Accepted PhD Offer, Am I Making A Mistake

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  • #1
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Here is the deal: I got accepted into a PhD program, fully funded, stipend, and tuition waived. The PhD would be in an area outside my expertise, but I am ok with this because the area is interesting and something I want to study. As I am communicating with my advisor I am getting potential red flags (maybe they aren't red flags) and it is raising some concerns about pursing my PhD at this university. They are:

1) The university has no classes directly related to my field of study. In order to take relevant course work I would have to take classes across the mathematics, physics, mechanical, and electrical/computer science department. I don't have a problem doing this, but I am worried that these classes will require preparation that I simply did not have during my undergraduate studies.
2) This professor is the only professor in the department with experience in this one particular area. That is to say, he is the only professor with controls experience in the department.
3) I cant find any information on this professor on the web. Yes, he has publications and earned his PhD about a decade ago, but I cannot find any information regarding classes he has taught or student reviews.
4) The advisor said I would learn more from his papers than any of the classes at the university. I am fine with this in principle - I taught myself a lot of fluid mechanics by reading papers. The difference was that I had a strong foundation in the topic. I am worried that I am going to be thrown into something I know nothing about and wont have time to prepare for as Ill be stuck taking classes that aren't relevant to my field of work or worse, stuck playing catch up because I lack the foundational material.
5) The area where the school was located sucks. The weather sucks, the city sucks. I love where I live now, I really don't want to move. I know this might sound like I am whining, but I am not looking forward to moving away from the beach to live in Dumpville, New England. This is not that big of a deal though, but it is something that Id rather not deal with.
6) I have a general sense of hesitation and doubt looming over me. I worked my whole life, brought myself up from big setbacks and crappy circumstances in my life to get to point where I can earn my doctorate and become a professor. I am now at that point, and I find myself questioning the path. I find myself asking "Am I climbing up the wrong latter?" The problem is that I cant see myself not doing an intellectually challenging career. My career thus far (naval architecture/aerospace engineering), while it has had its bright spots, I find is not challenging enough. I also believe deep down that I need to do something "important" with my life, how nebulous that term may sound. Essentially, I am not OK with having a 9 to 5 just to make money - purpose, utility, "a legacy" are important to me. I always wanted to be a professor, but seeing how the academic climate has become hostile ("publish or perish", "slave grad student",etc) I question whether or not I am fool for going this route.
7) I am finding that since I have entered my mid 20s my priorities are changing. I still love science, but I care more about doing something useful to people. I care more about saving money and living an enjoyable life. I am more concerned now with finding a long term relationship than when I was in my early 20s. Im finding that, while I was extremely passionate about science when I was 22, that there is more to life than science and it doesn't run the world like policy/politics or money.
8) Maybe I am just afraid and this is all BS. I don't know. I feel very torn. Any older people here to help? I don't have anyone to talk too about these issues that might understand.


EDIT:
I should note that I left a PhD program when I was 22 for funding reasons as well as a similar looming sense of doubt. I have thought about my departure everyday since the day I left.
 

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  • #2
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(5) to (8) are things you have to figure out yourself or with people you know - we can't know your life plans.

(1) to (4) combined can be problematic. Does the professor have a group already, and how large is it? In particular, does he have other PhD students you could talk to? Do his publications get cited (compare to other papers in the field)?

where I can earn my doctorate and become a professor
Keep in mind that only a small fraction of PhD students get professors. It can be an interesting option, but keep in mind that you will need a backup plan and probably use this backup plan.
 
  • #3
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1) His papers are cited quite a bit. Even a regular google search shows he is on the first page.
2) he just moved to the university and has no team. Id be his first student (maybe with some others I dont know).
 
  • #4
Choppy
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I think it's fairly common to get cold feet when you're about to start a PhD, or really any kind of long term commitment. It would be nice if the stars lined up and everything worked out perfectly, but no path is going to be perfect, and sometimes from my perspective, it pays to be pragmatic about these things.
  1. This is a concern, but not a show stopper. Part of the concern about preparation could be mitigated by contacting the professors well before the class starts and being up front with your background. In some cases a student can take a senior undergraduate course to build a proper foundation if that's necessary. It's better to figure this out earlier rather than later.
  2. Another concern, but you can always seek to have someone on your supervisory committee from outside the university if you need more experience. This could turn into an advantage because it might expand your academic network at little.
  3. Not necessarily a bad thing. It would be nice to have some more information though. If you have the opportunity to visit the school, maybe talk to him in person, or try to talk to some of his current graduate students.
  4. Another legitimate concern. A lot depends on the details though. It's rare for students to feel completely prepared for this kind of thing - and those who do are often shocked to find out that they are not.
  5. Relocation is a fact of life in academia, I'm afraid. The thing is, if you keep an open mind the place might not be that bad.
  6. Again a lot of people wrestle with this question. And there's no way to know for sure if this is the best path for you. Most people crave some kind of purpose in their lives. The best you can do is make a well-thought-out decision with the information you have at the time. Generally speaking, pursuing a PhD when given the option to do so is not a bad decision. It really only gets bad when you continue to make that choice in spite of a mountain of evidence against it.
  7. It happens to the best of us. But pursuing a PhD doesn't mean that you're going to live as an unemployed hermit for the rest of your life.
  8. It's not BS.
 
