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Lowe

Prestigious program or not?

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Posted (edited)

Hi everyone!

Has anyone here chosen a less prestigious PhD program? My choices are down to two schools, one is a private school (ranked #18) vs a public school (ranked #51). They both offer the same kind of financial assistance. However, the latter is located at a very reasonable place (price-wise) vs the other. The (less prestigious) school also has more faculty I would like to work with—although not as well known—compared to one person at the other school—this faculty member is a big name. I also have a family so the more affordable place has a lot of allure. I’m just nervous this is something I will regret. Anyone has personal experience or tips? 

Edited by Lowe
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Posted (edited)

I just chose a program ranked at 108, so I’d also like to see responses from folks who did this.

One thing I will say regarding private v public- personally I’m very happy to be going to a private school. My time working in student gov in Oregon in undergrad showed me just how effed up state funding can be. I think private funding is a bit safer and perhaps more likely to have COL increases. This is just my hunch though.

Congrats on your acceptances!

Edited by kendalldinniene

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@kendalldinniene

 

i never thought about the funding differences between private vs public. I need to look into that. 

I fell in love with the faculty and the place for the public school so I’m feeling down because everyone seems to be pushing for the more prestigious one (I’m still keeping an open mind). 

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If your goal is to enjoy grad school, feel supported and valued in your department, and get the best education possible: go to the lower-ranked school. If your goal is to be as competitive as you can on the imploding academic job market: go to the elite private school.

I’m not saying both aren’t possible at the same institution. But without knowing more about your specific situation, this is the (problematic) assumption that still predominates in academia. Especially from the perspective of the academic job market.

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I did not choose the "most prestigious" program I got accepted into last year. I chose to go somewhere where I felt I could grow and be happy. I chose the environment and department which I felt would allow me to grow my potential and one where I felt that there were several people that I would work very well with. In order to produce the best work, I felt there were several important factors to consider.

1) Living arrangements: Can I afford a 1 or 2 bedroom based on my stipend without needing to live with roommates?  How far/close do I want to be to campus?
2) Do I feel the campus/city is bikeable/walkable? 
3) How do I feel about the department as a whole? Are there multiple people I see myself being able to work with?
4) Are there additional opportunities outside the department?
5) Are the schools placing in schools you'd be happy in? Getting accepted into a highly ranked school might help your job prospects in some of the better known schools. However, 90 percent of schools aren't considered R1 schools. Schools that focus on teaching make up the majority of universities doing the hiring and they care more about your teaching record than they do about what school you graduated from or about your publication history. (This isn't to say that either group doesn't care about the other at all. Rather, they just weigh thinks differently. Some schools worry that graduates of "elite programs" will leave their school as soon as another opening happens elsewhere.)

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1 hour ago, Lowe said:

@kendalldinniene

 

i never thought about the funding differences between private vs public. I need to look into that. 

I fell in love with the faculty and the place for the public school so I’m feeling down because everyone seems to be pushing for the more prestigious one (I’m still keeping an open mind). 

I think if you're throwing the "L" word around you might be pretty close to a decision ;)  At the end of the day this is the next x number of years of your life, and I think you should trust your gut.  It's obviously done well by you so far. 

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Not exactly prestige, but what about resources? Which school will give you the tools you need to undertake the research you want? Professionalisation? Help you get to conferences? Pay attention to your work and connect you with opportunities? 

One prof at a lower-ranked school encouraged me to go a 'prestigious' one - not for name, but bc the program could offer me more support. She said this knowing that my interests alligned really well with her own at the lower-ranked school.

But yeah, I feel you. Its like a never-ending pro and con list that I'm kicking around in my head all day.

