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Better future prospects vs opportunity for an exciting experience


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Have shortlisted 2 programs - soliciting opinions for my final decision. Both programs are very collaborative, and initial contact with professors has been excellent with very friendly and amiable discussions, and both seem to promise a fair deal of flexibility in following my specific research interests.


School A:

More reputed school but a small department, recently restructured program. Have a good track record of placements till a few years back, post which they were not accepting new students for a couple of years whilst restructuring the program. They do have existing cohorts, some of whom are on the job market now and seem to be doing well.

Good fit in terms of research agenda, focuses more on applied work in my area of interest 

Very reputed, well-published and established POI with diverse interests in the field and a very large external collaborative network, known to support students well in terms of placement. Research interests / publications and existing grad student research seems to continuously build on well established ideas.

Slightly better financial package with lower TA requirement


School B:

Decent school, not as reputed as School A. The department is large but placement track record is not as good.

Excellent fit in terms of research agenda, focuses more on theoretical work in my area of interest (which I prefer to the applied work at this stage, but then I am aware that preferences may shift).

Young POI, still setting up own lab, wants grad student to assist in setting up the lab, and help in defining agenda/scope of projects etc. (am really excited by this). Obviously has a smaller collaborative network, publications so far limited to specific sub-topics - however these are mostly what I would call "new ideas" in the field. 

Decent financial package with higher TA requirement


My primary conflict is between seemingly better future prospects from school A (reputation of school and POI, POI network), vs the excitement and experience of being part of setting up a new lab with new research ideas etc. in School B (note that the program/dept. in school B is well established, in fact older and larger than in school A). Any thoughts ?

Edited by zapster
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May I ask what your major is?


My experience (as a Mechanical Engineering grad student) is that a young professor setting up a lab may provide an exciting experience, yet there is also a not-so-little risk of it becoming a horrible experience as well. Part of it will depend on you and your life style. For instance, if you are in a serious relationship, married, have children, or any other commitments aside from your lab/course work and TA responsibilities you may find it very difficult. A professor who is young and setting up a lab is likely on the tenure-track and under pressure to preform well. His students will have more responsibility than a normal PhD student and they may learn much more, and much faster. However, if the lab does not make good progress for some reason, there is no saying what the professor will do to save his job.


I had a similar experience, though not quite the same. I attended the less reputable school, and joined the lab of a young professor who was an associate professor and had been around for about 8 years. However, he had been hired straight out of college back when the economy was doing good and he had never been the single PI for any research project, up until around the time I showed up. All his previous projects were collaborations with other professors and research groups and he had just landed a funding for a huge project which was to support four PhD students and two master's level students. To make a long story short, the PI could not manage the project well and would lose focus and concentrate on aspects of the project which had little value. Eventually under pressure he ended up blaming all the problems on me and bad mouthing me to other faculty members. My funding was cut and I was kicked out of the research lab. I only managed to get a Master of Engineering degree (a course-based degree which looks bad on your resume if you want to get a PhD program) and get out of there.


Now, a year later, I am having trouble getting into schools which easily admitted me last time.


So here is my advice: you do not know the professor in the less reputable school as a person and you cannot predict how things could turn out. I would advise you to chose school A because of the smaller risk. If nothing else, you will spend 4-5 years in graduate school and the rest of your life out of it, so it makes sense to value the better placement track record and the better reputation of the school. The future matters more. I can't emphasize this enough.

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Thanks. My programs are in Social Sciences. The other aspect that I forgot to mention earlier is that the more reputed school with the more reputed POI but smaller department does not offer too many other options in terms of profs. whose work interests me - i.e. good fit only with this one prof in the dept. The less reputed program with the younger prof. actually has a few other profs. with whom I also envisage a good fit of research interests - just thinking in terms of risk, in case things do not work out with my initial POI in either case.

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If nothing else, you will spend 4-5 years in graduate school and the rest of your life out of it, so it makes sense to value the better placement track record and the better reputation of the school. The future matters more. I can't emphasize this enough.


I think this is really good advice.  I might frame it on the wall for my own decision process.


Based solely on what you've said here, I think A sounds like the better choice.  As long as both are good fits (by which I mean: you will be able to do the kind of work that you need to do to start your career on the right path), if you really have the sense that A sets you up better for the future, that's huge. 


On the other hand, you've made another good point about alternate POIs.  If there really isn't anyone else at A, you might have a point, but is that the case?  Nobody else is doing anything close to what you are interested in?  If your first POI doesn't work out (at either school), you will likely need to be slightly flexible in finding an alternative anyway.  And, as tip3r pointed out, there is a higher risk of not working out when you don't really know what the lab will be like.  Good luck!

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As a short answer to this question, I am inclined to go with long-term benefit over short-term gain.  Success in this field is based in large part upon your ability to delay gratification.


With that said, I don't see huge differences between School A and School B.  I basically went to School B in terms of the PI - when I arrived my advisor was on his third year as assistant professor on the tenure track.  I counted and figured that even if he didn't make tenure, I would be finished or nearly so if he had to move.  I liked him a lot personally, and I knew we could work together.  I'm still here, he's still here (and it looks like he is going to get tenure this year - and even if he doesn't, I only have one more year myself), and he's crazy productive.  So that makes me, I think, more motivated and productive than I would've been otherwise.  Watching him on the tenure track has given me a role model for when I am hopefully in that position myself in 3-4 years.  He's also pushing into new and interested areas, and his collaborative network is surprisingly large.


I solved some of the networking problems, though, by also having a more advanced mentor - a full professor who is well known in my field.  This was partially achieved through an interdisciplinary program, but you can acquire this yourself.  This is the kind of guy that if I mention his name at a large national conference people instantly know what kind of work I'm doing.


So I wouldn't be worried about Mentor B vs. Mentor A, it's more about whether you are going to be able to get a job from School B as opposed to School A.  If you're very productive under Mentor B, I think your school's reputation will matter a bit less.  (Although, of course, it depends on what you mean by "decent" and not as reputed.  I know some folks who think top 25 is just "decent" whereas top 10 is really what they consider reputed.)  Still, on face, I might still go with School A all things being equal.  You can still push into really exciting and new areas of the field, you just have to be a bit more self-motivated about it there.

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