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A Good Offer in a Field of Secondary Interest (Ph.D.)


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I've managed to get myself into a somewhat awkward position.

I applied to Bioengineering/Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. programs at six schools: four of them are pretty prestigious programs with strong ongoing research in my primary field, one is a much less prestigious school with a professor who is conducting very interesting (to me) work in my primary field, and the last is a top 15 school who has a strong program in a longtime secondary interest of mine with a professor who is doing some pretty exciting work in the field. To be honest, I applied to the last school on somewhat of a whim.

I was accepted at the less prestigious school and the top 15 secondary interest school (with a $30k first-year fellowship and a guaranteed $25k assistantship for three more years). Now, the less prestigious school is out of the picture as the professor I was interested in there is just not very interested in me and I don't think we would work well together at all. Which leaves my secondary interest school...

The problem with the school is threefold:

  1. I'm not confident that I will enjoy my secondary interest (though it is an exciting field) as much as my primary interest. I took a course in the field as an undergrad and I didn't particularly care for the experimental work nor did I like the theory quite as much as I thought I would.
  2. My primary interest is what drove me to apply to graduate school and I don't really want to give up on it yet (the school does not have anyone in the field). I also believe I would enjoy the experimental work of my primary interest more (based on my experiences in courses and my wet lab experience doing summer research).
  3. I don't feel quite ready to let go the dream - which I've had for more than a decade - of going to one of my top schools, especially since I don't know if I will end up doing a postdoc.

The way I see it, I've got three options:

  1. Accept the offer, do a BME Ph.D. in my secondary interest, and hope I like it enough to stick with it to the end.
  2. Accept the offer and reapply to other schools after a year. I should be able to exit, after year two, with a masters degree.
  3. Decline the offer, apply to MS programs related to my primary field of interest for Spring/Fall 2012, and reapply for Ph.D. programs after obtaining a MS degree.

Option 1 means giving up on primary field as well as my chance to get a graduate degree from one of my dream schools and I'm very reluctant to do either.

Option 2 involves switching and I've read a lot of conflicting advice online regarding it. Some people say that there is no problem with switching schools and that the master's exit then switch is not that uncommon. Others say that it could be a red flag on applications as well as creating some unhappy faculty members and should only be done if there is a very good reason behind it (such as your adviser leaving or the program disbanding). I've even read some opinions that switching programs is next to impossible. My GRE scores and my GPA are certainly good enough to get into one of my top schools; my weakness, rather, is with my research experience. None of it was very closely related to my primary field of interest, I didn't get along very well with two of PI's (which meant no LOR's from them), and I didn't get anything published as an undergraduate. Having done graduate level coursework and much more research experience (hopefully, with something published) should also significantly strengthen my application. One problem is that, from what I can see, there isn't much overlap between the two fields which means added time to getting a Ph.D in addition to having to explain switching research areas during admission interviews.

Option 3 is what what one of my undergraduate advisers personally did and it worked out very well for him. He ended up with a 4.0 graduate GPA, 3 publications, and good recommendations from his adviser and another professor and was accepted to all four Ph.D. programs he applied to - including MIT and Princeton. Of course, it would mean a 1/2 to 1 year additional delay and might make funding a bit more difficult but those drawbacks don't seem too major to me.

I've talked with both of my former undergraduate advisers and one strongly recommends option 3 while the other believes all three options are viable. I, myself, am leaning towards option 3 but it means passing up a very good offer and trying (once again) to find an interim job. Additionally, funding could be more difficult taking the terminal MS route. Any thoughts/advice?

Edited by Paladin
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The way I see it, you get a PhD because it's something you love, not because you just want to get any PhD. I didn't get into PhD programs the first time around. I had the option of doing something related (Speech Langauge Pathology, TESOL), but instead I got my masters in my field, and now I've been accepted into my first choice PhD program for my ideal field (theoretical linguistics).

It took me three years to get my masters (working/part time) but now I can fully commit to my PhD and it is something I know I will enjoy doing. While I don't know your whole situation, I am saying that I support option 3.

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I, personally, don't see the point of getting a PhD unless you love the research. Honestly, it's difficult enough to sustain your interest and your sanity even when you love what you are studying. It's got to be even more difficult when you're not even sure you're interested in that field.

I wouldn't choose option 1 or option 2. Don't go to the school if you do not intend to finish your PhD. It's one thing if you were going to give it a game try, and decided after two years that it's not for you. But to go and use the resources and time of your advisor when there is perhaps another student on the waitlist who truly wants a PhD from that program with that advisor...that's a bit unethical to me. The master's exit is not uncommon, but it's usually for people who decide halfway through they want something different, not people who know from jump they dont want to stick around.

I would do option 3, with the minor alterations that I would apply to PhD programs AND MS programs. The rejections could be because of weaknesses in your applications (and it wouldn't hurt to ask) but it also could be just a very competitive year and the makeup of the pool wasn't in your favor.

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Thanks for all of the advice. I've decided to go with Option 3 (w/ the modification suggested by juilletmercredi) and I feel pretty confident that it was the right decision. Now all I've got to do is find a job/paid internship for a year...

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