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Posted (edited)

In the end, I believe academic fit ultimately trumps rankings, especially considering lists like US News are not super reliable for an assortment of reasons (and, of course, does not consider individual departmental strengths). Something to consider is the fact that since the POI at the prestigious university is a big name, they might not have as much time to provide individualized attention (senior and/or big-name scholars might teach fewer classes or might not even take on new students). Plus, it would be different if you had several POI at this higher-ranked university--you only mentioned one, and to me, this is suuuuuper risky, because what if that individual retires, goes on sabbatical/leave, or decides to leave that institution in favor of another? Or, in the worst case scenario, what if you don't even like working with that person? What if they turn out to be super unreliable? If you welcome multiple professors to work with, then at the very least you can receive new insights and perspectives. 

Maybe ask the DGS at the prestigious university if they intend to hire any tenure-track with your specialization in the foreseeable future. Maybe even reach out to graduate students about affordability and/or "family-friendliness" in both cities/towns. Question where you can imagine yourself living for 5-7 years while still managing to do research with faculty. Schools with higher endowments and prestige clearly carry a wealth of resources to peruse (sometimes this manifests in higher stipends, more fellowship opportunities, more travel funding for conferences, etc.), but the ability to conduct research in the department with faculty mentors strikes me as equally important. And depending on what other factors you are considering, the pros and cons are limitless. 

I know someone at my current grad seminar who turned down a very prestigious, highly ranked English doctoral program in favor of her current program because the latter was more affordable and hosted multiple tenured faculty in her line of interest, even if her current program is not nearly as well-known. I'm in the same boat and I found this incredibly useful to consider. 

Edited by bwriteshere

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10 hours ago, rhetoricus aesalon said:

If your goal is to enjoy grad school, feel supported and valued in your department, and get the best education possible: go to the lower-ranked school. If your goal is to be as competitive as you can on the imploding academic job market: go to the elite private school.

I think there's some truth to this. However, one thing I would definitely do in the OPs position is obtain a list of former advisees of the professors you'd be interesting in working with and see where they are now (this is perhaps less helpful for advisees pre-2008, but still a good exercise). It's possible that at the lower ranked institution there are handful of professors that do a very good job of placing their students. If so and if those professors are the one's the OP would like to work with, that might mitigate some of the concerns regarding rank. (Although I do think that @ExileFromAFutureTime makes a very valid point that's worth considering).

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@Lowe, you may also consider when you reach that point in your graduate career, you can ask a top professor doing similar work outside your institution to be an external reader on your dissertation committee. This will make your materials stronger on the job market because you will have a letter from someone -- in the words of Karen Kelsky (AKA The Professor Is In) -- who is not paid and obligated to be your adviser, giving search committees a more unbiased evaluation of your accomplishments. Having external letters also shows you are building a reputation outside your institution.

But as someone who is just now wrapping up their first year on the market and has landed a good job coming out of a top program in my field, I think it's incorrect to say rank isn't one of the more important factors when landing a first-round interview. I believe fit -- which unfortunately is something you cannot really know or control very much on the market from year to year -- is the most important, but I truly believe rank is also high on this list. I have seen students in high-ranking programs with no publications get offers after successful on-campus interviews. And I have seen students from lower-ranking institutions with multiple peer-reviewed publications receive few if any first-round interviews. Of course it is impossible to know why exactly, but over and over I have heard faculty say some version of, "Coming from X program, you are just going to get more interviews than people in Y program. That's just a fact."

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14 hours ago, kendalldinniene said:

I just chose a program ranked at 108, so I’d also like to see responses from folks who did this.

One thing I will say regarding private v public- personally I’m very happy to be going to a private school. My time working in student gov in Oregon in undergrad showed me just how effed up state funding can be. I think private funding is a bit safer and perhaps more likely to have COL increases. This is just my hunch though.

Congrats on your acceptances!

Aside from the fact that the rankings are really misleading, I don't think that school is really thought of as a #108 ranked school anymore.  It's been two years since US News and World Report offered those rankings, and things have changed quite a bit in that department over the last five years.  Ultimately, schools ranked in the top 20 have the distinction of placing people at R1 schools.  Schools outside the top 20, whether they are 40 or 80 seem to place at roughly the same rate at the same types of schools.  

