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Main Question: To what degree is a competitive (as opposed to collaborative or mutually-supportive) academic environment endemic of famous/top-tier/high-powered institutions?


This question developed out of my recent experience doing a masters program at one of the top universities in the world. Perhaps in part due to my cozy experience at a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree, I was caught off-guard by the competitiveness — and what felt to me like toxicity — of the graduate school environment. I had a sense that unless I had already done amazing work, it was very difficult to feel respected by my peers or get the attention of the excellent academics lecturing my classes. And in classes there was so much discussion of who wrote the best paper, or who got the highest score.

This culture created a lot of anxiety for me and led me to a number of unhealthy and counterproductive behaviors. I wasted significant amounts of time seeking acceptance in a culture which, by its very nature, is not exactly accepting.

Research holds a lot of meaning for me, so I would like to return to school for a PhD. But I just need to make sure I can find an environment that feels successful and healthy but also challenges me as a thinker and a researcher. As such, I have a number of questions:

  1. Is this culture inevitable in top-tier institutions? I wonder whether this pattern will always emerge due to graduate students' competition over the limited resource of these famous professors' time. That being said, alternative explanations of the above exist, including a) that my experience at a small liberal arts college was abnormally sheltering, and that my masters program was actually normal; and b) that masters programs are not good predictors of the PhD experience: a masters student occupies an awkward, liminal position in a department and likely must do more grasping for recognition than a PhD student.

  2. If this culture is inevitable, what are some suggestions for combating the insecurities and inefficiencies that result from it? How can I maintain my health within these communities? I believe that some of the best research, some of the most creative ideas, requires relief (at least temporarily) from the pressure of constant judgement. I want to be able to find or create that shelter for myself.

  3. One alternative to dealing with these communities is to attend a mid-tier program. Would I able to receive the same level of academic excellence, be challenged and enriched as deeply, at an institution which is not publicly understood to be top-tier? Are there examples of top-tier academics whose pedigree (in advisers and institutions) is relatively humble?


Further specifics:

  • The degree was a taught masters in mathematics.

  • Interactions with peers:

    • Attempts to do homework with others from my course were unsuccessful. I realized that compared to the students I attempted to collaborate with, I prefer to take a long time on homework, connecting the problems to other areas I know about, thinking about extensions, generating questions, and interrogating my understanding. When I tried to do homework with others in the course, I would frequently be seen as slow. It was the student who completed his assignment in 30 minutes who was lauded by other students. (And my attitude toward homework is not entirely by choice; I am not at the moment capable of that speed).
    • Discussions of ideas with peers outside of the classroom was also difficult. I learned that unless I had already done the work of formalizing, carefully defining my thoughts, I would be met with criticism. Sentences starting with "what about something like ..." were met with "I can't see how that would work" or "that doesn't make sense," rather than, "tell me more," or "hmm, what if we added this...". The whole point of discussions for me is to explore hazy ideas collaboratively, but it felt like the culture of discussion was more like a performance.
  • Interactions with professors: I was lucky to receive support and attention from certain professors, but both my degree adviser and my thesis adviser appeared less-than-interested in me, sometimes missing scheduled meetings without notice. I got a sense that if my existing work were more interesting or important, this might have not been the case.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Aug 1 '18 at 14:24
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    I don't like closing this question because clearly it resonates with a number of people. But I think that for this question to be useful, the word "unhealthy" in the title needs to be replaced with something less subjective, and this needs to be elaborated more precisely in the body of the question. – David Ketcheson Aug 1 '18 at 15:07
  • Also, it seems there may be multiple questions here; one that isn't elucidated much is "why might vaguely-defined questions tend to be disregarded in mathematics?". I think that's an interesting question and quite separate from the main thrust of this one. It's also one that should probably be asked on mathoverflow instead of here. – David Ketcheson Aug 1 '18 at 15:10
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    Thank you @DavidKetcheson, I largely agree with your reasoning, in particular I do see that I have conflated "unhealthy" with the unqualified property of competitiveness. At the same time, I believe the main question has been answered in a meaningful way in the answers: that no, top-tier programs are not necessarily noncollaborative, competitive, or otherwise perceived as unhealthy. – William Aug 1 '18 at 16:22
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    @DavidKetcheson Perhaps a better question would have been: "what factors determine the degree of competitiveness in graduate communities?" I am happy to edit the question title and body, but it may be at the risk of rendering certain answers below confusing or less-relevant. How much of a concern should that be? – William Aug 1 '18 at 16:25

