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How to choose where to study? [Advice for Future PhD student]


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Three things before we start:


1. I am certain about my choice to study a PhD. Please don't try to argue with me about whether I should work or study.

2. Yes, I know my question sounds silly and answering "just choose what your heart wants" is THE most obvious answer. However, I'd like to hear your stories and decision making which helped you along your journey. 

3. Although I appreciate everyone's opinion, I'd like to hear mostly about PhD current, future or previous students. Why? Because I think that the process of deciding for a grad school is different between Master and PhD prospects. How? Well, just for an example, Masters tend to last less than PhD so you might want to keep that in mind when thinking where to spend the next 4-5 years of your life.


Ok, I've done saying what I had to say.

Sorry for the previous points, I just wanted to narrow the kind of responses I might have. Also, I have rode a lot lately about "why not pursue a PhD" and "reasons why PhD sucks" and even though I agree with some of the things those texts said, I know I want to study my PhD and it feels a little bit bad when people say you shouldn't just because the regret it, had a bad experience, didn't find it useful, etc. So I am trying to avoid those negative comments :)


Then, my problem is this:


I am a recently graduate student for a Master's in Communications. I am not too proud of it, because of the title (Communications Studies), but it helped me acknowledging that I want to dedicate my life into research. Specifically, into research on Human-Computer Interactions from a social sciences perspective. For this -and other reasons- I decided to continue studying a PhD.


However, when it was time to start looking where to study I just...well, this is kind of embarrassing but, I just couldn't decide for a place.

Please don't get me wrong, I did knew some places where I wanted to study but I was never sure. I kept wondering from one place to another, surfing the web until late hours, wondering "Would this place be fine?", "Is it good here?", "Should I live here for the next 4 to 5 years?". And once I started asking those questions on Google my doubt became even bigger, and new questions arise. 

I started wondering:


> How important was the University's prestige?

> Was it more important the Advice than the University?

> Are there really bigger future benefits if I study in U.S.A.?

> Should I choose a place I like over a prestigious place?

> What about my future plans of marrying?


And the list goes on.


As you might have guessed, I missed last year's deadlines to apply for a PhD starting this year so I am now currently waiting for this years enrollment season so I can start my studies on Fall 2015. And even though I do got some answers back from universities like Kings College London and Stockholm University, to which I was unable to find a scholarship for this year,  I am thinking of applying for other schools in other countries. 


BUT (Oh, the horrible 'but') I don't know how to choose a university to study my PhD. Should I focus on the place or the adviser? The University's rank or its campus? Should I plan ahead or just decide for the momentum?


I'd love to hear the stories of those of you who have already decided where to study. Please let me know what did you took into consideration and what did you found to be most important.


So far, I have only figure out the following:


> I really don't want to do the GRE, but if U.S.A seems like the "best place" to study...well, I might just take them and hope I pass well enough.

> I'd love to live somewhere in Europe, but I am not sure if it is a good choice or I am just in love with the idea of waking up in the Old Continent.

> I once consider living in Asia, but someone told me it was really hard to get into a school there. 

> I've been told to consider places like India or Russia, which are not to expensive to live and have good education, but I am doubtful since I haven't really find a lot of information regarding PhD in social studies in those countries.


Anyway, I appreciate any help and advice you can give me. I am also sorry for the long post but, hey!, I figured that since we are all Grad Students here we are might as well used to long-long texts ;)


Hehe. Once again, thank you!

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I'm not trying to be snarky, but... PhD means doing research and advancing knowledge in a particular field, so why don't you already have a list of schools based on the most important factor, research interests?

Do you follow latest developments within your research interests? If you do, you would already know the researchers you want to work for. That would narrow down your list a lot.


Also, all of your questions are answered a hundred times (or more) in this forum. If only you look (or do some RESEARCH)!


Edited by Cookie
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Yes, a statement of purpose should, depending on the strenght of the canidate, be a research proposal that links you to the department.  IE, here are my research goals, here is why this school is a great fit, take me. 

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Cookie, I am doing research. I am actually doing it while I waited for answers. But it is never a bad choice to just ask. Plus, it would give me even more information regarding my problems. I also do have information regarding schools, school's rankings, professors, etc. I didn't want the "correct" way of choosing but more the experimental part, the How-to of the choice making process. I also believe life is more than just researching, you have to consider other things like living expenses, study possibilities, society's affinity with your topic (specially in social sciences), etc. Anyways, I appreciate the help.


