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Unhappy With My Choice and Feeling Stuck


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Hey All,


I am a first year PhD student in an immunology program looking for some advice, anyone who can relate/has gone through what I am going through.  Here is some background.


I have always loved school and learning, and my interests for as long as I can remember were in immunology and microbiology.  I went to a small school for my undergrad because they offered me an athletic scholarship, the downside was that it was not a well know school and wasn't associated with any research labs or graduate programs.  Now, in hindsight, I realize that was probably a poor choice considering I always dreamed of going into one of the top ten programs in my field and that would probably require some research experience, but at the time having college paid for was all I could think about.


As my senior year of undergraduate approached, I was set on going straight into a PhD program and did not want to take time off in between, so I started preparing my grad school applications.  Without research experience, I knew I could never get into my dream schools with the top 3 programs (Standord, Harvard, UCSF), but I applied to a few top 10 programs and some lower tier ones to be safe, and thought I would be truly happy as long as I could go straight in to a PhD program.


Undergrad stats:

Major: Biology - cellular/molecular

Minor: Human Biology, Chemistry

GPA: 3.96

Awards: Chancellor's Medallion, Dean's List

Experience: 12 month microbiology internship in industry (3 months in at time of grad application submission), 3 semester immunology independent research project (1 semester at time of application)


When the decision letters came through I was pretty disappointed.  I hadn't gotten in to the "top ten" programs that I had applied to, but had gotten in to a few of the lower tier ones.  I was conflicted - I have extremely high career goals and knew that I would need a strong PhD education to achieve them, but I was also afraid that if I didn't accept one of my offers, waited a year while getting more experience, and reapplied that I may not get into the programs the next year and would have thrown away my opportunity.  So, I went ahead and accepted an offer from a program ranked around 20 in the nation that would pay for my PhD with stipend - still a good program, absolutely, but just not what I wanted for myself and feeling like I settled.  I thought that after I got here, I would fall in love with the research and it would all be okay, and I would be happy with my decision.  Well, to say the least, that has not been the case.  Hard as I try, I just can't shake the feeling that I let go of my dream of going to a top program and have let myself down in being too hasty and naive in my desire to go straight to PhD.  I am miserable at my current program and think that if I stay here for the duration of my PhD and graduate from here I will always look back and regret it, wishing that I would have tried to go for my top three schools.  I am also worried that I won't be able to achieve my career goals coming out of this program.  I guess I just do not know where to go from here, but know I will regret it if I don't make a change. 


Has anyone gone through something similar or know someone who has? Thoughts, advice?  I am thinking about switching in to the master's track and getting my master's from this program, and then reapplying to the schools that I know I want to be at.  With my undergraduate academic scores and good academic and research scores in the master's program, would I be able to get in to Stanford, Harvard, etc.?  How would I go about making the transition, as I know there would be quite a few people in my current program that completely would not approve.  Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

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It seems like to me you're still way to focused on a very rankings heavy view of graduate education. 


As asked, what was it about the other schools that makes you think you'd have been happier there?


Also, I'm a bit confused about your first few paragraphs- you went to a smaller, less well known school that didn't have a graduate program. But then you say you had no research experience, and then go on to list several research experiences?


In general, even at top programs, it's not impossible to get in coming from very unknown schools, so I wouldn't say it's where you went that held you back. Did you not apply to your top 3 choices thinking you wouldn't get in? Or you applied and didn't get in?


Going to a "Top 10" school (however you define that) doesn't suddenly put you in a different bracket than a "Top 20" school as far as your career. Just go do a post-doc at one of your dream schools when you finish up. Make connections, initiate research collaborations.

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katethekitcat and Eigen, Thank you for responding! I appreciate any advice I can get and an outsider's perspective.



The University I went to had only basic undergraduate biology labs with limited assay's available, so I asked my degree advisor to be my supervisor and made my own research project that I conducted in the last year and a half of my coursework.  What I mean to say by my lack of research experience is that I never worked under a structured research project with a true research advisor/PI as my undergraduate institution had no such program, like most Universities do.


