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Deciding between two spectacular programs


tulips
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I was fortunate to be accepted to two spectacular PhD programs (MIT and Stanford), both fully funded, and I honestly have no idea what I'm going to end up deciding on in two-ish weeks. I never thought that I would get accepted to both (even one!) of the schools, so I never fathomed that I would have to make such a decision. I visited both schools and I really liked both of them. Here are my thoughts (and I'd love to hear yours):

 

MIT has a large department (a.k.a. numerous faculty in the area I am interested in) and amazing research that I can be excited about. I like how it's in the Boston/Cambridge area, and that there are so many things to do within walking distance. However, I don't really think I'm really a big city type of person (I've only ever lived in medium to small cities/towns), so I'm not sure if I'd like that aspect of Boston/Cambridge. I also didn't really feel a sense of a "community" among the grad students or faculty. Most everyone I've talked to works extremely long hours in the lab -- BUT they seem to enjoy it and (from what they say) do it of their own free will because they're excited about their research rather than being pressured from faculty/peers. It sounded like finding housing would be difficult, even with on-campus housing (which they can only guarantee for the first year, and it didn't look very appealing when I visited the on-campus housing options). They also have this program (Practice School) which sounds like a really great opportunity to get some hands on experience in industry. MIT would also be "closer" to family (as in, in the same time zone).

 

Stanford, on the other hand, has a much smaller department (a.k.a. only a couple faculty whose research I am excited about and who I can see myself working with). But this can also be good because I felt like the faculty and students were more cohesive and more of a community than just coworkers. I feel like I would be happier here (but I can't really know this for sure). The buildings and campus are beautiful, and I can really see myself living here. But Palo Alto seems a bit isolated and like there isn't much to do in walking distance, and as someone without a car and who is used to be able to walk short distances to bars and restaurants, I don't want to feel stranded. It feels like the complete opposite of Boston/Cambridge. Housing is less of an issue here since I believe they offer on-campus housing for the entire time you're a student, and they're more appealing since they're set up more like apartments. The weather is obviously a plus, but I don't really want to base my decision off of that (though it would be nice to be somewhere warm for once!). I also really like that they have a rotational program when choosing an advisor (two 10 week rotations before advisor selection). I also received a fellowship from Stanford that would essentially give me a step up in choosing an advisor (or so they tell me).

 

Apologies for the disorganization of my thoughts haha. I feel like the "smart" choice would be MIT (in terms of such amazing research opportunities), but I fell in love with Stanford when I visited (not that I didn't really like MIT when I visited). I wish I could combine the faculty at MIT and the community of Stanford. I guess it would come down to what I value more, but I'm going to be agonizing over this for the next couple weeks.

 

I know that I can't really go wrong with either program, and it feels petty of me that I'm complaining about not being able to decide between these two amazing places, but I'd appreciate any additional insight you guys can bring. Thank you!

Edited by tulips
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Since I'm at MIT 5 days a week, I'll give some insight into a couple of points. I'm not a student -- just an undergrad researcher.

 

The MIT graduate housing really is pretty nice on the inside, in my opinion. Well, some of the dorms. I lived in Sidney-Pacific for a summer and it was really a wonderful experience. I've heard that that one is normally considered the best, but I've heard Ashdown is equally nice. So, even if they don't look gorgeous on the outside, there are some pretty nice spaces on the inside (in my opinion). That being said, Sid-Pac is going to be under renovation next year, so first years won't be able to move in there. That makes living on campus a bit more difficult as a result. As for the "big city" thing, it honestly doesn't feel like that to me. I'm absolutely not a big city kind of person myself. The thought of a school like Columbia (for example) sounds miserable. However, the MIT campus can be like its own little entity. Also, Cambridge as a whole doesn't feel too much like a big city to me -- at least not as much as being in the heart of Chicago or being in NYC for instance. Once again, that's just me. If you have any particular questions about living in the Boston area, feel free to message me.

 

The grad students at MIT definitely seem to work pretty hard, but the ones I work with regularly (admittedly a small sample size of ~ 5 students) seem to be handling things well. Still, it is my general impression that a school environment like that at Stanford is a bit less strenuous than that at MIT even if it is self-imposed.

