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Defining "fit"

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Although it is only early February, I have two choices at hand and trying to learn the prospects of each choices. It is still quite early to make any definitive decision because I haven't heard back from every school....

I read on this forum that a lot of people talk about fit. What exactly does it mean? Research interest, the atmosphere of the department, people, or location? Thank you guys for answering!

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Although it is only early February, I have two choices at hand and trying to learn the prospects of each choices. It is still quite early to make any definitive decision because I haven't heard back from every school....

I read on this forum that a lot of people talk about fit. What exactly does it mean? Research interest, the atmosphere of the department, people, or location? Thank you guys for answering!

I would put two things in my list before making any decisions:

1) visit the place

2) talk to potential advisers and current students

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"Fit" is usually used here in regards to the other side of the admissions equation - how well the admissions committee and advisors think you match up with their needs. As far as YOUR decision on where to go... it is really up to you. What's important to you? I think the atmosphere of the place is very important - after all, they're going to be rubbing elbows with you for the next 4-8 years! At the same time, keep an eye towards graduation - when will you graduate, what will you have produced, and what job/academic position will you be in? I would not worry too much about the location or other issues outside the school, as you should be able to put up with it until graduation.

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I would not worry too much about the location or other issues outside the school, as you should be able to put up with it until graduation.

I must respectfully disagree with this. Personally, I can't imagine spending 5+ years of my life in a locale that didn't make me happy. Sure, your focus will be on school, but you should still be concerned with your quality of life outside the classroom/lab/library. Would you be happier in a big city or a small town? Do you want access to certain things, like the great outdoors (beaches/lakes/mountains/hiking trails in the woods) or cultural stuff (theatre, museums, etc.)? Do you hate the cold (or the heat)? Do you want to be able to get by without a car? What kind of social scene are you looking for (e.g., are you single, do you have kids, etc.)? This stuff matters--maybe not more than academics, but it still counts for something.

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I must respectfully disagree with this. Personally, I can't imagine spending 5+ years of my life in a locale that didn't make me happy. Sure, your focus will be on school, but you should still be concerned with your quality of life outside the classroom/lab/library. Would you be happier in a big city or a small town? Do you want access to certain things, like the great outdoors (beaches/lakes/mountains/hiking trails in the woods) or cultural stuff (theatre, museums, etc.)? Do you hate the cold (or the heat)? Do you want to be able to get by without a car? What kind of social scene are you looking for (e.g., are you single, do you have kids, etc.)? This stuff matters--maybe not more than academics, but it still counts for something.

I have to agree although I think this may be an age thing (in my case; not yours!) or, at the very least, a consideration more important to people in mature stages of life. If you are in a relationship or hope to have a social or civic life while in school -- which I don't think is ridiculous, btw -- then your location could matter. I think you just might want to be as flexible as you can with location while balancing your emotional needs. That line is defined entirely by you.

On the original question fit for me is a hippie-dippy concept of "feeling". It's like finding the right house, the right car or the right mate -- you know it when you know it.

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I have to agree although I think this may be an age thing (in my case; not yours!) or, at the very least, a consideration more important to people in mature stages of life. If you are in a relationship or hope to have a social or civic life while in school -- which I don't think is ridiculous, btw -- then your location could matter. I think you just might want to be as flexible as you can with location while balancing your emotional needs. That line is defined entirely by you.

On the original question fit for me is a hippie-dippy concept of "feeling". It's like finding the right house, the right car or the right mate -- you know it when you know it.

You're probably right. I'm old(ish). I've also lived in probably 20 different cities/neighborhoods in six different states on both coasts and in between. Between life experience and all that moving, I've got an informal list of things I can't or wouldn't want to do without, as well as things I don't want to deal with (like being buried under snow four months out of the year). I was probably more willing to sacrifice in the spirit of adventure when I was younger. Now, not so much.

Also totally agree with your concept of fit. :)

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See, I'm older too - 33 with a wife and 2 kids - and I just cannot imagine a climate or area so bad that thousands of other people can live their whole lives there but I cannot tolerate 5 years. The area doesn't have what you are used to? There will be other stuff to do, and it will apparently be stuff you have never explored before! This is not your whole life, it's a few years, with the option of escaping in the summers.

