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I am currently an Indian undergrad in physics in my final year. My area of interest has very strong groups at two institutes in my country, and I have both the options before me. But the story does not end here.

I have a friend who is a graduate student at an Ivy college in the US who has recently suggested that it would be much better to get into a PhD program in the US, because according to them

even if the knowledge and research skill set developed could easily be the same between X,Y institutes and a top school in the US, to apply for academic positions in India, a PhD from the US has more value.

But many people I have talked to have told me that a PhD is not really about QS rankings or a country. It is about the quality of the work that you have done as well as how strong the corresponding research community is at your institute.

These two views are opposites of each other, and I am not sure how to proceed from here. I personally prefer to stay in my own country due to a number of reasons.

Any help is appreciated.

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    For those who are seeing this question from the Hot Network Questions list, yes, this question does have some basis in opinion, but it is a "good subjective" question that can be reasonably answered by those with sufficient experience in academia. May 1 at 19:50
  • A number of comments which half-attempted to answer the question have been moved to chat. Please read this FAQ before posting another comment.
    – Massimo Ortolano
    May 2 at 8:34
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    Can you add some details about the field you're in? And relevant things like potential employers and type of work you'd be interested in (dry research, R&D, teaching, production, ...). A field like computer science is going to have wildly different hiring strategies from something like molecular biology and within each field there might be differences based on different companies and roles. You will get better answers if you're more specific.
    – Kevin
    May 3 at 18:28
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    @Kevin It appears from this comment that the OP is interested in theoretical physics. May 4 at 12:54
  • @TheAmplitwist yes.
    – Sarthak
    May 4 at 15:10

10 Answers 10

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While I was an Indian undergrad in mathematics, I was told similar things by my friends who were doing, or planning to do, their graduation at universities abroad. Specifically, they told me that:

  • The top universities abroad are better than the top universities in India for graduate education.
  • Even if I were to be admitted to a good university abroad whose graduate program is comparable to that of an Indian university, the university abroad will be more beneficial for two reasons.
    1. Experiencing a different culture will broaden my perspective significantly, and help in my growth by opening my eyes to more possibilities.
    2. I can build a larger pool of contacts at a university abroad than at an Indian university, and doing so is very important to gain further opportunities in academia.
    3. Somewhat connected to the above points, one can expect more invited talks (and also given by more top researchers) at universities abroad than at Indian universities, and it not only stimulates ones growth by being exposed to diverse topics through such talks, but also gives more opportunities to build contacts with top researchers.

Of course, there is an underlying assumption in all of the above that it is meaningful to speak of the characteristics of "the average Indian university" and "the average university abroad". I preferred to read their advice as saying, "If you compare the opportunities at a university abroad versus an Indian university, assuming that you want to get into those universities and are fairly confident of being able to do so, then it's more likely than not that the university abroad offers the above advantages over the Indian university." Read like this, I think my friends offered a fair assessment of the advantages.

I still chose to pursue my graduate education in India, for the following reasons:

  • I anticipated that my graduate education would be a difficult time for me, and I would need the support of my family to help me through it. If I were to be abroad, I would have a much more difficult time coping with the stress than if I were in India itself. There seemed to be little point in trading my mental health for more contacts and comparatively better future opportunities; after all, it's not like a graduate education in India dooms my future in academia.

    And indeed, my graduate education started off on quite a rocky note, and the support I have received from my family has truly been invaluable.

  • I anticipated that choosing a guide would not be an easy task. Not everyone who is a good researcher is also a good guide. Not everyone who can be a good guide is specifically a good fit for me. In short, I felt that gambling on my chances of finding the right fit for me at a university abroad is riskier than doing the same at an Indian university: the stakes are lower, the sunk cost (in case I fail to find a good match for me) is also lower, and hence my ability to try again at another institute (in case of failure at one institute) is also higher.

    As it happens, I nearly failed my qualifying exams after I secured admission at an Indian university, and nearly signed up with a guide with whom I had spectacular incompatibility issues. Things have sorted themselves out now and I am happy to say that my work is progressing well, at last.

Furthermore, among my friends who pursued their graduate education abroad, some did struggle with their mental health and returned to India to get support from their family, some did fail to find a suitable guide and were forced to return home and start over in India, and some who pursued their graduate education in India also failed and started over in India. There are also those who succeeded, of course, but I just want to emphasise that it's not such a rare event to face these kind of difficulties that they can be easily neglected from the equation.

