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MoaP5

I chose the wrong grad school. Help.

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Posted (edited)

Earlier this year, I had a choice between two programs in the biological/biomedical sciences:

School A -- highly respected university with exciting research and top-notch faculty, but with a stronger focus on basic research and academia and located in a city with harsh winters. Offered a reasonable stipend, but no student housing and terrible insurance.

School B -- much less well-known program, but in an amazing location in a major city which doesn't get as cold. Offered a more competitive stipend, student housing, better insurance, and the potential to transition into more translational research (which is nice as I am not sure I will be pursuing a career in academia).

Being pragmatic, I chose School B; however, the moment I committed I felt I had made the wrong choice, and that feeling never went away. In fact, since starting the program, it's gotten worse. Two months in, and I am struggling to find advisors willing to take a rotation student, when at the beginning of the year I was assured by several POIs that they were seeking students. Many graduate students and postdocs have privately shared negative feedback about a lot of mentors, but everyone acts deceptively fine. I feel very frustrated, and, honestly, cheated by the program and faculty here. I think I was mislead during interviews and in the correspondence afterwards with POIs, and I'm pretty discouraged with how things are panning out so far. I am still pushing through and trying to find ways to move forward, but I have become largely apathetic about my classwork and lab work now and can't seem to snap out of it. Now, I realize that there is an adjustment period, but I have just been running into one wall after another. At this point I seriously regret choosing School B for its location and translational potential over fit and a bit more difficult living experience at School A.

At School A, I was extremely excited by the prospect of working with a very rare and unique animal model in one of the labs; however, there was a big turnover this year and the lab now consists of one graduate student. I got along very well with the student (and kept in touch after interviews), but the student is a workaholic and spends all day in lab and even goes in every weekend morning to care for the animals. The student somehow manages to cram in hobbies and social activities at night to balance it out, but I don't know if that is something I could do and maintain my mental health. The academic track is also very rigorous, and all the students testified that year one courses are difficult and extremely stressful, as are the candidacy exams in year two. Plus, the program does not offer student housing and the medical insurance sucks. I especially had strong reservations about housing as I had a very negative experience at my undergraduate university where most students lived off campus and were antisocial. But...despite all of this, I was extremely drawn to the school and its community. The students there were awesome and seemed to all know each other and the faculty. Several of them initiated conversations and then introduced me to PIs of interest. They genuinely seemed to care about each other and about helping the interviewees make an informed decision. I really had a wonderful interview experience, filled with stimulating conversations. Also, the school itself has courses spanning across all disciplines available to its students (not to mention, a great reputation).

There are so many factors that I considered when making my decision (more than I could include in this post), and on paper it makes complete sense why I chose School B, but I can't shake the feeling that I am at the wrong place in this time in my scientific training and life. Everyone tells me I made the right choice, but I feel as though they are saying that because that is the decision I made and they don't want to encourage my doubts. Even after I expressed my reservations for months after accepting the offer, no one supported my inclination to switch my choice. I fully acknowledge that it is a privilege to be in a fully-funded PhD program in a major city, and I know I sound spoiled and ungrateful for harboring these reservations. I have definitely been through much worse situations and I'm sure I can turn it around and make it work at School B, but knowing there might be a better option makes it hard to move on. Also, I don't see myself ever having the opportunity to truly be a student again, and I'm saddened by the prospect of not spending these years at School A. Transferring would certainly cause a lot of breakage in my life, and I feel I would disappoint the mentors who recommended me, plus I would definitely miss out on a lot of great experiences in this city; however, the option is still always in the back of my mind and I keep planning how to make the transition easier. I need to make a decision in the next few weeks, otherwise I'm pretty much locked into this PhD program track. I'm extremely conflicted and I don't know what is the best way to proceed. Thoughts?

Edited by MoaP5

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I don't think its abnormal to question if the current program is the right one and to wonder what would have happened if a different choice had been made.  There is no guarantee that changing programs will be better, just like there's no guarantee that staying put won't work out well for you in the end.  I have yet to encounter anyone that says everything about their grad program was amazing.  There's always something that just isn't great.  Only you can decide what you can handle in terms of not great.

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I recommend that you try two exercises. The first centers around a "rational" re-appraisal of the two schools. On a piece of paper (analog or digital) develop a list of criteria that fall into three categories: town, gown, and classroom. Next to the list, make five columns. Label the first two A and B. Leave aside the last three columns. Go down the column for A and assign a numerical value for each criterion. When you perform this scoring, it's important that you evaluate A on its own merits and flaws. Do not compare it to B.

When your'e finished with A and B, use the third column to assign a base score that reflects a ranking of the criteria. Use the fourth column to do the math for A and the fifth column to do the math for B. If the two schools have drastically different scores, you have a good answer on which school is better for you. If the score is close, take a look at some of your scores for B. Can you find information that may help you to adjust the score?

The second exercise is to reach out to your current school's student health services and see if you can arrange a limited number of low or no cost (to you) sessions with a fully trained psychologist. Start off by talking about your fears and your concerns about your choice and then let the conversation go where it needs. It is my hunch based upon your post that your ambivalence over B has less to do with the apparent advantages of A and more to do with something else.

(Or you could just go to the city of A now--or in the winter--and walk around. IME, cold temperatures can help one gain new perspectives on an environment.)

In the event you do decide that you want to make a change, consider the advantages of getting a master's degree at your current school. Also, try not to worry about how those around you may or may not feel about your choice. You need to live your life the way you need to life. The people who truly care about you will either understand your choice right away or figure it out later.

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11 hours ago, Sigaba said:

I recommend that you try two exercises. The first centers around a "rational" re-appraisal of the two schools. On a piece of paper (analog or digital) develop a list of criteria that fall into three categories: town, gown, and classroom. Next to the list, make five columns. Label the first two A and B. Leave aside the last three columns. Go down the column for A and assign a numerical value for each criterion. When you perform this scoring, it's important that you evaluate A on its own merits and flaws. Do not compare it to B.

When your'e finished with A and B, use the third column to assign a base score that reflects a ranking of the criteria. Use the fourth column to do the math for A and the fifth column to do the math for B. If the two schools have drastically different scores, you have a good answer on which school is better for you. If the score is close, take a look at some of your scores for B. Can you find information that may help you to adjust the score?

I have not tried this technique, but I want to comment how measured and useful it could be. I believe one will find that, given they are in the situation to use this, it is easy to justify one's prior decision ex post and feel good about it.

I will be recommending this to others.

Edited by Bird Vision

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