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Prof. Vs College


Bhu_It

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There's a professor who happens to be a big-shot researcher in my field of interest (biomaterials/drug delivery, if anyone's heard of these). The last time I knew, her research group was a part of the most prolific biomaterials research cluster/network on earth. I had the opportunity to interact with her at a seminar last year and I was pretty impressed by her works. Based on my interaction with one of her ex-grad students, she seemed to be good choice for an advisor. Considering all of these, I would definitely want to work with her for my PhD. However, last year she was at a good (top 30) research institution and now she's at a low ranked college that barely makes it to the top 100 universities in Chemical/Biomedical engineering. This leaves me in an utter dilemma - should I consider applying to this college? I've listed the pros and cons:

Pros: Great prof! Possibility of landing best post-docs, if I ever go into academia (the chances of which aren't high, considering how difficult it is these days to becoming a prof). But nonetheless, I'm sure I would love to have her as an advisor.

Cons:

  • It's a low ranked university. So I am extremely unsure of ever making it to academia from here.
  • Also, I might be wrong, but I suspect that the low repute might cause troubles in finding any jobs after PhD.
  • I will have to take up chemical engineering courses which aren't related to my background in materials science.
  • I will have to ask for more recommendations, this college requires hand-written/scanned letters and I'm really shy to ask my advisors to put in so much effort for me.
  • This is a small one, but I will have to spend 4-5 years in the shadiest city in the northeast (according to folklore).

There are too many cons to considering this school, however I'm not sure if it's a right thing to let these factors cloud over my desire to be a part of the best in biomaterials research. Hence, I would like to have some inputs from you guys as to what would you do in this situation.

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To me, all of these cons are really big cons. But to clarify, you say that this school is barely in the top 100 universities in Chemistry/Biomedical engineering. But how does it rank overall? What type of lab space are available, etc. If it's still in the top 30 in terms of overall reputation (read: money) then I think it makes a big difference.

My experience is that research impact/output is a combination of both talent and resources. I think that if you take one of the world's best researchers and put them in a place without enough resources, it won't be the same as their output at a top 30 school. This is a generalization but in your case, this prof has just arrived at the new school so it's not clear yet whether the prof's research impact will change. 

In academia, timing is important too. Sometimes you are just unlucky with timing. It sounds like this person could potentially be a great advisor but I think the timing for this year makes it too risky. However, I would still advise you to apply to the school if you have some interest in this group. Maybe a visit to the location and talking with the professor about research opportunities would settle some of these doubts (one way or another). You shouldn't feel shy about asking professors for letters even if they require scanning. I felt the same way too but I took it as a challenge to overcome my shyness on this aspect. You'll likely have to ask for similar things in the future!

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@TakeruK The university she's at right now doesn't rank in top 60-70 in any science/engineering field I'm sure of that. She started out her career at an Ivy league. Then she moved to a non-Ivy institute which still happens to be good institution where I can definitely see myself getting in. And now she's taken up a chaired professorship at this new institute. I am not sure if her being a chaired prof would mean anything great in terms of funding.

Also I am worried about the overall intellectual environment at this new institute due to its ranking and small size (the department has around 20 graduate students which is very small for chemical/biomedical programs).

Considering the cons, I think it makes absolute sense to not go this college. But then having interacted with her and seen how smart she is, I'm know I can work with her. This leads to me feeling guilty if I don't apply to this college.

Speaking of her previous institution, the department to which I'm applying (Polymer Science) has lost three associate/full profs to other universities in a span of two years. That might raise some eyebrows about the administration. Or maybe it's just a coincidence. Either way, I guess that's not something I should be worried about.

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31 minutes ago, Bhu_It said:

@TakeruK Also I am worried about the overall intellectual environment at this new institute due to its ranking and small size (the department has around 20 graduate students which is very small for chemical/biomedical programs).

Speaking of her previous institution, the department to which I'm applying (Polymer Science) has lost three associate/full profs to other universities in a span of two years. That might raise some eyebrows about the administration. Or maybe it's just a coincidence. Either way, I guess that's not something I should be worried about.