In your case, the final decision lies with you, of course. You need to decide how much weight you give to each relevant aspect. For me, the balance weighed in favour of staying back in India. For my friends who were more ambitious and also mentally stronger, the balance fell the other way. Neither path is absolutely right or wrong: you need to measure what is right for you, as best as you can perceive. Good luck!

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    It should also be noted that the top universities in India are ranked well below what are considered mid level schools in the US that most people wouldn't even recognize and are fairly easy to get admitted to. There's of course issues with international rankings but there is a clear pattern.
    – eps
    May 1 at 17:52
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    It should be noted here that 'abroad' means the US, Europe or a few other countries with good universities. If I were to maliciously insert 'North Korea' whereever you wrote 'abroad' this wouldn't be good advice. But OP specifically asked about the US so you should be good.
    – quarague
    May 3 at 8:16
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You are missing an important angle. Where do you want to go after your PhD?

In German there is the word "Stallgeruch" which roughly translates to "the smell of the own stable". Don't underestimate this. If you decide that you want to have a job or academic future at place X, doing your PhD at or near X provides you with a network near X (greater probability of knowing someone who knows someone at X), knowledge of local quirks at X and so on. People at X will be able to judge better how good your tutor, department, etc was.

Overall, there are many advantages of simply focussing on the place you want to spend the years after your PhD. Professional and personal advantages.

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    +1 Even within the same country, there are often local or regional universities with good reputations and networks of alumni in their region, but near-zero name recognition outside of it.
    – Jeff
    May 1 at 18:21
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    I would add that you should look at where the faculty at such a place got their PhDs. I have heard that in some places, at least in the past, it was much easier to get a faculty position if you got a PhD in the US. I don't know about physics in India though.
    – Kimball
    May 1 at 20:07
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    @Kimball it's easily explained - if you can choose between the person that has a PhD from where your well esteemed colleagues Paul and Paula graduated and the other person that graduated from this place at the other side of the world which Google says is a decent place, whom do you chose? It's not even negative against "the other place", but people tend to choose what they know. And while (in the US) you can call Bob to ask about Alice-University-Minnesota, you probably don't know anyone to ask about Delhi-Alpha-Centauri, even if that place rocks.
    – DonQuiKong
    May 1 at 20:47
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    I would argue the contrary course of action for the same purpose ! There's a growing tendency for all progressive universities to try and hire "new blood" staff. This means avoiding their own ex-undergraduates, ex-postgraduates and ex-fellows. Since you - vaguely - imply that you want to get an appointment in your own country and there are just 2 Indian research groups working in this field, you might rule yourself out of one of these by doing your PhD there. By going to US, you get the other benefits mentioned by other posters and have a better chance to get into one of the 2 Indian groups.
    – Trunk
    May 2 at 1:02
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    That's the exact opposite of the advice I was given as an undegraduate (i.e. go far to accrue new skills). Of course that came with the implicit "and you'll never know where in the world you're going to end up afterwards"... May 3 at 10:01
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About me: I'm a member of the hiring public. I've worked 35 years in a multination company with a significant presence in India, and a heavy dependence on technology.

What is Value? If "value" is measured in terms of what doors it opens, then you may open more doors worldwide with a US degree, provided it is from a more recognized university. This is merely a matter of people taking mental shortcuts, to rely on more known commodities (MIT vs. unfamiliar school X), and has nothing to do with actual education quality. However, within India, the value of a degree from a well-reputed university or college may well be of comparable value, simply because that recognition bias is less of a factor.

Worth to Employer. In my company, we have many outstanding native Indian engineers working in our Indian arm, most of whom I believe earned degrees within India. They are bright, driven, professional, and can talk tech with the best of us. Often, they deliver some of the best technical insights and process developments in our company. This trend became particularly noticeable somewhere around 2000, give or take a few years, and has been building since.

Pride. If your essential question is about self-respect, then hold your head high, and focus on your work. Once in a career, the quality of your work and shared insights are all anyone every cares about. My degree was from a state university with only modest name recognition, yet I have thrived and my technical contributions have earned wide respect, simply because I asked good questions, worked hard, collaborated well with others, and made the business goal my personal goal. No one cares who issued my degree.

Foot in the Door. An important caveat here is the word now: "No one cares who issued my degree, now." Before I was hired, they needed to filter applicants somehow, and at that stage, yes, for lack of any better sorting information, they did consider my college. But they looked about equally at other characteristics that they felt made an important fit to the job and to their corporate culture (things like work experience while in school, as a measure of how self-driven one is), and of course how well you interact in an interview. For every entry-level job with every company, there is a corporate culture that impacts their hiring preferences. These are impossible to predict as an applicant. So, just present yourself honestly (& positively), and realize that if they pass on you, you may well have passed on them too, if you fully knew them.

