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Hi all,

I'm trying to decide on a PhD program in psychology and I would love your input. Basically I'm trying to choose between a great professor and a great program. Any insight is appreciated!

 

School A: Has a fantastic mentor with the kind of personality that makes you feel really special. His research interests match mine 100%, although I realize this often changes with time. The individual attention is fantastic and I love it. I was a first choice offered admission and I feel wanted. Offered a fellowship (so best financially) and had a great feeling of fit. Already networked with a professor at a different university who is working with a student in this lab. I have taken a gap year after graduation and this would probably be an easier transition back into school. HOWEVER, there is no specialized curriculum for my specialization aside from one class and the school isn't as big in my field, but is more well known generally. Plus, the town is pretty small. 

 

School B: Many publishing opportunities with specialized classes since the whole program is focused on my specialization. Great related coursework and could get more experience with different populations than School A. Better city plus more prestige in the field/very well known and good for long term networking. HOWEVER, you are accepted into the program not under one professor, but all of them, and therefore you have multiple mentors, which can make it seem like you may have to fight for attention at times, no hand holding here. You will still gravitate towards certain professors for research but don't have the same connection as with one single mentor. The financial package is standard but isn't as good (no fellowship), with loans seeming less optional. 

Edited by caffeinedependent
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Ultimately, which one will give you the best preparation for the career you want to have? Is there enough money at School B for you to live comfortably on your income? Are you absolutely certain that you don't have one single mentor at School B? I find that unlikely since ultimately you'll have a dissertation chair and because people find mentors both within and outside of their program generally speaking. 

If answering those questions doesn't help, my advice is to go with School B because it is more prestigious (assuming the funding is sufficient). 

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9 hours ago, rising_star said:

Ultimately, which one will give you the best preparation for the career you want to have? Is there enough money at School B for you to live comfortably on your income? Are you absolutely certain that you don't have one single mentor at School B? I find that unlikely since ultimately you'll have a dissertation chair and because people find mentors both within and outside of their program generally speaking. 

If answering those questions doesn't help, my advice is to go with School B because it is more prestigious (assuming the funding is sufficient). 

Hi, thanks for your response and your though provoking questions!

I think I know School B will give me the best career prep since it is so specialized. The financial difference isn't too significant either, since both are in areas with low costs of living. Eventually people do tend to gravitate towards one mentor for their thesis & dissertation, but I know that generally students all gravitate towards a couple professors. The one I could see myself wanting to work with is one of the "popular" ones.

School B is better for me in the long run but School A's mentor would definitely be better for the short term adjustment. It appears I'm having a heart vs the mind issue here, which is uncharacteristic of me and my overly analytical mind. Is it odd that I'm struggling to make this decision so much, just based off of one good connection with a professor? How important is it to have a good mentor?

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15 minutes ago, caffeinedependent said:

Hi, thanks for your response and your though provoking questions!

I think I know School B will give me the best career prep since it is so specialized. The financial difference isn't too significant either, since both are in areas with low costs of living. Eventually people do tend to gravitate towards one mentor for their thesis & dissertation, but I know that generally students all gravitate towards a couple professors. The one I could see myself wanting to work with is one of the "popular" ones.

School B is better for me in the long run but School A's mentor would definitely be better for the short term adjustment. It appears I'm having a heart vs the mind issue here, which is uncharacteristic of me and my overly analytical mind. Is it odd that I'm struggling to make this decision so much, just based off of one good connection with a professor? How important is it to have a good mentor?

I have a similar issue. One of my schools is higher ranked in general and in my sub-field and has a lot of great research going on. But the ~2 professors that I essentially applied there hoping to work with had tons or people interested during the visitation weekends. However, at my other favorite choice, it is still a great school, just not "top ranked," there are still well known professors doing great things. Although the thought of going to the other 'bigger' schools sounds great, I'm beginning to lean toward a smaller department where I could have more of a choice (the bigger schools don't do rotations, this one does), and maybe be able to stand out more / have a closer relationship with my advisor or other professors instead of being 1 out of all of the great new incoming students in my sub-specialty. If I do great work, I can go to a top-notch post-doc. Think about where you can do the best work, not just what looks best on paper. Prestige is good, but you have to do the work to back it up. Good luck !

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1 hour ago, KaffeeCafe said:

I have a similar issue. One of my schools is higher ranked in general and in my sub-field and has a lot of great research going on. But the ~2 professors that I essentially applied there hoping to work with had tons or people interested during the visitation weekends. However, at my other favorite choice, it is still a great school, just not "top ranked," there are still well known professors doing great things. Although the thought of going to the other 'bigger' schools sounds great, I'm beginning to lean toward a smaller department where I could have more of a choice (the bigger schools don't do rotations, this one does), and maybe be able to stand out more / have a closer relationship with my advisor or other professors instead of being 1 out of all of the great new incoming students in my sub-specialty. If I do great work, I can go to a top-notch post-doc. Think about where you can do the best work, not just what looks best on paper. Prestige is good, but you have to do the work to back it up. Good luck !

Yes, this right here! This is exactly how I'm feeling. It's like trying to decide between being a big fish in a small pond or a little fish in a big pond. I always did say that I was happy and did well during undergrad because of my smaller school. Thank you for bringing up the point about where you can do your best work. It's something I hadn't really thought of until now.

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I just had to make a very similar decision. I went with the program instead of the professor. The program offered me more opportunities to grow and become independent in my own right instead of following in a fantastic mentor's footsteps really closely, which I think will be important to my development in the long run. It was a really hard choice and I appreciate your dilemma! There is a case to be made for either decision, so I'll just tell you some of the things I considered and maybe that will help clarify your thinking a little.