As Warelin pointed out, a ton of schools who are hiring are not R1 schools.  All those things they said about being fit for the job in PhD applications apply even more so at the hiring stage.  Will a top 20 program really make you more fit to work at a school that focuses on teaching?  A lot of hiring committees would say no.  

I would say go to the place that would make you happier unless there is some huge distinction in the value of their support.  Having said that, I agree with Kendall, I like private schools.  Life is just easier there. Life happens much faster at a private school too. 

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@MetaphysicalDrama(really like the username btw) brings up some excellent points.

I think a lot of placements also depend on your specific field and adviser. Emprof mentioned that their school places very well in 3 fields and a bit less well in other fields. Likewise, I also think it's important to remember that USNews rankings (for English) were based on 14 percent response rate of 155 programs. Programs that have been around for longer often have more of a reputation because their graduates have had a longer time to have their work published. Likewise, bigger programs might appear to be placing in more colleges because they've had more graduates. Smaller programs might be placing just as well as bigger programs but might get less attention because they don't have as many alumni spread out through different colleges.

Prior to these rankings, UC Davis was not considered a "top 20" program. However, I can also say that they've made a lot of interesting changes in the last few years which have allowed them to capture some more interest. However, I don't think all schools are paying attention to every single school and I imagine that rankings would look significantly different if we broke it up into different regions or if a different 14 percent responded to the survey.

To some extent, I think ranking could be impacted at schools through no fault of their own. This article mentions that the University of California system might be in danger. It doesn't believe Berkeley or UCLA will be impacted by the changes but it remains unclear of the remaining 8 universities. I think the UC System (outside of Berkeley and UCLA) has been dedicated to undergraduate teaching and I think that the placements (even at Davis and Irvine) reflect that.

In regards to placing at the same rate, I think that depends. Cincinatti (Ranked #108),  University of Missouri (#67),  and University of Denver (#116) might not be as "highly ranked" for literature programs but they are considered really great places by those who are interested in Creative Writing. Rhetoric/Composition would also determine that great schools are different from those ranked. As such, I'd look carefully at what the placements mean. How recent are the placements? Where are they getting placed? What subfield is getting placed? Are they placing in my time period? Do the "better" placements have something in common? Does the school require you to do something extra that could contribute to their success? Can I replicate that if I'm motivated? Would I feel defeated if my school drops rank when it's not ranked?

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Posted (edited)

Stats about where students end up tell only part of the story. I think it is far less likely that top programs don't train their students to be good teachers than it is students from top programs get multiple offers and turn down those from teaching schools because they pay significantly less for substantially more teaching. In a profession where your research is the most important thing to mobility, it takes a lot to accept $15k less a year to teach two or three times as many classes.

Edited by rhetoricus aesalon

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Posted (edited)

@Warelin

I was raised on philosophy, so I selected the username acutely aware of its implications.  

It's almost criminal that so few responses produced rankings that students need to consult.  Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty in placement.  I guess the only certainty we can have is that working at a top 20 school is only likely if you study at a top 20 school.  They'll trickle down to other schools even if they have no need for a "top 20 product."  However, some top 20 graduates just don't fit at schools with more focus on teaching.  I've heard of some job talks where they just outright make demands from the institution during the interview.  It's not really their fault, but it shows they could be out-of-touch with life at a teaching campus.  Overall, I think that the rankings might be right about the top 20 because their such givens.  I'm less confident of how they rank "middle-tier" and "lower-tier" schools.  The nature of schools having success in certain subfields has a big impact here too. 

I'm more attuned to literature than creative writing and rhet/comp.  I do know that University of Houston is one such example of a great school for creative writing (somehow they've placed students at Rice), but their literature students don't have nearly the same opportunities.  

On University of Denver, I do love the "school," but the support they offer graduate students is really disappointing (three years).  I'm a firm believer that the package has to be right.  I think schools can vary on assistantship money versus fellowship money, but cutting support before students are expected to complete the degree is definitely a big negative for me.  

