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Choosing a Program


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Okay folks, I need some help from the more seasoned among you (ie current grad students, or professors).  I am down to two schools that I am considering attending, and cannot decide.  I will briefly outline some of the details about each, but please ask me for more details if needed.

First program (P1) is gonna give me a lot more money than the other program (P2), while also having a lower cost of living than P2.  They are also a smaller department, implying a closer relationship with advisers. Additionally, P1 places better than P2, and has better NRC rankings on all measures.  The only issue I can find is that they have only two or three faculty who kind of do research on what I want to do, and one of them will be leaving the country after my first year.  

P2 is in a preferable geographical location, and has three professors whose research interests are extremely related to mine.  Two professors are assistant profs who are actively publishing, and the third is tenured while actively publishing.  However, my overall purchasing power, conference participation capability, ranking, and placement appear to be worse in P2 than in P1 (obviously these factors are not only a function of the program's capability, but also my diligence). 

In short, I think that my research and location interests are better met at one program, while financial, placement, and guidance needs are better met by the other.  Does anyone have any insight into what to weight more heavily in my considerations, or your own experiences with a similar situation?  If you require further info, please ask.  


Thanks in advance!

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Number one advice above all else: go visit if it's at all financially/practically feasible for you, and do not decide until at least a week after your last visit. The visits will give you a ton of insight into the intangibles and informal stuff that will be very hard to get in any other way. After getting those impressions, let them sink in for a while then decide.

I do think the choice you describe is a very difficult one. Some of it depends on the specifics, which I understand if you don't want to share. For example, I'm personally of the opinion that a bit more money shouldn't be the deciding factor in choosing grad schools, but that's under the hard condition that neither option will involve taking on any kind of debt or having to work outside of research to make extra cash. Another thing that really depends is the distance of rankings we're talking about. Pedigree and rank do matter, but it's not the same to be choosing between a top 20 and a top 30 program or between a top 20 and a top 75 program. 

From my observations in grad school, a LOT of people change their topic of interest, sometimes a little bit and sometimes switching subfields entirely. On the other hand, some people stick with the exact topic they started with, so it can go both ways. But I would say that faculty who are 1) supportive of you and excited about you, 2) in line with your wider way of viewing the world and political science, and 3) good mentors who will be able to help you become a good scholar is more important than having someone interested in the exact thing you think you're going to end up doing right now.

Overall, my inclination would be towards P1, but that's not a very strong recommendation. Geographic location and fit with professors does matter, and you should definitely keep both programs in the running. Make a list of things you'd like to know more about for each program (e.g. press profs in P1 how they feel about supervising on your interest, ask grad students at P2 how they've found the money situation), then find out the answers either through email/phone/skype or ideally by visiting. Take all the time you need to feel comfortable in your decision (or until April 15th, whichever comes first). Talk it over with anyone you trust, including those who wrote your rec letters and family and friends. Good luck, this is a hard one, but keep in mind that either way you're going to go to a school you're pretty excited about!



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Feel free to PM if you'd like to have a more specific decision.  It sounds like P1 is probably a better choice.

1) It's not necessary to have advisors whose interests are "extremely" related to yours.  It can, in some cases, even be detrimental (if you're ultimately perceived as being too derivative on their work).  Honestly, in my opinion, "kind of" related is better (depending on what you mean by kind of).  By the end of your dissertation, you will be the expert on your specific research area.  You need an advisor with sufficient expertise to guide you along the way, but it's often useful if this person is at some remove from the specific topic.  This makes it easier to get advice on the broader framing/relevance, to get advice that helps you see things differently, etc.

2) Don't underestimate rank and placement history, particularly if the difference is large.  These are very imperfect signals about how you can expect to fare in the future (and I wouldn't encourage you to think of them that way), but they're good indicators of what kind of peers you can expect to have and how your department is regarded by outsiders.  Both of these are important.

3) I wouldn't equate smaller department with "closer relationship with advisors".  That's something to feel out on the visit weekends.

4) Money matters, but be careful in considering it.  You're not going to grad school for the money (and a small placement difference will more than wash out any difference in grad school earnings).  That said - you'll be more productive and happier if you're not struggling financially.  You're going to spend 5-7 years in this place.  Much the same holds for location.

5) You haven't discussed training.  Is this to imply that its equal at the two departments? In particular, do they offer similar opportunities to acquire methods skills that you will need for your research?

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