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Deciding between 3 schools and totally lost. What would you do?


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Hi everyone,

I am deciding between 3 schools for a PhD, and am in need in some outside opinions! Considering the following, what would you do, or do you have any advice about making a decision? All have a good track record of graduating candidates for tenure track positions (what I want to do after my PhD) and all schools are within the top 10 in my field. Thank you so much!

School 1

  • Highest ranked of the 3 schools
  • 1 potential adviser who is a fantastic fit (best fit of almost anyone out there and would be primary adviser), 1 adviser with moderate/mediocre fit -- both tenured and mid-career
  • primary adviser = very very busy
  • awesome project to work on that I am extremely interested in, but it is in very beginning stages - so potential for snags with data collection along the way. If it works out could be AMAZING - very close to research I want to do, but nothing else exists that is as good of a fit to work on if it fell through
  • loved program and city when visited
  • prior to recruitment, contacted primary adviser who seemed very interested in me. set up a time to talk with them, but when that time came they never answered or called me back. didn't hear from them until recruitment weekend, when they seemed really interested in me again. has been good about contacting me since and have had a really great discussion with them recently so not sure what to make of this...
  • 30 credits of coursework, 1 comp
  • 12+ hours away from family
  • Highest stipend offered, insurance included
  • probably cohort of 8-10

School 2

  • 2nd highest ranked of these schools
  • 5 potential advisers (3 who fit well, 2 moderate/mediocre fit) - 3 tenured (2 potentially close to emeritus), 2 non tenured
  • tons of projects to work on that are really interesting/am passionate about, but not as close to what I want to do as school 1's project is
  • 2nd highest stipend offered with potential for increase -- health insurance not included
  • liked city, loved program when visited
  • great communication and comraderie among students and faculty and with me
  • ~5 hours from family
  • 60 credits of coursework, 2 comps
  • probably cohort of 12-15

School 3

  • 3rd highest ranked of the 3 schools
  • 4 advisers (2 great fit, 2 moderate fit) -- 3 tenured (1 potentially close to emeritus), 1 not tenured
  • did my undergrad and MS at this school - been living in area for ~10 years. would probably need to stay on the projects I already work on as well as pick up some new things. so easy transition. passionate about many of these projects but not sure I want to continue doing the same things...Also I am terrified that my main adviser at this school is going to be extremely angry at me if I leave because there will be no one to run their project.
  • love program
  • 1 hour from family
  • 45 credits of coursework, 3 comp
  • lowest stipend offered, potential for increase -- health insurance included
  • probably cohort of 6-8
  • great environment and communication with me


Any thoughts/advice are appreciated! Thank you so much!

Edited by HedgieLove
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Personally, never 3 (academic incest, expand your connections by moving on to other places). 1 seems like the best fit, if you are nervous about what seems like initial lack of interest remember that professors get really busy so they might have just had to put you on the back burner until they got through paper submissions or other deadlines. You will probably get more of their attention once you are producing research with them. Small cohort, most money, and least amount of coursework all sounds pretty good too.

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All three of your programs sound like great programs. I can see why you have a hard decision because they actually read very similar to me from an outsider's perspective. For Program #3, I think it's best to go elsewhere since you have been in this area for so long, however, having your family and other support nearby is also nice. Having this kind of support can really help you get through tough times and help you be more productive. However, it could count against you when you apply for jobs to not have a diversity of experience. 

I think rankings don't really matter when you are listing top 10 schools. I think advisor fit is the most important, and School 1 wins there. I think stipend is also important (as long as it's enough that you don't have to stress about it) so School 1 wins again. Happiness with the city and program also necessary for me and School 1 wins again. It's also nice that school 1 only has 30 hours of required coursework. 

One thing you didn't mention is source of funding: which schools would require you to do a lot of work for money that don't help your degree (e.g. TA, RAships in other labs). Also, which schools will have the most resources available for you? I picked my school because they would have tons of money to buy me the research things I needed and to send me to conferences and other travel important to my career. I am guessing since all 3 are top schools, they would have plenty of money for research, but it's good to consider.

But honestly, it sounds like School 1 is the best for you as long as you can make the 12+ travel time from family work. School 2 doesn't sound like it's worth it because it's still far from family but doesn't get you as much advantages as School 1. So if it were me, it would be down to School 1 vs. School 3, and the decision would depend on career goals. If an academic TT is the thing you want the most, School 1 definitely. If you are happier being closer to family and aren't aiming to be the most competitive PhD candidate ever, then School 3.

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