13 Answers 13

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No, not all graduate programs at top tier universities are unhealthy. I can't say how many are, and it could be the majority in some fields, but it is definitely not all. I have personally been in several departments (One US ivy league, two UK golden triangle, genomics/systems biology) where the grad program was incredibly collegiate and friendly, but I know plenty of people that were places where this wasn't the case, even at the same institutions.

I think the best thing you can do is go to the open days/recruitment weekends and really make sure you question the current students there with this particular question in mind. And I wouldn't worry about seeming naive, or that such questioning might jeopardize your chances - it they think that, then you probably don't want to go there anyway.

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    It's perhaps worth noting that the PhD environment may sometimes be less competitive than a (taught) masters one because people are working on different things - so there's no direct comparison of "who wrote the best paper for this assignment". Doesn't mean that some departments aren't still toxic for PhD researchers, of course. – Flyto Jul 31 '18 at 11:03
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    @Flyto I'm no graduate student, but I thought it was exactly the opposite, that masters students don't compete with other students as much as PHDs because the scopes of their works were smaller, and because the students are not necessarily aiming towards a career in research. – user4052054 Jul 31 '18 at 20:12
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    @user4052054 - several 'top' programs I knew of back in the 1980's had a horrible reputation for masters students - they would admit a large class, and only offer admissions to the PhD program to fewer than half. The rest got the masters and were asked to leave. I avoided them, even though I was brash and arrogant enough to be sure I'd be in the top half. The reputation was of a very cut-throat anti-teamwork environment through the masters portion. After that it didn't matter. – Jon Custer Jul 31 '18 at 22:29
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This question developed out of my recent experience doing a masters program at one of the top universities in the world. [...] The degree was a taught masters in mathematics.

I'm going to add yet another answer to this question, because I'm in the unusual position of doing two taught master's programs, and from the hints in your question I strongly suspect one of them is the one you went to.

The fact is that academia is a small place. Your experience is largely going to be determined by one advisor and a handful of colleagues. If you just go with the flow, you can have a great time or a terrible time just due to chance. A liberal arts college is probably more likely to have a good environment by default, but if you work proactively, you can create a good environment from scratch anywhere. All it takes is a few likeminded peers.

Attempts to do homework with others from my course were unsuccessful. [...] I prefer to take a long time on homework, connecting the problems to other areas I know about, thinking about extensions, generating questions, and interrogating my understanding. When I tried to do homework with others in the course, I would frequently be seen as slow.

Doing homework "with" a group, especially a large group of at least five people, usually leads to this. People get tunnel vision and just want to complete the work as soon as possible, without reflecting on it. This isn't really a property of top tier institutions; it happens whenever you get sufficiently many sufficiently busy people together.

These dynamics can be avoided, but you need to take initiative. Find one or two likeminded friends, who work at the same pace, and form a small group that encourages discussion. Or, do the homework on your own and organize separate meetings solely for deeper discussion. You don't need to get many to show up; I find the best discussion happens in groups of four or less. You can also have discussion groups meet immediately after lectures, for convenience.

Sentences starting with "what about something like ..." were met with "I can't see how that would work" or "that doesn't make sense," [...] The whole point of discussions for me is to explore hazy ideas collaboratively, but it felt like the culture of discussion was more like a performance.