Paying Your Dues. It seems common today for new adults to expect to rise meteorically to the top, as if the world were a table set for them alone to come dine, and everyone else is just supporting cast. At least in the US, and perhaps the West in general. Such unrealistic expectations put undue pressure on ourselves. One beauty in accepting "paying our dues," is that it sharply reduces the relevance of one's school. When my company hires a mid-career engineer or scientist, we look mostly at their work experience, and at most only in passing at their school.

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  • It is, but it misses (or maybe I overlook) somewhat the essence: is it now "more worth" to have a PhD from the US or not?
    – Mayou36
    May 2 at 21:36
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    "In my company, we have many outstanding native Indian engineers working in our Indian arm, most of whom I believe earned degrees within India. They are bright, driven, professional, and can talk tech with the best of us. Often, they deliver some of the best technical insights and process developments in our company." Really? I've heard an awful lot of horror stories about companies outsourcing their software development to India, getting given non-functional garbage at the end of the project, and then having to entirely redo the project they outsourced from scratch.
    – nick012000
    May 3 at 2:54
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    @nick012000 the so-called "service companies" which mostly do outsourcing work pay the least. On the contrary "product companies" generally pay better and engineers who can get into these would generally avoid working for service companies. Therefore the quality of workforce across these category of companies is quite distinct.
    – hojusaram
    May 3 at 4:35
  • @Mayou36 " This is merely a matter of people taking mental shortcuts, to rely on more known commodities (MIT vs. unfamiliar school X), and has nothing to do with actual education quality. However, within India [...] because that recognition bias is XXXX of a factor." There you go: XXXX = more, because recognition bias exists, maybe in just 1% of the company of India, so recognition bias is a factor (although the answer tries to claim is not) in the statistical chances of getting a job. Would it be a factor in getting a job where your skills are recognized? that is another question :) ...
    – EarlGrey
    May 3 at 14:43
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I'm going to preface this answer by noting that I am of Indian heritage myself, before the accusations of racism start.

Yes, a PhD from an American university is much more valuable. Even putting aside the issue of university rankings, the fact is that the United States is the world's only superpower and has been largely responsible for most of the world's scientific and technological advancements over the past century. This is not true of India, which is widely perceived as a "third-world country" and does not have the same academic reputation internationally. You might argue that this is offensive, or unfair to to the many excellent Indian researchers, but it's the way it is.

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    would it be fair to say that a lot of the talented faculty in the best American Universities comprises recent immigrants to America, including immigrants from India ? I've heard it said that Silicon Valley has a lot of immigrants from India, too. The fact that primality of a number can be decided in time polynomial in the number of bits required to represent the number was discovered in India, quite recently, which solved a long- standing open problem.
    – Simon
    May 1 at 23:00
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    "largely responsible for most of the world's scientific and technological advancements over the past century. " citation definitely required! ;o) BTW India is 13th in this table, which is pretty good natureindex.com/annual-tables/2019/country/all May 2 at 11:30
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    @DikranMarsupial Being 13th is less impressive when you say you have more “world-class” institutes than the most of the list in front of you combined.
    – Greg
    May 2 at 14:51
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    @DikranMarsupial The OP has put the Indian institutes at the same level as US, not same level as Spain, Italy or Sweden. These are off course subjective rankings, but I have definitely heard more Indian bragging about word class education comparable to US than Italian or Spanish (even here on SE).
    – Greg
    May 2 at 15:07
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    "the fact is that the United States [...] has been largely responsible for most of the world's scientific and technological advancements over the past century." Whenever somebody makes such a bold and sweeping claim, I find myself wondering whether the person making the claim really believes it themselves... May 4 at 21:23
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I have an engineering degree from one of the top 20 colleges in India and my observation has been that my Professors were usually those who got Phd from IITs (most elite colleges in India). So when you say "more academic value", it depends on what you mean exactly. If it is teaching job, then what matters is also which college in India grants you that PhD. Not being a PhD myself, I can read and digest some well known academic papers produced by USA researchers in my area of work, but writings from some of my own professors were rather cryptic and I doubt whether anyone read them.

But your question is largely hypothetical - if you are assuming that the research skill gained in India will be the "same". I am not prejudiced and also admit that I am talking based on limited sample set which I have, but I do not have very high opinion based on my personal experience , but I doubt whether you gain the same skills just like that.

