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CS PhD: Indiana, Northeastern, or Yale?


croyd
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Hi, I'd appreciate any opinions or advice on the schools I'm considering. I
have three good offers, each of which I find strongly appealing, and am having
a hard time trying to make a decision.
 
A little background:
I will be pursuing a computer science phd. Specifically, I'll be working in
the area of programming lanugages (PL), but I haven't figured out what
sub-area I'm most interested in. My 'Plan A' after finishing is to continue in
academia.
 
-------------------- Indiana --------------------
* A more direct fit for my research interests as they are today, but I suspect
  my interests will change a lot over the course of a phd.
 
* Large amount of collaboration between different faculty and students,
  meaning I would be able to work with different people on different projects
  until I find what I'm most interested in (without worrying about funding).
 
* Really large PL group - at 6 faculty members, that's about as big as gets in
  this field. Many schools don't have more than 2. The upshot of this is that
  they have a great community within the department plus offer interesting
  topics classes more frequently. Lots of flexibility if my first choice
  adviser doesn't work out.
 
* I'd mostly be working with junior professors, so it's hard to tell how
  successful their graduates are/would be.
 
* School seems to be somewhat 'middle-of-the-road' in terms of
  reputation/prestige.
 
* Low cost of living, but Bloomington isn't that exciting a place to live.
 
-------------------- Northeastern --------------------
* Also a large PL group of 6 faculty. More weighted towards senior professors;
  there's only one junior professor. Most of the same benefits of Indiana,
  although they don't seem to offer topics courses with any regularity.
 
* In fact, the coursework requirement is very light, requiring only 6 classes,
  plus a thesis requirement rather than a qualifying exam.
 
* Professor I'd be working with has very a strong track record for graduating
  successful students. I think ~10 of ~20 graduates are in academic positions
  (TT faculty or postdoc, with the majority being TT). However, a lot of those
  were at Rice (stronger reputation) instead of Northeastern. I'm not sure how
  much that changes things; the graduates from Northeastern seem to be doing
  quite well.
 
* For a senior professor he's very hands on and demanding and gives plenty of
  feedback/criticism. Current students all have a very high opinion of working
  with him.
 
* This professor is also something of a polarizing figure in the field. He's
  very outspoken, which seems to have resulted in being rude to people at
  conferences and what not. Some of this repuation would probably transitively
  apply to me.
 
* Housing in Boston is super expensive, and made more tricky because I have a
  dog to take care of. This is somewhat mitigated by my having worked full
  time for the past few years and saved some money.
 
* Boston is more exciting place to live.
 
-------------------- Yale --------------------
* Hands down the most prestigous school; likely beneficial for a potential
  academic career.
 
* Very small department (20 professors), but they just announced plans to hire
  another 5-7 over the next few years.
 
* There are two POI's I could work with: one senior with a large group (~10
  students + 3 postdocs) that I'd likely be joining, and one junior. Both are
  good fits for my interests, but as I mentioned before those aren't exactly
  nailed down yet, so a lot less flexibility than my other options.
 
* Senior professor's placement record not as strong as the professor at
  Northeastern.
 
* Significantly more funding (50% higher stipend!), plus a lower cost of
  living, would result in a real quality of life increase.
 
* More graduate-school wide events and support, making it easier to make new
  friends and socialize outside the CS department (for example, there's a
  school subsidized graduate-student-only bar on/near campus).
 
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Hmmm... I think I'd narrow it down to Indiana vs. Yale. Bloomington isn't the most exciting city but there's plenty to do. The same could be true of New Haven, to be honest. In terms of funding, would you be getting any teaching experience at either place? I think getting some teaching experience is important if you want to go into academia but, at the same time, you don't really want to be teaching labs or classes every single semester if you can avoid it. In re-reading what you wrote, it seems like Indiana is the best fit for your academic interests but you're concerned about living in Bloomington and wary of turning down more money. As someone that turned down more money, I can tell you that money shouldn't be the most important factor in your decision-making process once you have a stipend that's sufficient to live off of. You should instead focus on things like research fit, placement record, research opportunities, etc. Check out the thread on Bloomington over in the "City Guide" to get a better sense of what the town is like.