The same point applies here. In small communities (and all Master's programs are small, even Cambridge's Part III) the "culture" is not fixed, but rather something that emerges anew every year. As an individual in a small cohort, you have the power to change it, or at the very least the power to find a circle of likeminded peers. Your complaints are not new; I guarantee you at least a quarter of your cohort was feeling the exact same way.

If this culture is inevitable, what are some suggestions for combating the insecurities and inefficiencies that result from it? How can I maintain my health within these communities?

This has already been well addressed by other answers, but academically, again, you can have a great time if you find even one or two likeminded friends. You may have the sneaking suspicion that somebody in the cohort might be judging you, but that's a fact of all human interaction, and you're best off ignoring it.

One alternative to dealing with these communities is to attend a mid-tier program. Would I able to receive the same level of academic excellence, be challenged and enriched as deeply, at an institutions which is not publicly understood to be top-tier?

In 2018, absolutely. For any topic you might want to learn, there are over ten sets of lecture notes available online at any level you could want. And don't forget that half of these lecture notes are cribbed from books! If you work through a graduate level book, you'll end up with a deeper understanding of a topic than you would from following any one lecture course in the world.

It's a little trickier for a research degree, but at least 80% of your interactions will be within your own research group. If you find one good group, it's not really important how the whole university is ranked. And there are many top groups outside of top-tier institutions.

Are there examples of top-tier academics whose pedigree (in advisers and institutions) is relatively humble?

Yes, there are many examples. If you don't believe me, go through your department's website and browse through the CVs of your professors.

I was lucky to receive support and attention from certain professors, but both my degree adviser and my thesis adviser appeared less-than-interested in me, sometimes missing scheduled meetings without notice. I got a sense that if my existing work were more interesting or important, this might have not been the case.

Sorry, but professors are simply busy and forgetful people, and some really don't care about advising. This has nothing to do with you; just about nobody at the taught master's level is doing anything remotely interesting to a professor. Students who are trying to impress these professors with big words are probably coming off like a 15 year old would to you.

It's a well-kept secret that all professors at these institutions are great, but at least half are bad advisors. I've heard lots of tales of woe about how a bad advisor ruined a PhD, but it's really not up to chance. It's your responsibility to look them up, ask around, and find the best advisor for you in advance. It may be true that some top tier institutions have a larger share of bad advisors, but you only need to find one good one.

Main Question: To what degree is a competitive (as opposed to collaborative or mutually-supportive) academic environment endemic of famous/top-tier/high-powered institutions?

There are a few top-tier institutions I could name that are markedly more competitive on average, and a few that are markedly less. In the course of visiting graduate schools, I found many good, supportive groups within the competitive institutions and many toxic, competitive groups within the collaborative institutions. The variation is huge, and it's your job to figure it out, before you commit.

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    I think there are several excellent and constructive points here. +1 – Yemon Choi Aug 1 '18 at 2:43
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    "Professors are simply busy and forgetful people" This doesn't excuse missing scheduled meetings without notice. Being a professor is no excuse to be unprofessional. Now, to be fair, scheduling miscommunications or last-minute changes are not impossible (I've had them happen before, both on my part and on that of the other party/parties), but in general that sort of thing reflects more poorly on the professor than on the student, in my opinion. – JAB Aug 3 '18 at 3:21
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    @JAB I’m not excusing them, just explaining why such things might happen. I make about 8 separate points in this post and all of them could have been rephrased in terms of blaming somebody else, but I feel this is not useful. – knzhou Aug 3 '18 at 8:23
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My impression, as a mathematician, is that "unhealthy" is subjective. For almost any graduate program, you are likely to find people who thrived in it. For example, you experienced the competitiveness at your masters program as "toxicity"; I imagine there are others who found it a positive motivator.

Ph.D. programs vary highly in mood and culture. Although you will probably find some of what you described at any Ph.D. program, whether top-tier or not, it will probably be less pronounced at some places rather than others. With hard work and good luck, hopefully you will be able to find Ph.D. programs that fit your personality.