  • #5
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I guess I am afraid. I left a PhD program under bad circumstance and ever since then (3 years ago) I have been shaken up. It will be a big commitment, obviously, and I am worried about something going wrong again. I am worried about student debt too, I am fully funded but the interest on my loans will accrue. I am worried about getting into a relationship (will I have time for it), starting a family (will I have the money or find someone), saving money, and generally putting my life on hold. Im finding I have less and less in common with people my age. Many of my friends are starting their careers, settling down, etc, and I dont feel ready to do that. These are personal, probably generic coming of age problems. These things probably arent as big of a deal as I am making them - I will probably be able to get a high paying job with my PhD education, Ill probably find the woman of my dreams in grad school, and Im sure things will work out in the end. I know deep in my heart that Ill always feel a little empty not pursuing something like a professorship. It has been my dream since I was a kid to invent something, write a science book, and teach people. I suppose getting older has made me lose my edge haha.
 
  • #6
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I know deep in my heart that Ill always feel a little empty not pursuing something like a professorship.
If that isn't a good reason to give it a shot, I don't know what is.
 
  • #7
analogdesign
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For what it is worth, I originally went to a PhD program in a beautiful city with perfect weather, a well-known professor with a large research group, and lots of relevant classes. It was hell. I left after one quarter.

Then I went to a PhD program in a less-prestigious school, in an un-cool region of the state with pretty rough weather. And I had six of the best years of my life and now I have a great career that I am thankful for every single day.

My question to you is this: Have you had a lot of interaction with your prospective professor? What is your impression of him? Does he come across as caring and respectful or is he a jerk? These things will make a huge difference, because he is the person who is going to guide you, evaluate you, and decide when you are ready to graduate.

I would rather go to a so-so university and have a great advisor, than have a jerk of an advisor at a world-class university.
 
  • #8
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For what it is worth, I originally went to a PhD program in a beautiful city with perfect weather, a well-known professor with a large research group, and lots of relevant classes. It was hell. I left after one quarter.

Then I went to a PhD program in a less-prestigious school, in an un-cool region of the state with pretty rough weather. And I had six of the best years of my life and now I have a great career that I am thankful for every single day.

My question to you is this: Have you had a lot of interaction with your prospective professor? What is your impression of him? Does he come across as caring and respectful or is he a jerk? These things will make a huge difference, because he is the person who is going to guide you, evaluate you, and decide when you are ready to graduate.

I would rather go to a so-so university and have a great advisor, than have a jerk of an advisor at a world-class university.
When I met him in the Winter, he seemed like a quiet guy. He let me talk about some stuff I worked on, he told me about some of his research. I am generally an outgoing and assertive person, he came off as the opposite of quiet and passive. I cant say Ive had a bad impression of him so far. To tell you the truth he comes off as very neutral and brilliant.
 
  • #9
analogdesign
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Well that's a good start. Deciding where to go is always hard because you can't know for sure what is going to happen. My sister had a terrible experience with an abusive, vindictive professor, while I was lucky with a brilliant researcher with a lot of integrity (but he was demanding and not what I would call "warm" but his demanding nature was good for me and my career I think).

From what little information I have, I don't think it is clear at all that you made a mistake.

As Choppy said, relocation is a fact of life in academia. I spent 4 years post-PhD in a state I never in a million years thought I would live in!

Lastly, classes aren't really that big a deal in graduate school. Since by definition you will be advancing the state-of-the-art you will find pretty soon you leave the classes behind and are learning from papers and your own bumbling attempts at analysis (this is where a patient advisor comes in handy). For the most part I found my classes a pain in the butt because they took so much time and effort and took away from my research. Luckily I only had to do classes for a couple of years.
 
  • #10
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The good thing is that my advisor seems pretty flexible with classes. We've been going back and fourth trying to decide what to do since the class selection is limited. I did ask him if this would be a hindrance to obtaining my PhD, since complications may arise from taking classes outside my department. I'm more worried about having to play catch up than anything else.
 
  • #11
analogdesign
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At my university you were required to do a PhD minor which was by definition outside your department. I did statistics. It was incredibly (and I mean incredibly) painful but I imagine it is pretty common to require PhD students to take classes outside their departments. Graduate schools love to haze their students.
 
  • #12
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Hazing might be done, but Im there to do business not screw around with babyish rituals. I did not see specific requirements list.I don't want to waste time doing things that wont help me graduate. Hence, why I wish I could apply to a PhD program in Europe where they are more grounded in reality.
 
  • #13
analogdesign
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Well the thing is, if you don't do what the department requires, you won't graduate. So in that sense, jumping through all the hoops *will* help you graduate, won't they? ;)

My point was just that taking classes outside your department won't be a problem.
 
  • #14
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That is true. I am not much of a hoop jumper, more like a hoop stomper.
 
  • #15
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Why would you take classes outside of the department if the professor says you can just read his papers? As a PhD student, you should be able to self-study whatever you need. You don't need them to be in terms of classes, which I always found annoying. I do understand you need a minimum of classes apparently.
 
