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Thinking about withdrawing from an offer and going for a 2nd round


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I've been admitted to Washington State Univeristy for the PhD in Molecular Biosciences and I accepted the offer. It was the only one I got, but I was pretty happy about it and I am very determined to pursue my PhD. 


However, lately, I've been feeling that perhaps I could do better - which maybe sounds pretentious or egotistic, but I feel in some sense that I may be doing a disservice to my future career by not aiming higher. This has fostered a series of doubts and apprehensions with my decision, and I'm looking for some advice. 


I'm wondering if anyone here is/has been a grad in the biosciences (of any kind) at WSU and would be willing to offer some insight into the program and their time there. From my research into the faculty, I think I will be very happy working there and that I will be able to find a great PI to work under. I also really felt welcomed during the interview and I felt like the environment was a supportive one where the entire faculty really engaged in supporting the students - so the program itself doesn't turn me off at all. I am really not very apprehensive about living in Pullman, I have heard all the "horror stories" about the weather and such - I grew up in small town Michigan so being bored and lots of snow doesn't scare me. Cheap rent, access to the outdoors, a few decent places to eat - I'm set in that respect. 


I'm also wondering if anyone else has had a similar experience? What did you do and why did you do it? 


In the second round of applications I think I could make a significant improvement to my application profile (taking the subject GRE, having a better Statement of Purpose), but it is also another year between my undergrad and my grad school (I graduated from Michigan State in 2013 with a BS in biochem), and there's also obviously no promise that I would get into a school that I think would feel more rewarding. I am also afraid that if I can't find a good job that would enhance my profile in the time being, I would just be spending time that wouldn't make much of a difference in the second round of applications. 


I think that my biggest fear is the thought that, in the uber-competitive world of the post-grad, would getting my PhD at WSU hinder my career? Will choices be significantly off-limits to me because I did not attend a more "reputable" institution for my graduate studies? This isn't to say that I hope to be faculty at Harvard one day, but I am just afraid that even the prospect of being a professor might be a hopeless endeavor if I don't attend an institution that is more well-known, etc etc. There is this haunting, fatalistic kind of specter I have hanging over me that if I don't go above and beyond everyone's expectation, the perception of others will always be my biggest challenge, and I wonder if a PhD from WSU will contribute to a more negative perception in the world of post-grad careers.


Again, this is all said with complete knowledge of the fact that something like 6% of post-grads end up as faculty etc etc etc. 


Ultimately, any advice would be appreciated and especially any kind of shared experience would help give me some perspective. 





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I think you need to walk away with your winnings before you gamble it all away. You're feeling validated by your success and it's natural to want more. If you like the program, why not give it a year and if you really want to switch, you can do that later and not have wasted time. You also may realize how fortunate you are to be in that program at all, and that switching solely for the purpose of prestige may make you wind up a loser because the fit may not be as good. You will get out of your education exactly what you put into it, anywhere.

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I appreciate your input. I hope to have not come off as egotistical as it may have sounded - it really isn't the basis of my concern. I certainly have a deep appreciation for being admitted into any program, and like I said, I think the program is great and that the faculty are very supportive and provide a wealth of resources, etc. 


My main concern, and I will herein attempt to put it more succinctly, is that which concerns the perception of attending a school that does not have what you just referred to as "prestige." I think that it is somewhat misleading for you to say that you will get out what you put in anywhere, because that's simply unrealistic. That idea is disproved by almost every walk of life - there are obviously those who are more fortunate than others, have better access to resources than others, etc, and I am sure that this must also be true to some extent in graduate school.  


I'm most specifically interested in learning about what other people have dealt with in this arena, coming from schools that lack that sense of "prestige," warranted or not. 


For example, I have heard over and over again that the work you do in graduate school is what is principally important after you graduate, but I am curious to know how true that is. Has anyone had an experience where they felt they were simply out-classed? What did you do about it? How did it change your approach in the future? 

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What are your career goals exactly? I think it would be easier for people to advise you regarding the job market if you could provide them with some concrete examples.

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I think that my career goals are difficult to describe at this point, but I am certainly interested in pursuing research within academia. I know that is broad but I still feel that I am very early on in my career and my ultimate goals have not become completely apparent. Industrial research is definitely an alternative option, but I have worked in various industries and have not yet felt like I have found my place. This was a huge factor in my decision to pursue my PhD - namely that I was exhausted by the mediocrity and un-challenging nature of working in industry. With that being said, I think that working in the pharma industry could provide the level of engagement I am seeking. 


My research interests exist within plant biochemistry (specifically with respect to lipid biochemistry), mechanistic enzymology and structure-based drug development. 


I think that aside from that goal, I would want to become an educator in some context, which again I feel is broad but I can't be sure where or what I would want to teach at this point. 