You've already pointed out to us how placement stats are very misleading.  For example, Rutgers publishes stats from a favorable market, but they delete the last three years, which has been a much more challenging market.  I think more so than stats, a prospective student should look at graduate profiles and see options.  Do you have students in TT jobs, lecturer positions,  teaching colleges, and alt-ac placements?  Ideally, for programs outside the top 20, I would argue their ought to be a mix. 

Edited by MetaphysicalDrama

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8 hours ago, bwriteshere said:

In the end, I believe academic fit ultimately trumps rankings, especially considering lists like US News are not super reliable for an assortment of reasons (and, of course, does not consider individual departmental strengths). Something to consider is the fact that since the POI at the prestigious university is a big name, they might not have as much time to provide individualized attention (senior and/or big-name scholars might teach fewer classes or might not even take on new students). Plus, it would be different if you had several POI at this higher-ranked university--you only mentioned one, and to me, this is suuuuuper risky, because what if that individual retires, goes on sabbatical/leave, or decides to leave that institution in favor of another? Or, in the worst case scenario, what if you don't even like working with that person? What if they turn out to be super unreliable? If you welcome multiple professors to work with, then at the very least you can receive new insights and perspectives. 

Maybe ask the DGS at the prestigious university if they intend to hire any tenure-track with your specialization in the foreseeable future. Maybe even reach out to graduate students about affordability and/or "family-friendliness" in both cities/towns. Question where you can imagine yourself living for 5-7 years while still managing to do research with faculty. Schools with higher endowments and prestige clearly carry a wealth of resources to peruse (sometimes this manifests in higher stipends, more fellowship opportunities, more travel funding for conferences, etc.), but the ability to conduct research in the department with faculty mentors strikes me as equally important. And depending on what other factors you are considering, the pros and cons are limitless. 

I know someone at my current grad seminar who turned down a very prestigious, highly ranked English doctoral program in favor of her current program because the latter was more affordable and hosted multiple tenured faculty in her line of interest, even if her current program is not nearly as well-known. I'm in the same boat and I found this incredibly useful to consider.

You are smart

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59 minutes ago, rhetoricus aesalon said:

Stats about where students end up tell only part of the story. I think it is far less likely that top programs don't train their students to be good teachers than it is students from top programs get multiple offers and turn down those from teaching schools because they pay significantly less for substantially more teaching. In a profession where your research is the most important thing to mobility, it takes a lot to accept $15k less a year to teach two or three times as many classes.

I agree that stats about where students end up only tell part of the story. However, I would argue that students from "top programs" aren't the only ones getting multiple offers. It's very likely that a good candidate is likely to get multiple offers of differing types. Part of that might be based on their school. But it's also likely that certain candidates will get looked over by the hiring school if the hiring university has had a high turnover from that school. I think it's also important to note that not everyone's end goal is to be placed at a school which focuses heavily on research. And I think it's equally as important to remember that we often have very little choice of where we end up if we decide to go on the job market. Considering most schools are not research-focused, being open to non-R1 schools will broaden our chances of being placed.

As a side note, there are some fairly well-known colleges that do have a permanent teaching-track. This remains to be a viable option for a fair amount of people and I wouldn't consider people holding these positions to be less deserving of tenure than those on a research-track. Different departments have different needs at a time and it's possible that a person's specific subfield may never open up at the R-1 school they were hoping for.

Some students might also have no desire to leave their city. I can't remember how many people I spoke with doing their Ph.D. in NYC and Austin that said they had no desire to leave their city. They said they would rather adjunct than be placed elsewhere. Likewise, there are a number of candidates in my program who have made a decision to stay because they're ready to settle down and start a family. Many have started the process of buying a house. They don't plan on entering the job market but demand from local colleges for permanent positions have always been high here. Likewise, some have expressed interest in alt-ac jobs and have no interest in the job market.Those who put in the extra effort here tend to be well rewarded on the job market. This is not a top 10 program but there are a lot of resources offered to those who do seek it.