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For me, I define 'fit' in several ways: how well does the university's research interests align with your own? How many professors are doing research you'd be interested in? What parts of the program do you think you'd enjoy taking part in (dual-degree/certificate programs, public outreaches, etc)? How does the area/geography/city/climate appeal to you? All these can be factors in determining fit for me.

In a nutshell, I guess it's really, "Could I be happy here--both academically and personally--for five or more years?"

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See, I'm older too - 33 with a wife and 2 kids - and I just cannot imagine a climate or area so bad that thousands of other people can live their whole lives there but I cannot tolerate 5 years. The area doesn't have what you are used to? There will be other stuff to do, and it will apparently be stuff you have never explored before! This is not your whole life, it's a few years, with the option of escaping in the summers.

Not to be contentious, but there's a difference between tolerating and being happy. I'd rather be happy; life's too short. YMMV, obviously.

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I'm with a lot of others here on the location question. Unless you are REALLY not a countryside person or a city person, I would put location last. But make sure you're first very informed about the nature of the location before you decide on a school.

I went to undergrad in a "rural area" (well, at least that's what people who grew up in cities and didn't know what REAL rural looks like called it). I'm VERY familiar with the "I hate this place, because you can't walk to a mall/bar" kind of mentality. I have friends who at least claimed to be completely miserable, because my school didn't have a happening club right down the street. These were mostly, however, the same people who didn't even bother to come visit the school before accepting, and who also had lived their entire lives in a city. They weren't expecting it, and the shock of the disappointment made them miserable. Before you make any decision, make sure you are 100% informed about any factor that you personally consider to be a big deal.

So why do I still advocate that you ignore location in your final decisions? Well, because in many cases your preferences can change. Also, in my experience, as long as you know what to expect, you can deal with non-ideal situations. If your dream school is located in the big city and you're one of those people who, like me, does not like big city life, tell yourself this: no school is perfect. I may hate the location of this school, but everything else is great for me. Isn't a PhD worth sacrificing my lungs and getting a little dirty every time you leave the apartment? In reality, for the first 2-3 years, I'm not going to ever have time to leave the library. Does it really matter if this library is located in New York or rural Idaho?

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I'm with a lot of others here on the location question. Unless you are REALLY not a countryside person or a city person, I would put location last. But make sure you're first very informed about the nature of the location before you decide on a school.

I went to undergrad in a "rural area" (well, at least that's what people who grew up in cities and didn't know what REAL rural looks like called it). I'm VERY familiar with the "I hate this place, because you can't walk to a mall/bar" kind of mentality. I have friends who at least claimed to be completely miserable, because my school didn't have a happening club right down the street. These were mostly, however, the same people who didn't even bother to come visit the school before accepting, and who also had lived their entire lives in a city. They weren't expecting it, and the shock of the disappointment made them miserable. Before you make any decision, make sure you are 100% informed about any factor that you personally consider to be a big deal.

So why do I still advocate that you ignore location in your final decisions? Well, because in many cases your preferences can change. Also, in my experience, as long as you know what to expect, you can deal with non-ideal situations. If your dream school is located in the big city and you're one of those people who, like me, does not like big city life, tell yourself this: no school is perfect. I may hate the location of this school, but everything else is great for me. Isn't a PhD worth sacrificing my lungs and getting a little dirty every time you leave the apartment? In reality, for the first 2-3 years, I'm not going to ever have time to leave the library. Does it really matter if this library is located in New York or rural Idaho?

This is just one of those very personal things.

First, I think you may be overestimating library time. There is a great deal of reading and writing, sure. But there are also 24 hours in a day! At some point, if only to take care of your physical health, you will have to leave the library and the school.

And this is about knowing thyself. I am miserable when my surroundings are depressing. Part of my methodology is having an organized desk and comfortable chair. It seems shallow until you realize (well, maybe it seems shallow anyway but I don't care) that for me to escape my physical form and to get really into writing -- yes, it's dramatic but it's as close as I can come to explaining what happens when i'm "there" -- I can't have a chair where my feet don't touch the floor. I'm short so that happens. And when it does my legs go numb after swinging so long so then I'm focusing on how my legs feel and I'm out of my head space. Then when I feel the urge to work and I reach for something I need and its not there then I get sidetracked looking for it.

