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Urgent: Need Input. MS Gatech vs PhD (OSU, NU, McMaster)


liszt85
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Hey guys,

Its finally time for me to make a decision and be done with this. I'm in a somewhat confusing situation and would really like some input from here. So the options I'm considering are:

1) Northwestern University: Department of Linguistics, PhD

Research fit: Good. I get to work on language and music at the interdisciplinary center hosted by the Complex Systems Institute. Since I'm a physics major (bachelors + Masters degree in Physics) and since my primary interest in physics is nonlinear dynamics and chaos, its a very good place for me to be working in.

Funding: Since I'll be taking along my wife, their funding package is not quite sufficient for life in Chicago ($20.5K before taxes, fixed amount for all years, includes summer support, strictly forbids any part time employment even while I'm on their fellowship during years 1 and 5). However my family is willing to sell of some property to give me about $15-20K extra to serve as emergency money and if that happens, I might be able to make this work. I however really don't like the idea of accepting this money as I wanted to do this absolutely on my own.

Atmosphere: From what I've heard from people here who've visited, its a small program (they accept only 1-2 people a year) and the students seem genuinely happy. From my correspondences with faculty there, all of them seem warm and nice and they've been thoroughly professional about this whole thing. I got my offer letter on Jan 23! They really do want me to attend and I suspect I'd be very happy academically here too. ONE IMPORTANT CONSIDERATION HOWEVER IS ABOUT JOB PROSPECTS: My Linguistics professor here in India tells me that universties here don't hire people without an undergraduate degree in the field. So if I do opt for one of my PhD offers, I would find it extremely difficult to find work in my country in the future though my area of interest is one in which there is little or no work in India. So I don't intend to come back to settle down here but if some emergency does pop up, I will have to return and I'm afraid I'll be jobless if that happens.

2) The Ohio State University, Psychology, PhD

Research fit: Adviser has to be fixed right away and I've found only one who is willing (and extremely keen, might I add!) to support my summers. So his work is on language, using concepts from physics (from the areas I'd mentioned above) and also some work on memory, attention, etc using some nice equipment (tracking facial expression changes by automatically clicking photographs when that happens, etc). There is this professor in the dept of music there who has agreed to work with me on some occasional projects and he's top notch in the field of music cognition research (which really is my primary area of interest) and he advises me to do my dissertation in a "traditional" area of Psychology because only that would make me a competitive applicant for jobs since music cognition does not have jobs (he says on an avg about 1-2 tenure track positions open all over the world!).

Funding: Its great for Columbus. An increase in stipend level is expected and since I come in with a masters, I'd be coming in on the higher scale. I expect to be paid around $1400-1500 per month and my prospective adviser has guaranteed summer funding for all years at the maximum possible level of $1610 per month. He has also assured me of covering conference travel and accommodation costs. Excellent health plan for couples. Pretty cheap one too. So financially, OSU will afford us (my wife and I) a comfortable life.

Atmosphere: My prospective adviser, from his correspondences, told me that our lab would be very relaxed, family friendly, and that my wife would be welcome to spend time in the lab, and that we might even try to convince her to apply for grad studies! He's gone to the extent of offering to play cricket with me since he's Australian and I'm Indian. He looks like a great chap to be working with in a relaxed atmosphere. Also that thing he said about encouraging my wife to spend time in the lab, etc looks quite enticing to me as both she and I wish that she could study too. Since she comes from a small town and a relatively unknown university with no research experience, we expect that it would be extremely difficult for her to be accepted into a program but if she gets to do some volunteer research for some time, I guess she might be accepted by a grad program, maybe an MS so that she gets to move ahead in life too while I finish my PhD.

3) Georgia Tech, Music Technology, MS

Research fit: Have excellent faculty members doing some cool work. They tell me that this program would give me 2 years to explore different areas since I'm making this shift from physics to another field. So it would probably be a good idea to give myself some time to decide which field exactly it is that I want to do a PhD in or if I decide that I want to work in the industry (audio/music), I could do that too. This program would give me useful and practical marketable technical skills that could come in very handy in either case. I might also stand a better chance at being accepted to graduate programs at my top choices which I wasn't accepted to this year. I might want to apply to places like MIT media lab or Stanford CCRMA for PhD later on. There are students who've published as many as 10 papers during their 2 year program here. So the professor told me that if I was willing to put in enough work, the options are plenty.

