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Picking a graduate school.

  1. Mar 5, 2014 #1
    So I am currently holding 3 offers for physics grad school and while a few days ago I was pretty sure where I wanted to go, some new developments have made me question things a little bit.

    The options are: big midwestern public school, East coast school A and East coast school B. The first two have similar research programs and I am visiting them in that order (2nd one this week). These two are in the same category for me and I was hoping this week's visit would help me decide.

    I had almost entirely ruled out East B, but they offered me a new and very generous 3-year fellowship with conference travel money that would eliminate the need to TA, contingent on working in a specific group. The thing is that out of that research group, I would only be interested in working with 1-3 members, 1 of which is relatively new which makes me a bit uneasy (actually, the entire research program is less than 10 years old). Midwestern school has a roughly equally sized number of faculty with one big name in this line of research, plus a slew of established faculty in another line of research that I am very interested in, which East A is also strong in.

    So basically, the midwestern (which I visited) has 2 real research options I like but I would not get much research done until my qual. Same goes for East A, which is equally strong in one of those research areas, while East B has the other with the added bonuses I described so I could start research straight away.

    I fear it is only going to get harder to pick a school. I am thinking of using alumni records (to know where they ended up) as a tie breaker if I cannot eliminate one school by next week, but I fear this would bias me heavily against East B since they have such a small sample size.

    Is going to a young and not-too-established department generally a bad idea?

    What other criteria besides quality of life (which I am getting to see by visiting the schools and doing the stipend vs costs arithmetic) could I use to discriminate at this stage?

    Is getting to opt out of TA'ing with a fellowship going to make me a better researcher, given that I'll have a full 5 years or so to dedicate purely to research, irrespective of the department's youth?
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 5, 2014 #2
    Take my posts with a grain of salt.

    Reading through your post, I feel like you should consider doing Eastern School B, the one with a paid-for fellowship. You can think of it in this way:

    Pretend it's a small business, a start-up, except less likely to fail. Some startups end up making it very big, and the people who join it early on get the most benefits out of that. Thinking of it like that, you're going to be a prominent name in the paper(s) that the research team produces after a couple/few years, because there simply aren't enough people to warrant your name being last place. You might have to work harder, but I feel like you'll learn more being in a smaller team.

    But ask yourself this: Would you rather be part of a big team and have a specific role, or part of a smaller team for years and become a prominent researcher in it, having more than one role, potentially?

    I feel like in the smaller team, you'll develop more skills. But that's just me, n00bish me! ^_^
  4. Apr 1, 2014 #3
    It has finally come down to picking between 2 schools and I am having a hard time, especially after having visited both. East coast B and midwest state university. I would really like to hear the opinion of some phd grads on this.

    I could go the "safe" route with the latter, which is more established in one of the fields I applied for. They have a long track record of great job placement in and outside academia.

    The other is doing something very new and revolutionary, with a large amount of financial backing (funding to faculty ratio comparable to top schools) and international collaboration, including a 3 year fellowship that would invariably lead to more and much earlier research experience (last year's recipient published as a 1st author, attended 4 conferences all before the year was even over, which seemed unlikely to happen at the other school until at least 3 years in because of the TA duties).

    The downside to this is that outside this niche field, the school is relatively unknown for academics. It actually has a reputation for being a party school, and Ive already had a relative and acquaintances in industry poo-poo the school, so I am guessing industry is probably not a viable option afterwards. This has me concerned a bit.

    If you went into a field with little direct industrial application, would you pick a young department that has the money and is hungry to do new things at the expense of prestige and a long roster of grad job placement (about 5 and all great)? Or would you go with a bigger school with research activity in an established field, extensive track record and probably only slightly better connections and a non terrible word of mouth reputation, but slower and maybe morehandholdy student development?
  5. Apr 1, 2014 #4


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    Well the good news is that is sounds like you're picking between two good options.

    I think it's fine to consider an "up and coming" school. The advantages in a situation like this are that the school and the researchers want to make a name for themselves so they'll be driven to make the program a success. So the big question that comes up is whether or not they know what they're doing. Lot's of people can make big plans. The follow through is the tough part. As a potential graduate student you've likely spent a fair amount of time looking into the field and the potential projects and by this point you probably have a good idea of where they're going.

    I wouldn't put a lot of weight on the opinions of people who don't have direct experience with the program you're considering, if that's what's holding you back. Having a "party" reputation is one thing - but does that spill over into your graduate program? Probably not.

    On the other hand the track records of recent graduates holds a lot of weight for me. You are not them, of course, but if you like where they've gone at least you've got a case to rest on for the idea that it's possible to get where they've gone through the program. Trail blazing can be a lot tougher.