This is a small example of how location and environment play into my practice. I have been poor. Worrying about the lights staying on or a bill collector calling my home because I'm in an expensive city and the ends are barely waving to each other puts me out of my zone. Because first and foremost I am a survivor so if my well-being is threatened I put everything to the side to manage it. For me that would mean getting a job and keeping all the bills paid. So, being in an affordable city is directly related to my success in graduate school.

I also tend to suffer from seasonal depression. So putting me in a location with relatively short days and dark weather is asking for me to jump from a first story window. Therefore, it is not petty for me to consider the weather of a location.

This is not, as someone said above, about me wanting a nightlife or something. These issues that are trivial for some are vitally important to my success. I am mature enough to know that. I cannot live in a dark, dirty, high-rent area with five people. I simply cannot. I will not get out of bed one morning and the whole damn thing will fall apart.

Getting into an enviable Ivy is not the goal. For me, the goal is completing my PhD. Therefore I will sacrifice for the latter, not the former. No point in getting admitted if you are setting yourself up to not finish.

But, again, that is me being true to who and what I am. For that reason I consider these things. Some people may not have to. Kudos to you but it doesn't make me crazy for considering them.

Edited by coyabean

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It's hard for me to imagine why one wouldn't consider location... sure, you can say that it's "just five years," but when you're living the lifestyle of a graduate student, you want a place you can enjoy when you're not working. Your research will not always be going well, and when it isn't, you don't want to be left miserable because you have nothing else. The happier you are, the more productive you are -- it's win-win.

Now, I don't think location is one of the most important factors to consider -- for example, while I'd love to live in Boulder for a while, I couldn't justify an application to CU-Boulder given my interests. However, if you're deciding between a few programs on roughly the same level, then I think location is just as important as anything else.

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Coya - I think it is fair to say that you are probably not representative of the majority of students. That may be supposition on my part, but I think it true. Nonetheless, for you location is obviously very important, and considering the impact you state that it has on your academic success, it should be.

Everyone has to rank their own issues based on what is important to them, and it is ultimately your life, not mine. Personally, I have yet to find two schools that were so closely matched on what I consider important that the location has really mattered to me - excepting of course financial concerns, which I think are always important. Are the two schools going to provide you comparable preparation for your desired post-PhD career? Then who cares what other criteria you use? The mistake is passing up a strong program for a weaker one if you can avoid it - the long term costs can be quite high.

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Actually, I bet there are a lot of people like coya, but they just don't know it yet. I didn't know how much cold weather, short days, and overcast skies made me miserable until I spent four years of undergrad with that weather. And, after doing it, I knew that I would be miserable doing a 5 year PhD program in a place with that kind of weather. So, I specifically chose to apply south of the Mason-Dixon line.

And, I should add that the weather related decision meant I didn't apply to top programs. And, even then, I'm at a lower-ranked program of the ones I got into because it's a better fit for me, I have an amazing advisor, and I've been really successful since getting here.

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Coya - I think it is fair to say that you are probably not representative of the majority of students. That may be supposition on my part, but I think it true. Nonetheless, for you location is obviously very important, and considering the impact you state that it has on your academic success, it should be.

Everyone has to rank their own issues based on what is important to them, and it is ultimately your life, not mine. Personally, I have yet to find two schools that were so closely matched on what I consider important that the location has really mattered to me - excepting of course financial concerns, which I think are always important. Are the two schools going to provide you comparable preparation for your desired post-PhD career? Then who cares what other criteria you use? The mistake is passing up a strong program for a weaker one if you can avoid it - the long term costs can be quite high.

Just curious about what you base that "fair" assumption on?

Not that I made any claim about being representative of a population. However, just for an example, stats put SAD at half a million people in this country alone. And that was just a specific example of how location affects me. The specificity of its manifestation in my life does not negate the greater applicability of the overall claim that for many students location not only matters but should matter. To trivialize that concern as being petty or immature or ill informed is not always the case. Not that you did that but it the conversation includes some alluding to that belief. I make a case for the importance of the decision not for its universality or exact manifestation.