GeoDUDE!, thank you.

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Ignoring the "who can reply to this post" bit at the beginning, since those things tend to put me in a bad mood....


For a PhD, especially coming from a masters, it's all about the research fit. Find research published that you like. Identify researchers working on that research. Apply to those schools. 


All of the other concerns about location, funding, etc. are secondary- they're things you consider when you're deciding where to go, not where to apply. 


When you're deciding where to apply, it all comes down to finding people who are experts in the specific sub discipline you're interested in. 

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I'd worry less about choosing a school then casting a wide net and let the school chose you. In your search you'll compile a large list of programs, using research fit as your first criteria - is there faculty working in your area or even a program that encapsulates what you'd like to do? Then you'll have schools that are high ranked as a whole, lower ranked but have a strong program, and in interesting areas and less interesting areas. Start contacting the program for more information, and look into the application requirements. Narrow down your list as you go along. I used an Excel spreadsheet, and filled out the location, program, funding, application requirements, who I contacted or should contact, and the pros and cons of each program. I took it further and color-coded the most important aspects, especially funding - that way I could rank them by the possibility of getting funding, and it led me to find programs that had less of a research fit (or weren't top tier) but had very strong funding sources. Because in the end, money is a big factor in choice, unless you're already sitting on a big pot of it.


I would take the GRE. For U.S. schools, having a GRE score will greatly increase where you can apply. When you're contacting schools, ask if you can talk directly with current graduate students, they'll be more frank about the research environment, personality of faculty, and funding.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Soon-to-be first year Comm Ph.D student here. I just went through this whole process, so feel free to PM me if you have any specific questions, but I can only speak for the process in US schools. I can say that your interests (Human-Computer Interactions from a social sciences perspective) are one of the "hot" fields right now and you can easily find plenty of people to work with.


As a lot of people have stated, research fit should be your first criterion.


Know your sub-field > Know the best scholars in your sub-field and related fields > find out where they are > look for universities with multiple potential advisers > apply there. 

I think this perfectly summarizes the selection process. Having multiple potential advisers would be really helpful if you find out later that you don't really click with the brilliant scholar you wanted to work with or if he or she decides to leave midway through your program. And even though a lot of people said you should worry about location later, my own opinion is you shouldn't apply somewhere you absolutely don't see yourself living. It's a bit hard to know that absolutely about places you've never visited before, but if you do know, I'd say don't apply there. It's just a waste of money and effort. Ideally you'd want to apply to places that if they admit you, you'd happily go. Having a wide range of rankings is a good idea, but I've seen people who got upset after only getting into their "safety" choice and ended up reapplying the next year (also look around the forum for many, many arguments why there's no such thing as a safety school). And keep in mind that interviews/visits can change a lot - I completely changed my mind about my top choice after visiting.


I agree that you should take the GRE. I heard it's easier to get funding in the States than in Europe and it's not that bad of a test IMO. It gets a bad rep but considering the doors it can open, I'd say it's worth it.


Also there's a Communication forum under Social Sciences. You can browse it to get an idea of the top programs and their strengths or open a thread to get more specific responses.

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For me at least, the point where I *knew* where I wanted to study came after I'd visited a selection of universities. After I'd physically seen the campus, chatted to faculty I was interested in for 5-10 mins and met some of the students I could make my mind up, and the decision wasn't that difficult. My first filter was general location - I decided to apply to universities on the Eastern Seaboard of the USA. I prefer big cities to rural areas, so I filtered it down a bit more. Then I thought about my research interests, the PIs I'd like to work for and the universities with a decent reputation in that field. I applied to a range of schools, not just focussing on the elite ones. 


There's no point in trying to find the "perfect" university simply by Google searches or browsing official school websites. Yes, you don't know if you will be happy at University X - apply there anyway. Then if you're accepted you can visit and find out.

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Location doesn't matter to me. The only two factors that really matter at the end of the day is research fit and reputation of the university. The other variables may come into play if you actually get accepted to some programs, but not in choosing them.


As far as timeline goes, I already had my list of 15 universities sometime in June. It changes slightly throughout the process but it more or less stays relatively the same.

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I've been told to consider places like India or Russia, which are not to expensive to live and have good education, but I am doubtful since I haven't really find a lot of information regarding PhD in social studies in those countries.


Whoever told you that Russia has a good education system and is inexpensive to live in is an idiot and I am surprised you believed them.