I suggest that you pose your questions to professors at your undergraduate institution. (And, alumni who went on to Ph.D.s, if you can get in touch with any of them.) They have firsthand experience with the environment in which you thrived, and perhaps know where else you can find similar environments.

Another thing you might do: look at the websites of academic departments in your field at a variety of small liberal arts colleges, and see where recently hired faculty members have earned their Ph.D.s. Are there any institutions that show up often? Those might be good programs to pay particular attention to.

Good luck!

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Is this culture inevitable in top-tier institutions?

Definitely not. Frequent? Maybe (though hopefully not). Inevitable? No.

I wonder whether this pattern will always emerge due to graduate students' competition over the limited resource of these famous professors' time.

I’ve never heard of “competition over professors’ time” being an important factor in competitive environments: Either a PI will take time for their students, or they won’t. Competition occurs over other things (mainly research topics and publications) but, in my experience, rarely between PhD students and more readily between postdocs.

what are some suggestions for combating the insecurities and inefficiencies that result from it?

I think this is a bad idea: you’re attempting to fight the symptoms rather than the root cause. Practically, the best solution is to not let it come to this: if you interview for a PhD position at an institute that gives off a toxic vibe, avoid that place. You’ll find other places with a supportive, friendly environment.

Next step, foster such an environment. You don’t have to forego healthy competition but it has to happen within reasonable limits. Beyond that you will spend an inordinate amount of time surrounded by other grad students so it’s imperative to at least get along with them. I did my PhD (at a top institute and top-tier University) surrounded by an immensely supportive community, and I credit my graduate student friends with my success during that time — literally. In fact, my fellow graduate students weren’t the cause of my insecurities and inefficiencies, they were the cure.

How can I maintain my health within these [toxic] communities?

You can’t. See above: avoid them at all cost. Such environments may be more frequent in academia than we’d like to admit but they are definitely not the norm, and not unavoidable. If you find yourself in such an environment and cannot leave, then my best advice is to find good friends, and support each other.

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    I think you've touched on an important truth: The degree of cut-throat competiveness one might encounter probably varies from university to university, from department to department, from research group to research group, and from cohort to cohort. In many ways, it's a crapshoot, although, as you say, we can control our own actions and attitudes, thereby increasing our chances of finding ourselves in a supportive, "we're-all-in-this-together" environment. – J.R. Jul 31 '18 at 20:59
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Short answer, no, it isn't an essential element of high level education at a top-tier university or anywhere else. But there are jerks everywhere who refuse to work cooperatively and some who aren't jerks, but just don't play well with others.

Top tier institutions are very competitive for admissions of course, but not necessarily thereafter. But the pace is fast, and eventually the research needed raises the pressure, since it is less deterministic. There is never a guarantee that a research project will actually produce anything. It is in the nature of the beast. People get focused - too focused in many cases. It isn't healthy.

Some top universities actually rely on student working/reading groups to enable students to keep up with the pace.

But the more serious issue is what does a student do who finds him/herself in a high pressure situation. It doesn't matter to that person whether the situation is common or not if it is their situation.

If you are in a high stress situation, I recommend that you find ways to specifically reduce the stress. For some, moving out of the environment may be required, but for most you can find ways to reduce it, not just "live with it."

Before you consider leaving for a lower stress environment, try to find ways to reduce the stress itself. That is the problem, not the environment, per se.

The key to reducing stress is to find some activity that will give your mind a rest from the normal activities of your work. You have to make a break, if even for a few minutes. You have to find ways to calm yourself both in body and mind. There are many ways to do this. Even reading a chapter of a book not related to your work (sci-fi, mystery, ...) may be enough for some. Meditation, yoga, taichi, riding a bike, racket ball...

There is evidence that pushing your brain constantly to try to force it to think-dammit is counterproductive and will both make it stall and raise your stress. The key is to let your brain muscle relax.

