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Slightly disappointing visit day


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Hi folks,

So I am deciding not between multiple programs, but between a PhD course at an ivy league university with a pretty cushy stipend and staying in industry overseas where I have been for the past three years with a career that is really starting to take off.


I believe I could have a good life taking either path, but grad school is the only way to the ultimate goal of teaching at university level, researching, and writing.


I've been anticipating the visit day for a while, thinking that the right decision would be obvious when I'd met the profs and current students in the department--but last week I visited and I just feel more confused than ever.


Pros of the visit: Beautiful campus, warm welcome, social students, high achieving department with excellent placement rates and nearly all students graduating on time, great support for students and individual attention from profs


Cons: Not really an excellent fit academically, though they encourage interdisciplinary work with other departments--they want to do more in my area of study, but that's aspirational and dependent on new hires over the next couple of years. they are in a period of high turnover at the moment, so the department could change a lot and in unpredictable ways.


Mostly, though, I was expecting to feel totally at home and right about it, and I don't. It's just a feeling, not really something that's reflected in considering the choice logically. And I don't know how much of it is that I am uncomfortable with the idea of returning to the US. It was like instant culture shock coming back and I feel like such a foreigner!


How sure are you all about your choice? How right does it have to "feel" in order to be right?

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I had to visit and make a choice on schools twice -- in 2010 for a MSc in Canada and in 2012 for a PhD program. In both cases, I did not get the feeling that everyone was 100% right. I don't think I have ever visited a school and instantly knew "this is the right place for me". I did get the feeling that "oh this place is pretty nice" and over the following days/weeks (and after visiting a few more places) did that feeling grow from "I guess this is the best choice out of the ones I have" to "yes, I am really excited to do this next fall!"


It's always scary to start something new but you can't make progress without some risk/adventure. I'm not saying that everyone should go to grad school and that you should always take every risk. But, I think it's perfectly normal to not feel 100% sure / good about choosing a grad school / choosing to go to grad school! 

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First impressions can be pretty misleading. At the school I am currently at the first impression was great, but the reality is less than desirable. It is a really competitive environment paired with next to no support, sort of a 'sink or swim' there are hundreds of students waiting to take your place kind of feel.

That being said, when I visited the school I am going to for my PhD (starting this Sept) I fell in love. It's not just the department that feels like a good fit, but the university as a whole. I thrive on being interdisciplinary within a single discipline program, and the department I'm going into is really supportive of that strategy and thinks that my 'dream team' will be amazing. I'm hoping my feelings on this one are accurate, but having been in a small department to a big department for my MA, I'm feeling really good about going back to a smaller department and am confident that I am recognizing an environment that I will thrive in. Also, I've always wanted to work with the particular faculty available at this university (since my undergrad) and while I was initially woo'd by going to a 'prestigious' school for my MA (which resulted in me not going to my PhD school for my MA), I've realized that it's better to be somewhere that is enthusiastic and supportive of my research than somewhere that could care less as long as I bring in the research dollars.


I guess what I'm trying to say is you really won't know until you are there and months into the program. If it's your ultimate goal to work as a professor and this doesn't feel like the right school for you, maybe apply to more and different schools next year.

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I would agree that I wouldn't wait for the perfect 100% feeling to go to a school. I really like the first 3 schools I visited - none were perfect, and there were definitely some cons of each, but I felt like I could see myself at each one.  The fourth school I visited, however, it was very clear to me that I did NOT feel a good fit there and would not have wanted to go there, possibly even if it was the only place I got into.  If you didn't get that strong negative feeling, I wouldn't cross it off the list.


However, what you said about the academic fit would be more worrisome to me.  One of the schools I visited was similar, where I loved the people and environment but the research being done wasn't as aligned with my interests.  They were planning to hire new faculty, but you ever know if that will end up happening and how aligned the new people would be with your interests, or how much they would want to work with you, or what their personalities are like.  I am more risk-averse than that and chose a place that already had a lot of faculty in the area I was interested in.  


Personally, if you already have a good job in industry with a good career path, I would stay there!  It all depends on how much you like your career of course, but it's not a great time to be going into academia, career-prospect wise.  I was in a job that I am leaving for graduate school, but it was not a career-path job and not something I would want to spend my life doing.  Academic jobs are scarce and will only become more so, so if you have a stable, successful career already, my advice to be to stick with it.  Obviously that is contingent on you enjoying your current job, which it sounds like you are.

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