Thursday, October 22, 2015

Selecting the best option

Congratulations! The moment you have been waiting for is finally here. You got accepted!
It's time for parties and some very hard decisions. Don't you sometimes feel that someone would just tell you what to do, which school to select and what program to study? I know you do. Almost everyone does. It is a completely natural reaction of coping with what could be the most important decision of your life. Through this post I hope to shed some light on some of the factors that need to be considered while making this decision. I hope this will be helpful to at least some of you.

An important thing that many people don't consider is the fit of the university to their research, academic and personal interests. Though the reputation of the university is important, it is not as important as the fit of the university to your interests. Going to a university that doesn't have a good group working in your area of interest can make your next 4-5 years frustrating. Ultimately, at the end your PhD, your university doesn't matter nearly as much as your work; and good research is best done with a good research group.

Another choice that you may have to make is choosing between a star professor and a new, relatively unknown professor as your advisor. That is a decision that completely depends on you. The senior professor will be extremely well connected among the community and could lead to new associations for you. He/She will have a well established research group and you will be able to jump start your research. However, the senior professor will have several students and several commitments apart from his/her research and will not be able to give you as much time as you may need. On the other hand, a new professor will have more time to guide you and will devote more energy towards your success. He/She may not have an established research group but you can see this as an opportunity to lead the establishment of his/her research group. You will have to be more proactive if you want to work for a new professor. He/she will not be able to introduce you to too many people but this will give you the opportunity to go out and meet people.

Some offers that you get may promise funding and some offers may not offer any funding during the first year. Deciding between these offers could be tough, especially when the unfunded offer is from a place you really want to go to. I believe that in this case you should consider how these universities fit with your research goals and select based on the fit. I think, unless you are not able to support yourself for even for a semester, you should not take funding into consideration while making your decision. Go to the place which you feel is the best fit. You will be able to arrange for funding within a semester or an year under some professor or the other.

You should always talk to current graduate students in all the universities you are considering. They are the best source of information about the university in general and a potential advisor in particular. You will be able to decide whether you can work with a professor, do your personalities complement each other, how are the other students, how are the facilities at the university, what are the career prospects after graduation, where are the recent graduates placed, etc. They will also be able to inform you whether the university has adequate facilities and resources for your particular needs.

You might have to decide between a direct PhD program and a program that offers the option of a terminal masters. If you are not completely sure whether PhD is for you, then terminal masters will be the best option for you. You get to experience the actual work environment and research and if you don't like what you are doing, you can quit with a masters in two years. On the other hand, if you are completely sure that you want to complete a PhD, then opting for the direct PhD option might be the best.

Sometimes personal preferences and boundaries can affect your decision. For example, you might want to live with your partner and they can't move to a very far away place, then you will have to choose a university that is nearer. Or, you may not like cold at all so you would want to avoid the universities located in regions which experience extreme cold in winters. Or you may want to live in a big city instead of living in a small university town or vice versa. These factors may not seem very important at this stage, but 3-4 years down the line, you may regret your decision of joining a university without considering your personal preferences and comforts. These factors might be the difference between a good PhD and a great one.

This is almost everything I wanted to say about the decision process. If you ave any comments or questions, feel free to leave them in the comments and I will do my best to answer those.