There is further evidence, noted by most scholars, that when you do take a break, the "answer" to your current work dilemma will pop into your head unbidden. This is because the brain itself is an active organ that will work, making connections, even when you aren't actively trying to make those connections.

My personal stress reducer is taichi and it works since it is a mind-body exercise. Even fifteen minutes makes a difference. I used to use bike riding and was part of a student-faculty riding club. For this, you need an hour or two several times a week.

You might be able to find some local resources on stress reduction. The counseling center at your university likely understand the problem and can give suggestions. You can form a club of some sort, like my old bike club to make it a community thing.

There is an advantage, actually, you can do stress reduction in a group of peers. It might, in fact, make them more willing/able to cooperate with you on the educational task you all face.

  • Thank you @Buffy for your answer. Your description of the "think-dammit" pattern resonated a lot with me. I think that if I had felt less immediate pressure from my surroundings to "perform", I would have, paradoxically, performed better. It sounds like the only antidote is to have enough faith in oneself to relax. I had a hard time committing to stress reducing behaviors like the ones you mention because they felt, at that time, like escapes from the real problems--engendering more stress because they weren't productive. Perhaps I simply need more life experience to recognize their value. – William Jul 31 '18 at 19:22
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I'm mostly answering this from my own experience (grad student at MIT in maths, 2011-2016):

I found the community of graduate students at MIT highly collaborative. It was easy to meet others interested in my subject (my thesis advisor even organized weekly unstructured meetings for everyone interested in combinatorics), and easy to discuss homework with other students (office hours are a good occasion to get to know your colleagues). Notes were also freely shared (or even posted online). Maybe this is specific to MIT or even to its maths department, but I have never felt any destructive competition or politics happening between the grad students (or between faculty either -- unlike other places I've seen).

Now there are caveats, of course:

  • At least to me, collaboration isn't "working together for hours", but rather "working alone for hours, and talking to each other from time to time to catch up". If you are looking for the former, you'll have a much harder job finding someone interested.

  • I was in the PhD program (and so was pretty much everyone else, even though some got masters in passing); it's possible that those are much more collaborative. If there is a choice between PhD and master's, probably the research nerds will filter into the PhD track while the master's students will be more focused on outside careers. This is likely to affect the communities. If you care about the subject, you probably want to be among the nerds.

  • MIT is famous for a different source of stress: the "drinking from the fire hose" problem. No one will ever tell you to stop. If you ask a professor whether you should read any given book or not, they will always tell you that you should. Likewise for attending any given class, going to any given talk... basically, no one will ever assume you're a mere human; no one will prevent you from overworking; no one will draw you any boundaries. You need to find your limits yourself. I enjoyed this system much more than I'd have the opposite, but you seriously need to get used to it, particularly if you are more used to rigid environments (I was fortunate in that I was not). Do not expect your fellow students to help you with this -- many will be equally helpless about it!

  • My impression with mid-tier places is that they burden their grad students with teaching much more than MIT does. Even if you like teaching, this will still drain you of time and energy. So be careful what you're getting into -- less competition doesn't mean better work-life balance. Ideally, visit the places and talk to grad students there (and not just 1st/2nd years, who usually don't get the full teaching burden).

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I obtained a PhD from not an upper tier university, and I can tell you that it was the worst decision of my life because of the toxic unhealthy environment. This environment is epidemic in academia and is routinely ignored or marginalized by academics that were successful for one reason or another.

Your focus on the institution and 'tier' is misplaced. Your focus needs to be on your adviser and mentor.

It is your PhD mentor that will make or break your health, education and career. The right and wrong choice for you are sitting in the same department, probably having lunch together right now.