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I am kind of in the same boat. I am admitted to Indiana 2 months ago, and the only reason I haven't accepted the offer is because I am waiting for Northeastern decision(I thought they haven't sent out any decisions yet but seeing you have an offer, makes me a bit stressed),

Anyway, At the time I was applying I thought I would definitely lean towards Northeastern because of its professors and having a well-known group in my field (Security) but after receiving Indiana's offer, I looked at its city and university. Although Bloomington isn't the most exciting city, it seems like it is a wonderful city for a graduate student, like rising_star suggested, you can check the thread for Bloomington in City Guide, it seems like every single person has had a good time in this city and it is not as bad as it seems. On the other side, people seem to struggle a lot for living in Boston as graduate student because of the high expenses.

I think you are just considering Yale because it is more prestigious and gives you more money. I think if the stipend in other universities are enough for a good living, as a graduate student the stipend shouldn't be a big factor in your decision (just my opinion). And then you should think would you choose university prestige over professor prestige? because it seems like in the other 2 universities there are pretty good and strong professors to work with.

As for Indiana and NEU, I can not help you very well because as I said I am stuck in the same situation, but I will share the information I have gathered, hope they will help you in making a decision :

1- Right now, Indiana has a better ranking in CS, but NEU is improving every year and if it continues like this, it would have a better ranking in CS when you finish your PhD.

2- Boston is a bigger city so if you go there, you will have access to more universities and companies, so you will have a better network for job after graduation.

3- Both programs have good professors, but NEU seems slightly better, however if you work with junior professors, it is more likely their work fits your interests more (The professors like the one at NEU, are most of the times less flexible, so you might not find his research area interesting after a while, and for sure you do not want to do research in an area you are not interested in)

4- As for Living, Bloomington seems like a way better option, it is not expensive like Boston and you wont face problems which students face in crowded cities like Boston (Housing being the most important one). I know you think Bloomington is not an exciting place to live, but I think looking at the thread rising_star mentioned may change your opinion a lot. Also Indiana has a very gorgeous campus, if you have not seen it, there is a campus tour video on Youtube which is pretty amazing.

 

Hope you find your best option and also we may see each other in Fall :D

I also hope others' opinions can help me in making a decision between these 2 programs too :) 

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Thanks for the input, getting some outside perspective is very interesting.

One thing I want to clarify- I got a sense that graduate students at Yale are strongly supported at the department/university level in terms of support and resources available, at least relative to my other options. I think of the higher stipend as representative of that support; the dollar amount isn't so important to me.
 

Hmmm... I think I'd narrow it down to Indiana vs. Yale. Bloomington isn't the most exciting city but there's plenty to do. The same could be true of New Haven, to be honest. In terms of funding, would you be getting any teaching experience at either place? I think getting some teaching experience is important if you want to go into academia but, at the same time, you don't really want to be teaching labs or classes every single semester if you can avoid it. In re-reading what you wrote, it seems like Indiana is the best fit for your academic interests but you're concerned about living in Bloomington and wary of turning down more money. As someone that turned down more money, I can tell you that money shouldn't be the most important factor in your decision-making process once you have a stipend that's sufficient to live off of. You should instead focus on things like research fit, placement record, research opportunities, etc. Check out the thread on Bloomington over in the "City Guide" to get a better sense of what the town is like.

 

Yale requires two semesters of TA-ing. At each school I'd be joining a fairly well-funded group, so I don't think I would be under any pressure to TA frequently. There's not much opportunity to *lead* classes at any of these places, but one of the graduates at Yale said she thought the TA experience there prepared her pretty well.

As far as living in Bloomington, or a similar town like New Haven, I know it's not that bad, just a bit pedestrian compared to Boston. In reality, though, I'm not that outgoing of a person- maybe pedestrian should be a positive rather than a negative. Really, the most appealing thing about Boston is the proximity to all the other good schools.