And, again, what is the point of gaining admission to a great program if you stack the odds against graduating from there? There is strong case for choosing a program where you can successfully complete your degree over a highly ranked program where chances are high that you might fail.

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I respect twocosmicfish's point that if a school is ranked highly and you are admitted there, you should probably attend even if the location isn't ideal. However, there are myriad reasons that location may be important. Other than seasonal depression, which coyabean brought up, here are a few that I can think of off of the top of my head: financial concerns, needing to be closer to a sick/elderly family member, strength of schools if you have kids, and the ability for a partner/spouse to find a job in the area.

The last point is particularly important for me, but I think all of these situations are a lot more common than some might realize. Just from reading the posts on this board, I know that there are several (or many) posters who are married, have kids, or something of that nature. I know I wouldn't sacrifice my relationship for grad school, nor would I expect my partner to entirely sacrifice her career for mine. Relationships are all about compromise when it comes to decisions like this, but of course different couples can work it however works for them.

We're not all rolling straight out of undergrad with an open ticket to anywhere in the world. Fortunately, I've been accepted to several programs that I would be more than happy to attend that are in a variety of different settings, so at least one of them will end up working for us.

I'm not saying that you should attend Central Southwestern State University over Harvard because you think the grass is greener there. However, for a lot of people here (and probably a lot of others who aren't here) the simple process of (1) apply to several top-ranked programs and then (2) attend the highest-ranked one just isn't feasible or realistic. There are other concerns that are just as important (if not more important) than getting into the best program possible.

As for "fit," I've yet to visit any programs; but, ultimately, I think that "fit" for me will come down to the right combination of place, faculty, cohort, funding, and the ever-intangible "it just feels right."

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Just curious about what you base that "fair" assumption on?

Not that I made any claim about being representative of a population. However, just for an example, stats put SAD at half a million people in this country alone. And that was just a specific example of how location affects me. The specificity of its manifestation in my life does not negate the greater applicability of the overall claim that for many students location not only matters but should matter. To trivialize that concern as being petty or immature or ill informed is not always the case. Not that you did that but it the conversation includes some alluding to that belief. I make a case for the importance of the decision not for its universality or exact manifestation.

And, again, what is the point of gaining admission to a great program if you stack the odds against graduating from there? There is strong case for choosing a program where you can successfully complete your degree over a highly ranked program where chances are high that you might fail.

I did not intend to trivialize your concern - I stated quite clearly that in your case location obviously was and should be important. I feel your situation is not representative of the general body of applicants because I do not think that many students have sufficient issues with the location of their schools as to cause them any significant problems with completing their programs. As you yourself indicated, SAD is not highly prevalent - ~0.2% of the population? - and even assuming that there were a hundred other equally common and equally substantial reasons to so highly weight location, it would still only add up to 20% of the population - still not representative, assuming of course that such issues are distributed in a similar manner between the total and "prospective grad student" populations.

I have met people who were unhappy with the location of their chosen or prospective schools, but have never personally met anyone who indicated that it was preventing them from finishing their degree, or even that it was affecting their grades or their research. That may just be my limited perspective, but that is all I have to go on. I have heard from people who used it as a "tie-breaker" between roughly similar programs, or who have had family issues to consider, and certainly from people who have a financial stake in the location - either because of the income/expenses ratio, or because some of their income/expenses are tied to a specific location or regions - but I have not personally met anyone who turned down or refused to apply to their best academic opportunity because it was too hot/too cold/too urban/too rural/too far from home/too close to home, etc, for them to succeed.

There are certainly going to be non-academic issues to consider, but how much of those issues cross-over into the academics, and what is the cost of those issues compared to the long-term benefit of your education? To put it another way, how much impact to your long-term academic and professional success are you willing to accept to obtain a certain amount of in-school happiness, in so far as they may be considered seperate? Enough to turn down a 2nd ranked program in favor of a 5th, a 10th, a 20th, a 50th? Most people only get into a handful of schools, and the career prospects associated with them often vary widely, so when considering those programs, how much long-term impact does location have compared to the impact the decision has on the rest of your life? Personally, and from my experience with others, I would say comparatively little.