Funding: poor but excellent keeping in mind that this is only a new program and is only a MS program where funding is normally not available. I've been guaranteed my first semester (tuition waiver + $1500 per month). They expect that they would be able to continue that support for the whole duration of 2 years. The director told me that all these 3 years (right from the beginning of this program), they've never had to withdraw support to their GRA's but things "might be slightly more difficult keeping in view the economic downturn". I really have no idea what to make of this because if my funding gets pulled, taking a loan to pay for my tuition fee is not an option ($14000 per sem + living expenses) as I have no able co signer or collateral to offer a bank to even consider taking a loan with! So IF my funding gets pulled IF the economic crisis somehow worsens, I could be in a thick soup. Will be stranded with a debt (~$20,000 which I have to take now to pay mandatory fees + insurance for two people that I have to pay which are not paid for by the department) but I think the possibility for that to happen is around maybe 2-3%. The most important factor about this offer is this: GIVES ME MANY MORE OPTIONS. CAN FIND A JOB ALMOST ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, SO DON'T HAVE TO WORRY TOO MUCH ABOUT FUTURE JOB PROSPECTS UNLIKE THE OTHER PHD CASES.

Atmosphere: Don't know much.. have been in touch with an Indian professor who does some great work on hindustani music. I have a western classical music background though. Musically this place might have a lot more to offer me as course work sometimes require us to be close to music. Being close to music is important to me too.

4) McMaster, Psychology, PhD (tentative, name has been recommended for admission, professor "hopeful", but not certain)

Research Fit: Neurocognition of music, esp in infants. Looks very exciting, top notch researcher in the field, major conferences held often at the university and nearby universities (Canada is very active in the field of music cognition).

Funding: $20,000CDN out of which I have to pay $5000CDN per year towards a part of the tuition fee which is not waived. So after taxes, I'll get just over $1000CDN per month which might not be enough for two people in Hamilton.

Atmosphere: No idea, she looks like a person with many graduate students under her and I really have no idea how accessible she is. Job prospects, based on the advice of the professor of music from OSU, might be bleak in the field of music cognition. So that will restrict me geographically as well as in other ways.

Now please help me decide!! A major consideration is future prospects. Remember that my country has a problem hiring people without a ug background in the field. So a PhD in Psychology or Linguistics would restrict me to those fields and would restrict me geographically as well whereas the risky MS (I have to go into debt too to be able to attend) will give me much more options and definitely looks like the better choice to make keeping in mind that I'd love some flexibility in my future options but the major question is is the financial risk worth taking? Will I be stranded mid way with my funding pulled? THey also have no summer funding. So I'm left to find myself employment during the summer months and my F1 visa restricts me to work only 20 hrs a week and that too only on campus. I hope I'll be able to find some kind of summer internship.

I'm highly confused. Leaning slightly towards Gatech but VERY attracted to the OSU offer as well. NU is a great place to be too but job prospects worry me a bit. Same about McMaster. So the orders of preference are:

Job prospects (first and foremost priority):

Gatech > OSU > NU > McMaster

Research fit:

Gatech/McMaster > NU > OSU

Atmosphere:

OSU > NU > Gatech/McMaster

Financial comfort:

OSU > NU > McMaster > Gatech.

Help me weigh these options please! Thanks.

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From what you have said here, I think you should eliminate McMaster. That does not seem like enough money to live on, plus the job prospect thing would make me rule it out.

This does seem like a very tough decision. My gut instinct is that OSU has the least number of significant drawbacks. A couple of other questions: How are OSU and NU ranked in their fields? Does your wife have a preference?

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From what you have said here, I think you should eliminate McMaster. That does not seem like enough money to live on, plus the job prospect thing would make me rule it out.

This does seem like a very tough decision. My gut instinct is that OSU has the least number of significant drawbacks. A couple of other questions: How are OSU and NU ranked in their fields? Does your wife have a preference?

My wife prefers that I do the MS since she really wants to have the option of returning to India at some point. She doesn't like the idea of having to raise kids in the US for reasons best known to her :P but I respect that totally.

OSU is decently ranked in Cognitive Psychology (which is the area I've been accepted to). There was some ranking based on no. of faculty citations and OSU Psychology was ranked 9th. Other rankings rank it pretty good too (top20-30), not top tier, but a top program amongst public schools.

NU is ranked very high for Linguistics. PhD org ranks it at 10-12.

My wife's preference goes: Gatech (she might not even accompany me but she prefers that I do this to keep options alive) > OSU > McMaster > NU

She prefers Hamilton to Chicago based on purely lifestyle differences but she would be willing to come to Chicago too if that's going to be better for our future..

Thanks for your input, what do you think now?

