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Help please! (Psychology PhD)

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Oh boy, I have such a tough decision to make. But to be honest, I'm lucky/happy to have this choice. Here's what I've considered so far.


Similarities between school A and B:

  • Great research fit: I would say this is about 95% at school A and 80% at school B, both of which are solid enough for me
  • Many potential advisors/co-advisors: Both schools have a number of other faculty that I could work with (although the match is not as strong)
  • Mediocre location: Both are located in wintry, rural towns in New England
  • Collaboration across departments: Both schools emphasize collaboration, but I think it's stronger at school A relative to school B
  • Tuition remission at both schools
  • Similar TA/RA requirements
  • Similar job trajectory (everyone is now in post-doc or faculty position)
  • Similar ranking, although this isn't really that important because both PIs are well-known in the field

Pros for school A / Cons for school B:

  • Incoming cohort of first years: I didn't meet the other prospectives at school A; I didn't really click with the prospectives at school B (i.e., they already had connections because they work/ed there -- I'm afraid they might be favored?)
  • Coursework: I come from an experimental background, so I want to take classes on the theoretical/computational side of things; that's definitely possible at school A, not so much at school B
  • Current happiness of grad students: The one grad student at school A is very happy; two of the three students at school B are not as happy and possibly even frustrated with how they get along with their PI
  • Relationship with PI: From what I can tell, the PI at school A is very accessible and able to make time for his grad student; this is not true at school B, where the PI might be spread too thin with other commitments (based on what grad students have expressed to me; PI claims otherwise)

 Pros for school B / Cons for school A:

  • Research breadth: I'll be able to conduct more research at school B, using a wider range of methodologies; in other words, school B has much more resources (including funds to conduct research abroad, etc.)
  • Funding: School A offers $17k stipend for 5 years; school B offers $24k stipend for 5 years -- note that cost of living is *slightly* higher at school B
  • Novelty of the program: The program at school B is completely new (second year), so faculty have a vested interest in committing to it and seeing it grow; the program at school A has been established for a while now, so I'm afraid faculty might be content?
  • PI: The PI at school A does not have tenure yet, although I'm confident enough in him that he'll get it soon (based on quality of his research and number of publications)

Is there anything that I'm missing? Any other advice, please? Right now, I'm at the point where I think I should take a break and reanalyze all my data again in a week...


Thanks for your help :)

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  • 3 weeks later...

Sorry that no one has responded to your post yet. In case you haven't made your choice yet I hope this helps.


School A seems like a better choice in terms of fit and the status of the program. I'm going to a relative new program but two-years-old seems a little too new to me; it doesn't sound like you are interested in clinical but on the chance you are a two-year-old program may not be accredited. And while connections with others are important, I imagine there'd be more opportunity to do that where ever you end up.


For me, knowing how I would pay the bills and put gas in the car is just as important though. Certain parts of New England can have a ridiculous cost of living, and then there's the difference between rural and RURAL New England. With gas prices as they are, I wouldn't want to isolate myself too much on my stipend, even at $24k.

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Personally, I would believe the grad students (especially multiple ones) over what the PI claims wrt amount of time spent and accessibility.  Academics tend to be people who enjoy spreading themselves thin and often don't realize when they are spread too thin.  This may not be as much of a concern for you, though, if you are a more independent student.  My advisor is very busy; although he can always make time to meet with me if I request it, I request it less often because I prefer to be left alone to work as I see fit.  My PI also does not have tenure, but I like that because it makes him "hungry" and we have done a lot of good work together.


Are you interested in conducting research abroad?  This isn't that common across psychology (certainly not in my subfield), so that would be less relevant unless your research has significant international connections or implications. If you're using experimental or computational methods I don't see why you would be doing significant research abroad.  Greater resources, though, may translate into more travel funds to go to conferences and things like stats packages, computers, that kind of thing.


Also, a new program can be a con as well as a pro.  More established programs don't necessarily mean more complacent faculty; they can mean faculty who have really invested in the success of the program and the program already has a proven track record of success.  Newer programs are less tested and may be riding on the success of a few people there; if they leave, the program may tank.  (Unlikely, but possible.)


Research is king, so I would be leaning towards School B - more resources, a wider range of methodologies, and an admitted chance to do more research.  However, you do have to consider the shortcomings.  Classes can be misleading; there may be fewer classes on theory and computational methods, but can you *learn* those things there other ways?  There aren't many classes in my department at all but I've learned so much here through working with people and teaching myself things with mentorship.  Really, that's the way academics learn after a certain point.  Can School B make up for that weakness through mentorship and seminars?  Also remember that if they have better resources, they may be able to pay for you to take summer classes or attend a summer institute at APA or Michigan's ICPSR or a similar program to learn those methodologies.  Ask about that.


Student happiness is important, but you only interacted with 2 students.  Is that two out of 3 TOTAL students (because that's a problem, then!) or just 2 out of the 3 students you interacted with?  And why are they unhappy?  That's important.  If they are frustrated with the way their PI treats them and the lack of opportunities in the program, that's bad.  If they're unhappy because the location is remote and they want to date, or because they've had interpersonal problems in the department, then their experience may be less relevant.


However, my comments are only based on the information that School B would allow you the chance to do more research.  If you reassess and don't think that's actually true, then I think School A may be the slightly stronger winner here.

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  • 3 weeks later...

To ShiningInShadows and juilletmercredi:


Thanks so much for your comments! Although I'm just replying now, I did read and consider your responses before I made my decision. Ultimately, I chose School A for the reasons that both of you mentioned (and more). Here's my reasoning, if you care:


My biggest concerns with School B were the PI's inaccessibility and the poor to fair student-PI relationships. I do think of myself as an independent worker, but as a new grad student, I would still prefer him to be more accessible than he currently is. And yes, 2 out of the 3 TOTAL students are unhappy...they're frustrated mostly because (a) the PI is inaccessible, and ( B) they have not had many opportunities for publications or conferences, even though they are already in their 4th or 5th year (out of 5). Plus, the 3rd student even refused to respond to my questions about the PI/program. The extra funding was tempting, but ultimately, I couldn't imagine myself spending five years in their shoes.


I decided to go for the more established program - great track record, great faculty within and across departments that I can easily work with, great classes and seminars. I don't know about summer classes yet, but my advisor recommended a couple of summer institutes and hinted at possibly paying for part of it :) As for research, it fits like a glove. The wider range of methodologies available at School B came at the cost of driving more than an hour to use it, which ended up making it a con since School A offers similar methods that are slightly closer.


So I'll be at School A - UMass Amherst - next year, and I'm super excited! (School B will remain unnamed.) As my dad told me, I get out of grad school what I put into it, so I'm going to make it a worthwhile experience.


EDIT: fixed some minor spelling/grammatical errors

Edited by elsie.kay
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