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Monday, March 10, 2014

'Tis the Season for Tough Decisions

The acceptance letters are out, and students all over the country will be traveling from school to school to make sure they are as informed as possible when they make the decision. It's a big one - one that will set the stage for the rest of their careers.

The decision is where or whether to pursue a Ph. D. in chemistry.

Everyone approaches their decision a little bit differently, and to gain some perspective on that fact, I reached out to a few graduate students in the department and asked them about the factors they considered most strongly when making their choice.*

Department Size and Variety
All respondents agreed on one thing: when it comes to choosing a school, a big department with a lot of variety is always better. This idea is one that graduating students often haven't considered when they arrive for visitation. "A big program often offers a wider selection in terms of research, which I decided was critical in making my decision since I wasn’t 100% sure exactly what type of research I wanted to do [when selecting a school]," wrote Charles Lhermitte. Additionally, students aiming for spots in specific labs should acknowledge that there can be many other students vying for those spots, and the chances of not landing your first choice are real. A Ph. D. is a long and difficult degree, and if you get stuck working on a research project that you are not passionate about, it will be even more so. Choosing a school where there are several labs that are attractive to you makes having a good backup plan easy. Students also view schools that feature research rotations very favorably for the same reasons.

A varied department also offers a safety when it comes to student/advisor relationships. As graduate students, we're offered the somewhat unique opportunity of choosing our boss, and in many ways choosing the right advisor is just as critical as choosing research that you are passionate about. "One advising style is not right for all graduate students and can lead to 5 long and miserable years," writes one respondent. "I'd recommend really talking to professors and asking students about advisor/student relationships and mentor styles."

Program Rank
Each student considers the prestige of a school's program when deciding whether or not to apply there, and program rank is just as important in the final selection process. An advanced degree from an elite institution is certainly a lofty goal, and building one's academic pedigree in that way has obvious benefits when it comes to landing a great job after graduate school. The Ph. D. is a huge investment of time and effort. Everyone wants to get a job that makes that investment worthwhile.

However, some respondents viewed rank as a less important consideration when reviewing their decision process in retrospect. Choosing a school based on rank alone is risky. Be sure to weigh program rank carefully against other factors such as those outlined above.

Personal Factors
"I like to be involved in where I live, so it was important that there are opportunities for that," writes Kim Daley. Visitation weekends just as much about getting a feel for the research as they are about experiencing the town surrounding the school, the social atmosphere of the department, and your potential lab mates. It is important to find people that you can get along with. Additionally, the other members of the department will turn into your mentors and collaborators, so it is worthwhile to check your own work habits against theirs to see how they mesh. "Fitting in with a group is semi-important since so much time is spent in the lab. Work style and work ethic are important," notes one respondent.

Moving on to graduate school usually means packing up and shipping off to a new part of the world, and for students in relationships, that can be especially stressful. There is a lot of pressure to make a decision that is in the best interest of your professional life. "However," writes Daley, "your personal life is also important. When I was picking, I felt like considering my boyfriend would somehow make me a weak person. But it's okay."

School or Work?
For some students, the decision involves not only choosing between graduate schools, but choosing between graduate school in general or entering the workforce directly. Working for a few years after undergrad can provide invaluable experience and perspective, especially for those just looking to take a break before returning to advanced education later on. (And, of course, the pay is often significantly better than a graduate student stipend.) Working in industry can also win you contacts and references that distinguish you from other applicants when applying for future positions.

For those with aspirations of managing research projects, however, a Ph. D. is undoubtedly the way to go. "Those with a B.S. may hit a sort of promotional 'ceiling' a lot sooner than a Ph. D.," writes Lhermitte, who interned at Procter & Gamble before applying to graduate school. "I discussed this with my bosses and they agreed that a Ph. D. would allow me to move more quickly up the ranks in the company. If you want to go far in a technical company, then you have to get a Ph. D." Managing a research project is a skill that must be learned like any other. Over the course of a Ph. D., you will not only gain focused knowledge and become an expert in your field, but you will also develop your skills as a manager of research - training that is very difficult to find elsewhere. The Ph. D. is a certification of that training.

It's Your Decision - Nobody Else's!
Choosing what to do after getting your undergraduate degree is a big professional decision, and it is necessarily stressful. That stress can be compounded by other figures in your life - parents, undergraduate advisors, etc. - telling you what is and is not important in a school. To some extent, their advice is necessary to help inform your decision, but remember that the final decision is yours alone. Your choice should reflect the best compromise among all of the factors that are truly important to you, no matter what those factors are.

*comments lightly edited for clarity

P.S. Thank you to everyone who responded for this post! Input like yours makes these kinds of pieces possible. Showcasing student opinion is an important part of the project for me. If you have more to add, feel free to leave a comment!

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