Also the value of PhD in India is somewhat tarnished by the cottage industry which is writing thesis for money etc.

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    Yes true for most PhDs. Although not for theoretical physics. The corresponding departments at TIFR and ICTS among the best in the world.
    – Sarthak
    May 1 at 17:00
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    you should be a bit careful with these "best in the world" bragging that is common in India. I live in Munich since last few decades. You would be surprised that how relaxed or even self-deprecating an average German engineer is when it comes to their own background. I work with graduates from TUM and KIT - both in top 50 in global rankings when it comes to CompSci. In case of TUM, it had produced 16 Nobels and couple of Leibnitz prizes, but few in the public sphere mentions that fact on a regular basis. Just compare that with how IISc/ IIT fill the popular imagination of Indian public sphere
    – senseiwu
    May 1 at 17:20
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    so my answers are not meant to rubbish Indian higher ed. system - but I see people getting PhDs from my college (which is considered good one nationally). Then I look where they end up after few years of getting PhD, all are doing teaching in some of the newer engg. colleges that have sprung up(of questionable reputation). I am not saying that goal is wrong per se, but o.t.o.h., if they had managed world class research capability, I would be seeing them producing at-least some world class papers over the course of a decade or so..which is not really happening (data helps ;-) and good luck)
    – senseiwu
    May 1 at 17:35
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    There's a paradox here where these top Indian departments are at the same time better than people unfamiliar with Indian academics realize, and yet not as good as undergraduates in India seem to think they are. If you look at say my dept. we have amazing faculty with all kinds of top honors like ICM invites, etc., but getting a Ph.D. at a top 50 US school like mine is just not the same thing as going to Princeton, Berkeley, Oxford, Paris, ETH. India has depts. in the former tier, but doesn't have them in the latter. "World-class" yes, but "best in the world" no. May 1 at 17:42
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    @NoahSnyder thanks for making a fine distinction between world class and best in the world. Also I may add that world class in India has a more casual meaning than people in West are accustomed to. For ex. an airport there is sometimes called world class if it has neat basic facilities, green energy etc. though that alone would barely make it world class in Europe.
    – senseiwu
    May 1 at 18:23
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Like the others, I have an Indian background and hope my answer doesn't come across as being racist towards people with my own ethnicity.

In my area of research (quantum chemistry) there is one professor working in India who is a member of the most prestigious academy in our field and that is Debashis Mukherjee. There's over over 300 people that have been elected into this academy, and this includes pretty much all the most famous people in the field, perhaps the earliest born being the famous Louis de Broglie who you'll know from high school science class for the concept of wave-particle duality. There's a few dozen USA professors in that list, and if you do your PhD in USA you're more likely to be supervised by one of them or someone that has worked very closely with them or has been trained under one of them. If you do your PhD in India, your chances of being trained by one of the top people in this field during your PhD is essentially 0.

In India you'll also unlikely get sufficient funds to attend the most valuable conferences in the research field, as despite the population being over 1 billion, I can't recall ever seeing a grad student from India attend a conference that I went to except for perhaps one in Singapore in 2014 but I can barely remember him (he wasn't invited to give a talk, and it wasn't a big conference anyway). During my PhD, apart from domestic conferences I went to at least one conference involving an international flight, in each academic year except for the first one, and the price was no issue at all since the financial stipend was far greater than the cost of flying around the world and paying the hefty conference fees. I have barely even seen professors from Indian institutions attending conferences outside of India, but from the US I see people at all levels, which makes sense since grad students in USA will often have a higher salary than than even the top-level professors in India.

Back to what you said in your question:

"even if the knowledge and research skill set developed could easily be the same"

Attending major conferences in my research field (which means spending a lot of money, by Indian standards, because it requires traveling to other countries and living in those more-expensive countries for about a week) is an extremely important part of my education in the field. Not only did I learn far more from conferences than I could at my own institution (despite my PhD being from Oxford, which is not in USA but everything I'm saying essentially applies to UK too), and not only did it give me perspective about how much other people really care or don't care about certain research areas I might have considered to explore, but I met the people all over the world who later helped me get jobs and the people with whom I later collaborated on publications during which I learned more from other experts than I could at my own institution.