  • Thank you @user96140 for your comment. I think you make a really good point about the importance of choosing the right advisor. Could you elaborate on what particular factors formed the negative components of your environment? Supposing you did have a great relationship with your advisor, would your peers still make it difficult to succeed? – William Jul 31 '18 at 18:34
  • i am my supervisor's one and only phd graduate. i am the only one from my cohort to have earned a phd direct from undergrad within our discipline (the other had a ms) (although the last remaining student should be graduating this year, i assume because otherwise he will be dropped from the program.) there were 8 or 9 of us that started. i still remember the moment my overtures toward my supervisors became accusations. it haunts me. my supervisor is not evil. he is not a bad scientist. he just lacks integrity. the bar for phd supervisors is much, much higher than for casual acquaintances. – user96140 Jul 31 '18 at 18:51
  • i would say that, unless this is theology or philosophy, where the student sits at the feet of the mentor, that the focus should be on the content of the research. the OP should find (without too much consideration for institution reputation or "tier") the PhD program where he/she can work on subject matter that is both interesting to the OP and that the OP has aptitude for. then figure out a good mentor. – robert bristow-johnson Jul 31 '18 at 22:29
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Some people thrive in an academic environment, others do not. It is surely competitive and sometimes it unfortunately looks as if objectives seem to justify the means.

Questions 1 and 3: Top-tier universities have a strong interest in maintaining their reputation (market share) which means that pressure on publications and research funding is high.

You will have to think deeply about your motivation for doing a PhD. Is it an intrinsic motivation for personal growth or do you want to become a top player in research? In the first case any university will do. Academic excellence is not exclusive to top-tier universities.

In the second case you will probably need a top-tier university and give whatever it takes: work hard, play hard and make the personal sacrifices.

Question 2: how to preserve your health?

Research shows that you’re not alone and many (graduate) students suffer from anxiety. I have no answer for this question. Two suggestions: be careful in finding a good supervisor and build yourself solid grounds outside the university.

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    Do not confuse "an academic environment" with "a highly competitive, toxic environment". There is overlap, certainly, but the whole point of the question is whether this overlap is complete or not. (IMHO it is not, and there's a growing movement in the UK to the effect that it should be less so) – Flyto Jul 31 '18 at 11:01
  • @MassimoOrtolano Probably I did not express myself well. I fully agree with you. It is an observation, not my opinion. – user93911 Jul 31 '18 at 17:27
  • @MassimoOrtolano Thank you. I editted that phrase in an attempt to prevent further misunderstanding. – user93911 Jul 31 '18 at 17:40
  • "finding a good supervisor and built yourself solid grounds outside the university" is the best advice available. outside of the university is an often overlooked aspect of you life when entering a program. its all part of not underestimating the risk and mitigating the risk associated with entering a program. – user96140 Jul 31 '18 at 19:13
  • @Alice, thank you for your perspective. Thinking about my own motivations to pursue a PhD, I think they largely derive from a desire to be useful. This goal feels pure and good to me, but is also measured based on external feedback. I have discovered that it rather difficult to determine what pieces of such feedback are noise, and what pieces should actually be used to guide my path. – William Jul 31 '18 at 19:14
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Is this culture inevitable in top-tier institutions?

No. While anecdotes aren't always useful, here they work as a proof-by-counter example. The institution where I got my PhD is, depending on who you ask, either the 2nd or 3rd best in the field, and at the level where the differences between those is pretty safely hand-waved.

Some of the schools in our tier are indeed vicious and cutthroat. Mine was not. The students supported each other. Funding was, while always tricky to get, not intended for there to be someone left at the end without the means to support themselves and subsequently leave. No one was intended to have their aspirations dashed upon the rocks.

I wonder whether this pattern will always emerge due to graduate students' competition over the limited resource of these famous professors' time.

Not necessarily. There may be some competition for a particular professor, but if graduate students are having trouble finding advisors due to the advisors not having time, then the program is admitting too many students and has created an artificial scarcity problem.

masters programs are not good predictors of the PhD experience: a masters student occupies an awkward, liminal position in a department and likely must do more grasping for recognition than a PhD student.