The main thing, in my estimation, will be resources.  I've met a number of kids at schools in the <100-ish ballpark, and I've found them to be quite impressive.  So, I wouldn't assume a less-than-ideal intellectual environment.  As for small size, that can mean a lot of personalized attention from your advisor and/or other profs.  

With that said, it doesn't seem like this school will be the best fit for you (though you may want to submit an app anyway...you can make an official decision later).

3 profs leaving a department in such a short period of time deserves investigation.  You don't want to walk into a department that is hemorrhaging professors.  Remember, you'll be at this school for the next 5-7 years.  You want your POIs to be there & your department's reputation to remain strong.  On the other hand, it could be a coincidence.  But, you need to look into that.   

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I would not really worry about the "intellectual environment". I have been at schools with all sorts of rankings now and my opinion is that while these things could vary, the differences are quite small. In terms of colleagues and environment, I would be more concerned with one that isn't competitive, encourages collaboration etc. the most. 

I agree with @Chai_latte that my main concern would be resources. Not just for the professor in question (although being a chaired professor is good), but for the school in general. For example, when I was at a less funded school, students generally have to do a lot of TA work in order to earn their stipends. Many students worked 20 hours per week during the school year, so something like 600 hours per year. TAing is not a bad thing inherently (and I actually enjoy it and teaching!) but at many places the balance can be towards too much TAing. At my current school (a well funded one), our TA load is something like 100 hours per year. 

Another example is software for students. My well funded school offers all the licensed software for free to all of us, i.e. we get MATLAB, IDL, Mathematica, MS Office, etc. At my less funded school, we didn't get anything provided. If you / your research group needed something, the PI had to pay for it out of their grant. I'm glossing over a detail here, since at the well funded school, the software isn't quite free, but overheads from every prof indirectly pays for it. However, the difference is important to students. We don't have to worry about asking our PIs for permission to buy X.

Finally, the reputation of the school does matter for things like drawing in good visitors and speakers. At my well funded school, people would visit us all the time. The best in our field would come to give lectures or to collaborate with their friends etc. So as students, we get a lot of chances to meet these people in addition to all of the great people in the program. I feel like every month (or even more often), there is a visiting person that is relevant to my research interest. At my less funded school, the people who were there are still great. But we had few visitors. So, your "network" is a lot smaller. I maybe met with someone who was relevant to my interests once or twice a year at most.

That is, there is an environment difference, but I wouldn't say it has much to do with the people there. Instead, it has to do with the amount of money/funding that the school/department as a whole can attract (not just the prof) as well as the visitors the department brings in. This is why I was asking about the school's reputation generally, not just for your field.

---

It sounds like you are leaning against applying here and feel a little bad about doing so. I don't think you should apply to any place out of guilt. So, if you are looking for "permission" or validation to not apply here (not that you need it from us strangers of course!), then go ahead and skip this school. All of your reasons and doubts are good reasons to not apply. This professor is probably really good but you don't have to apply there just because there is one professor that is really good. I think non-academic reasons to choose schools are just as valid as academic ones.

If you have the time and money though, and you're not sure about it (i.e. you genuinely have some interest other than guilt) then you don't have too much to lose by applying.

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Also, you aren't stuck doing research with only professors at the university you go to. I am just a lowly MS student right now but by the end of my last semester I will have worked with professors at 3 other universities. So don't think that picking a university that provides better support and quality of life for you prevents you from working with who you want to. 

Edited by .ian//
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One thing I'd be concerned about is that, heretofore the prof was one of the most prolific researchers on Earth...but she left that environment. Obviously publishing is dependent in large part on the advisor, but there are so many elements that contribute to the profile of a lab. At her new university, the professor will have diminished capability to attract the top/best graduate students; probably less research support in the university infrastructure; and potentially a diminished rating on her grants (department and atmosphere are taken into account). I'd be curious about why she moved. It's possible the new department is paying her a metric ton to try to raise the profie of their department - maybe in 7-10 years they'll have risen into the top 30-40 departments due to her input. That doesn't do much for you now.

