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EXTREMELY difficult decision...


IronDuke
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Ok so I have struggled with this for over a month and I want to make my decision by Friday to put myself out of my misery. Here is the scenario:

#1) Harvard, where I'm in a sub-field that I don't want to be in, and the proverbial "fit" (methodologically and politically) isn't quite there. I would have to work alone with minimal supervision to produce a top-notch dissertation. For many of you that would clinch it, and you would advise me not to go. However, the school has the following advantages: whereas there is no one professor with whom I mesh completely, there are many (about 5-6) whose interests are related to mine. I would be working in a highly competitive, inter-disciplinary environment that would push me beyond my undergrad focus. It could also potentially open up new possibilities for jobs. The funding is great, beyond a full package I have the opportunity to receive many grants from different centres. The library resources are some of the best in the country. And, though I would not be in the same field as them, there are at least 10 or so brilliant fellow grad students working on similar topics. Plus, living in an urban area is extremely important for me on a personal level (I am coming from the SF Bay Area).

#2) Cornell, where there are two professors whose interests match exactly with mine, and I am in the field that I want. I could potentially get a job in this specific field with more ease than at Harvard. In writing my dissertation I would benefit from expert and friendly advice. However, beyond these two faculty members there is practically no one else whose work is in my general area of focus. The library and resources are good, and the funding is comparable. There are no other grad students doing similar work. I absolutely don't want to live in Ithaca (I'm from upstate New York, and I am not complaining about the weather - merely the size & scope of the town).

Give it a shot and tell me what you think.

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Harvard sounds like the winner from my point of view; while you have an exact fit with the two professors at Cornell, part of the journey of grad school is continued learning and it sounds like the faculty and other grad students at Harvard will push you beyond where you are (or think you are) now. And if the Ithaca environment is not doable for you, that seals it. As Misterpat pointed out in another thread, almost no one goes into grad school assuming they won't finish, but yet many people fail to get the degree. I have to believe that satisfaction with one's environment is a large part of producing the internal state of mind that allows one to sustain the effort necessary to get the doctorate. If you're already unhappy about one or more big aspects (like location) from day one, I think that's not going to help you achieve that goal.

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Harvard sounds like the winner from my point of view; while you have an exact fit with the two professors at Cornell, part of the journey of grad school is continued learning and it sounds like the faculty and other grad students at Harvard will push you beyond where you are (or think you are) now. And if the Ithaca environment is not doable for you, that seals it. As Misterpat pointed out in another thread, almost no one goes into grad school assuming they won't finish, but yet many people fail to get the degree. I have to believe that satisfaction with one's environment is a large part of producing the internal state of mind that allows one to sustain the effort necessary to get the doctorate. If you're already unhappy about one or more big aspects (like location) from day one, I think that's not going to help you achieve that goal.

I agree very much with Synthla on this one. Also, even though you have two 'perfect match' professors at Cornell, there is a very real possibility that your focus might change somewhat during grad school. Having a large number of inspiring people who share your general interests seems better than one or two who fit perfectly with your present focus.

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Harvard. Hands down. For some people it makes a huge difference where they live so location weighs on their decision more than other factors. It might not be as important to everyone but it sounds like is to you, and it's a very legitimate concern. If you don't think you can be happy living in Ithaca, don't go there. If you'll be miserable, you'll end up making less of the "perfect fit" faculty you'll have at your disposal and the work you'll produce won't be as good as it could have been. Go to a place you feel good living in, and you'll be likelier to do better work and finish your degree. Plus, as others have pointed out, you have many more opportunities to grow at Harvard than you do at Cornell.

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I feel you love Harvard more, from your description.

you cannot go wrong with either place, then choose the one you like the most.

try think about this: when you weighing the choices, how do you think? is it always the pattern that "I love A, but B is very good too." and never got the reverse pattern? if so, maybe you really want to join A. Follow your intuition. That works for me. Hopefully it is helpful.

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Harvard. Its name alone is a huge advantage that you didn't mention.

Considering the payoffs on the job market, if I got accepted to Harvard, I'd find a way to make it work no matter what. Although you don't have this problem, because it sounds just as good for you as Cornell, and you do sound like you are leaning towards Harvard anyway (as another poster said).

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If you are very confident that your interests won't change and will remain in this specific sub field, then I'd have to vote for Cornell. Most students however find that their interests change, even if only by a little, once they enter grad school, do course work, get introduced to exciting work in other sub fields, etc. So if you think you'll be one of them, Harvard is the place to be.

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I'm a Cornell undergrad, so I'm too biased to vote here. * grins * I agree that it's in the middle of nowhere, but I will say that a) I like Ithaca a lot more than I thought I would, and B) we're kept so busy here that there isn't enough time to notice that the range of things to do around town is pretty limited.

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Wow, that is tough! I am leaning toward Harvard. The slight mismatch in research interests could be a plus and a minus: there will be no one to give you expert advice on your own research, but being part of an active and interdisciplinary academic group will be very stimulating -- unless the faculty are really cold, and your fellow grad students are total stuck-up pricks who shun you out of fear you'll crowd their spotlight. Also, I personally would like having my boundaries pushed. YMMV.

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Definitely Harvard. Having other students who are interested in similar things is really helpful, because they will be the people you spend your time bouncing ideas off of. Also, what if one of the two "perfect fit" professors at Cornell left? What if (as other people have suggested) your interests change, even slightly? Having a large group of people to work with at Harvard not only protects you against those possibilities, but gives you room to expand and develop your ideas. And sometimes having a "perfect fit" advisor traps you into doing exactly what the advisor is doing, or wants you to do, instead of forging your own path; having several people who fit 80% can give you more freedom. Plus, even though you may not spend a lot of time out of the classroom/library, you will notice if you hate the location of the school. You will want to take a day or a weekend or even spring break off from doing work, and you will be stuck in a place where you are unhappy. Even just ordering out food when you've had a rough day can be difficult in a smaller town setting. I was much less happy during my MA because I hated the location (and was unable to get good Chinese food, which was upsetting), and that really contributed to me stopping after my MA and applying to other programs. Because I haven't received another funded offer, I probably will not get a PhD--partially because of how unhappy I was in that location. So it makes a difference, I think.

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I had the same issue. I was deciding between Harvard and Duke for evolutionary biology programs. I adored Harvard and really liked the advisor I'd be working with, but her interests and background weren't an ideal fit with mine, although she would allow me considerable autonomy in my research. Duke, however, has a a PI who is right up my alley, and we seemed to feed off of each other when I interviewed. Durham is not exactly a bustling metropolis in the same way Boston/Cambridge is; it's not BFE, but it is pretty small, and this was something that concerned me.

Ultimately, I chose to go with Duke, because although I could get a fantastic Ph.D. at either school, Duke is the better fit right now at this stage in my education and career, and I think that's an important distinction for people to make. It was tough turning down Harvard, but I just remind myself that I can always go there for a post-doc, especially since I'm still on good terms with my potential advisor there.

Best of luck with your decision!

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