36 minutes ago, MetaphysicalDrama said:

On University of Denver, I do love the "school," but the support they offer graduate students is really disappointing (three years).  I'm a firm believer that the package has to be right.  I think schools can vary on assistantship money versus fellowship money, but cutting support before students are expected to complete the degree is definitely a big negative for me. 

I agree with this so much. Funding is critical. You won't be rich at anytime during your program. But not having to worry about funding is important. Even if a program guarantees five years of funding, it might be worthwhile to ask what the average time-to-degree is. If there's a difference, it might also be wise to ask them how funding is determined for the additional years and whether you're responible for any additional fees.

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Posted (edited)

A lot of truth in that post, @MetaphysicalDrama. Ranking schools is yet another tool of academic white supremacy, and we need more people to share their experiences so future scholars are better prepared than we were.

I'm a little wary of the story we tell ourselves about the candidate who botches a teaching college interview, though. That one circulates a lot. What we might see as someone (usually a woman) making "inappropriate" demands of the institution may be someone negotiating an offer comparable to another they already have.

Edited by rhetoricus aesalon

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2 minutes ago, Warelin said:

As a side note, there are some fairly well-known colleges that do have a permanent teaching-track. This remains to be a viable option for a fair amount of people and I wouldn't consider people holding these positions to be less deserving of tenure than those on a research-track. Different departments have different needs at a time and it's possible that a person's specific subfield may never open up at the R-1 school they were hoping for.

Thank you so much for saying this. I completely agree. But going back to OP's question, going to a higher-ranked school will still offer the best change of getting this job than not. What I meant by my post is that top-ranked program graduates are the most likely to be in a position to make this choice.

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28 minutes ago, rhetoricus aesalon said:

What I meant by my post is that top-ranked program graduates are the most likely to be in a position to make this choice

I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. We don't know what the OP's end goal is. The OP did mention that being close to family is an allure to them. There are universities (like SMU) that have historically placed well in Texas. We also know that not all universities post their jobs (whether this be due to a sudden opening or because they choose not to) on the job market. Some do conduct more local-searches and being at a nearby city could be beneficial. Having family reside nearby could be a very positive impact. However, I don't think any college can guarantee that you'll be considered equally by all colleges because of the way they value different things. I also don't think that interviewing at a teaching college is any easier or harder than interviewing at a research-based college. Rather, I think it's easier about what you're most interested in and I think colleges can pick up on that. This is why you shouldn't try to feign interest in a specific topic if you're not genuinely interested in that subfield. I do think that the colleges you might be considered for might depend on where you go, but I don't think that any reasonable school will turn you down if you present a strong resume and if there is someone on your committee that they trust. This very well could be the reason why some schools prefer to skip the job market and prefer local candidates.

We're also not aware of how strong the #18 school is in the OP's subfield. There are programs outside the top 20 which have stronger placements in certain subfields than those in the top 20. It's also possible that the program could be deciding to move in a new direction and eliminate certain subfields. In recent years, Notre Dame stopped admitting people into their Ph.D. in Literature program.

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13 minutes ago, Warelin said:

I don't think that any reasonable school will turn you down if you present a strong resume and if there is someone on your committee that they trust

What if I told you this is exactly what happens, again and again and again, on the market? 

I’m not here to fight or agree or disagree, because I genuinely value the mission of Gradcafe in grad students supporting grad students. But I have to say I see very little of my and my cohort’s market experience represented in what you’ve written here.