My naivety obviously contributes to some of my vagueness, but it is naivety that I hope to overcome in the coming years. 

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What do you think the weakest aspects of your application are? Do you think that you can improve your application significantly in the next year or two?


How many schools did you apply to this cycle? Did you apply to any top 25ish programs?

Edited by bsharpe269
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I think that the weakest parts of my application would be perhaps not being purposeful enough in my statement of purpose (I felt purposeful at the time, but in retrospect I realize it could have been better) and my lack of taking the GRE subject test (which I wagered my work and research experience would compensate for in some way, but I now think that was a poor judgement). Other than that, I don't think there is much else I can point to as weaknesses. I did well on the GRE, maybe trailing the Top 25ish standard for the mathematics portion, but I did incredibly well in the other two sections (I can never remember what they call each portion specifically). I never saw my actual letters of recommendation, but they were all from professors who I worked very closely with and from the graduate student who mentored me through my undergrad research assistant position, so I find it hard to imagine that they would not speak of me in high regard. 


I think that I could try and fix the above two things in the next year - take the subject test, rework my statement of purpose, etc. But there is not a whole lot of other things I am currently in the position to do that would help my chances. It would not be unfair to say that part of my indecisiveness is based on not clearly seeing an alternate route, or knowing what alternate route I might attempt to pursue. 


I applied to ten schools in total, I think four of which were top 25. The others were ranked in US News in the 30-60ish ranges and then I had WSU as a backup plan basically. I was personally surprised to be turned down by all my middle-range picks, but I guess that's how it goes. 

Edited by ilsp2015
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If you are interested in the program that you are already accepted, and accepted their offer, then I'd say go for it. While the decision is totally yours, I think it could be a bit of gamble to just walk away from the opportunity you already have in your hands. I agree, as MidwesternAloha said, education you get is more about the effort you put in. And if you still don't like the program, then you can apply second round, with better GRE scores and more specific SoP as you noted. To me, this makes a better sense and you will have less to lose, I think. Best of luck!


(Btw, I went through the same string of thoughts--I thought of letting all my offers go and try the second round. I dealt with the thinking that it will never be an ending cycle. You will always want a program that is better ranked. Hope this helped, too..)

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I don't think anyone on here can tell you what to do... this is tough decision and you have to just make the best possible decision you can! Since you want to go to the academia route though and realize how competitive it is, I think it is worth considering both options. I think that some info about my background might help show some of the positives to taking a couple years off.


I come from a mediocre undergrad school, mediocre GPA background. I probably could have gotten into a PhD program right after undergrad but definitely not a top one. I took 3.5 years off after undergrad. For the first 1.5, I just did some unrelated industry jobs but for the past 2 years, I have been working on my MS. I will be getting a high impact first author paper out of my MS along with some middle author ones and am super knowledgeable about my research area.... knowledgeable enough that I feel that will be able to jump into my PhD program way ahead of the game and start publishing very fast. So in addition to starting with multiple papers in my field, I think that I will publish more during my PhD since I can skip that 1-2 year learning period that can hold people back. I don't think that you need a MS to do this... I think a full time research position can work just as well if you put a lot of effort into it. Despite my unimpressive undergrad, I will be pursuing my PhD in Biophysics at Washington University in St. Louis / WUSTL this fall (hard to find good biophysics rankings but definitely top 15 at least, maybe top 10). I was admitted to other great schools like UW and Hopkins too. This NEVER would have happened for me right after undergrad and was 100% worth the wait. If you were to take some time off then you could benefit from not only getting into a higher ranked schools but could also put yourself in a position to be even more successful in that high ranked program.


Like everyone else is saying, either direction is a gamble since you can't predict the future. There are risks in both directions. I think you need to figure out which would be worse for you... 1) never knowing if taking a couple years off could have gotten you into a top 20 (or 10 even) PhD program or 2) reapplying and getting no acceptances. Honestly, if you improve your application then I view 2 as very unlikely but it is of course possible. Good luck in whatever you decide!

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@visgiven and @bsharpe269


Thank you both for the insight and advice. 


I think that a lot of my indecisiveness has been reduced over the past couple of days after thinking further about this and after having the chance to see what you and others have had to say. 


I realize that I am truly excited to begin my PhD studies at WSU, and I have already secured rotation positions in two of the labs that I am most interested in among the faculty there. I think that it is definitely, if nothing else, worth giving a shot. 


I have also been thinking these past couple days about pursuing a 2nd graduate degree following my degree at WSU, perhaps it scientific ethics/philosophy as that is another area that I am very interested in. A lot to think about regardless, but I am happy to have been able to get some feedback here. 


Thank you all for contributing

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