The leading Russian university's ranking oscillates in the 100s-200s worldwide, largely due to its strong programs in mathematics and physics.


Moscow is the 4th most expensive city in the world.


I learned all this by using Google (www.google.com), which I was taught how to do in about 3rd grade or so.

Edited by ExponentialDecay
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I am entering my 2nd year in a Communication PhD program and I'm going to throw out some things for you to think about.


What will you do if your research interests shift?  I came to the program I am so that I could work in a specific area with a specific professor.  I had my entire committee together by November when I had my plan of study meeting (I set a department record).  By April I knew that although the professor I came to work with is amazing I really don't like that area of emphasis as much as I thought I would.  Fortunately, I have found a new professor who is a really good fit for me who is guiding me as I navigate this academic shift.


When you look at programs, what is the school's reputation for mentoring?  Do the faculty work with students or does the program pride itself on "weeding out" students even if those students could be very successful?  


What do you want the PhD to prepare you to do?  Some programs focus on preparing students to work at a research institution and are very focused on getting students conducting their own research and pursuing publication.  Other programs focus more on students becoming academic educators and working in a teaching institution.  Deciding where you want to end up should influence where you choose to apply.


Regarding your specific questions:

> How important was the University's prestige?

I only applied to one program because of who I wanted to work with.  My program is glamorous but it is solid.  In addition, once I made the decision to apply and was accepted, when I told established people in the field of communication where I would be attending they expressed that my program is much better than is often assumed.


> Was it more important the Advice than the University?

I believe that the most important piece in the puzzle is how well you will fit with the faculty.  Are they ego-driven?  Do they care about nurturing your interests or want to force you to study what they like?


> Are there really bigger future benefits if I study in U.S.A.?

The biggest benefit to studying in the US is that US institutions will automatically understand what your degree means if you apply to work for one.  There is a certain amount of suspicion about the quality of schools outside of the US if it does not have an international reputation.  Oxford will always be Oxford, but other schools which are lesser-known may be a stumbling block in the future.  I have a family member who has a doctorate from a Mexican university and she cannot get it recognized.


> Should I choose a place I like over a prestigious place?

Absolutely!  Fitting in with your department will help you stay focused and finish.  If you are accepted somewhere prestigious and hate it you are much more likely to drop out and never finish.  


> What about my future plans of marrying?

Are you worried that you can't get married if you get a doctorate?  I am married with 3 children and, with a very supportive husband, I am doing well in my program.  I'm not the only married PhD student.  I'm not the only PhD student with kids.  

My question for you is, why do you want a PhD?  If it is your passion and you want it more than anything, then you will find a way for it to happen.  


Good luck!

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  • 2 weeks later...

My process:

  • Take stock of myself. What am into? What do I need from the full complement of faculty in a program? What do I need from faculty that would fill the role of advisers, mentors, etc.? What do I want to do with my scholarship? How much help do I need to get through the program? What things must a location offer for my spouse. Use that to make a list of minimum criteria that a school, its program, and its location must meet in order for me to get along there. (This is where I defined fit--based on minimum need, not want.)
  • Read a lot critical articles in the areas I'm interested in and in areas related to my interests, and then compile a list of people to follow up on. I was not looking for a mentor-figure, but for people who were doing exciting scholarship and could handle what I want to do (since this requires a mixture of literature and sociology, I was looking for flexibility in thinking rather than someone working with the same theories or authors). I knew that not everyone on the list would be faculty or faculty involved in a PhD program, but it was my beginning.
  • Find the schools that 1) employed these people and 2) had a PhD program in literature and a minimum of a master's program in sociology so (I need, at minimum, a methodology course). or the schools from which that these people got a PhD (lit and soc requirements, too).
  • Look at school requirements to reject any that I didn't meet (weirdly, enough, none of them despite my less than stellar GPA); and to reject any that did not allow me to take a few courses in sociology.
  • Look over dissertations by recent graduates to see the quality of scholarship coming out of the school. Dissertations are supposed to represent the best work of the student, so if the program is putting out junk, it's not a program I'm into. I didn't expect to find a lot of junk, and didn't. I did reject a few schools because the super-majority of dissertations were lighter on theory than I was comfortable with. And this was only because my interests are theory-heavy, not because the quantity of theory is a measure of quality scholarship. I did not use dissertations to gauge fit in any other way.
  • Stalk faculty! This step is dual purpose. First, to find programs that had enough faculty that were doing things within my interests or related enough to my interests that I would have a range of people to work with. Second, to makes notes to tailor my SOP for each program. While I had (and still have) no idea which people read my application, I did hope that whoever read it would be able to connect my stuff with people in the department.
  • Because I didn't have enough sense to do it during step 6, rank programs in order of the ones I was most interested in/most useful to me.
  • Take list of schools and their locations to my spouse and have him veto the ones that were in locations he absolutely could not do, and asterisk ones that he could live with, but would prefer not to. He vetoed everything in New England except Yale because it was Yale and he'd rather suffer the fires of hell (which is apparently all of Connecticut) than have me give up an opportunity like Yale). I accidentally forgot to apply. Oops. I should note that I decided, in advance, that I would only reject schools where it was clear that I couldn't get in due to GPA or GRE scores. The big names can't tell me yes if I don't give them the opportunity, right?
  • Re-order the list because it did not occur to me that there would be a list with asterisks when I was doing step 7. First part/top of list list, I ranked the ones my guy was okay with in order of most interested (my preferred four schools were there anyway, which was very cool), to least. Bottom of the list, I ranked the asterisked schools.
  • Found out application costs, including transcript costs. Figure out how many schools I could afford to apply to the first round, and apply to the ones at the top of my list. The list was put aside for next round, in case I didn't get in.
After that, it was creating my application packet for each school and spending a lot of money on transcripts. I have credits piled up in several colleges. Ouch. I got into my top choice. :)