  • #16
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In the US you are required to take classes for a certain number of credit hours. I agree that it is generally a waste of time. The papers cover a subject matter that I am not familiar with, so I need to develop a foundation before diving into more advanced material. If classes weren't mandatory I could just pick up any book and study from it, but since we have to take xx credit hours of classes, that takes time away from studying what needs to get done. For example, I don't give a crap about strength of materials, yet it is a required course. Yes, it might make me a more "well rounded student" but it doesnt do anything for the fact that I need to understand nonlinear dynamics and stochastic processes.
 
  • #17
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In the US you are required to take classes for a certain number of credit hours. I agree that it is generally a waste of time. The papers cover a subject matter that I am not familiar with, so I need to develop a foundation before diving into more advanced material. If classes weren't mandatory I could just pick up any book and study from it, but since we have to take xx credit hours of classes, that takes time away from studying what needs to get done. For example, I don't give a crap about strength of materials, yet it is a required course. Yes, it might make me a more "well rounded student" but it does do anything for the fact that I need to understand nonlinear dynamics and stochastic processes.
Right. So you need to take the courses. You realize they won't help you for your research but you need to get them over with. Choose those courses that will possibly help you with your research and that also will allow you to obtain the needed credits. You are expected to also self study outside of your courses. If you can't benefit from your courses in terms of research, try to choose them so that it won't get in the way of your studies.

It might take up to half a year or even longer before you can actually understand the papers and do some bit of novel research. This is not fun for you, but you need to get through this period as soon as you possibly can.
 
  • #18
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It might take up to half a year or even longer before you can actually understand the papers and do some bit of novel research. This is not fun for you, but you need to get through this period as soon as you possibly can.
This is exactly my concern. The department has maybe 2 classes that will be relevant to my work. So my concern is that I will be wasting a year or 2, or burn out trying to do my BS classes and simultaneously studying the actual important stuff. This is why I am debating just getting a masters from my job, then getting a PhD after the masters so I don't have to deal with this rigamaroo.
 
  • #19
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This is exactly my concern. The department has maybe 2 classes that will be relevant to my work. So my concern is that I will be wasting a year or 2, or burn out trying to do my BS classes and simultaneously studying the actual important stuff. This is why I am debating just getting a masters from my job, then getting a PhD after the masters so I don't have to deal with this rigamaroo.
That is your choice of course. But the entire PhD will be an entire "rigamaroo". The entire period will be filled with stress and some ups but a lot of downs. That's the nature of grad studies. You might say that you will be able to handle it, but you'll talk differently once your advisor asks you to present your research findings next week to some audience and you haven't completed the research yet. This is what academia is all about, so you should learn to deal with it. Getting a masters just postpones the entire process. Also, you do not have a guarantee they won't ask you to do classes if you already have a masters. I have seen several times that they still ask you to do them. Just push yourself, work hard and do the classes and the self-study. It's the only way to make it in academia.
 
  • #20
analogdesign
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Also, if you have an MS you will still need to take a bunch of courses, pass the PhD screening exam, pass your quals, and lots of other hoops that will get in the way of your research. You will find in your job (ESPECIALLY if you go into academia) that you will always, and I mean always find there are hoops you need to jump through at various times and get in the way of the work for which you will be evaluated. It's life.
 
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  • #21
boneh3ad
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You'd be surprised how sometimes seemingly unrelated (or barely-related) courses can be to a different field of study at times. I was on multiple occasions in graduate school. Also, if there is a dearth of courses in your area, you may be able to get around that by earning credit for "directed studies" courses that are "taught" by your advisor, which would likely just amount to learning from papers and getting academic credit for it. Perhaps discuss this option with him.

In this case, I wouldn't be too worried about your advisor being the only controls guy in the department. When it comes to departments with only one or two faculty member in an area, there is always the risk that they are only there because the department needed their token controls guy(s) in order to cover courses required for accreditation, and that there isn't a lot of support for that research group. Having recently been on the faculty job market, however, I also know that this is something that is usually pretty obvious while doing your research, so it is unlikely that your advisor, who you said has 10 years of experience, would have fallen into this trap. If I, a fairly newly-minted PhD, can sniff that situation out, presumably he could as well and would know to avoid it. You may ask him about the issue if it concerns you, though. It may simply be that the department is looking to make a strategic investment in that area and he was just the first to be brought on board.

Finally, no matter how you go about it, getting a PhD will involve at least some pain. How much will depend on you, your advisor, and how well the two of you mesh and understand the expectations each of you has for the program.

Regarding the professorship goal, I think you probably already know very well that you will need to have a good publication record and yada yada yada. Those things are discussed ad nauseum online and in books, so I won't harp on that. What I will say is don't neglect networking. Try to get to know people in your field at conferences. This can sometimes be tough if you are a graduate student, but it helps immensely if you have a good advisor, especially if he/she is well known in the field. Down the road when you are looking for faculty positions, you'll have a lot better chance of finding job openings where people on search committees are already familiar with you if you made it a point to try to interact with them earlier. In a crowded field filled with many qualified people, it may make the difference.
 

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