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Prospective PhD student needs advice on current choices


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Hi everyone,


I apologise in advance for what will probably be a very long post. But the truth is that I am going through quite a crisis right know, and would hugely benefit from the experience of more seasoned people. I am looking for advice and personal experience from current or former PhD science students from top-tier US universities (MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, Chicago, and so on) to help me out of a conundrum. My current situation is as follows:


I am a European Chemistry student currently finishing a Master's degree in an upper-second tier university in the UK (meaning: not Oxbridge, but close). As scientific research is basically my whole life (that actually sounded less sad in my head), I was planning to do a PhD here in the UK, and had managed to secure a position in an amazing group, plus a backup plan in case shit hit the fan.


Well, guess what: it did.


Long story short: we recently realised that I was not eligible for my PhD funding anymore, as one of the conditions was that the applicant cannot have spent more than 12 months in the UK before the start of the PhD - which I did, as I moved to the UK a few months before the beginning of my course to practice my English. Preparation always pays off, my ass.


So, yeah. It's almost June, and I just lost my dream PhD to some stupid technicality. I am, obviously, bereft beyond description. All I am left with now is a meh PhD in a 2nd-rate university which, while decent, isn't anywhere near what I was hoping for. With the worst part in that being that it is way past time to apply to another PhD starting Fall 2015, as pretty much all universities have their application deadline in January.


Before I start asking actual questions, a bit more about my goals. Like most people pursuing a career in research, I am entirely devoted to my work and my studies, and want to become an independent academic as soon as possible, and to have enough resources to work in the best conditions. For this reason, I believe the most reasonable course of action would be to do a PhD in a top-tier world university, preferably in the US or the UK. During the last 6 years, I have worked extremely hard to acquire skills matching that goal, and to put together a CV that could be considered by admission committees from top 10 universities. As of today, I hold 3 Bachelor’s degrees (BSc in Cell Biology, Physical Chemistry and Epistemology) and 2 Master’s (MSci in Chemistry; MRes in Organic Synthesis), all obtained with honours from either the top school of my home country or my current top-ish UK University. I also did a total of 6 research internships and placements in fields varying from chemical biology to computational physics, and should get my name of a second paper by the end of the summer.


To put it simply: I sacrificed my entire life to my studies for the past six years, and carefully planned every single move to constantly climb up the ladder of universities, starting from an absolutely unknown craphole in my junior year to end up in a QS top 10 university today. And right now, it really seems like all these efforts are about to go to waste.


Apologies for this unending preamble, but I believe these elements are important to explain my current situations and the choices I consider myself faced with. As of today, I am torn between two equally unappealing options:


1)      Go for my backup PhD plan. The pros are that my investigator has a decent notoriety, that the position is fully funded, and that if I work really hard on it, I might get one or two papers with decent impact out of it. The cons are that my research project remains quite bland and unstimulating, and will probably never get anything better than an “okay” outcome, no matter how much work I put into it. Also, I honestly don’t feel any joy in the idea of doing this work in that university for the next years of my life (euphemism for: the mere idea of it kinda makes me want to hang myself).


2)      An admittedly weird, probably stupid, but possibly more profitable choice on the long run: taking a year off from college, do something meaningful during it, and apply to top universities when the applications for PhDs in 2017 opens. This is clearly a wild card, as I would be passing on a decent-ish PhD for the uncertain prospect of a better one in a year. But considering how determining the quality of your PhD is, including where you got it from, it might actually be a good move (just take a look at the staff of UCB, Harvard, Princeton, MIT and see how 99%+ of these people come from a grad school from one of these same unis). During this year off, my plans would be to do either one or a combination of: finding a relevant job in industry, possibly in Asia (Singapore, South Korea) or volunteering (I am currently discussing the possibility of spending up to a year in Nepal to help rebuild schools and serve as a teacher). I would also be the occasion to spend some time with my family, which I only got to see 4 days in almost two years.


So, these are my options. The decision seems really difficult to me, as both have their good and bad sides. On the one hand, the PhD seems safer – although I fear that a bad/mediocre PhD would actually deal a blow that my career might take years to recover from. On the other hand, the year off has an increasing appeal to me, both for practical and human reasons (I honestly fell quite burnt out right know, and would probably enjoy some time away from the lab).