The other issue is what if she decides after a year or two that she's too unhappy career-wise at this new, lower-ranked place to stay? Many professors who get new jobs take a one-year leave of absence from their prior place just to make sure everything works out before they stay, and if she's as prolific as you say then I'm betting her original university would have jumped at the opportunity to offer her the flexibility to return if she wanted. Even if they didn't, if she's the most prolific researcher in biomaterials on earth, then likely there are other R1 universities who'd be willing to take her if she gets bored after 2-3 years.

Definitely apply, of course, and get the opportunity to chat with her more. But choosing a program is a two-way process - if you are admitted or get an interview, I'd ask her (and current students) some frank questions about the direction of the department, departmental resources for students, student post-graduation placement and time-to-degree, and other factors you're concerned about (like equipment and lab facilities).

Speaking of her previous institution, the department to which I'm applying (Polymer Science) has lost three associate/full profs to other universities in a span of two years. That might raise some eyebrows about the administration.

It doesn't necessarily mean anything about the administration...if this program is not even in the top 50 programs in your field, then it could be that the great professors/researchers are publishing their way into better-ranked programs. Simple. It could be an excellent, cozy place to work all-around, but there are always researchers who are going to be looking to go top 30 or top 15 or whatever. Whatever the case, 3 professors in 2 years is NOT a coincidence, so I'd casually ask around about this and see what you could find out about them all leaving.

I also was going to bring up the same point .ian// did. There may be opportunities for you to collaborate with this researcher even if you don't go to her program. As a matter of fact, you SHOULD pursue that, because it allows you to expand your network and get recommendations from people outside of your graduate program - which always looks good. It might turn into a postdoc later, or a productive collaborative relationship.

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21 minutes ago, juilletmercredi said:

One thing I'd be concerned about is that, heretofore the prof was one of the most prolific researchers on Earth...but she left that environment. Obviously publishing is dependent in large part on the advisor, but there are so many elements that contribute to the profile of a lab. At her new university, the professor will have diminished capability to attract the top/best graduate students; probably less research support in the university infrastructure; and potentially a diminished rating on her grants (department and atmosphere are taken into account). I'd be curious about why she moved. It's possible the new department is paying her a metric ton to try to raise the profie of their department - maybe in 7-10 years they'll have risen into the top 30-40 departments due to her input. That doesn't do much for you now.

The other issue is what if she decides after a year or two that she's too unhappy career-wise at this new, lower-ranked place to stay? Many professors who get new jobs take a one-year leave of absence from their prior place just to make sure everything works out before they stay, and if she's as prolific as you say then I'm betting her original university would have jumped at the opportunity to offer her the flexibility to return if she wanted. Even if they didn't, if she's the most prolific researcher in biomaterials on earth, then likely there are other R1 universities who'd be willing to take her if she gets bored after 2-3 years.

(emphasis added). I think this is a really good point! Sometimes it's not really possible to find it out without being a little overly intrusive though.

In my field, the most common reason you see professors move from top 30 schools to lower ranked schools are "two body problem" reasons. Maybe the prof's partner is also an academic that did not get tenure or did not get a tenure-track position at their current location so they moved to a place where both of them have tenure or other good positions. It's not uncommon for a professor to be untenured at a top school and get hired as a tenured professor (or even full professor) at another school. I mention this because a professor leaving a school doesn't mean that the school is bad or that the relationship between professor and school fell apart---it could be due to non-academic reasons. (It could also be both, but just saying).

Sometimes, knowing why someone moved can give you a sense of how likely they will stay. But since you don't really know the person personally, it's pretty tough to guess their motives and values etc. 

In any case, the important point that I forgot to mention earlier is that professors moving is not a big deal (at least not in my field) so you should consider this in choosing schools. If there is only one person you would want to work with at this college, what would you do if this professor moves while you are there? It would be another "con" in my list, if I could only work with one person at a school.

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I'll just add that a number of my colleagues have moved jobs even with tenure/endowed chairships for a variety of reasons, some personal (two body problem, ailing children, health issues which require being closer to a big city and its specialists) and some professional (toxic department, lack of support from college admin, conditions of work being changed repeatedly with little notice). But, I also doubt most of them would tell any of those reasons to a graduate student. So while you may desperately want to know why, I completely understand why a professor wouldn't divulge those reasons to a student.

At the end of the day, you go with your gut when it comes to choosing a grad program. 

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