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To me it looks like the decision comes down to either Georgia Tech's positive job prospects or OSU's funding and family-friendliness... and that is a really tough one. Good luck -- I envy your four great options, but I don't envy you having to choose between them! :D

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Hey Tulip, I got rejected by McMaster due to some financial trouble they're facing :P THe prof had recommended my name for admission but it didn't work out. Anyway, like you said, its a tough choice between the Gatech MS and the OSU friendly PhD. I'm going crazy here.. more input very much welcome!!

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OK, one more question.

What is your primary goal? I know this mught change, and you might not be entirely sure yet, but what do you *think* it is, with the information you have now? One point is that you mention going back to India for work only in case of emergency, but you talk about your wife not wanting to raise kids in the US. Is the main goal to get a job (in the industry?) or teach at the university level in a country besides either the US or India?

Also, if you get your MS in Music Technology, you still won't have an undergrad degree in the field (as your advisor in India recommended). Is the idea that the MS would make you eligible for jobs that the PhD wouldn't because it is in Music Technology as opposed to Linguistics or Psych? Just tring to figure out why that degree means more career options.

I guess that's 2 questions.

( It's kind of nice to think about a school dilemma other than my own!!)

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Unless you are quite certain that getting the MS would make you successful in getting into the top PhD programs, I think you should take OSU's or NU's PhD offer. Look at it like this: if your ultimate goal is a PhD, then you can get started on that now, right now, rather than 2/3 years in the future! Given your pretty niche interests, it sounds like OSU and NU are both pretty good for you. Are the higher ranked programs going to be as good or better for research fit?

Consider all the uncertainty of turning own PhD offers now for an MS and just be absolutely sure you're willing to give up excellent fit and good ranked PhD programs now for the chance at higher ranked and maybe as good fit schools later (not to mention the possibility of losing funding at GATech :( ).

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OK, one more question.

What is your primary goal? I know this mught change, and you might not be entirely sure yet, but what do you *think* it is, with the information you have now? One point is that you mention going back to India for work only in case of emergency, but you talk about your wife not wanting to raise kids in the US. Is the main goal to get a job (in the industry?) or teach at the university level in a country besides either the US or India?

Also, if you get your MS in Music Technology, you still won't have an undergrad degree in the field (as your advisor in India recommended). Is the idea that the MS would make you eligible for jobs that the PhD wouldn't because it is in Music Technology as opposed to Linguistics or Psych? Just tring to figure out why that degree means more career options.

I guess that's 2 questions.

( It's kind of nice to think about a school dilemma other than my own!!)

You've made very pertinent observations. So let me explain:

1) I *think* my primary goal is to do research in the field of music cognition. OSU would give me an education in cognitive Psychology and my dissertation would be on language research but I would probably do one or two projects on music cognition and learn the essentials of it from the famous guy at the school of music at OSU.

2) If I do this MS, the PhD programs I intend to apply to are the MIT media lab or IRCAM Paris, or Stanford CCRMA. Now research interests *might* fit much better at these places than OSU but then according to the advice of the music researcher at OSU, I really should not bother about that because it is important, according to him, that I get trained in a traditional area of Psychology while doing the odd music project because if my dissertation is going to be on music cognition, job prospects will be bleak as only 1-2 tenure track positions open every year (worldwide!). So what that means, I guess, is that I should work with this really friendly and understanding young faculty member who has an excellent idea about my background and career aspirations. He knows that my primary interest is music cognition and I even asked him if I could change advisers and he was extremely supportive but when I got an email from the music researcher with that advice that he gave me about the importance of focus on a traditional area for my dissertation, he said that it was sound advice and that he totally understood. So if I work with him, it will be research on memory, attention, language performance, etc using computational, behavioral and neuroimaging approaches. He has assured me of an all round education to prepare me for a career in the field.

3) Job prospects in India: With the PhD in Psychology, in case I have to return to the country, I wouldn't find a teaching job at a university. Instead, my undergraduate (bachelors+masters integrated degree) degree could find me a job (as that degree is highly valued by companies here) but the thing is, it would be some corporate job that I'll come to hate. If I do this MS and THEN go for a PhD (media, psychology, or whatever else), if I have to return here someday, the MS will get me a job in the audio/music industry or I can even think of a start up here as graduates of that MS program seem to be doing that a lot. These are jobs that will keep me happy. Though I want to teach and run a research lab at a university some day, my wife does not like the idea of settling down in the US (that might change) and she's okay with shifting to Europe. Again, if I have the MS, I can always find work in Europe but the same does not hold for the PhD. The PhD would find me work in the US or Canada. With the present economic scenario, and the uncertainties it has brought with it, I do not even know if I'll be able to find a job after my PhD (and post doc) in the US/Canada.

