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Programs Location for PhD

  1. Aug 17, 2010 #1
    Hi all,

    I am currently deciding between two schools for my PhD. One is a very highly ranked, top 10 school. The other is not nearly as prestigious, but it happens to be very close to where I live and work. The more prestigious school is about a 1.5 hour drive. Attending classes there will be difficult, as I'll have to drive 1.5 hours down in the mornings for class and then drive 1.5 hours back for work. It is workable, though.

    There are no courses offered online from the prestigious school, so I pretty much have to be present. I would consider moving closer to the school at some point in the future, but I cannot break my lease now.

    My question is: At the PhD level, is prestige really such a huge factor? Is it worth the sacrifice of driving 3 hours a couple times a week?

    I should mention that I am currently enrolled at the more prestigious school. The first course I'm planning on taking is at 8:55 AM on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In order to get there, I'll have to leave my apartment at 7 AM. The class ends at ~10:30 AM, and then I'll drive back to work, arriving at roughly 12 AM. That is not terrible, but it could get to be a pain when I have exams, HWs due, and lots going on at "real" work. I might have to make up work hours late during the week or on weekends.

    My field is Aerospace Engineering and I do not have any plans of working in academia. I am happily employed by an aerospace company and I'd like to stay in industry. I understand that for people who want to head into academia prestige is an important factor -- but what about folks in industry who just want to delve deeper into their field?

    My current plan is to try one course for a semester and see how rough it is for me.

    I keep going back and forth on this issue and I'd love to hear some of your opinions. Especially if you've had a similar experience.
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 18, 2010 #2
    That depends, why do you want to get a Ph.D.? If prestige is a huge factor to you, then it it a huge factor. If not, then not.

    If you just are getting the Ph.D. for personal interest then it doesn't matter. However, one thing that concerns me is that I think you are seriously underestimating the time and effort it takes to finish a Ph.D. A part-time Ph.D. can easily take a decade, and the big consideration should be to do the Ph.D. where you think you have the highest chance of finishing it.
  4. Aug 18, 2010 #3
    Sounds to me like you'd rather we told you to go to the 'lesser' school - maybe there's something in that. I'm sure you've browsed these forums a bit, and if you have you've no doubt seen the repeated response to this question is that: in general, no, prestige doesn't matter.

    Like twofish says, a PhD is an extremely challenging project. To finish is a great thing. Also, the prestige of the university isn't really in my top 10 list of points to consider because you aren't working with the university as a whole. You'll be working with a couple of supervisors, and some collaborators. Then, considering that you'll be looking at potentially a 10 year stretch the most important thing is the people you are working with, and then secondly the environment in which you'll be working.

    Have a good look at the University grounds, and their departments. What do you think of the atmosphere? Is it conducive to the way you like to work? First impressions are important - go and meet anyone that is up for being a potential supervisors if possible. Try to have a real good discussion about the potential work that would be involved in any proposed projects. This way, you'll get an idea of where they see the research going in more detail, and how far ahead they are thinking with it. Check that this marries up with how you would initially like to see things.

    The travel might also be an issue - some people don't care about a commute every day, are you one of those people or will doing it 5/6 days a week for the next ~7 years drive you mad? If you enjoy travelling and find it more of a wind-down time, then that's a good thing. If you're already groaning at the prospect, that is not.
  5. Aug 18, 2010 #4


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    I'd say that, more important than location or the prestige of the university is simply: What do you want to get your PhD in, and are you interested in the research they're doing?

    A better university overall doesn't automatically mean their research in every topic is better than another place.
  6. Aug 18, 2010 #5


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    The original post seems to be rather focussed on course work. Althought this is an important aspect of PhD work, the project that you choose is essentially what defines the PhD and will occupy most of your time and energy. So as others have said, make sure you're placing proper emphasis on what you will be doing and available resources.

    But let's assume that the project in both places will be more or less the same. The facilities and potential supervisors are comparable.

    A 1.5 hour commute means you're spending 3 hours out of every day in your car. 3 hours! Maybe if you can take public transit and use that time to be productive, it wouldn't be that bad, but 3 hours every day can really add up. Not to mention the stress of driving in traffic, and the fact that driving is likely the single most dangerous thing you do.

    One of the reasons I changed jobs last year was because I was commuting 45 minutes each way - sometimes longer depending on the weather - and it was taking too much time out of my day. Now I live within bicycling distance and love it.
  7. Aug 18, 2010 #6
    I would say the supervisors you're going to be working with, the connections they have and the surrounding area are more important factors than prestige - for me anyways!

    For example, after my BSc I decided to do an MSc in astrophysics, and chose Manchester (in the UK). I only chose it because of its reputation, and it turned out to be a mistake. I didn't really enjoy the taught modules offered and absolutely hated the city. I ended up leaving the course due to bad health, but didn't regret it as the course wasn't for me.

