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Should I go to a lower-ranked PhD program closer to my partner?


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Hi everyone,

I've been lurking on these forums for a while but I'm finally making my first post because I've got a bit of a dilemma.

I'll admit, it's not a bad problem to have: I've been fortunate enough to be accepted to two fantastic engineering PhD programs. School A is a well-established, top 5 program with several tenured faculty within my field of interest. On the other hand, School B is a younger, lower-ranked (top 25) program that doesn't have as much of a presence in my field yet, but they've been actively recruiting new faculty over the last 5 years to make up the difference.

The problem is that my partner, who's applying to graduate programs too, got into School B but not School A. Normally I'd agree with the advice "don't choose a grad school just for your significant other", but we're getting married next month, and staying together (even if we have to live apart) is our top priority.

The two schools are about an hour or two apart, so theoretically either we could live on separate campuses and visit each other every weekend, or we could live in the middle and both commute. It would be a little hard logistically, since we only have one car between the two of us right now and I'm not sure if we could afford a second one on top of renting two residences, but we could make it work if we wanted to. I'm just not sure whether it would really be worth it.

I went to both of the visit weekends and identified several POIs who I could potentially see myself working with. (The ones at School B aren't tenured, though - I'm not sure whether that would be an issue.) Demographically and geographically, both programs are very similar, and there's a lot of industry in the entire region (I haven't decided what my plans after graduation are, but I'm leaning towards industry right now). Honestly, my biggest hangup is the "prestige" - I'm worried that going to the "lower-ranked" program will adversely affect my career prospects compared to the "higher-ranked" one. How much do things like that really matter in the long run?

TL;DR Is going to a top 5 (versus a top 25) PhD program really worth spending the first two years of our marriage living apart and/or commuting for two hours a day each?

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School B is offering a slightly larger stipend (about $2,000 more per year, plus a small one-time recruitment fellowship). Cost of living in both areas is roughly the same.

Edited by daymoose
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2 hours ago, daymoose said:

The two schools are about an hour or two apart, so theoretically either we could live on separate campuses and visit each other every weekend, or we could live in the middle and both commute. It would be a little hard logistically, since we only have one car between the two of us right now and I'm not sure if we could afford a second one on top of renting two residences, but we could make it work if we wanted to. I'm just not sure whether it would really be worth it.

I'm confused by this part. Could you afford a car if you live together and both commute, or is that not an option? It seems likely cheaper than maintaining two residences. Whether this is a good solution or not is entirely up to you guys, though. Is attending the top 5 program and being able to live together worth spending a quite significant amount of time commuting? Is it preferable to spending less time commuting, living apart and visiting on weekends? It's not for us to say. I see both methods working depending on the couple. 

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This is a very personal choice based on what you and your partner want in your career and life goals and what you value. I don't think anyone can answer your question for you. 

What I can say is that if you are looking for "approval" (not that you need it from us, but I understand that for big decisions, sometimes it helps to hear another person say "no that's not crazy") then I think all of your plans are sane and reasonable plans that other students have followed and succeeded in.

It's okay to go to the top 25 school because you value your relationship. I know many students (and faculty!) who chose this path and succeeded.

It's okay to commute two hours because you want to live in the same place but attend schools in different places. I know a student that commuted across the Canada/US border to go to school.

It's okay to live apart for a couple of years so that each of you have their own best chances at their career. I know people doing this right now and people who did this in the past.

Of course, I know about students who don't have it work out either. Sometimes a couple goes to the same school to live together but then the one that compromised resents it and they break up (divorced in this case). Sometimes, a couple goes to live in different places and decide that they are better off without a relationship. Sometimes one person does end up sacrificing their career for the sake of the other. Sometimes each person goes to the best school for them and are still miserable and do not succeed in their career after all.

But all of this is also part of life---you aren't guaranteed relationship success if you prioritize relationship and you aren't guaranteed career success if you prioritize career. To me, this means there is no right choice and there's no wrong choice as long as you make one that is best fitting with what you currently value.  

Finally, I will also say this: the "two body problem in academia" (look it up if you haven't heard the term before) is tricky and tough to "solve". This will not be the last time you two will have to face this dilemma. So my advice regarding this is to remember that this will come up later, so it's not like "okay we'll make decision X and it will be tough for a few years but things will be better later!" Maybe so, but also maybe not. I would think about long term happiness too when deciding what is best for you both! Good luck :)

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I was actually discussing a similar scenario with a friend. My significant other is willing to move anywhere with me, but there are certain locations that will work better for us because we prioritize being close to family, especially as we consider marriage and children. However, that would mean, for me, letting go of a top five program for a top ten program (to be fair, the top ten program is a way better fit based on my interests).

Anyways, my friend reminded me that every choice you make has an opportunity cost. If I choose to prioritize my career over my SO, my relationship suffers. It won't be doomed by any means, but it might suffer. If I prioritize my SO and our "situation" over ranking, it might be harder to get the faculty positions I want later down the road. However, after lots of soul searching (ugh) and talks with current grad students, I was encouraged to look at where I will be most successful. For me - I think I will fit in, be happier, and avoid a super inferiority complex at the lower-ranked school. And my significant other will be closer to his family, which would be great. Obviously, as @takeruk suggested, that is highly personal. Every choice you make has an opportunity cost, and you have to make sure, at the end of the day, you can live with the cost.

Which situation will make you most productive? Will living with your spouse make you happier and give you the support network you need to be successful? Will that support network allow you to focus on your research and publish more? 

Finally - commuting can work. I knew a girl at a #2 program whose husband was in med school at another program. They lived together every year, and she had to commute ~45 minutes her first year. She is the golden girl of the program, has done incredibly well for herself, and she and her hubs seem happy. So - maybe there's a happy compromise.

Edited by bandinterwebs
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Here's my opinion: I'm obviously not against a long-distance relationship, given that I've done them before (with my own husband). And an hour or two isn't that far. However, living together is way, way better. I was never happier in my PhD program than the two years my husband and I finally lived in the same place. There's all that social support...my husband was my biggest champion and cheerleader when I was writing my dissertation, and it made the process so much better.

Also, never underestimate the costs of living in two separate places. Not only do you pay two rents, but you need two sets of furniture; you need to go grocery shopping for two separate residences (and shopping for one is almost as expensive as shopping for two), two sets of utilities...etc. My husband and I have separate residences by necessity - we live 2,600 miles apart - but I try not to think about all of the excess money we've spent in our cumulative 6 years of long-distance living. Shudder. Your meager graduate stipends will go so much further if you're sharing a residence.

Top 25 is still really good. The program is making strides in your area and seems to have made an impact. If your dream is to be a top-flight professor at the most elite program in your field then I would say you'd have to strongly consider A. Or, if your only choice was PhD 2 hours away from hubby vs. no PhD at all, I would say take the PhD (maybe). But School B sounds like a perfectly fine choice for you, especially with you leaning towards industry.

Only you can really make that choice, though!

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