This is somewhat true - Masters students are weird, and can vary wildly based on department and field.

If this culture is inevitable, what are some suggestions for combating the insecurities and inefficiencies that result from it? How can I maintain my health within these communities? I believe that some of the best research, some of the most creative ideas, requires relief (at least temporarily) from the pressure of constant judgement. I want to be able to find or create that shelter for myself.

It's not inevitable, but the answer is the same. Find people. Don't pick an advisor based on fame - do your homework. Are their students supported and happy? Does their preferred working style match your own? The same thing is true with your peers - build a cohort for yourself.

Would I able to receive the same level of academic excellence, be challenged and enriched as deeply, at an institution which is not publicly understood to be top-tier? Are there examples of top-tier academics whose pedigree (in advisers and institutions) is relatively humble?

If you go to the right program, it's possible. One of my mentors, for example, has had an amazing career, and his PhD is not from anything close to a top tier school. It's a harder road, but it's possible.

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I did a taught masters course in mathematics at what is, at the very least, one of the top two or three schools in the world, and I do not remember the kind of environment you're describing. Attitudes such as

It was the student who completed his assignment in 30 minutes who was lauded by other students.

really have no place in a taught masters course, where the point is to teach you the mathematics you need to know in order to do well as a graduate student. Whizzkid Genius #5876 may find the homework so easy that (s)he can do it in 30 minutes, but there comes a point for everyone where it stops being so easy. If you find that you need more time to do the work, then you're getting a head start on learning what it's really like to do research.

Do try and use the competition as motivation to work as hard as you can, and don't try and do the impossible and catch up with the top of the class. If you're at a top-tier university, these will likely be some of the cleverest people in the world, but even they will need to do considerably more than 30 minutes of work if they want an academic career.

Don't worry about not having done any amazing work already - that's not what a taught masters course is for, and this attitude is not widespread among top tier universities.

I'm doing a PhD now in a computer science department in another top university (not quite as prestigious as where I did my masters/undergrad, but the research department is world class). The atmosphere is relaxed and not at all like what you've described.

  • Anecdote as counterpoint: I did what I am guessing is the same taught masters course in mathematics that you took, and I must say that sadly some of the environment mentioned by the OP did sound rather familiar. Intellectual machismo, and all that. However, I think it's reasonable that you shared your more positive experience here, to encourage the OP – Yemon Choi Aug 1 '18 at 2:41
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    (Top two or three in the world is, though, really debatable if not downright false, if one is talking about training for a PhD) – Yemon Choi Aug 1 '18 at 2:42
  • @YemonChoi I'm sorry to hear about your experience, and I'll be the first to admit that my own time there will never be representative of everyone's. – John Gowers Aug 1 '18 at 13:40
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I am from Europe, but I stayed a quarter year at a top-tier university. I felt somewhat left alone; everyone was focusing on their work / thesis / research. There did not feel a team spirit among the PhD students. When I returned, a guy who stayed at another top-tier university asked me, whether I had this experience, because he had the same feeling back then.

All my colleagues from universities a little further from Ivy League, a little bit more cozy, but still with an international reputation, did not report this.

I think only the best are accepted to top-tier universities. They have to work hard and focus on becoming and staying so good. You have to decide whether you want the reputation of such an university or whether you want to remember your time as a PhD student as one of the greatest of your life.

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    “I think only the best are accepted to top-tier universities” — no. “They have to work hard” — yes, but so do PhD students at other Universities. “You have to decide whether you want the reputation of such an university or whether you want to remember your time as a PhD student as one of the greatest of your life.” — These are not mutually exclusive. Proof: I did my PhD at a top tier Uni. I’m far from the best. I worked hard, got my PhD, and had the best time of my life, hands down. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 31 '18 at 13:42
  • What do you by "There did not feel a team spirit"? – Peter Mortensen Jul 31 '18 at 20:34
  • @PeterMortensen PhD students telling each other their problem and helping each other. This costs time which could be invested in own problems. – usr1234567 Aug 1 '18 at 12:04
  • @KonradRudolph Your experience is for UK, mine is for US. – usr1234567 Aug 1 '18 at 12:07
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    @usr1234567 That's not the reason. – Konrad Rudolph Aug 1 '18 at 12:11
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As often happens here, the question in the title and the amplified form in the body of the question are significantly different... They would be the same only under several substantial further hypotheses, with which I'd mostly disagree.

