I have perhaps a common doubt, a common conundrum. I'm an MS graduate, and my goal is to become a researcher in a very specific area in biotechnology, which is a branch of neurotechnology.

I'm currently looking for a PhD degree, and by searching through programs at different institutions, I have found that the field that I want to work in is in fact quite new, so not many institutions are currently doing research in it. This leaves me with only very well known institutions like Caltech, Yale, and Johns Hopkins that are working in my field of interest.

I do not consider myself especially above average but I'm a very self-driven person. Even so, I know it will be hard get a scholarship to study in one of these very well known institutions.

So my question is, what is most advisable?

  • To spend one or two years studying in order to get the scholarship (and I might not get it), and focus my research into this one narrow specialism early on;

  • or, to enter a less demanding program, less expensive, still focussed on biotechnology, but not at all that narrow, perhaps in the Netherlands or Switzerland, and specialise later in my career.

  • I'm struggling to distil a question, can you make your question clearer? – user2768 Aug 21 '18 at 6:47
  • I have edited the question substantially, feel free to edit or add to it if I have not captured what you are trying to ask, OP. – astronat Aug 21 '18 at 6:50
  • Why do you think you will need 1-2 years studying before applying to these institutions if you already have a Master's degree? – astronat Aug 21 '18 at 6:51
  • 2
    I'm confused by the phrase "less expensive", because if you are accepted into a PhD program at a place like Caltech or Yale the offer will come with funding that should be sufficient to live on (if you're frugal). It doesn't cost money to do a PhD in the U.S., you just have to accept a rather low salary. – littleO Aug 21 '18 at 7:50

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by spending 1-2 years studying for a scholarship, but you must formally stay in academia. Your MS was your 1-2 years of prep for a Ph.D.

My suggestions would be as follows:

1) Apply to your ideal top-tier universities (Cal-tech, Yale, etc...). Spend a considerable amount of time on your application. Especially your statement of purpose since you do indeed have a clear goal to go there. Do well on your GRE. If not you will get filtered out before they really evaluate the rest of your application. I know they changed it since I took it but when I did it was a completely beatable test (at least the quantitative section). Practice. Practice. Practice.

2) Apply to the universities/labs that actively or recently collaborated with the labs you ultimately want to work with. Probably more than half the post docs in our lab came from collaborators (or competitors) labs.

3) Apply to your "fall-back" universities. You'll want to at least stay active in the field.

4) Do you best to attend conferences that your top-tiers will be at. Make contacts, friends, collaborations, etc...with members of the group you want to be with. As a Ph.D. student we ended up evaluating many of the Post-docs that applied to our lab. Know that what you mention to these members in passing will often come up during your evaluation. Be aware and make this an advantage.

Realize that you are probably a poor judge of your own talent (good or bad). Don't let the reason you didn't make it be that you didn't try.

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ly impossible for us to give a good answer to this question - we can not predict the future and your situation is dependent on too many factors.

Therefore, my advice would be: Follow your gut feeling. Or take a dice. If the number is odd, go for the specific programm, if it's even, go for the broader one. If you feel bad after your rolled the dice, roll it again!!!

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