Graduate Offers of Admission – Navigating by the Storm Clouds

Well, things are looking sunny from this point. I’m now (at time of writing) in receipt of two offers of admission from Grad Schools in the USA. A handful of Chemistry PhD programs have yet to reply with either an acceptance or a rejection, so the exact choice I’m going to have to make has not yet been sorted.  

I don’t want to go into too much detail about who has offered me what, or my exact opinions on these schools. Mostly because as yet I’m not decided where I will end up or for which reasons.

It feels strange having A Plan for the next 5-10 years laid out in front of me. It hasn’t really sunk in. I know I’m lucky that with Offer No. 2 I now have a choice about where I can go. It isn’t just a choosing between a “good” and a “bad” option, it’s about weighing up the options contained within each choice and deciding what is most important to me. Getting dragged through the 2011-12 Application Cycle it felt as if I had very little control over the final outcome – which was why the decision to try again the next year lifted so much weight from me – I don’t want to feel like I’m being forced into the one outcome through lack of alternatives.

My immediate question right now is: what is important to me and my next decade?

Money. Location. Job prospects. Personal development. Nature of PhD work. University environment. Hobbies and socialising. Work-life balance.

But not in any specific order.

The factors aren’t cut-and-dried, either. Take “job prospects”. If I’m intent upon a high-flying international career as a Research Scientist then my choice of schools narrows down quickly. If I’m prepared to settle for a science-orientated job in a particular geographical area then I’m looking at a totally different list, one with less emphasis on international reputation. If it turns out that I am really fixed on that high-flying career, then the institution I complete my postdoc at is going to matter more than where I completed my PhD. That’s how Higher Education works.

There’s always going to be a trade-off. If I join an exciting research program, get on well with everybody in the group and work hard to generate good results…I am probably going to worry less about living in a dull town. Hobbies, travel and socialising can’t overshadow the research – that’s just the way things are. Likewise, a large stipend would be welcomed, but if I don’t have the free time to spend a lot of money that it isn’t strictly necessary.

Some of the universities I’m applying to are in a location I really love. Others have strong reputations for my type of research. Others have professors I’ve already “clicked” with and I know I’d work well with them. Others I think will help me when it comes to finding jobs further down the line. It feels like I would have a good reason to go to any of the places I’ve chosen.

A lot is hanging in the balance right now. Fortunately my stress levels are going down as I start to see everything fall into place. I know whichever choice I make will be the right one.

Audience Question: How would you go about prioritising your next decade? What do you think is most important when sorting out a PhD program?


6 thoughts on “Graduate Offers of Admission – Navigating by the Storm Clouds

  1. “I know whichever choice I make will be the right one.”

    Since you’ll have actual good career options, and you can always travel some if your setting is not perfect, I think your instincts will help you to make that right choice.

  2. Good for you, Claire! Even without more details about the 2 offers, it seems they’re both good ones. When I’m in extreme doubt, I find it useful to sit down and make a pros/cons analysis of the possibilities. It may seem all clear in your head, but when you’ll see on paper that one option has 2 more pros or 2 less cons than the other, it might help you chose.

    if I were to devote the next 5 years of my life to a Phd, I think I’d worry more about the reputation of the university/professors, the nature of the Phd work, and the job prospects than about location, hobbies, and personal development. If you enjoy the Phd work and know that it’ll lead you to the career you want, the rest will follow for sure. The personal experience will be what you make it, but you won’t have much control on the nature of the Phd work and all things related.

    Good luck with the choice!

    • The Pros & Cons list sounds like a good idea. And yes, I should be thinking more about reputation than the add-ons: since the PhD work will take up the vast majority of my time…

  3. I’m coming towards the end of my doctorate and I have to say that if I was doing it again, I’d go based on location/colleagues, then project. Unfortunately I’ve ended up with not very good of either (I’ve tried to make the most of it) but I’ve found that regardless of how good the project is, you will hit a lull or low point somewhere in the middle of the project and you need to have the support structures/peoples/activities available to lift you up and out for some air. I’ve seen it in others, not just myself, and that no matter how focused, dedicated you are, how exciting and invigorating your project, you will go off piste and need people to bring you back to reality. That is so much better when you are in a good location with good friends and good colleagues. (They can also make a dull project much more interesting and exciting.)

    • Sometimes I think it’s hard to predict in the beginning how colleagues, project & location will turn out. Then hindsight rears its head.
      Your thoughts are quite similar to my own position and what I tried to arrange with my choice of PhD programs (ie, sticking to a particular geographic area). I think that my concern is that choosing the wrong project/research group could limit my options further down the line if I don’t get a “good” PhD and can’t choose a location I like. Then it becomes about the balance between short, mid and long-term happiness…
      Still, my choices aren’t all in yet. A fair portion of this is mere speculation. By the time I reach a final decision I hope it’ll be a bit clearer.

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