Some places just get under your skin. You can’t even explain why, but after experiencing them once – even for a brief moment – your life is never the same again.
Would you believe that it was exactly three years ago in April 2010 that I first decided that I wanted, really wanted, to pursue postgraduate study in the USA. Specifically on the East Coast, if at all possible.
At the time of writing this post it is March 2013. In the intervening years I returned to Edinburgh to finish my degree: the time spent in Philadelphia had inspired me to live life completely on my terms, so I dived headlong into dancing and new friendships. It gave me the best year of them all during my undergraduate degree. Then I headed to continental Europe to live for 12 months in Basel, Switzerland. When that finished I spent 3 months in London, a city that took me by surprise with its beauty and personality.
…And yet still, it was the East Coast of America that held my heart. Three years and all those cities later.
The PhD Application Limbo was a stressful one, especially since I had applied to universities in the USA & UK. I wasn’t just choosing between which university was “best”, I was choosing which continent I wanted to spent the next decade+ in. The American schools all got back to me with their decisions before the British ones. Choosing which of the State-side schools was my top choice out of the acceptances wasn’t too difficult…but still I had doubts. Doubts about whether the East Coast school I’d chosen would be better for me than the programs I’d applied to in the UK. And if it wasn’t…would the allure of the USA be enough to compensate for that? My mind switched back and forth over the course of a day. At this stage the British universities hadn’t get made their decisions, so it was all a load of hypothetical wriggling anyway.
What do you do when labouring under that level of uncertainty?
…How about going back to the source?
I told my top choice school that I wanted to fly over and visit them for a second time. I gave myself a long weekend – they booked me into a nice downtown hotel for the whole duration.
The doubts were there in my mind, but I formulated questions that would test just how well-founded these concerns actually were. I scoured official university webpages to find as much information as I could about what graduate life & study would entail at this place. I gave some thought to what I’d want to see from my potential future advisors & lab colleagues, and how I might be able to tease that out during the short visit.
Guess what? The formal visitation went really well. The doubts I had held were addressed and mitigated. I got to see the program’s individual strengths – strengths not necessarily available in the other programs I had applied to. There were a good chunk of faculty members whom I felt relaxed chatting to and with whom I thought I would work well, doing the kind of research I wanted to do. The graduate students I met were likeable, charming and did more with their lives than slave away in the lab (although lab slaving is involved in large quantities, but that’s par for the course anywhere). That night I wandered back to my hotel room grinning from ear to ear.
On the Saturday I took a smooth regional rail trip down to Philadelphia, catching up with friends and enjoying the warm sunny day. The weather didn’t matter though – I love this place even when it’s blizzarding or when the air is too humid to walk through. On the Benjamin Franklin Parkway the sun caught on all the world flags, making them glow as if from within.
It was magical. But then again, it always is.
I think the real moment that I made my decision was when I received an email from my Top Choice British Professor at the university which had most-strongly contended with my American preferences. It was a friendly email, but he was writing to warn me that it didn’t look like he would have the funds to support me as a PhD student in his group and I should probably investigate alternatives. This came the week before my US visit.
Thing was, when I received his email…I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t upset.
I was relieved.
Relieved because I wouldn’t have an additional offer to complicate my decision-making process. Relieved because it had felt at times that I should strongly consider an offer from this university because of its reputation – not because I wanted to study there (although I would have been happy enough to).
When I knew it was relief I was feeling at a rejection from a British university…the American choice won out.
I’ve subsequently accepted their offer and declined the rest. On my desk at home sits F1 visa paperwork and a crucial To Do list for the next few months.
We’re moving forward. A Chemistry PhD at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey is happening.