College ranking guides played no part in my decision. The collective ability of their graduate students to demonstrate skills at the GRE was not something I found useful.

The only, and I emphasize only role the concept of prestige played in my process to choose programs to apply to was to not let prestige stop me from applying to a school. I firmly believe that the PhD level, it's the work a student puts into the education that's important because the work is what gets published, gets put into conferences, and so on. If the program has opportunities for research and publication, conferences, etc., then it's good enough to shine. Sure, having Harvard on the diploma will make a difference, but not as big a difference as doing great work in a compatible program will.

Edited by danieleWrites
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I agree with the advice that location concerns should come last, after you figure out research fit.  Obviously you don't want to apply to any place at which you would be absolutely miserable, but places that are okay but not your first preference should still be applied to if they are otherwise an excellent fit.  So don't worry about location just yet.  (I think the one exception might be like continent/country; I'm a U.S. citizen and wasn't really willing to go to a PhD program outside of the U.S. and Canada, for example, for a variety of reasons).


I have a different perspective on prestige.  On the one hand, I do think it's possible to be too prestige-focused - comparing single numerical ranks as if they were absolute, for example ("I really want to go to the #4 program - it's perfect!  But I got accepted to the #1 program!" - there's really no difference between them.)  Also, fit and adviser can be more important than a program's ranking.  The third thing is that rankings within fields are done by program, not by university - so the best program in your field may be at a large public institution rather than some elite private.


With that said, though, program reputation is important insofar as it plays a role in what you do afterwards.  This differs by field, but in many fields that have far more PhD graduates than tenure-track positions, the ones who go to the top programs fare the best on the job market (and conversely, the top programs do the best at "placing" their students into TT jobs and competitive postdocs).  Also, there's a reason why certain programs are well-reputed - they may have a lot of money; the research focus there may be phenomenal; they may have resources that aid you in your career.  Note that I am using the word "reputed", though, not "ranked."  Reputation is different from rank.  I think absolute numerical rankings are meaningless but broad groupings of programs ("top 10", "top 30", "mid-ranked," etc.) may be meaningful in your field or subfield.


In the social sciences you really need to select a program based on the availability of professors to help direct your interests, as well as a program of study that satisfies you.  So for example, you're interested in using a social science approach to study the interaction between humans and computers.  Many of those programs may actually be called HCI, but some of them may be called something else - like science, technology, and society (like Virginia Tech's or MIT's).  I know that HCI and STS aren't the same thing, but I'm not sure what angle you are planning to approach it from.  Straight HCI programs will require you to have a bit of programming knowledge, although many places will allow you to pick it up once you're in the program.


> I once consider living in Asia, but someone told me it was really hard to get into a school there. 


Asia is a humongous continent with many regions and many universities.  Whether it's difficult to get into one of them is really dependent upon which one you are talking about.  That said, you shouldn't select your program on the basis of location.


Also, you should definitely take the GRE.  Virtually all reputable PhD programs in the U.S. will require it.

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