I am speaking from experience in my field as a quantum chemist (but have also worked extensively in quantum computing, spectroscopy, mathematics, computational biology and other fields too), but I can say that it's extremely rare for you to be able to get the same knowledge and research skill at an institute in India compared to USA, because the most knowledgeable and research-wise professors tend to be in countries like USA where the salaries are far higher and the finances needed to travel to conferences, purchase equipment needed to conduct world-class research, and to hire the best students, is far more plentiful than in India. Apart from the quality of your mentors (professors), the experience of attending conferences needs to be considered too. It is unlikely that you'll get the same quality of knowledge and research experience in India, even if your supervisor is one of the best in the world, if you can't attend international conferences.

In the rare case, in which you do get the same "quality" of education, the degree from USA from an equally prestigious institution still does get taken more seriously by many people, as unfortunate as this may be.

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A good rule of thumb is for you to:

  1. Find people who are where you would want to be in X years.
  2. See what they did to get there (which includes where they got their Ph.D.).

When I decided that I want a career in academic research, I saw that nearly every prominent academic researcher in my country either got their Ph.D. in the U.S., or did a post-doc or other type of research position in the U.S. after their PhD. Because of that (along with other reasons) I chose to get a PhD program in the US. The same might be true for you, or it might not.

In any case, what is sure is that QS ratings don't matter at all for graduate education. Having a well-known advisor, though, might matter. The two are correlated but not the same (sometimes famous researchers work in relatively little-known institutions). Having a well-known advisor is beneficial not necessarily because of recognition, but also because famous researchers can usually connect you with other opportunities. That being said, always chose an advisor that is a good fit for you (personally) over an advisor who is better known but not compatible.

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To answer your question - industries where there are many resources from India are better going to appreciate your Indian education.

Otherwise - it's more important that you're able to demonstrate that you're really strong in the skillset you already have.

If you know that you are interested in nuclear physics or particle physics there might be unforeseen security clearance issues.

What do you want to do?

  1. If you'd like to stay in India and participate in nuclear engineering or weapons system engineering - getting a Phd or Masters in India is the way to go.

  2. If you'd like to use your Physics degree as a stepping stone to a career path outside of Physics. You will have a milestone goal when you graduate. You don't need a Phd or Masters in Physics. You need a supplemental credential.

  3. If you have the finances to study on your own, and if you love something - say Mathematica or repairing equipment, or if there was something in chemistry that appealed to you take some time off and master what it is you love. That's what Einstein did. Not that you'll end up like he did. But single subject matter experts have a way of getting noticed. You'd be surprised the deals you can get on old lab equipment.

As to the average American. The average American can't name three Indian cites - and hasn't a clue as to what having a degree in Physics from an Indian university means. At best they think this guy can converse about atomic physics, optics and E&M.

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I'm sure a famous university offers more opportunities during your PhD, a better-valued degree and maybe a better network. But if you consider a career in the academic field, you may consider publications first (sorry if you already did or if it's too obvious for you).

If you get in a lab or team that used to publish a lot, have the students participate in publications and then let them lead their own publications, you might get a very competitive edge over other PhD students who are expected to work and publish without the support of their advisors and teams. Take a look on the publication record of the last PhD students in the team you expect to join, it could be a reasonable indicator of how many (good) publications you can expect to author during your PhD.

Some teams with a good publication record in the field tend to be more proficient, more likely to get a competitive edge over the other teams, and considered more seriously than younger / rising teams in the same field when submitting their publications. Your publications will be co-authored and strongly reviewed by other members of your host team, so that really matters.

For me it is a better criterion than a team chosen for the prestige of the University it belongs to. I've seen people with degrees in top-notch Universities but almost no publications in journals; they can't expect academic positions AFAIK. Depending on their other achievements (patents, etc), it can be an impediment even for a technical job.

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A point I don't think has been made yet - value, perceived or otherwise, is not always allowed to be considered when hiring, depending on where you wish to use that PhD qualification. I can give a UK academic hiring perspective.

As part of equality, diversity and inclusion measures hirers are required not to subjectively judge the value of a qualification, but to treat qualifications equally, irrespective of accrediting institution or nation.

The hiring university may check the institution is able to accredit a particular qualification, and may decide what a qualification is equivalent to if from a different academic system, and request transcripts or similar to judge this.

When it comes to PhDs and higher academic posts though, the hiring will consider relevant experience and academic output as well as qualifications. These may be more readily available through globally higher ranked institutions and they may be more subjectively judged. That said, hirers are encourage to consider the benefits and limitations a particular candidate had that might affect these. Just because a candidate has not had the financial means to undertake unpaid internships to gain experience does not mean they cannot excel if given the opportunity.

That's the theory at least. I suspect you may still have an easier time if hirers didn't have to make these considerations, and having the network contacts can help. It's something I am glad to see being challenged more now in any case.

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