My concern with going to a lower tier school and continuing with where I am at has to do with several factors.  The research that I was most interested in pursuing here is not as strong as I had initially thought it was.  The PIs with whom I had intended to work have no funding to take on a new student and I have come to learn that those who do have funding are working in subfields with which I have little experience and that I am not passionate in pursuing.  While some PIs in my current program are comfortable funding-wise, many are on very rocky grounds with funding and the research facilities are not as updated as they advertised them to be with resources much more limited than let on.  This makes me very nervous that the funding they assured me they could provide during my PhD may not be stable.   Additionally, there are several things that I have come to learn since I have been in grad school of which I was previously very naive.  I have realized from attending conferences, seminars, and just being in grad school in general, how important it seems to be in my field who you know and where you come from.  I did not know who the leaders and top researchers were in my field, and I had no concept of just how much clout they hold in industry, academia, and government.  Upon comparing the current positions of my program's alumni with some of those who have graduated from top programs, I see a huge divide in what they have accomplished after obtaining their doctorate.  My career goals are very high and the institutions that I would like to work for are almost entirely staffed by Harvards and Stanfords, and the post-doc positions they offer seem to fill up rapidly with "top ten" alumni.  Whether these other program's graduate students are actually better trained or "brighter" than those in my program or whether it is just a name/reputation game, I honestly can not say, but the trend in who seems to get the positions I am interested in working in is very clearly skewed towards those coming from huge programs.


I guess it seems to me like the programs that are top ranked in my field (Ivy, UCSF, etc) recruit very well established PIs with strong funding that are able to conduct research at a higher level based on greater access to resources.  This means that their graduate students have the resources to conduct much deeper research than what less-funded programs are capable of and publish better.  Better publications and a well known PI in most (and I understand not all) cases seems to facilitate better security of post-doc positions and future careers in great labs.  The fact that I also hear my PI say day in and day out how much he wishes he could secure a position at a better ranking school is also not making the situation and my choice anxiety much better.


As far as my applications went, I did not apply to the top three programs in my field (which I also thought were the best fit research-wise) because at the time that applications were due, I was just starting my internship and independent study and assumed that, while my GPA was strong, with so little experience I would not be accepted.  I applied to a few other programs that were under my top three but still ranked among the top ten in the nation (I used NRC rankings primarily, among other ranking programs and impact factor data) for my field and matched my research interests but was not accepted.  My heart really wants to be at a better program, where funding is more secure and I can work in a subfield that I am more passionate about and in which their PIs are well established, but not getting in to any of them the first time around with strong academics and good scores on the GRE just really shook me and made me feel like I was not good enough to get in to the places I really wanted to go, so I accepted to a program that I was not excited about or originally wanting to join and am trying to make the best of it, but am just feeling like I let myself down.  Additionally, finding out that the researches I had intended to work with didn't have any funding and having to join a lab whose research I don't love and don't feel passionate about has made me feel defeated.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Honestly, it is always the last thing you have accomplished (or failed to accomplish) that is the most critical in determining a career.

For a PhD in the life sciences, it is actually the POST DOC that supercedes the PhD granting university.

Your postdoc work will get the academic job slot and not the PhD lab.

That is, of course, if any university is hiring.

Just a head's up: I got my PhD in 2008 and so far only TWO people in my cohort have academic positions. Their postdoctoral work was greater than their doctoral work. And I did not go to a crappy school FYI.

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Thank you for your response. So it is more the post doc positions that an individual holds, rather than where they got their PhD, that will define what career options are available to an individual?  I am looking to go in to government research, and hope to obtain a position at the NIH or CDC and eventually have my own lab at such an institution.  Recently, I attended a huge conference in my field at which several presenters and speakers were from the NIH and as I was going through their bios, I became more and more overwhelmed as the vast majority came out of top 5 ranking PhD programs.  While this could be a coincidence, I couldn't help but freak out a bit and feel that I may have put myself at a disadvantage to achieve my career goals by attending a University that is good (ranked in the top 20) but not considered "one of the best".   This may all sound very naive, but the whole PhD process is still very new to me and I just want to make sure I am doing everything within my power to set myself up to achieve my career goals.  I am working very hard where I am at and really pouring myself into my research, I guess I just want to make sure that I am not shooting for a goal that is out of my reach as a result of where I chose to do my undergrad/grad education.  Any advice?

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Definitely more important where you postdoc for government research, imo. 


Lots of good ways to move into CDC/NIH research centers as a researcher from a solid but not top-tier PhD, and go from there. 


When you look at bios, it's important to remember that there's a lot of correlation but not necessarily causation. The best researchers generally go to the best schools, but it doesn't mean that the best researchers only come from the best schools. 

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