In the end, I think the question boils down to:


-          How determining is a probably unsatisfying UK PhD on one’s capacity to achieve an academic position in the US?


-          How would a well-employed gap year look like on an application to top grad schools? Would it be seen as plus and a sign of maturity as I often read online, or would it actually sink an application (especially in the very competitive, age-obsessed world of academic science)?


-          In the end, from your own experience, what would you do in my situation?


Again, I apologise for the length of my post, and I really hope I won’t sound like some kind of arrogant douche for thinking of rejecting a PhD position when so many students struggle to get one. I am sincerely not considering this option on a whim, because I crave prestige or for whatever stupid reason. The only thing I am worrying about here is the long-term repercussions of my choice.

One last thing: Due to my choice of moving from biology to chemistry in my undergrad, I am currently 26, which is a few years older than the average PhD applicant. That fact might be worth considering when it comes to taking a gap year. 

Edited by Bargheist
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I think it is  a bit unfortunate that you lost your funding: I wouldn't wish that on anyone! However, you say you carefully planned every move, when you and your once advisor didn't even read the fine print of your funding.... that's really the basics of academia.  Money always has something attached to it. You say you are  worried about sounding like "some kid of arrogant  douche", and tbh you do sound a little entitled, but not because you "crave prestige", but because it seems like you are blaming this entire situation on someone other than yourself. Funding contracts aren't like terms of service agreements where you just click yes: you should always read the fine print. 


You certainly shouldn't go to any university you feel is second rate.  


If your goal is to get a position in the US then I would not take second PhD offer.  In general, its really important to do your PhD in the country (or area) where you want to do your job because part of your PhD funding is grant writing, and writing NSF grants is very different than writing NRC grants, for example. 


Another reason why its hard to get a TT position in the US for Europeans (at least in Earth Sciences) is that our PhDs are are 5-6 years as opposed to 3 years. Sure employers know that, but one of the nice things about that length is it allows us to build a longer publishing record: really good European PhD students will publish twice in their 3 years where many american PhD programs require 3 publications just to graduate, plus all coauthorships the student will get from all the side projects they have time to do.


Even if you go to places like Oxford or Cambridge, while you won't have the noterity problem, you will still have this time problem, and perhaps, working group problem. Its no coincidence that 6-8 of the faculty in my problem come from the classes of 2000-2002 of caltech. Its also no coincidence that the west coast schools in the US tend to hire more from the west coast and the east coast schools tend to hire more from the east. 


The reason being: people like hiring people they know. 


I think you should apply to PhD programs in the US if that is where you ultimately want to live. I would see if your former PhD advisor has funding for a lab tech or something like that in the mean time. You could start your PhD at 30 and age still wouldn't really matter: the average PhD student is much older than 26 btw. You can use your extra time to actually think about what you want. 


I think there are legitimate reasons to only want to go to a top tier university, but as you might find in the US, the top researcher in your field may or may not be there.  For example, I do not go to a top tier university, but my advisor and her lab is at the top of her field. The research landscape is very diverse and I encourage you to figure out who you may want to work with rather then just where you might want to work. Where is an important question, but right now that seems like that is all you care about. 

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Hi GeoDUDE!, and thank you very much for your answer.


I believe you are right on many points, which unfortunately confirms my fears about doing this PhD. I am however quite relieved to know that being 26 is not a dealbreaker for a grad school, as this happens to be one of my main worries right now.


After reading my post again, I realise that it does sounds like I am blaming my (ex-future-)supervisor for my problems. But while I do consider that he made a serious mistake by leading me to think my PhD position was secured without having properly read the funding conditions (it is, after all, part of his job), I actually mostly blame myself for my current situation. I know I should have been more careful and double-checked the funding eligibility. And maybe more importantly: you have no idea how much I hate myself for not having applied directly for a US grad school earlier this year. Other people might have helped digging the hole I am in right now, but I am the one who jumped into it.

Edited by Bargheist
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