Graduate School by the Numbers: The Decision

I have lost count of the number of people to whom I’ve turned for advice regarding the optimal career path.  The beautiful thing about learning from other people’s experiences is that you come away with proof that things can work out (or not) if a certain course is taken.  The agonizing thing is that you ultimately have to make your own decision anyway.

In stark contrast to my first year of applying to graduate school, I was accepted this round to all of my programs of interest.  As encouraging as it is to be wanted, I somewhat wish that I was left with fewer options.  After a bit of grueling rumination, the decision came down to two programs.

In one corner, weighing in at second most prestigious program in the nation (by NRC) with several exciting opportunities for scientific growth (read: big names with big techniques) in a new environment, but somewhat uncertain project funding scenarios and almost guaranteed housing in a large closet for the next six years: Super-Fancy Program.  In the other corner, weighing in at guaranteed funding in a lab of interest with the ability to maintain my current momentum (read: several first author fairly high-impact papers published in the last year and two more in review), and which would allow cost-effective progression of my married life (read: buying a house): Somewhat-Prestigious Program (my current institution of employ).

Prestige over productivity?  New and uncertain over safe and familiar?  Delayed building a home over immediate?  After a weekend of sulking and pining, I did choose the former over the latter.  Here is what shaped my decision:

1)   Although Somewhat-Prestigious Program would allow the continuation and development of projects on which I am working now, I have already been working on them on and off for four years. Super-Fancy Program provides entirely new direction and opportunity, but what PhD student publishes 1.5 manuscripts a year anyway?

2)   It is difficult to grow when one is surrounded by the safe and familiar.  Development is fomented by a challenging environment.  Though it is certainly not uncommon to earn a PhD at an institution where one has worked in a lab as a technician or undergraduate, these cases tend to work out best when institutions are large.  Somewhat-Prestigious Program, where I am now, is on the smaller end, which would make it harder for me to find new opportunities.  In this case, a different institution would make me more attractive for post doc positions in the future.

3)    The environment of Super-Fancy Program will not only be a new city and state, but a new kind of institution.  I attended a small liberal arts university for undergrad, and have been working at a teaching hospital with no internal undergraduate population since (although there are several universities around the city).  Since a teaching requirement is important to me, and specifically one built into the program that allows autonomy over one’s own course, an on-site undergraduate population is ideal.  Testimonials have convinced me that hunting down one’s own external teaching opportunities is a significant burden during a pre doc.  Earning my PhD at a school with an undergraduate, graduate and medical demographic will be a new and exciting adventure.

4)   Regarding the house — a dream of mine — once I find one, I will not want to get up and leave in six years to go find a post doc.  And it is almost always the case that one is more attractive having gone elsewhere for a post doc.  My husband and I have decided that it is worth waiting six years to buy a house if I am likely to get a post doc at an institution in which I will want to remain long-term (for me, this has become the plan of attack).

5)   Having a transplantable partner is ideal for this kind of decision.  I am exceedingly fortunate that my husband will be able to find work in the city of Super-Fancy Program.  His support has been phenomenal, which is part of the reason I changed my name for publications.


Natalie Goldberg is a Neuroscience and Chemistry addict in pursuit of a PhD.  Since 2008, she has worked as a research assistant at the Portland VA Medical Center rescuing the world from the throes of neurodegenerative movement disorders.  Her musings and experiences in science can be found in her blog.



Check out the previous article in the Graduate School by the Numbers Series:

Mastering the Interview Process



Any other factors influence your graduate school decision?



3 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. NMF

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 7:58 am

    I had three options:
    1) Mid-major public university, highly ranked college, but brand new program. Very good funding, freedom to do what I want, and great resources. However, it is the same place I did my undergrad, and did undergrad research.
    2) Highly ranked private university, with great programs. No funding- in fact I'd have to pay tuition too. Great resources and research. Same city at #1.
    3) Mid-major public university, with great, established program. Very good funding and research resources. New town which has significantly higher cost of living (I could afford a closest… maybe).

    I chose #1 for financial reasons, to stay close to friends and family, the freedom and resources, and the ability to hit the ground running. I was trained on a wide variety of tools. I don't regret it at all (2.5 years in). I've presented at a half dozen conferences, published, have a project I'm interested and passionate about, and have been able to work collaboratively on many side projects.

    My biggest factor was I firmly believe name recognition only gets you so far. It means more to publish, get funding, present, etc. than it is to go to a big name school. I'll let you know how that works out!

  2. Natalie Sashkin Goldberg

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 11:02 am

    It looks like you and I faced a very similar situation, but that staying at your current institution offers you great opportunity for growth while maintaining the momentum you've achieved thus far. It's the ideal, really, so best of luck to you :)

  3. Natalie Sashkin Goldberg

    wrote on March 11, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Enter text right here!

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