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Familiarity verses Opportunity? Indecisive.


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I have been trying to decide between two programs but have as of yet been unable to decide between them. Both of them are fully funded for four years and have excellent placement rates for their graduates, although their location and environment are substantially different from each other.


The first is the very university I received my Master’s degree from, and it is a well-regarded school at that; it is considered a public ivy, rank-wise it is among the top 50 as an overall school and is a tier I university. I also already have positive connections with most of the faculty there, as well as have worked with my prospective advisor already for the past two years. One of the professors on my former Master’s thesis committee (not my advisor) said that he is willing to put off retirement to until I finish. However, I have not determined precisely what I want to research here precisely yet, although I do share interests with my former and prospective advisor who often tethers between other fields. My perspectives are more in line with the faculty then with what I know about my second choice and I believe if I stay, I would eventually find something of interest or readapt my original ideas. The funding is slightly better during the school year with health insurance, in contrast with my other choice; although there is a higher chance of TA responsibilities. This school is also only a few hours from my home, in Southern California and I have lived in the area before.


The second is a university that is located near a place that I want to research and is also relatively well-known in its field but not in overall university ranking, like it is not even in the top 100, although in program ranking, both programs are side to side. So far I have only been in contact with the faculty and it seems that we share similar interests, although we really haven’t had time to discuss those yet. But I am intrigued enough by the potential research offered by the area (it is one of the few places where the entity that first interested me in the field has starting up) that that I little doubt what I want to dedicate my time researching if I were to go to that school . There is a research center there that specializes on my desired specialization and they have expressed their own interest in me if I were to come. However, from what I know of the department and from my emails with my prospective advisor, they have generally a different theoretical foundation than my first choice.The funding is less, but includes a summer package; although there is no health insurance, there is a possibility I can increase my funding above the first choice depending on how my discussions with the research center turns out. The package involves RAships and would also have me moving from Southern California, where I lived most of my life, to Illinois, a place I have never been to.


The first choice is significantly less risker for me as I would be closer to my family and other means of support. I am also far more familiar with the faculty and the area; the faculty is also quite familiar with me. I have also taken many of their PhD prerequisites as a Masters and so I will have more room to maneuver class-wise. The second is far riskier, I basically cut off most of my safety net and enter an urban environment known for danger, but I would have a more defined goal in my doctorate studies. While dangerous, the environment has been noted as a plus by one of my recommenders as it represents the very thing our field is supposed to be grounded in.I would also in my second choice have more variety in my academic resume; I went to school in Southern California for most of my life, although not at the same university for my undergrad and masters.

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I feel that the second option (the new opportunity school) may be the best option here.

I think that, in general, it is usually better to go to a new school for your PhD as opposed to your alma mater, provided that the academics and funding situation at both are similar; I talked a lot about this in another thread (this one: ), but will say a little bit more about it here.

You say that you have already done research with your potential advisor for ~2 years and that you've already taken many of the courses offered by your old department. Does the department really have much more that it can offer you… enough to make another 5+ years there worth it? Chances are that you've already made a lot of connections there; staying on for the PhD probably won't open very many doors for you that aren't already opened. And, having done research there already, you've probably already learned most of the research techniques that you'd be able to pick up there (doing 5 more years of work that's "more of the same" won't really help you expand your skill set that much). Is there terribly much more that you can learn from the courses there that you haven't already?

In contrast, at a new school you'd be exposed to new perspectives (both via new courses and via research with new faculty members), as well as potentially to new techniques that may not be used by faculty at your alma mater. You'll also be able to significantly expand your professional network through all of the professors you'll meet there, as well as all of their collaborators, former students, and other contacts at different universities. That, I think, would be an enormous benefit for you (especially when you're looking for postdocs/job positions once you're close to graduating). Also, the specialized research center at the new school sounds like an amazing opportunity for you! It would probably be able to provide you with specific resources that you might not find anywhere else. That alone makes the second school sound like the ideal option, in my opinion.

It sounds like the new school has a lot to offer you in terms of learning experiences, networking, and other valuable resources for your research. A lot of what the alma mater has to offer is probably stuff that you already know or have taken advantage of. The funding packages sound similar (although there is less money at the new school, both stipends sound very livable) as do the academics (overall school ranking matters very little at the grad school level… it's the program ranking that you should emphasize). So really, the biggest difference between the two (aside from what I've already mentioned) is the level of familiarity. While that's an important factor to consider, be careful that it doesn't bias your decision more than it should.

I know that being somewhere familiar with people that you know and love can be very comforting. I, personally, have a hard time leaving my "comfort zone" and usually try not to. But in the past I've been forced to leave several times, and although it may have been rough and uncomfortable at first, I quickly adjusted. And in retrospect, leaving the comfort zone was the best thing I could have done not just for my academic career but also for my own personal growth. So, my advice would be to not confuse "familiarity" for a benefit to one program (and likewise, don't confuse a lack of familiarity for a downside). Sometimes it really is better to spread your wings and fly. Especially since you say that the new school is located in an area which is ideal for your field.

These are just my opinions, though. You know the situation better than anyone else, and shouldn't hesitate to let your "gut feeling" play into the decision as well. Good luck!

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Thanks Zabius; I have since visited the second choice and program, and had some things clarified in regards to the choices. The second choice (University of Illinois at Chicago) would most likely require that I take on more debt, especially during the first year as I adjust to the new environment and before I can establish myself at the center (at start, the funding from UIC is almost half of what UCI would give me; which after speaking with my prospective adviser at UIC, is barely enough to live on in Chicago). It is not that the program does not want me, it's just that the program seems to just generally lack funding, many of the other students I spoke with either entered the university on a external scholarship or used their own funds to get established. This is a problem as I have already taken on a considerable amount of debt during my undergrad and masters (although not as large as some others).


For the first choice (University of California, Irvine) as stated, I have established connections with many of the faculty there and do greatly admire many of them. In fact, while our research interests may differ at the moment, I have found that I share many similar opinions and perspectives with much of the faculty. For the second choice, I have found the research opportunities offered by the program, the center and the city of Chicago to be quite enticing and I have a positive impression from the faculty there during my visit, whom had also found themselves interested in the research topic that brought me to consider Chicago in the first place. Ultimately, my choice depends in large part on how large or small the gap is in regards to the landing space I have in order to establish myself.


I posted an updated version of this (With the names of the universities and an additional implication) in the April 15th panic forum as well, as I found the forum's title appropriate for my current mental state.

Edited by LystAP
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