First, yes, in my observation of hundreds (actually, a few thousand) of math grad students, many small liberal arts colleges apparently do deliberately cultivate a certain atmosphere... which, whatever else one might say, is different from upper-tier graduate programs. In particular, and I think this is reasonable, there is a professional standard of quality for PhD's, especially, so that "trying hard" (while having some virtues) does not guarantee reaching a professional, externally prescribed plateau.

Second, yes, in many scenarios Master's degree students are second-class citizens in some ways... In a PhD-oriented graduate program, the coursework that M.S. students do is of very secondary interest, akin to the "required" first-year courses for PhD students that appear in many U.S. programs. Yes, worse, some programs in the U.S. (and elsewhere, but I'm not as well acquainted...) treat M.S. admissions as provisional, and they're not well funded.

Third, indeed, especially in top-tier places (I went to such a place), coursework may often play no role whatsoever. My own alma mater may have been an extreme in that regard... Also, "worse", when current research of faculty and visitors was described, there was no "accommodation" for people who didn't know much yet. Real things were happening. The train was leaving. Yes, this is a little harsh... but it was, in fact, not malicious, I think. For me, the huge point that it was "not about me", but was about the math, and that things were happening whether or not I understood them, was very, very helpful.

At least in those days, people did solo PhD thesis projects, and it was unreasonable to imagine that other grad students would really understand each others' projects, if I recall correctly. So "cooperation" did not make sense. At the same time, of course, 20-somethings are inevitably pretty mean to each other about random, meaningless things, yes.

It is important, also, to appreciate that "being challenged" may occur in a way that one is not able to prescribe or require, but is set by the faculty. E.g., I myself thought that the challenges of grad school would be particular things... but they weren't those things at all, etc. Understanding what more-genuine challenges were was part of the benefit of a top-tier place.

Yes, once one sees what top-end activity and standards are, it is hard to "go back" to a sort of happy complacency... Seeing top-end stuff is undeniably psychologically stressful. No, in that context, no one is going to tell you that "whatever you choose to do is fine, because it's your own choice"...

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Please be encouraged. You can do this in a way that benefits you and the world that you will contribute to, after finishing your studies. I find the timeline to be the most important element in the course of study. I took the maximum time allowed and did a grad certificate, not Master's, at a top-tier university. Some peers had two full-time jobs on top of a Master's program or doubled up on classes. I did half the work in double the time, but I have much outside responsibility that I could not delegate. I wasn't always eligible for financial aid because I wasn't taking enough classes to be considered part-time all semesters. It was expensive, which is again a reason why I went slowly. However, it was a positive experience. Homework took longer for me and I needed to acclimate to other's expectations, even if I couldn't change the speed. One-on-one's worked best and a lot of work was done solo. I absorbed more and adapted well. Because I am a business owner, I had freedom in my daily schedule and studied in the morning. In your situation, look for a combination of educational financing/employer tuition reimbursement/free-lance or a flexible work in an area that you already know so that the only new element is doing the PhD. The fit with the University and the scheduling has to be something that keeps you on an even keel. Your being O.K. is important. You did graduate, you can do the work, you get to pick what's next. Be a spy at the campus cafeteria and measure your comfort level - when fellow students are not on task, do they do things like you would? Some part of the future experience needs to give you energy, so you can be a place of rest. Keep looking - even look at a higher level. The surprise for me was that it was at top-tier university. Absolutely you can do it.

protected by ff524 Aug 2 '18 at 22:21

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