    I will soon be starting a PhD in October at The Open University, but this time I put a lot more effort into choosing where to go. The Open University isn't prestigious in the UK, let alone the world, but I chose it because:

    * My supervisor is well respected in his field, has contacts at Oxford, Paris and Caltech, and the project involves collaborating with these people.

    * The surrounding area is full of fields, trees, lakes and rivers, and I can cycle to and from uni in about 10 minutes.

    * The project will allow me to work in a number of fields upon completion, so there'll be a greater chance of securing work.

    Although I've not started yet, I feel a lot more positive about my PhD than I did about my MSc, and that's half the battle to completion won already. (Well okay, maybe not half, but it will certainly help your prospects of completion if you're happy!)
  8. Aug 18, 2010 #7
    I'll also respond that some consideration needs to be taken about both your job satisfaction ad job security at your present position. If these are high, perhaps the prestige of a particular program doesn't matter... if you think either of these might not be high, prestige might make more of a difference.
  9. Aug 18, 2010 #8
    Thank you all for the responses. A lot of good points made here.

    I want to get a PhD purely because I love the field I work in. I want to become an expert in this field and want to be on the cutting edge in its application to industry.

    As for time and effort, if it takes 10 years, that's fine with me. I'm lucky in that my company offers tuition reimbursement, so I'm really only limited by the amount of time I'm allowed to be a student (and of course how patient my advisor is...).

    That brings me to your other point - effort. I'm certainly willing to put in the work. I really enjoyed working on my thesis for my MS and certainly look forward to doing similar work at a much deeper level and with a wider scope (dissertation vs. thesis).

    As for finding where I have the highest likelihood of finishing the PhD - that's a valid point. I will definitely have to look into the fate of part-time PhD students at each of the schools. Perhaps I'll ask each school for contact information from current part-time PhD. students.

    Good points here. I have meetings set up with professors from both schools in the next two weeks. During those meetings, I will have a look at the grounds, dept., etc. I'll also try to talk with current students.

    In response to the previous two posts: the less "prestigious" university actually has more active research going on in my field. That said, I've compared my list of interests against the faculty rosters are both schools and have reached out to professors at each university. I'll (hopefully) know more about this angle in a few weeks. One thing I've learned is that professor's sometimes list a bunch of topics that they have been interested in throughout their entire lives, and may only be actively working on one of them.

    To be honest, I think I'd be happy at both schools. I live in the area, obtained my BS and MS in this area, and work in the area. I don't have any plans on leaving for quite some time, so I don't think I'll be genuinely unhappy at either of the schools. The amount of commuting might not work out well for me, but I think it's something I have to try.

    I don't mind driving, but making up the hours that I missed at work could end up being very tedious and tiring. I think I will give it a shot for a semester and see how it goes.

    I'm both extremely satisfied with my current job and feel it's very secure. The biggest reason for my consideration of prestige is with respect to gaining future business and contacts with my current industry. For some reason, I just feel that the name on the paper might open more avenues down the road.
  10. Aug 18, 2010 #9
    And if you keep your job. Also since it is a multi-year project, your lease doesn't enter much into this since your Ph.D. will likely have just started when your lease runs out, so if you have to commute, it will just be for a few months or so.

    The other thing is that Ph.D.'s are relatively easy to do remotely if you are not dependent on laboratory equipment. One you finish your coursework, then you just need to meet with your adviser irregularly. After the first year or so, there are no courses.

    Something that you need to understand is that a Ph.D. is a completely different animal from a Masters degree. It's not "deeper and wider" than a Masters. It's very different. The main difference is that when you finish a Masters, your teachers still probably know more than you on a topic. When you finish the Ph.D., you will know more about the topic of your dissertation than your adviser. Your adviser is just that. An adviser.

    The other good and bad thing about a Ph.D. is that it's very unstructured. No one is going to tell you want to do.

    Also are you sure that the less prestigious university is really less prestigious? There are some small universities that are big names in a particular field. If it seems to you that more active research is going in the no-name university, then there is a good chance that within your field it actually has the bigger name.

    That may be true or may not be. Unfortunately these things are very field dependent, and you probably have a better sense of how a Ph.D. in viewed in your field than any one of us, so we really should be asking you.

    I do know that "prestige" is very important in the oil and gas industry, since having a "Dr." in front of your name gets you respect in many countries in the Middle East. However, in oil and gas, the "big names" are places like UT Austin, University of Oklahoma, or Colorado School of Mines. If you have a Ph.D. in petroleum engineering from Harvard or Yale (assuming even that they offer these degrees) you get a lot less respect and prestige than if you got one from University of Oklahoma.
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