 

 

I am kind of in the same boat. I am admitted to Indiana 2 months ago, and the only reason I haven't accepted the offer is because I am waiting for Northeastern decision(I thought they haven't sent out any decisions yet but seeing you have an offer, makes me a bit stressed),

Anyway, At the time I was applying I thought I would definitely lean towards Northeastern because of its professors and having a well-known group in my field (Security) but after receiving Indiana's offer, I looked at its city and university. Although Bloomington isn't the most exciting city, it seems like it is a wonderful city for a graduate student, like rising_star suggested, you can check the thread for Bloomington in City Guide, it seems like every single person has had a good time in this city and it is not as bad as it seems. On the other side, people seem to struggle a lot for living in Boston as graduate student because of the high expenses.

I think you are just considering Yale because it is more prestigious and gives you more money. I think if the stipend in other universities are enough for a good living, as a graduate student the stipend shouldn't be a big factor in your decision (just my opinion). And then you should think would you choose university prestige over professor prestige? because it seems like in the other 2 universities there are pretty good and strong professors to work with.

As for Indiana and NEU, I can not help you very well because as I said I am stuck in the same situation, but I will share the information I have gathered, hope they will help you in making a decision :

1- Right now, Indiana has a better ranking in CS, but NEU is improving every year and if it continues like this, it would have a better ranking in CS when you finish your PhD.

2- Boston is a bigger city so if you go there, you will have access to more universities and companies, so you will have a better network for job after graduation.

3- Both programs have good professors, but NEU seems slightly better, however if you work with junior professors, it is more likely their work fits your interests more (The professors like the one at NEU, are most of the times less flexible, so you might not find his research area interesting after a while, and for sure you do not want to do research in an area you are not interested in)

4- As for Living, Bloomington seems like a way better option, it is not expensive like Boston and you wont face problems which students face in crowded cities like Boston (Housing being the most important one). I know you think Bloomington is not an exciting place to live, but I think looking at the thread rising_star mentioned may change your opinion a lot. Also Indiana has a very gorgeous campus, if you have not seen it, there is a campus tour video on Youtube which is pretty amazing.

 

Hope you find your best option and also we may see each other in Fall :D

I also hope others' opinions can help me in making a decision between these 2 programs too :)

 

The professor at NEU is actually very flexible about finding a suitable topic. Plus, if that doesn't work out, there's a number of others there that I'd be interested in working with.
 

 

I think I'd summarize my current thinking on research fit/placement records/living situations as:

Indiana:
* slightly better research fit as well as flexibility
* not a great placement record, but not many data points to go off of

* very comfortable place to live

Northeastern:
* good research fit and lots of flexibility for finding an area

* very good placement record

* very costly place to live

Yale:
* good research fit but less flexibility
* decent placement record

* comfortable living situation

(I want to emphasize again that I haven't really sorted out what exactly I want to work on during my phd, so it's a bit of a stretch to say that one place is the best in that department. I place a lot of value in the flexibility of the groups at Indiana and Northeastern.)

 

Indiana versus Northeastern seems like a tradeoff between placement record and living situation, while Yale is a compromise on each axis.

 

I'm starting to think that I might be overly concerned out about living arrangements relative to the academic factors, though...

Edited by croyd
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When you think about Northeastern's placement record are you factoring in that PI's placement record from previous schools? Because I wouldn't pin my future just on that. You need to be thinking about where graduates have been placed in the past 3-5 years since that is more likely reflective of the department's current performance (this is true of all departments, btw). 

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Yeah, I was including previous graduates. My thinking is that's an indication of his capability to mentor/train top-notch researchers, which would carry between institutions. His graduates from Northeastern seem to be doing pretty well; one of them is actually an assistant professor at Indiana, and there are post-docs at Brown and Harvard as well.

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I don't think you are overly concerned about living situation, at the very least you are going to live in the city for 6-7 yrs and also if you are not happy with place you are living in, it would likely have negative effect on your research.

I don't know how you value every criteria, but for me, I wouldn't have chosen Yale because it is not flexible and also if I value living situation more, I would have always thought during PhD that Indiana had better living situation and if I value academic records more I would have always regret not going to Northeastern. But that's me and I know this is NOT a good way of thinking and the balance between these 2 is actually better :D 

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