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School vs. POI?


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How do people weight the relative importance of the school you attend against the quality of your POI?

I'm trying to decide between two schools.

One of them has a great reputation (top 10 in my field), but has made little effort to recruit me beyond the initial offer.

The other has a much worse reputation (~90th in most surveys), and comparatively poor name recognition (especially outside the US), but my POI there shares my research interests exactly, and we've had several enthusiastic and interesting conversations. He even lobbied the department to create a new fellowship to provide me with a better funding offer.

On the balance, the schools are pretty much identical when I ignore these two (vital!) criteria. Both are in nice places to live, have made reasonable financial offers, etc.

I want to work in academia eventually, and so am leery of attending a poorly ranked school for my PhD (I've seen people hired practically on the basis of the name on their diploma). On the other hand, being really excited about my research topic and being happy to work with my supervisor seem like qualities which could make a PhD both much more productive and more fun.

Anyone have some thoughts or guidance here? Thanks!

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That's really tough. In most cases, I would suggest following your POI. However, since this university ranks so lowly and you want to pursue academia, I would suggest going with the better ranked university. They will take care of you better in terms of your future.

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I think the number of publications you have and how productive you were as a graduate student is more important than what University you attend. Sure, a higher-ranked University might have more opportunities in terms of networking, but ultimately, if you are unhappy with your research topic you won't be as motivated to work hard. (Like social psychologists like to say: intrinsic motivation is much better and more productive than extrinsic motivation).

Personally, I had the same dilemma and picked the school with the POI that matches my research interests more. At the end of the day, I want to be happy knowing I'm studying what I'm passionate about more than how much I care about how others perceive what University I am at. But I guess everyone's different and it depends on what you personally value most.

Also another thing to remember, just because a school is highly ranked doesn't mean the department you want to study in is highly ranked too (and vice versa). You could have a great department in a low-ranked school, so make sure you do your research.

Edited by spinrah
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To clarify, the department I want to study in is very highly ranked, though the school has a good overall ranking as well. In fact, the department is even in the top 10 in the subfield I want to work in.

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That's a really difficult decision to make. I'm actually sort of in a similar position, where the school that matches my research interests most closely hasn't tried to connect with me at all beyond a short note written on my acceptance letter; meanwhile, the other two schools that I got accepted to are doing everything in their power to try to recruit me, and I've talked at length with professors at each school, but I don't feel like they fit my interests to the T like the first school does.

For you, it seems like either choice would benefit you in a different way. For a school to be highly ranked, I would assume that you would have a relatively good experience that would more than prepare you for the next step in your career. The connections that you make at such a school could also benefit you- many big name schools have networks that can really help you get your foot in the door in the future. However, I would also be inclined to feel that at a big name school, your experience would be a lot less personalized; there is probably less wiggle room in terms of customizing the program to fit your needs and interests, and that can be a huge downside in terms of trying to make the experience your own (which is important, considering that the point of grad school is to hone your individual skills and interests).

In contrast, a less highly-ranked school does have its downsides as well, because as you know, name recognition does matter in many circles. However, it's a truly great thing to find a professor who cares about you and shares your interests. This is surprisingly rare, and I would honestly feel inclined to go with this option if I were you. It sounds like you could establish a great partnership with this person, which might advance your career even further than getting a top-notch but standardized experience at the other school. To get individualized attention from someone who does what you want to do and cares about your outcome could really help you out in a huge way.

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