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I've been told by numerous people that (1) my undergraduate university will be disinclined to bring me on as a graduate student, and that (2) it's a bad idea to attend grad school where you completed your undergraduate degree, anyway. Is that true? If so, why?

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6 Answers 6

up vote 11 down vote accepted

Pros

  • If you stay at the same school (this applies even more when you join grad school immediately out of your undergrads), it'll be a matter of remaining in your comfort zone - same department, a faculty who know you, even the same apartment/neighborhood! This can be a major factor, depending on the person concerned - the pros of staying at your Alma mater are all about convenience IMO.
  • If your UG department has an influential professor with whom you've worked before and are planning to continue as well, that can be very advantageous - as having such a faculty get to know a student's work as an undergraduate can lead to a very strong recommendation (since he has accepted you in the grad program, it is reasonable to assume your work had impressed him during your undergrads).

Cons

An important advantage of going to another school is that you will be exposed to a completely different department, with faculty who may have diverse research ideas for you to work on. The department, in turn, will benefit as well as a new student from another school will cross-pollinate their department with fresh ideas. This is so important that some top universities have a strong bias against accepting their own undergraduate students into their graduate programs.

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Your first "pro" is actually a con—you can't grow as a researcher (or as anything else) without leaving your comfort zone. And your second "pro" is more an incentive for undergraduate research than for staying put. –  JeffE Feb 18 '12 at 17:15
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I was actually talking about non-academic convenience - maybe one has family residing in the same state, or that it might be expensive to move to a different state etc... But yes, I agree that one does need to move out of his academic comfort zone to effectively grow as a researcher. –  TCSGrad Feb 19 '12 at 6:08
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As Henry points out in the response to Artem's answer, many graduate departments—especially at top schools in the US—have a "no undergrads admitted from our department" policy. Both my undergraduate and graduate schools have adopted such policies.

In general, unless you have a very strong reason for staying at your undergraduate school—either a personal situation, such as a spouse who has a job in the area, or the opportunity to work on the world's only "X" (whatever "X" is)—then you are much better served by going somewhere else for graduate school. You will have the advantage of working with new people, plus you avoid the very strong stigma attached to having all of your educational pedigree at a single location.

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It's not a stigma everywhere; a significant fraction of MIT faculty were both undergraduates and graduate students at MIT. (Of course, MIT is an outlier.) –  JeffE Feb 18 '12 at 17:16
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Even MIT is starting to rethink its position on taking its own--at least in a number of departments, both as graduate students as well as faculty hires. –  aeismail Feb 19 '12 at 1:29
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@aeismail: This seems to be very USA specific (which should be mentioned). In Europe the situation is very different. No idea how it is in Asia. –  Martin Scharrer Feb 21 '12 at 22:22
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@MartinScharrer: The situation in Europe is starting to change post-Bologna. International experience is being recognized as increasingly important, and "in-house" promotions are also frowned upon. (The habilitation system in Germany, for instance, forbids its recipients from working at the same school where they get the habilitation!) –  aeismail Feb 21 '12 at 23:08
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The stigma is there because not leaving suggests that you are too "indoctrinated" in that particular school's style, as that's the only one you've been exposed to. As JeffE points out, that's not true of all departments, but in some fields, it can be a problem. –  aeismail Dec 14 '12 at 13:17
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I will address the two points separately:

  1. If you have a strong application, then your undergrad university will be more inclined to take you as a graduate student. The reason is that to have a strong application, you need very good reference letters. The reference letters are probably from professors at your undergrad school, and thus they will carry a lot of weight there (compared to other schools where your former supervisors are less known). Thus, it is often easiest to get into the school you graduated from.

  2. I've heard the second point myself, and I actually advice it/try to follow that advice, too. The reasoning behind it as that at the school you graduated from, you already know everybody. Thus, if you stay you will continue to work with the same people and won't meet new collaborators. If you go to a new school, you will have to meet new people and expand your network.

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The first point isn't universally true. Many schools have a policy of actively trying not to take their own undergrads as grad students. –  Henry Feb 17 '12 at 13:27
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@henry - That's what I was referring to in my point (1), and I was wondering whether it was true. They actually have it as a policy? –  eykanal Feb 17 '12 at 13:50
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@eykanal: I don't mean policy in the sense of "written down in the formal list of policies", but I mean that it's an accepted practice that people will openly discuss as being part of how they make decisions. –  Henry Feb 17 '12 at 14:21
    
I believe Stanford has a formal written policy forbidding accepting their own undergrads for grad school (at least in CS). –  JeffE Feb 18 '12 at 15:57
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@Eykanal: A similar policy exists at most graduate departments in ChemE. –  aeismail Feb 19 '12 at 7:25
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Answering (1):

Staying at the same place is very uncommon in the US, where there is a presumption against it. It does not mean that it is impossible or never happens, but it counts against you in admissions.

This is mostly true when referring to doing undergraduate and PhD studies at the same place. Normally it's fine to do your Masters and undergraduate at the same place, or to move between undergraduate and Masters and then stay at the same place for PhD.

*

The situation is very different in Europe. In fact, professors may attempt to recruit their best undergraduates to work for them as graduate students and this is seen as a positive thing for all involved.

There is an increasing stigma against hiring faculty that has no experience outside of a given university (derisively called in-breeding), but I do not think that it applies to undergraduate->graduate transition.

Others have answered (2) in more detail.

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Here's an intermediate step that some of my friends took: they stayed on to do their Masters in the same lab where they did their undergraduate study, then moved college (and country) to do their PhDs. That way, they got more research experience in an excellent lab in their home country (keeping costs down a bit), then used their PhD stipends to offset the cost of living abroad.

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The only advantage I see in entering graduate school in the same university where you completed your undergrad program is having a continuity between your undergrad research programs and graduate research.

Typically it takes some time for a new grad student to get accustomed with research activities, with the routine of a new lab or research group, getting to know your advisor, etc. Also there are some adjustment of your personal life: you are probably moving to another town, choosing another home, finding a new favourite grocery store, a new gym, etc, etc. This takes time and certainly impacts how productive you are.

If you are enrolled in undergrad research programs, and you're already well adjusted to your lab's/research group routine and workflow, it might be that you'll feel much less of an impact of changing from undergrad to grad research programs. It might be that you can start being productive right away because you don't have to worry about a lot of things.

On the short term, it might be that you manage to turn this into one extra article published at the end of your PhD. It's not improbable. But it's not incredibly probable either.

You incur in a lot of risks if you don't change. If you spend too much of your formative years working on the same research group, you risk becoming too well adjusted to its workflow and research programs, to the point that you can't see alternatives.

Also, the real impact of a few months of advantage and an extra article, if it really happens, is probably offset by the advantages of moving to another university. A couple years after your PhD the time you lost finding an apartment and banging your head against the wall to understand your new research program will most likely be forgotten and will not influence your career at all.

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