So the MS would allow me to:

a) find work anywhere in the world (not easy as that sounds but I do think its possible)

B) apply to PhD programs, but I'm afraid these psychology depts may not want me any longer. Most of my acceptances have been based on some research I did which used concepts of Physics in music analysis and most of my prospective advisers found that interesting as they've begun experimenting with the use of physics in their own research.. so they like the idea of a physics major from a very reputed college in India. So I think that's my selling point at the moment.

The PhD at OSU:

a) Hopefully will turn out to be interesting for me (as these fields of memory, attention, etc do look interesting at the first glance and his research methods also look good to me). Also as the music researcher said, if I work on problems of memory and performance, etc those are the very basic processes that go on in music cognition that music researchers investigate. So once I do this PhD, I could find a good post doc position, now maybe in a music cognition field! With that kind of background, if I now get a job at a university, I could do all the research I wish to independently do.

B) Assures a comfortable life for the two of us for the next 5-6, especially since we're going to be newly wed and facing life in the real world which is hurting at the moment due to the economic crisis.

c) Gives my wife an opportunity to consider graduate studies herself as OSU is less selective than the other two (with her background, its difficult to get accepted to a program at the other two). She has a masters degree in Physics too. She could thus move ahead in life too while I do my PhD.

Now what bothers me most is this: My mother got divorced recently but my parents have been separated for years now. She doesn't date (not common in India) and will probably live all by herself for the rest of her life. Our house is situated in a not so safe area and she adamantly refuses to leave as she is emotionally attached to the house as she designed it and got it built during a time when she decided it was time to leave my father after a lot of shit that she had to put up with and she did it while on a Rs 3000 salary with which she had to buy us food too (my dad earned a lot of money but all of that got spent on other women). So I really want to take care of my mother when she needs me and when that happens, she wouldn't want to leave her home. It is for then that I plan to utilize the MS. I hope you see the entire picture now. It is NOT my plan or intention or wish to work in India as there is nothing of my interest here. My life belongs to the west and the opportunities there but I really wish my mother would stay somewhere close to us (if not, with us!) during at least the last decade of her life so that we can give her a happy family life that she never had. My wife has a similar wish about her parents too who wouldn't budge even a little from this place too (our houses are separated only by a 8mile distance).

So I think the best thing for ME to do keeping solely my career ambitions is to accept the PhD offer but with all such eventualities I might have to be prepared for, the MS looks good and it also offers immediate work in the field of my interest (whereas I'd have to wait for 5-6 years before I start working on music full time after my PhD if I choose OSU).

This is the full picture.. keep the advice pouring in, it helps!

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Unless you are quite certain that getting the MS would make you successful in getting into the top PhD programs, I think you should take OSU's or NU's PhD offer. Look at it like this: if your ultimate goal is a PhD, then you can get started on that now, right now, rather than 2/3 years in the future! Given your pretty niche interests, it sounds like OSU and NU are both pretty good for you. Are the higher ranked programs going to be as good or better for research fit?

Consider all the uncertainty of turning own PhD offers now for an MS and just be absolutely sure you're willing to give up excellent fit and good ranked PhD programs now for the chance at higher ranked and maybe as good fit schools later (not to mention the possibility of losing funding at GATech :( ).

I'm not 100% certain but the professors there certainly seem to think that I'd stand a good chance of being accepted to places like the MIT media lab (Barry Vercoe's group does some nice work on music). So the research fit at places like these would be much better but I have also had excellent advice from people within the field of music cognition research that its best to suspend my extremely narrow focus right now to get an all round education in traditional aspects of Psychology and then I could use that to find good post doc positions in the field of music cognition and with that strongly developed all round background, I might be better prepared for the job market (tenure track positions) and once I get such a position, I could do any research I wished to.

The MS program director at Gatech assured me that my funding would not be withdrawn as it has never happened before. The only problem with accepting this MS offer is that its a new program, with only 3 graduates so far. 2 out of these 3 have start ups now based in Atlanta and the other person teaches at a local college. The present students are people with undergraduate degrees in computer science and electronics and are people with 2-3 work experience in companies like microsoft, sun microsystems, etc. I would be thrown into an unfamiliar world of software developers (which is a major reason why they're able to find summer internships). Since Gatech doesn't offer me funding for the summers, and since I'm dumb at coding, I'll find it much harder to find work for the summer. Accepting the MS is fraught with problems of the financial kind but my wife and family ask me if it might be worth it to go through all of that now since its only for 2 years if this will mean more options in the future.. I really can't decide..

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