Something to keep in mind - it can be risky to go somewhere with only one advisor in your specialization. Professors move, life situations change, your needs change, etc. I would be wary of going somewhere with only one person you could imagine yourself working with. It's nice to have a reasonable number of peers learning alongside you and other mentors to bounce ideas off of. Connecting with people at other institutions could help, but they won't be as easily accessible as someone whose office is just down the hall. A great advisor is great, but they're not going to be perfect. You will be frustrated by them or disagree with them at some point in your graduate career, and having someone else to talk to will help at the low points. The short-term 1-on-1 special attention would be really wonderful in the beginning, but are you going to feel limited a couple years into the program?

Here's another hypothetical question I thought about a lot: Are your potential advisors at School B good enough that you think you'd be happy and productive working with them? Independent of the fact that you really like the professor at School A, do you have a compelling reason not to choose School B?

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6 hours ago, caffeinedependent said:

 Is it odd that I'm struggling to make this decision so much, just based off of one good connection with a professor? How important is it to have a good mentor?

No, it's not odd. I think it's important to remember that your advisor doesn't have to be your mentor. My PhD advisor has never been my mentor. I've sought out and cultivated relationships with others for that, which has been beneficial to me both personally and professionally. I know some people want their advisor/diss chair to be their mentor and get disappointed when that doesn't work out but, I've never desired that sort of relationship with my advisor. YMMV obviously. 

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On March 25, 2016 at 10:24 AM, quietq said:

I just had to make a very similar decision. I went with the program instead of the professor. The program offered me more opportunities to grow and become independent in my own right instead of following in a fantastic mentor's footsteps really closely, which I think will be important to my development in the long run. It was a really hard choice and I appreciate your dilemma! There is a case to be made for either decision, so I'll just tell you some of the things I considered and maybe that will help clarify your thinking a little.

Something to keep in mind - it can be risky to go somewhere with only one advisor in your specialization. Professors move, life situations change, your needs change, etc. I would be wary of going somewhere with only one person you could imagine yourself working with. It's nice to have a reasonable number of peers learning alongside you and other mentors to bounce ideas off of. Connecting with people at other institutions could help, but they won't be as easily accessible as someone whose office is just down the hall. A great advisor is great, but they're not going to be perfect. You will be frustrated by them or disagree with them at some point in your graduate career, and having someone else to talk to will help at the low points. The short-term 1-on-1 special attention would be really wonderful in the beginning, but are you going to feel limited a couple years into the program?

Here's another hypothetical question I thought about a lot: Are your potential advisors at School B good enough that you think you'd be happy and productive working with them? Independent of the fact that you really like the professor at School A, do you have a compelling reason not to choose School B?

Honestly, your post did give me the clarity that I needed. That last question really put things into perspective and I ended up committing to School B. I turned down School A and while it was one of the most difficult (and heartbreaking) things I had to do, I know that B is the best choice for my future. I think your advice really helped me to realize I need to step out of my comfort zone for once! Thank you so much!

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22 hours ago, rising_star said:

No, it's not odd. I think it's important to remember that your advisor doesn't have to be your mentor. My PhD advisor has never been my mentor. I've sought out and cultivated relationships with others for that, which has been beneficial to me both personally and professionally. I know some people want their advisor/diss chair to be their mentor and get disappointed when that doesn't work out but, I've never desired that sort of relationship with my advisor. YMMV obviously. 

Wow I've never even really thought of that before. Thanks for bringing that up! I have been using the words interchangeably but I sometimes forget there's a difference. That's comforting to think of now that I have chosen the multi-mentor model school and will have many options for advisors and mentors.

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2 hours ago, caffeinedependent said:

Wow I've never even really thought of that before. Thanks for bringing that up! I have been using the words interchangeably but I sometimes forget there's a difference. That's comforting to think of now that I have chosen the multi-mentor model school and will have many options for advisors and mentors.

Indeed, and in fact, I would also argue that many people think of a mentor (singular) when I think for most people the best situation is a mentoring network. A big part of academia assumes a master-apprentice type relationship between advisor and student, but this breaks down when you think about it:

1. The advisor and student may have different goals in life/career---this "grooming" model doesn't really work most of the time.
2. The student may have different mentoring needs than the advisor is able to provide (especially for students who are minorities).
3. The advisor/mentor may not be available in the way the student needs.

For more info, see: https://www.umass.edu/ctfd/mentoring/downloads/From%20Mentor%20to%20Mentoring%20Networks.pdf

So, feel free to look for mentoring from multiple sources for different needs/aspects. Your advisor might be good for research mentoring on things like how to write scientifically, but you might have a different person that mentors you in how to be a good instructor, or another person that helps you figure out how to network efficiently at conferences. (e.g. your advisor might not be the most outgoing person and could be awkward introducing you to people, but maybe there's someone else who can do this well for you). You might also have mentors for non-research reasons: e.g. maybe you want to talk to someone about managing a long distance relationship with another academic, or getting hints on how to find jobs when you and your partner are both academics. You may not feel as comfortable talking about this with your own advisor or maybe your advisor isn't able to help since they aren't in the same situation.

Ultimately, every person has a different mix of roles and identities and each comes with their own mentoring needs and it's rare for each person to find a single mentor that can meet all of these needs (note: I'm not saying you have to have the same identities/roles to mentor for someone in that role, but not everyone is equipped to provide every mentoring need). So, it makes sense to me to encourage students to seek multiple mentors.

At my program, I think we do this well as we encourage students to form a mentoring network through the formation of our committee. It is department policy that your advisor cannot be your dissertation committee chair. So, at the very least, you will have interact closely with one other faculty member on your committee (ideally, you would check in with all 4+ of them) and they could be another mentor to you. But you don't have to limit yourself to only faculty members are mentors either!

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