human work you're not hunched over micron thin brain slices all day just praying you don't tear them. I'm a little ADD and it was maddening for me.

I think another thing to think about is what do you want from your grad training vs what can you/would you pick up in post-doc. If you want to have an integrated lab eventually (human and animal work), maybe some of those techniques are some you can get as a post-doc researcher.

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Update:

The more I think on it, the more I think that I should focus on behavioral neuro for my thesis. Human work is near and dear to my heart (and I still want to integrate it into my dissertation), but I think that I will grow more as a scientist if I broaden my horizons. And so, I've spent a great deal of time emailing/talking to people at both Stanford and Michigan the past few days to assess opportunities and scope out the lay of the land. What I've discovered kind of changes the game a bit, and so I want some (pseudo-objective) input, given the new information.

I referenced earlier how Stanford is really strong in human research but not animal (for my subfield anyway). This is still just as true as it was before--there are 3, count them, 3 animal-guys working on material related to my interests (and I'm not really captivated by 2 of them). However, the remaining prof is doing amazing, groundbreaking work that will likely change the whole game, and what's more, the human guy with whom I'm most interested in working has been talking about setting up a collaboration with him. If I were to design a dissertation right now, at this very moment, that project/collaboration would be it.

BUT. What happens if I go to Stanford and the collaboration (which is still in extremely nascent phases) falls through? What if I don't get along with one of the PIs? What if (as with happens with many new grad students) my interests change? Although I haven't yet formulated the same mouth-watering project at Michigan, it seems like it may be a safer choice in the long run, given my growing certainty that I should focus on behavioral neuro, because it isn't resting on the back of this one (albeit amazing) project. Michigan's behavioral neuro is some of the strongest in the country, and there are tons of people there working on stuff (with varying degrees of relation to my interests) that I would be happy to jump into. It would push my boundaries, take me out of my comfort zone, and I'd likely become a more flexible scientist than if I stay solely on the human track.

BUT. What happens if I'm totally wrong about behavioral neuro? What if I go to Michigan but I can't work with animals because I can't bring myself to perform surgeries or sacrifice them? If that's the case, I may have landed myself in a situation where I won't be as satisfied with the backup options (as opposed to Stanford, where I like what the human people are doing to a much bigger degree).

UGH. I know I'm whining a bit, but now I *really* don't know what to do. My gut feeling isn't any help--it switches back and forth every 5 minutes. PLEASE HELP.

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well, as you said it yourself, many graduate students change their minds regarding their actual dissertation project. What if you completely fall in love with, say, genetics or developmental neuroscience? In either case, you'd be working with such animal models as, for example, flies or zebrafish. For either, the issue of having to deal with hurting an animal is usually not as sensitive as with mammals. Both schools have MASSIVE resources for any kind of biomedical research application, so you should be alright with either. I know I'm not exactly helpful, but just as thought from a basic science perspective.

I also think that it is great that you pay such close attention to what you want to do, as opposed to a lot of people who in your place probably would yell "GO STANFORD!" and go there just because it is Stanford.

Good luck with your decision!

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