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How important is it to go to a school with multiple professors you would want to work for?


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Hi Everyone,

 

I am currently visiting grad schools and have visited the two that I am most likely to attend.  At School A, I really liked one of the professors and was very interested in her research.  She also emailed me after our interview and I got the impression that she would offer me a spot in her lab should I choose her school (I'll find out for sure before the decision deadline).  However, at this school, there is only one other professor I would be reasonably happy working for.  Meanwhile, at School B, there were 3-4 professors who I would be content with, but I didn't like any of them quite as much.  School A also has a slightly better reputation and is in a better location.  However, I have heard that it is important to go to a school with a few potential PI's in case your first lab doesn't work out for whatever reason.  Is this really an important consideration, or should I go to School A assuming that I am assured a spot in my first-choice lab?

 

Thanks!

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It shouldn't matter as long as you know you will be able to work with one of those two professors. Having two POI's isn't that bad either. You should go to the school with the professor's you know you'd be happiest with, not the one with the most professor's. Just make sure there isn't chance you'd go there and wouldn't be able to work with anyone you're interested in.

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Bad personal fit with your advisor will make your life as a graduate student very hard to bear. If there is a person you really get along with at one school but no one similar at the other, that's an important factor in the decision. On the other hand, there are good reasons for wanting to have more than one potential advisor at a given school; it is possible that your advisor will leave the school (new job, denied tenure at current job?, illness) and you'll need to work with someone else, or you might find out that even though you get along now, at some point in the future some crisis will make the relationship difficult. Furthermore, you want to have possibly 2-3 other professors who are reasonably knowledgeable about your subfield, because at some point in the future you'll need to have a committee with 3-4 members to judge your dissertation (and maybe qualifying exams or papers, if those exist in your program). So it really depends on whether or not it's just this one prof at school A or if there are others that are reasonable matches in terms of research and personality fit.

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Basically, there are pros and cons on either side.  An excellent research fit is important, as you want to do the work that you're really interested in.  However, I would argue that excellent mentor fit is even more important.  A flexible mentor will allow you to explore tangents of their research so you can go from content to really happy; in addition, your own research interests will morph over time the more you work.  However, personality fit doesn't really change that much over the 5-6 years of the program, and if you find that you have a bad working style with your particular advisor or that she doesn't do crucial things that you need (return drafts to you on time, give you targeted feedback, etc.) you may be very unhappy, more unhappy then you'd be not working on your exact area of interest in undergrad.  Having 3-4 people who could supervise your work raises the chances that at least one of them will be a good fit for the mentoring objectives you need to fulfill.

 

But it also depends on your own scholarly personality.  Some people, like myself, are pretty content working on a wide range of things within a certain area of expertise.  So for me, the personality fit was far more important to maintain than the research fit.  Others are much more narrow; they'll only be happy doing exactly or very close to what they set out to do in graduate school.  If you're like that and you're very independent-minded, the fit with your mentor may not be quite so important.

 

The other thing to remember is that there are unexpected events all the time.  Professors quit and move to other universities; their labs run out of funding; they get sick and/or die; they get pregnant; they take sabbatical at inconvenient times.  They're people.  Any one of those things could significantly disrupt your work if there's no one else who can supervise you.

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