    One advantage of not having to TA is that it gives you more time to concentrate on your research. A full TA load can take up a lot of time, particularly in your first go round. Some people really enjoy it. But after doing it for a year or so, you learn just about all you're going to learn from it (unless you switch to a difference class maybe) and then it's just work.

    Something else that might help you decide is to think about the details of the projects. How easy would it be for you to map out what you will be doing? Is the roadmap clear? Can you write up a research proposal?Generally, the more details you can give, the more you understand about each project. Doing an exercise like this might help you to key on what you actually understand vs. what you think you understand and potentially where you're filling in any gaps with wishful thinking.

    I might mention one more thing - this idea of "little industrial application." One thing that's helped me over the years is to ask a question along the lines of "if I had to go out and ask someone for money to study this, how successful would I be?" Or perhaps more relevant here - if you had to choose to beg for money to support either of these programs, would one be inherently easier? Even if your graduate program is well funded, eventually you'll finish and if you want to continue, you'll need more funding.

    Good luck with it!
  6. Apr 1, 2014 #5
    Right. My concern was being taken seriously as a phd graduate from said institution if it became a necessity to work outside of the ivory tower, in the good sense of the term. Unless the person outside academia hiring happens to know what kind of physics they're good at -extremely unlikely- the first idea that comes to mind about the school is the party atmosphere among undergrads and perhaps a (funny) major gaffe of a certain news reporter on his first day on the job.

    TA'ing is something I still intend to do at some stage. Since the fellowship doesn't allow for assisstantships at the same time, I could do it for a semester or two in my later years for the experience. At the other school, I've been told certain advisors would be more than willing to let students TA actual lecture courses if they wanted to later on, I suspect ones at the other school would not mind either. That is probably even more valuable than doing the regular lab TA and paper grading grind (which every grad student I've met invariably claims is the worst part of grad school) as it probably translates better into the teaching profession.

    A lot of the work has already been done for me, actually. The research group has been compounding a slew of big grants for their projects (all in one central theme) and the university itself is vested in using the physics department's success to boost the school's reputation in STEM fields including my specific subfield, hence the existence of very generous fellowship program for new students + acquisition of loads of dedicated time for some unique experimental facilities. Even their recent assist prof hire who is very interested in having me in his group won't be having any trouble supporting his first few grad students and post-docs.

    I don't know where I've heard it, but I've heard one should 'avoid early career profs as potential advisors like the plague'. Other than not being an established household name in a field, I don't get this idea. Is it because they're more likely to be more keen on advancing in their careers and getting tenure than helping you do well? Because the impression I got from my visits was 'if you succeed, I succeed', both from the early career prof and some of the older esteemed faculty that don't have anything to prove to anyone. Any more PhD's want to comment on this?

    I could probably write a proposal after a little bit of training, I don't have that deep an understanding of the field, but I know what they're trying to do as a big picture. I the gist of the idea from my senior thesis prof that made me take all the minor steps in my project like interim reports very seriously, and taught me to hold it to 'grant proposal standards'.

    I see where you're going here. I was just trying to make it clear that I'm not doing anything like materials science, thin film deposition, semiconductor physics, etc., pretty much on the other end of the marketability spectrum. It has little immediate, obvious industrial application is what I should have said unless you count the computational skill spinoffs, so an easy sales pitch for a non-academic job would be impossible, if it came down to it. I don't think anyone is convincing a private body to fund this type of research anytime soon.
    Last edited: Apr 1, 2014
  7. Apr 2, 2014 #6
    I'm in a similar situation as you, I've visited schools and need to make a decision. One professor I talked to recently actually said the opposite, that early career profs can be really good for you. The reasoning was this:

    When you go to work with a new professor in a new lab, you will be a part of every aspect of building a successful lab and group from scratch. You would be helping with writing the first grants to get equipment, setting up that equipment, and learning how to build an experiment from nothing. If you work for a well-established professor in a well-established lab, when would you get these skills? Once you graduate, if you are going to be applying for a faculty position, you need to be able to convince the hiring committee that you have the skills to start up a new lab from scratch. Additionally, you could be working more closely with postdocs in a well-established lab as opposed to directly with your advisor. After saying all this to me, the professor proceeded to name 8 or 10 well-known professors at top schools who all had early career advisors.

