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I will be starting a PhD in computer science in the UK this year, but have to decide between two offers that I'm pretty torn about. I've communicated with the supervisors from both universities in detail and contacted current graduate students there, and feel I have all the information I need, but am still struggling to decide.

University A has a very reputable department with a lot of academic staff and graduate students in it. The academic community here seems bigger and more vibrant than I am used to, which would be a big learning experience. At University A, I would be funded to work with a younger supervisor who's pretty early in their career and who can offer me more office hours due to less academic duties. However, our research interests don't align as closely.

University B's department is also of a very good standard, but is less prestigious than University A's. It is also significantly smaller, both in terms of staff and students. I have previously spent 1 year at University B and know that the research being conducted there is a closer match to what I want to work on. The supervisor here is more established and is well-liked by the community, but has more academic duties.

Funding from both places is comparable and I believe both supervisors would be good mentors both academically and personally, so the two options seem to be equal on these points. Even though the student community is very important to me, I would be willing to sacrifice the better community at University A in favour of working on my preferred research at University B. What I am more hesitant about is whether choosing the less prestigious option now will hurt me in the future when looking for jobs (ideally, I want to stay in academia). I'm under the impression that going to the more well-known institution would put me in a better position and provide me with more options when applying for postdocs.

I appreciate that I'm very privileged to be in this position in the first place, and am thankful for the opportunities in front of me, but I've been thinking this over for weeks and still haven't made up my mind. What I find the most scary is that it feels as though where and with whom I do my PhD will stay with me for the rest of my academic career. I would appreciate any feedback from people who have been in similar positions in the past, and/or tips on what I should prioritise when making my final decision.

Thank you!

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    I'm hesitant to say this because I was privileged to do my degree at a prestigious institution, but I would say that you should choose the place that you think will allow you to do the best research.
    – Ben Bolker
    Apr 23, 2021 at 1:00
  • Also individual reputation of the supervisor might count.
    – Alchimista
    Apr 23, 2021 at 9:01

3 Answers 3

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When in doubt, go to the more prestigious university.

The reason is simply because it's less likely to change. A university that's highly prestigious today is likely to be highly prestigious 5 years in the future. Comparatively, what you are interested in can change quite quickly, especially since as a new graduate student you don't have much experience with research. For example, in physics, one thing undergraduates are often interested in is MOND (modified Newtonian Dynamics) because it's "cool". However, once one actually starts to examine the evidence against MOND, it's not uncommon to realize that there are good reasons most people don't work on it. At that point if one joined X university because they worked on MOND, it's too late. There are other ways things can change as well: for example if you like Y topic, then find that working on Y actually involves doing things you don't enjoy (e.g. figuring out how to make code run more efficiently).

Furthermore:

  • More prestigious university is likely to have better students, and as the Chinese idiom goes, 近朱者赤,近墨者黑 (roughly translated as "People are easily influenced by their surroundings and the companions they hang around with")
  • More prestigious university is also likely to have more/better-known visitors coming to give seminars and such, in turn allowing for better networking.
  • If you work in industry after you graduate, nobody is going to care about your research topic, but they will care about the name of your university.

See also: University rank/stature - How much does it affect one's career post-Ph.D?

One more thing: you'll be staying at that university for several years. If you find you dislike the city / country / etc that the university is located in, this might override all other considerations.

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  • Thank you for answering! Your MOND example is helpful because one of my concerns is in fact that after a few years researching my topic at University B, I might realise that it is not very useful and will want to switch topic, but there won't be as many options to do that as there would be in University A. As for your Chinese idiom, I wholeheartedly agree!
    – tetromino
    Apr 23, 2021 at 9:18
  • " you'll be staying at that university for several years." not completely true, especially for CS. It can very well be that you manage to get a lot of freedom. At least spatial freedom
    – EarlGrey
    Apr 23, 2021 at 15:17
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If you want to stay in academia, your top priority should be producing excellent research. From your post, it sounds like this will be possible at either university. Another helpful factor is your academic advisor. Ideally, you can study under a very famous/well-respected/talented person. Again it sounds like you have two good options in this regard.

If I may, it sounds like you have two good options. This is a positive to me in that you cannot 'screw it up' and make the wrong choice. One piece of advice is to consider the process of obtaining your degree rather than what happens when you're done. You're looking at years of effort, so why not try to enjoy/maximize it instead of fretting about ultimate placement? Live 'in the moment', as the millennials like to say.

A last cliche bit of advice is to flip a coin. Heads = A, Tails = B. Once you see the coin land, you'll either feel a quick sense of glee or sting of disappointment. Then ignore the coin result and pick based on this feeling. Good luck!

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  • Thank you for your answer. I agree that my top priority should be to produce excellent research. I'm just unsure whether in that regard I should prioritise having a bigger and better research community (University A) over liking the research more (University B).
    – tetromino
    Apr 23, 2021 at 9:13
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Questions:

  1. Is it a sole PhD or MPhil (MS) +PhD? If it is a sole PhD, then I suppose that you are already in touch with your advisor. Have you discussed your research perspectives in details with professors at each university? Do you find them helpful in providing you research advices?

  2. Is the research group you are interested also super interested in you, and have they invited you to their regular group meetings?

My suggestion:

  1. If you not yet have a firm direction to do you research, go to the better university because your interests are likely to change. A better university is far more likely to have better professors who meet your needs.
  2. You can do you degree at the better university, while visiting the other university and collaborate with the research team that interests you for now.
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    Thanks for your answer. 1. It is a sole PhD and I've discussed research prospects with both professors. I have actually worked with the supervisor at University B before, which is why I'm more confident I will like the work better there. They have both been helpful, but after talking to their students, the younger supervisor at University A seems to have more hours in the week for chats with students than the more established supervisor at University B. 2. The research group at University B invited me to a group meeting already while University A seemed keen for me to join in the near future.
    – tetromino
    Apr 23, 2021 at 9:23
  • @tetromino If you are 100% sure about what you are going to do in the next 3 or 4 years, then go for B. The established professor B is also far more likely to find you a better job.
    – High GPA
    Apr 23, 2021 at 20:52

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