 

I don't have much input on Stanford since I've never visited. However, when it comes to Stanford and MIT, you're not going to choose wrong. Both options are obviously fantastic, so congratulations! As a professor at Berkeley told me when I visited, it's going to come down to "secondary factors," and that's really all that matters. Neither option is bad. Neither option will change your success in the future. It really needs to be where you're happiest, provided there is somebody you can work with at either option. Both are equally well-regarded but have extremely different environments. If you think you want to go into academia, I'd consider checking out the placement history of the alumni in the labs you're looking at. Also consider the status of the POIs you're interested in. Are they tenured? Are they well-established? Heavily cited? Famous in a particular field? Then consider the other million factors. How important is being closer to home? Have a significant other in a particular region? The list goes on and on. Honestly, you can't go wrong! Still, it's not petty. It's an important decision. Going with your gut isn't too bad of an option :P

 

So, in short... nobody can really help you out much from here but you. The options are too equally awesome :) Honestly, if you fell in love with Stanford and you still feel this way in a week's time, go to Stanford. The heart wants what the heart wants!

Edited by Argon
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Just to comment on your not wanting to live in a big city. If it's any reassurance, I've lived in MA my entire life and have been living in Boston the past four years. It is NOT a big city and you will not get that big city feel from it. Cambridge is where MIT is located and it is a really nice area to live in. Not big city like at all.

I don't know a thing about Palo Alto, unfortunately... But, if you think you could live there, then I think you should go to Stanford. You sound like you've got your mind set on it. I agree w/Argon -- the heart wants what the heart wants.

Edited by lxwllms
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Thank you both for your input!

 

Argon - I'm interested in the bio side of chemical engineering.

 

I guess my main worry about Stanford is that there really only is one faculty member who research/lab/attitude I'm really excited about (though, yes, there are a few others who I am interested in to a lesser extent, but either their research isn't exactly in the realm I'm interested in or I'm not sure if I would want them to be my advisor in terms of advising style/personality). And I feel like that might be a deal breaker because I don't want to put all my eggs in one basket. Though Stanford does have a rotational program, so it is possible that I may find someone else I am more interested in during my first two quarters there. But right now, I'm hesitant. I've been told numerous times (before applying and after) that I should try to have at least 2-3 or more faculty members I can truly see myself working with before committing to that program since I'm not guaranteed to be paired with that advisor.

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I've been told numerous times (before applying and after) that I should try to have at least 2-3 or more faculty members I can truly see myself working with before committing to that program since I'm not guaranteed to be paired with that advisor.

This is definitely true, although I've heard (and been told a million times) that your research interests will tend to change while you're going through your degree. So if there are a few people who's research you like, that's pretty good. Although if you don't think you'd be happy with them as your mentor, that's another problem... Honestly I feel like you should go where you felt the most comfortable, because that's where you'll be the most productive.

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This is definitely true, although I've heard (and been told a million times) that your research interests will tend to change while you're going through your degree. So if there are a few people who's research you like, that's pretty good. Although if you don't think you'd be happy with them as your mentor, that's another problem... Honestly I feel like you should go where you felt the most comfortable, because that's where you'll be the most productive.

I agree! Just a personal story, but I chose MIT over Princeton even though I was interested in many people at Princeton. At MIT I am (currently) only very interested in one (partially interested in others). I reasoned that I'd be most comfortable at MIT (for a variety of personal reasons) and would therefore do higher quality work there even if by chance I don't get my 1st choice POI. I haven't attended yet, so I can't evaluate my decision, but I agree with lxwllms at least in theory.

 

Stanford seems to be the right choice if that's your only concern :) Besides, you said you received a scholarship (and didn't I see your name on the NSF boards? that too!) which has to help getting your first choice!

Edited by Argon
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Come to stanford! I'll be going there this fall in the same program as you.

 

Really though, like a poster above said, you cannot choose wrong. Especially since you have a fellowship!

 

I'll tell my story: After going to minnesota last summer, I was convinced I would go there for grad school. I even remember telling my advisor (before applying) that if I had to choose to not apply to one of the schools I'm applied to, it would be stanford. I'm very glad I did because like you, I fell in love with it during the visit. The faculty were inspiring and the environment was great. The grad students are valued rather than used.

 

It will be very hard for me to send the decline email to UMN, but these things must be done!

Edited by doomination
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Thank you for all your input!

 

Applemiu: Yes, I visited Stanford last month, and I agree that it is an amazing place!

 

I am leaning towards Stanford now. However, I am a bit disheartened because I had sent an email to my first choice faculty member at Stanford about a week ago and still no reply. I understand that faculty can be very busy, but it still makes me think that perhaps they are not as interested in me as I am in them. :/

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which faculty was it? I've emailed a couple -- some get back immediately, one never replied. I know many are abroad at the moment as well, conferences and all that. You might want to email a grad student in their group and ask if they are around at the moment.

Edited by doomination
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