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Paradoxical advice


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While trying to decide which grad program I'll be attending this fall, I've consistently been given two, seemingly contradictory, pieces of advice:
1. Go with the program that has the highest number of labs/PIs whose work interests you and who seem like a good fit on an interpersonal level.  The quality of your grad experience will mostly depend on how well you fit into the lab you ultimately join, not on the program as a whole.
2. Don't pick a program just because you have your heart set on one or a few labs, or because it's strong in the particular sub-field you like.  The majority of grad students end up doing work that's significantly different than their perceived interests at matriculation.  Make your decision based on the overall fit of the program/department.
How does one reconcile these equally reasonable but opposing viewpoints?
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For a program to be a really good fit, it's both. 


You want to pick a lab with a number of PIs whose work interests you and you seem to fit with on a personal level. That said, you don't want to be so specific in identifying these labs that you paint yourself into a corner, and lots of people do end up doing work thats significantly different then either their perceived interests or their future work. 


If a program only has a few labs that really interest you, even if the program itself seems good, you probably won't be happy. If the program has labs that interest you, but you don't feel like you'll fit well with the overall program, you probably won't be too happy. 

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I don't think the information is contradictory, but I think both pieces of information require a nuanced interpretation.


You don't want to just pick the program that, quantitatively, has the highest number of labs/PIs whose work interests you. It might be better, for example, to attend a program with two stable labs whose work you are really passionate about than to go to one with 4 volatile labs whose work you are just lukewarm about, for instance. On the flip side, though, concentrating on only one lab can be a recipe for disaster if you have a falling-out with that PI, or discover that your interests shift a bit, or that PI leaves for another university (or academia altogether). And while the quality of your grad experience will mostly depend on how well you fit int your lab, the quality of the program and your classmates - both the ones in your lab and the ones who aren't - also matter a great deal.


So it's a combination of both. Obviously weight the research and the capabilities of potential labs more heavily, but it is also important to consider the coursework you can take, the qualifiers, the potential classmates you'll have, and other resources of the department and program.

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