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Importance of school environment vs. research (Cornell vs. Maryland)

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So I'm having the hardest time making my decision. It's basically come down to two schools--Cornell (seismology) and University of Maryland College Park (for planetary geophysics). After having visited both places basically it comes down to me deciding what's more important, being happy and comfortable in my environment vs. being happy with my research and advisor. 


I fell in love with Cornell's campus and the dept. building and Ithaca as a whole right off the bat. I was really happy when I was there, it felt right, it felt like home, I didn't want to leave! But the research is iffy. Conceptually it sounds interesting but I've never done research like this before so I'm not sure if I'll like it. The department is also relatively small and focused and so most other faculty are doing similar sorts of research. My potential advisor is also just ok. He seems nice and I'm sure we'd get on well. 


With Maryland, it's basically the opposite. I fell in love with the research and the department's research is all so interesting and diverse and there are so many opportunities for collaboration--within the department, with other departments and outside of the school at places like NASA Goddard, Carnegie Institute, the Smithsonian, Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, etc. This is huge for me. I also absolutely loved my potential advisor at Maryland. If I had to describe my ideal advisor, he'd be it. Plus Maryland has opportunities to do planetary research and experimental work, both things that Cornell wouldn't really be able to offer... But problem is, I really really hated the environment! I hated the town, I really disliked the campus and I really disliked the department building--where I'll be spending most of my time... Walking around campus, I just felt like I didn't really want to be there... plus it's much more of a frat-social atmosphere as opposed to Cornell's more intellectual atmosphere.


I've been asking around for others advice (friends, professors, etc.) and they all emphasize the importance of being happy in your environment. But. What about being happy with the research? Planetary science is what I originally wanted to do and I have actual experience doing that sort of research. But I'm not so sure about seismology... is it worth the risk?

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Oh and I should mention that UCLA is sort of hanging out there in the mix as well. It used to be the lowest on my list, but unlike with Cornell and Maryland, I don't strongly dislike anything about the program there (except maybe the weather hah but I can deal). It's got a decent immediate environment, I thought it was pretty cute. The campus isn't bad, the research isn't bad, and there's the opportunity to do experimental work and to pursue some planetary research as well! I LOVE my potential advisor there. Only thing is, the only time I visited was over the summer when no one was really around. So I haven't gotten to meet the rest of the faculty or the grad students (couldn't make it to the visiting day weekend :-/).


Part of me is so sick of this back and forth between Maryland and Cornell that I'm tempted to just pick UCLA and be done with it.

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It sounds to me like you already know what people can tell you - personal fit matters a lot, but so does research fit. It is very hard to weigh these things. If you really really hate the environment at Maryland, you'll be unhappy and your work will likely suffer. On the other hand, it's hard to be sure how the atmosphere is just on visits - you tend to see the more outgoing and social grad students, because many introverts just wouldn't go to the recruitment events. It is possible the "frat-social atmosphere" only represents a fraction of the community there.


Do the graduates at either program do better in getting the kinds of jobs you want? That could be a deciding factor for me, if there is a big difference. I would not go to the school with the environment I liked better if their graduates don't get jobs.


If it were me, I'd consider UCLA. If you're sure you really hate the environment at Maryland, and are very unsure about your interest in seismology, somewhere you think you could be content and have a decent research fit might be a better balance.

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