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Astrophysics PhD at Minnesota vs. Vanderbilt

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Hello! I've been accepted to both UMN's and Vanderbilt's Astrophysics PhD program and I'm finding it difficult to choose between the two. My interests are broadly in multi-messenger astrophysics / gravitational waves / compact binaries. At UMN, I'd be doing research related to electromagnetic follow-up searches of GW sources from LIGO events, while at Vanderbilt, I'd be doing work related to supermassive black hole mergers, the GWs they produce, and multi-messenger observations using pulsar timing arrays. It'd be really helpful if anyone could provide opinions they have about the two schools, the two programs, the reputations of the two programs, Minneapolis vs Nashville, anything at all. I know that the most important criterion for my decision is the research I'll be doing, but there are some other factors on my mind that I can't seem to shake. Here are some pros and cons I've come up with for both:



  • Pros
    • Research advisor
      • I've been working with a professor here since June 2020, so I've already established a pretty good relationship with them and their group and feel comfortable approaching them about anything
      • They're fairly new in the department and consequently haven't taken on many responsibilities like older faculty might, so I know I'd be able to get a lot of individual time with them (because I know I'll need it)
      • This professor is an expert in EM follow-up of LIGO sources, so I feel like I'd really be getting the most out of my time working with them
    • The research itself
      • I believe I have a better intuition for the projects I'd be taking part in here vs Vanderbilt, but I think this is partially due to the fact that I had all of summer 2020 to focus on this work and develop a strong understanding of the topics
      • I would have a sort of head start on research since I've been involved with it for about a year already
      • At the moment, I find this research more interesting than what I'd be working on at Vanderbilt, but again, I'm not sure if this is just due to the fact that I am more familiar with this research since I've been working on it for a longer period of time
      • I don't think it would take much from my advisor to get me excited about the work
    • They have a new Data Science in Multi-Messenger Astro program that I would consider participating in
  • Cons
    • The Data Science in Multi-Messenger Astro program has a limited number of spots so I would have to apply and be chosen
    • At the UMN astro open house, I felt that they didn't do the best job in selling the program and I also didn't really feel a great connection with the current graduate students, so I'm somewhat worried about the school being a good fit for me
    • Classes
      • I also got the sense that the first two years here would be quite classes-heavy, which makes me worry about having sufficient time to work on research and make some sort of progress there
      • As is the case with most schools, UMN has a written exam I'll need to take (reinforces my view that UMN is a bit more focused on classes where they could instead be focused on research)
    • Minneapolis seems to me like a very subdued city and not as vibrant as the life I could have in Nashville -- doing things outside of school & research is very important to me



  • Pros
    • Research advisors
      • The professors I'm interested in working with have made a really good impression on me -- both from talking to them and from talking with grad students that work with them, I've gotten the sense that they really care about their students, can push them a little bit without making them feel overwhelmed, and recognize when they ARE overwhelmed
      • One professor I'm interested in working with has only been around for a few years and only has one grad student, so I know I'd get sufficient support and attention from them
      • The other professor has been there for longer, has several (7-8) grad students, and has numerous other responsibilities, but I think they would open a lot of networking doors for me and they are also super enthusiastic about the work they do which would help me become more excited as I learn more about the field
      • I could work with both of these professors to find a project that they could co-advise me on, and consequently I'll get the best of both worlds
    • The research itself
      • I've been doing research related to supermassive black hole binaries since October 2020, so I wouldn't necessarily be starting from scratch in terms of learning about the field
      • I have always generally been interested in black hole research more than anything else, and here I'd get to focus on supermassive black hole mergers and their GWs rather than binary neutron stars and neutron star-black hole binaries
      • If I work on LISA, which won't go up until 2034, I'll have lots of research to do for many years
    • Classes
      • The program in general seems much more focused on research than classes -- students tend to front-load classes and take most of them their first year, leaving only 1 main class in each semester of the second year and providing more time to do research
      • No written exam -- yay for less test anxiety!
      • Their order of magnitude class is taken every semester during the first two years -- it's 1 credit so there's no homework, you just solve a problem on the white board with other students and get good practice every semester at solving quick back-of-the-envelope calculations
    • I met with a few grad students (two of whom work with my POIs), and I feel like I gel with them so much better than the students at UMN, they seemed more laid back
    • Vanderbilt has a Data Science Institute that is always available for me to use as a resource -- you can seek help from a professional data scientist on a particular problem you're solving and you can attend various data science workshops
    • I would probably prefer to live in Nashville over Minneapolis
  • Cons
    • I won't be able to get as big of a head start on research here as I would at Minnesota, because there are a number of topics that will be very new to me and will involve me taking a lot of time to read papers, etc. before I actually start on the work
    • I can't figure out if I'm genuinely less interested in this research than I am in the research at UMN, or if I just feel that way because I have less experience with it
    • I worry a bit about having enough students in my classes that I could work on homework with -- the program seems to be somewhat small as it is, and this year the number of acceptances is tiny


Some less important factors: I think I would prefer a medium-sized school/campus over a larger one (I think Vanderbilt wins here). Dance (contemporary/jazz) is a huge part of my life and I want to keep it in my life (not sure if there are more dance opportunities at one place vs the other).

Given all of that info, I'd appreciate it if anyone could tell me whether they see a clear winner here, or if they have any other thoughts/ideas about things I should consider. Thank you!

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