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Grad school: play it safe?

  1. Mar 26, 2014 #1
    I'm an undergraduate engineering student starting to think about grad school, but I'm a little bit stuck on something.

    On the one hand, I have a safe option which I know will be at least good, if not great. I've done a couple summer projects with one research group at my school, and they said they would definitely take me as a grad student. I don't know yet if it's my ideal area of study, but I like it well enough, and it's something I can see myself enjoying long-term. I really like the work environment with that group; I get along with everyone, and the way the group is run works well for me (professors are usually easy to access, and they play the role of advisor more than task-master). Another advantage with this option is not having to relocate. I'm married, and my wife is somewhat tied down, making it difficult to relocate.

    On the other hand, there are some downsides to staying here. First, this is sort of a mid-level research group at a mid-level school. They're not bad, but they don't seem to be at the top of their field. Based on my grades and experience, I think I would have a shot at getting into more well-respected groups if I wanted to. Also, I've been told that it looks bad when you get BSc, MSc and PhD all at the same institution. (Is that as true in engineering as it is in other disciplines? Does experience in the R&D department of a company help to mitigate this?)

    So I'm curious what people who have gone through grad school think. Is the certainty that I'll at least like my work and my work environment valuable? Is that something I should jump on? Or is it really important to try to get into a different school with a well-funded and prolific research group? Is that worth all the hassle of finding a better offer and figuring out how to relocate in a way that works for me and my wife?

    Last edited: Mar 26, 2014
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 26, 2014 #2
    Pretty difficult situation. You've summed it up well yourself. So I fear it's up to you to make the choice.

    I don't know if it'll help, but I can tell you what I would choose. I would go to the "mid-level" grad school. It's something you're certain you will enjoy (something that is not a given at the other grad school!). You have a family, so you will not want to relocate. Plus, the top-tier grad school might be very competitive and this might not match with a family life. You get along fine with the professors in your group (which I personally consider the most important part).

    The issue about "your grad school needs to be different from your undergrad school" is something I never really understood. It also seems to be an american thing. In my country, it's very common (and even recommended) to keep going to the same school.

    But yeah, you might lose the prospect of being with professors at the top of the field. It's a very big negative. It wouldn't weigh so much for me, but it might for you.
  4. Mar 26, 2014 #3


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    I'm sure this is as untrue for engineering as it is untrue for other disciplines. As the gist of your post suggests, there are advantages and disadvantages to both options. I've been on several hiring committees for positions that come with academic appointments and I have yet to hear anyone say anything along the lines of "this is a great candidate, but it's too bad he got his PhD from the same school as his BSc."

    You're actually in a pretty nice position of having a high probability of getting a position doing something you know you'll like. A lot of people get stuck rolling the dice.

    Have you considered perhaps just applying to which ever programs really appeal to you? Then, if you happen to be fortunate enough to have those acceptance letters come rolling in, you'll have a decision to make. Until then, keep in mind that it's perfectly reasonable to apply to several schools even in your situation. You're likely to be seen as a student who's highly motivated to get into graduate school, rather than someone who's not 100% committed to your current school.
  5. Mar 26, 2014 #4

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    The advice given to me is very outdated, but it probably still applies. Apply to one or two schools you think are shoe-ins, apply to another school in which you and your advisor think you have a semi-reasonable chance of being accepted, and then one more to shoot the moon.
  6. Mar 27, 2014 #5
    I agree with Choppy, going to your alma mater for graduate education is not entirely uncommon and I see no legitimate way in which it can hamper you, unless it's a very tiny school with not many connections in or out of academia

    In your situation I don't think it's really worth the hassle to move, unless like Choppy says you manage to get into a stronger school you really, really want to go to. In that case, I would apply only to 'reach' schools since you already have a safety to fall back on and can afford to be ambitious (it is guaranteed right?).

    The ratio still applies, I would just multiply the total number of schools by at least 2 or 3 for the general applicant, but the OP's situation calls for something different IMO.
  7. Mar 31, 2014 #6
    Thanks for the advice, everyone.

    It seems like the logical path forward in my situation is to plan to stay at my school. I'll probably still apply to one or two other really interesting schools just to see what happens, but I won't spend a lot of time and effort trying to get into a different school.
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