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Posted (edited)

Maybe this isn't relevant, but one of the things that swayed me to SMU was how dedicated the department is to growing its prestige.  The resources they offer students are unmatched anywhere else, IMO.  They want their students producing the best possible work, for the university as well as for themselves.  I personally believe that this mission of theirs means they are and will be much more invested in my finding a job than other schools may be.  Furthermore, while right now their placements are mainly in TX, they have previously mostly recruited students from TX, so it's likely many folks are not entering the job market upon graduation.  According to their new recruitment head, the school is actively looking to diversify its incoming cohorts.  I believe this means I have a good chance of getting support from the school when I do enter the job market with an eye to getting placed outside the region. 

In short, the school may not be quite where I want it right now, but they are actively committed (or at least seem to be) to moving in that direction, and I believe my success will be viewed as a part of that movement- good for the school.  All I'm trying to say here is that there are so many more things to consider than just current ranking.  

 

However, as @rhetoricus aesalon 's comment reaffirms for me, the market is in general shite.  We know there are many good candidates not getting jobs offers.  This is just the reality.  So I don't blame anyone for going with the top ranked program they get into.  We all have to do whatever we can to try to make ourselves as competitive as possible.

Edited by kendalldinniene

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1 minute ago, rhetoricus aesalon said:

What if I told you this is exactly what happens, again and again and again, on the market? 

 I’m not here to fight or agree or disagree, because I genuinely value the mission of Gradcafe in grad students supporting grad students. But I have to say I see very little of my and my cohort’s market experience represented in what you’ve written here.

I don't think any of us can say 100 percent what does or does not happen on the job market. I think we can only go off of what we see. And what I know is this: My university is not considered a top 20 school for English but it is well ranked as a university. People are well aware of its name in Academia. They are rich with resources. They are also generous with their time and feedback.  People who knew they wanted to teach have put in a lot of effort. They've published in very well-regarded journals and have been placed in tenure-track positions. I'm not sure if they were placed in their preferred school, but I think having a preferred school for a t-t position is something that a fair number of us wouldn't consider given the unlikelihood of a position opening up in any given year.

 

3 minutes ago, kendalldinniene said:

Furthermore, while right now their placements are mainly in TX, they have previously mostly recruited students from TX, so it's likely many folks are not entering the job market upon graduation. 

I think this is an excellent point to make. We often don't know what current changes a program is in the process of making.

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It's just difficult to know. From someone on the other side of this process, I'll say that I've "lost" on the job market multiple times to people who went to "less prestigious" programs. (In fact, I've lost multiple times to people from a program I turned down, lol.) I've also beat out people who went to better programs. 

At the same time, I've seen firsthand how obsessed academia is with prestige, and elite grads fare better, statistically speaking. A more prestigious PhD is also a big boost when getting fellowships and postdocs. A person from a prestigious program just gets the benefit of the doubt. Granting agencies are just far more willing to throw money at someone who went to Northwestern than they are to someone who went to a school with less "brand recognition."

All things being equal, it's impossible to predict how you'll fare on the job market 6-7 years from now. But "fit" is very important on the market, much moreso than it is even in the admissions process.

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4 hours ago, rhetoricus aesalon said:

I'm a little wary of the story we tell ourselves about the candidate who botches a teaching college interview, though. That one circulates a lot. What we might see as someone (usually a woman) making "inappropriate" demands of the institution may be someone negotiating an offer comparable to another they already have.

Yes, this.

And also, more generally, it's comforting to tell ourselves narratives about why unsuccessful candidates are obviously so unsuccessful ("he's got a bad personality"; "she must have botched her teaching presentation"). Resist that impulse. In this job market, it's quite possible to do everything "right" and still be shut out not for multiple jobs but for multiple years on the job market. Regardless of what Karen Kelsky may try to tell you (i.e. sell you), there aren't tons of candidates out there who make it to the final round and then get up to give their job talk and do this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TAanrkLn6bI&t=0m24s  Most of us are pretty practiced at interviewing and job-talking by the time we get to the final stage. I don't know anyone who makes the ridiculous mistakes that get passed around as cautionary tales on social media (and I've also seen people give less-impressive job talks that resulted in a job anyway).

It's possible to do everything "right" and walk away from the table without a job.

 

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