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Two years ago, I completed my bachelor degree with highest honor ranking 1st of my class in the Electrical and Computer Engineering department in my university in Egypt. Since then I have been working as a teaching assistant in the same department. I was seeking to pursue my Msc degree at a high ranking university and hence I applied for a Msc in 12 universities. I was able to gain admission(without funding) in four of them(among them was Carnegie Mellon and University of Michigan ann arbor). Meanwhile, a friend of mine helped me to get a research as position in a low ranking university in the US (No. 160 according to Us news ranking). In the low ranking university, I am supposed to work intensively (the lab director requires the students to work on Sundays!) on a field that is not my primary field of interest. Also, he , this adviser, expects me to continue my Phd with him and my friends in this lab informed me that he will not give a recommendation letter if I want to leave his lab later. However, I am shooting for a higher ranking university for the Phd.

Do you advice me to go to the low ranking university with this adviser and then shoot for a higher one for the Phd? Or to wait and apply again for other universities for my Msc?

Also, is it OK to change my field of interest after finishing the Msc? will this limit my opportunists for a Phd in my primary field of interest?

Finally, how important is the Msc adviser's recommendation letter while applying for a Phd?

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I think these are four completely different questions in one. Maybe you can split them up or even find answers to some of them. Better or cheaper university? Change interest? (yes and yes) How important is the recommendation letter? (Quite a lot) Should I go there? (No, please don't go there. It sounds horrible.) –  The Almighty Bob Aug 6 at 17:31

2 Answers 2

The answer is clear, and has nothing to do with ranking: if you want to go onto a PhD, your application will mostly depend on the letter of your research advisor.

That being said, there are terrible warning signs, and I would not take that position. Requiring you to work on sundays (and saturdays I presume) does not make a healthy student. Even students need down times. Sure, when I was writing my thesis I worked for a month straight; but thats crunch time. During normal students life it should be fairly balanced (40-60 hours a week working, with some play).

If you are willing to pay (another topic) go to the higher ranking schools, or wait a year and reapply to see if you can get funding at a better school. The advisor at the lower ranking school seems unethical, and I would not work for him even if he was at a school like MIT or Caltech. The fact that he wouldn't write you a letter of recommendation if you decided to leave is truly an indication that he does not have your best interests in mind: writing letters his his job.

As so many put it here, run don't walk.

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+1 for the ugly warning signs. –  Davidmh Aug 6 at 21:40

In the US, going for your MS and PhD at the same school is the preferred approach in engineering. The MS is seen as a golden parachute if you can't pass the qualifying exams for the PhD. Some schools even see having an MS as a disadvantage when applying for a PhD for this reason. If you think you might continue on for a PhD, then choose the school and adviser that you would want to continue on with.

The question of funding vs. prestige is a tricky one. Do you want to work after school or do you want to stay in academia? Funding will leave you less in debt after school, but for a career in academia, the prestige of your program and adviser is very important.

In your particular situation, there are terrible warning signs for the low ranked school so I would avoid that situation regardless of what your longer term goals are.

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