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Afraid of "too good to be true"


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I have a couple of acceptances, including one program that I'm constantly getting more excited about - great Skype interview with a PI, feels like a great research fit, well-funded, ideal location, super interdisciplinary and flexible. It sounds kind of stupid, but I'm afraid that some really appealing aspects of it will lead me to gloss over some less desirable parts. I'll be visiting 3-4 schools (including this one) in a few weeks.

What can I do to keep an open mind about the other programs and be smartly critical of my top choice?

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This is tough because I don't want to give you advice that will lead to a "self-fulfilling prophecy" so to speak. That is, if you are constantly looking for the bad, you could end up overemphasizing and misinterpreting / experience confirmation bias too. 

I think a good balance to be smartly critical is to set your criteria before visiting. I think making decisions like which schools is an important part of an academic's responsibility (after all, we will eventually be grading students, reviewing proposals, refereeing papers, making admission decisions, making hiring decisions etc.). My philosophy is to always lay out what I'm looking for (whether it's a school, a homework set, a candidate for a job) before reviewing the files. It helps to reduce the effects of confirmation bias that you are mentioning here.

Another piece of advice is that when you hear something bad about something (whether it's at this "perfect" school or not), take it seriously. The most common thing I've seen when current students try to warn new students away from a particular professor, experiment, etc. is the new student thinks "Oh but I'll be different, it won't happen to me!" I said the same thing and it happened to me. Other people on this forum have said the same thing and it happened to them. Many other students at my school across all disciplines have told me similar stories. Of course, there is still a chance that X won't happen to you, but I think most of us think we're somehow special and have an extra good chance of avoiding X. Now, that said, maybe X isn't that bad---it's not necessary unrecoverable (after all, the bad thing that happened to me didn't really affect me that much in the long run). This is where I think having your criteria of what's important to you prior to visiting and learning all of these things is important. After you learn all of the ups and downs of each school, you can judge them fairly on the factors important to you.

Note: I do think that you could and should update your criteria as you learn new things (maybe you haven't thought of a certain factor before). Sometimes, for things like grading, you shouldn't do this, but for deciding on schools I think it's okay. But I still think it's important to try your best to really lay out all of the key factors to you ahead of time. For me, I am a person that likes to focus on the good and forget the bad, so doing this exercise helps me ensure that I don't gloss over the bad stuff that could hurt me later.

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