    This wasn't my advice, but it sounds like it has some merit. Of course I still agree that working with an early career prof is more risky considering your immediate graduate school career, but the payoff in the long-run could make it work it.
  8. Apr 2, 2014 #7
    That sounds good, the difference is that this early career prof is a theoretician (and computationalist), so I'm not sure any of that would apply in my circumstance. He does have a solid publication for the length of his career though, and did his postdoc(s) through pretty important fellowships himself, so he does have some fairly bigshot contacts. He too maintained that an early career prof would be beneficial to me but then again that may just be him trying to get his first grad student

    Working closely with his postdocs is definitely the most immediately applicable part of what you say, in fact I did meet with them and my skills and past experience seemed to match up and fill the last hole they needed in their group. So I would be developing my own code, which is probably analogous to 'setting up a new lab', and would probably have me feeling very useful and important in that aspect of the subject and their publications.

    Thanks for the replies folks, any more ideas are more than welcome.
  9. Apr 4, 2014 #8
    I went to a great school for my area of physics (but no positive reputation to the general public, in fact people that do know it know it as a party school), and my research had no industrial applications (pen and paper theory). I now work outside of academia.

    I’ll admit that sometimes I think it would be nice to have a PhD from a school that was more widely recognized for scholarship. I think that it would even have had some positive impact earlier in my career if I had had a name school on my resume. However, I doubt it’s had much long-term impact. After a couple of jobs people seem more concerned about what I’ve done since leaving school. Of course I can’t say for certain that it never leads to my resume being discarded or something.

    Personally I would use the general public perception of the school as a tiebreaker if it came down to that. I would count it as a meaningful factor, but it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to me. I’d be much more concerned about how I thought I would interact with the research team and the nature of the research.
  10. Apr 4, 2014 #9
    Would you do this (bolded) with a serious intention on pursuing an academic career in mind? If it's not too personal, did you feel like you were at a disadvantage for advancing in academia because of the school you went to or was your decision to work outside a personal one?

    I think you covered the outside job market bit well, with your statement I think I would I feel more at ease about non-academic job prospects, should I choose to go to the (currently) less reputable school, thanks.

    Edit: As far as your recommendation in your last paragraph, is reputation really a sensible thing to use as a tie breaker if both schools are (fwiw) in the early 100's position of US News ranking and separated by roughly 7 places? Would it really make that much of a difference? To me the only difference I can discern outside of academics is one has a neutral reputation and the other has a party reputation.

    The less reputable school doesn't show up in said ranking for that particular field, which is no surprise since they are not yet a household name, but the impression I got from the visit was that they're probably one of the better places to do that specific branch and will be for the coming years.

    One of the members of the group also happens to be the chair of an big collab, and it is a topic of research that probably could not get done without one of the instruments available to the school.
    Last edited: Apr 4, 2014
  11. Apr 4, 2014 #10
    Short answer is I don't know, but I don't think my school's reputation held me back. In academia people in my area would know what a good school I was at. For people in academia, but outside of my area, I would guess (hope?) most probably knew it was a great school. It's kind of a long story, this is the condensed version. I had intended to go the academic route, but by the time I finished grad school I didn't really push that hard to stay, I felt ready for some kind of change.

    Loosely related to going to a very good school for my area is that a vast majority of heavy hitters in my field came though through to visit or give seminars (this is in addition to the faculty that was also great which is why they came so frequently). I met a lot of them, however I had no ability at networking, this personal failing on my part is what I consider my biggest disadvantage. I do think being more extroverted in this situation would have been very helpful, much (much) more than school reputation. If you're not a natural at networking keep in mind that most people like to help other people advance in their careers.

    Side note, from what you've described it sounds like you have two great options and any decision you make will be a good one.
  12. Apr 4, 2014 #11
    Sorry, I didn't see your edit before I responded. I wouldn't expect a party reputation to be a factor for the academic route (my original comment was addressing "the person outside academia hiring"). People in your area will know what your school is all about and will likely do a deep dive into the research you did.

    This is just speculation on my part, so take it for that, but I suppose it's possible that the party reputation could be a factor if you wanted to teach at a liberal arts college or some place where they didn't do a lot research (if such places even still exist). Even then, I wouldn't think so.

    I would think working with the chair of an big collab could possibly offer some great opportunities, not to mention the instruments available to the school.
  13. Apr 4, 2014 #12
    FFfffff.... well I guess that's a skill I will need to learn by force. Fortunately talking science comes to me a whole lot easier than small-talk... but I'm still terrible at initiating conversations.

    On the subject of liberal arts colleges, one of their small group of graduates actually got tenure at one in his home state and was happy with that, the rest went on to: permanent staff at a big research institute and post-docs at world-leading schools (both in general and in the field). Super small sample size, but all great results that I would be happy with.

    Huge thanks for your input, it is very helpful.

    Actually I retract that statement, you're just equalizing the schools for me and making it harder for me to pick, curse you. :biggrin:
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