Finally, the original post was in regards to defining "fit", and I have never before heard location mentioned in that context, but instead as a seperate issue. From my experience, "fit" is usually used in regard to the relationship between your prospective advisors' research interests and personalities and your own, and likewise in regard to the department in general.

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I feel that location makes much more of a different to people from nice climates than people from places where it actually snows - and this is just totally my own opinion. I've never heard of somebody from Chicago being miserable in California because it's "too nice". I've heard them say they miss the winter, but not be miserable. However I know many people who are absolutely miserable in Chicago in the winter because it's "too cold, too snowy, too windy" etc.

Related to location: I'm accepted at U of I and will probably get into Wisconsin. I love the atmosphere of Wisconsin because it's a bigger city, but cost of living is higher than in Champaign-Urbana. So location is closely tied to finances also. For me, both schools are equally good "fits" when considering research, course structure, professor interaction, etc. But at this point I've already unofficially accepted my offer of admissions to U of I because the finances are going to beat out Wisconsin since I'll be going into Educational Psychology - not a huge money maker after earning that PhD.

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I have to smile just a little at the irony of the discussion of weather. When you live in Minneapolis, it is pretty hard to find anyplace colder or snowier. When I visited Ithaca, everyone wanted to engage me about the winters until I reminded them where I live. I have checked a few times. When we were -20 here, they were +19 there. Tropical anyone?

I think fit is partially intuitive -- you will just, in many cases, know....but I think culture is something you have to look for; are advisors active and involved, or are people left to sink or swim? How responsible will you be for shaping your program, and how much help or mentoring will you get? What kind of access and unstructured contact will you have? How big is your cohort? How do you fit with your cohort? Finally, on the days you are tired of being a student, sick with a cold and wondering why you did this -- can you find a place to live that will help you feel grounded and renew, or are you so stretched that you are living with 5 people you barely know?

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I have to smile just a little at the irony of the discussion of weather. When you live in Minneapolis, it is pretty hard to find anyplace colder or snowier. When I visited Ithaca, everyone wanted to engage me about the winters until I reminded them where I live. I have checked a few times. When we were -20 here, they were +19 there. Tropical anyone?

I think fit is partially intuitive -- you will just, in many cases, know....but I think culture is something you have to look for; are advisors active and involved, or are people left to sink or swim? How responsible will you be for shaping your program, and how much help or mentoring will you get? What kind of access and unstructured contact will you have? How big is your cohort? How do you fit with your cohort? Finally, on the days you are tired of being a student, sick with a cold and wondering why you did this -- can you find a place to live that will help you feel grounded and renew, or are you so stretched that you are living with 5 people you barely know?

I maintain that MN is not fit for habitation 6 months out of the year. :D

And I agree. Also after reading "Stumbling on Happiness" I'm inclined to think that one should pay attention to the students in the program as we are woefully poor at judging what will make us happy. Are they having the experience you hope to have, however you define that? For me, I wanted to see engaged, scholar-activists that seem to be enjoying the ride.

Edited by coyabean

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I maintain that MN is not fit for habitation 6 months out of the year. :D

And I agree. Also after reading "Stumbling on Happiness" I'm inclined to think that one should pay attention to the students in the program as we are woefully poor at judging what will make us happy. Are they having the experience you hope to have, however you define that? For me, I wanted to see engaged, scholar-activists that seem to be enjoying the ride.

Too bad you're allergic to cold climates and in a different field. I think you'd be great to have in my cohort...if I get one. And I'll even concede on the ridiculous of MN winters.

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Too bad you're allergic to cold climates and in a different field. I think you'd be great to have in my cohort...if I get one. And I'll even concede on the ridiculous of MN winters.

Awwwww, thanks! You shall have a cohort. I decree it!

And I don't mind ski weather cold, but that stuff in MN is arctic cold. That's a whole 'nother level. I've heard that they issue cold warnings where you're not supposed to go outside?!! I cannot imagine. One winter in Chicago and I vowed to never hit the midwest from September to April again! I'm not a humid summer lover either, though. I really wish it could be Fall and Spring all year 'round.

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