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I'm currently in the process of applying to different PhD Programs, and I have a very specific topic/theme in mind that I would like to work on and that resonates deeply with my personal mission, goals, and expertise.

However, in applying to certain PhD programs, I find that many potential supervisors already have predetermined topics for their researchers to pursue and that there's little flexibility to go beyond the predefined research themes.

Herein lies my dilemma: Is it better to pursue a less exciting topic at a top-ranked university or to pursue research that is more aligned with my research interests at a lesser-known university?

Should I be more open to other research areas/topics than the one I had in mind?

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    What country is this? What degrees will you hold when beginning doctoral study?
    – Buffy
    Jan 11, 2022 at 13:18
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    Thanks for your response! Yepp, I get the idea, and it confirms what I was suspecting: You seem to be projecting the US-centred view that there are "top universities" and mediocre universities to other countries. I can't make a qualified comment regarding Lausanne, but concerning TU Munich, you seem to be misinterpretating the situation: at least from a German perspective, there is no significant "visibility" or "high-rank" bonus: if you apply for a job (in industry or in Academia) chances are that no one will care whether you did your PhD at TUM or at any other university in Germany. Jan 11, 2022 at 14:04
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    @JochenGlueck In addition, people will care more about the specific advisor. Their network and reputation is much more important than the specific university. The university can be somewhat important regarding available funding and equipment.
    – Roland
    Jan 11, 2022 at 14:09
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    @JochenGlueck For what it's worth, the "US-centred view that there are "top universities" and mediocre universities" also doesn't apply to graduate study in the US to nearly the extent that people applying seem to think.
    – Bryan Krause
    Jan 11, 2022 at 15:30
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    I encourage you not to dwell over "rankings", but instead on your advisor, who should be someone you get along well with. As a rule of thumb, find a great advisor and an okay topic rather than a great topic and an okay advisor. Jan 11, 2022 at 23:08

7 Answers 7

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I like to think of pursuing a PhD as an apprenticeship with the goal of becoming a researcher. As others have suggested, it can be quite difficult and having interest in a topic can help, particularly in those moments of great difficulty. At the same, however, it can actually hurt your goals if you aren't pursuing research in an effective way -- even if the topic is the 'right one', so to speak.

From my own experience, I was very interested in a specific topic offered by almost no universities. It was interdisciplinary and not well-defined. While working in industry, I spent my free time "researching" independently. After two years, I wrote about 300 pages of a book that, in retrospect, is very difficult to read and will likely have no audience (too technical for laypeople, not enough status for academics).

After considering my options, I eventually ended up in a PhD program in a field that can be applied usefully in almost any domain (think statistics or applied math). My thesis research was not exactly aligned with my ideal research, but I learned many useful skills including perhaps the most important of all: how to conduct research suitable for publication in academic journals.

One day, I plan to return to my specific topic. When I do, I am now much more confident in my research approach and ability to be taken seriously. This is something I'd encourage you to consider. I'd pick the school that enables you to become the best researcher (which may even be the 'lower-ranked' university anyway). In other words, I'd much rather work on a less interesting topic with an excellent advisor than fascinating topic with an incompetent advisor. The excellent advisor will train me so I can one day work on the fascinating topic, competently.

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It's a very tricky question. It really depends on what you want a doctorate for. Is it to add "PhD" after your name on a business card? Is it to pursue a career in academia? In industry? For an academic career, where your PhD is from will matter little, but what you have done as a grad student will matter a lot. Having good publications in a "hot field" plus some teaching experience will work wonder. In industry, brand name recognition is a little more important.

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  • +1 I think it boils down to this! For academia, good publications are most important. For industry, it might vary, but the farther away the position is from research the more important is brand. In some top tier consultancies, HR departments even use university rankings to filter out candidates. The specific example provided by OP, "TUM", actually ranked very high on the lists that I have seen.
    – LuckyPal
    Jan 12, 2022 at 7:30
  • I agree that the university matters little, as long as it's a well-equipped university in the relevant area with a good supervisor. Where the title is from may not matter much, but you won't be getting good publications without the right mentorship. It just so happens that people that publish well, usually make their way to the big universities.
    – LDB_2016
    Jan 12, 2022 at 12:03
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Far more important than the prestige of the institute, or even the topic, is the quality of the supervisor and the research team you'll be in. And by "quality" i don't mean intellectual quality, but personal quality. How good a supervisor are they? How much support will they give you? How much freedom within the topic agreed with the funder? Are they generally a nice person to work with? Will they have your best interests at heart? Will they allow you to go to conferences? What are their publication policies? Are they well connected and able to introduce you to others?

These are far more important questions than the prestige of the institution. Generally you can only find these things out by talking to current and former students in private one on one meetings.

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I think what this comes down to is which advantages do the two options have - in general and for you.

While going to a top-ranked university might yield better/different job opportunities afterwards, the question is: do you need these better opportunities for what your future plans are?

Doing a PhD requires a lot of work and time, and in the end, this will be made much easier if the topic you are researching as part of your PhD will one that you like a lot. And, if you are researching something very specific, chances are that you will be become one of only a few experts on this topic, making which university you've been at less of a concern.

Furthermore, I think it also very much depends on where you are based. From my time on this site, I have gotten the feeling that being obsessed with going to a top tier university is much more of a thing in the US than in Europe for example.

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Herein lies my dilemma: Is it better to pursue a less exciting topic at a top-ranked university or to pursue research that is more aligned with my research interests at a lesser-known university?

It's a matter of risk-management, that depends on the precise parameters, i.e., which universities you have in mind, what's your end career goal, and how passionate you are about your ideal research comparing to your indifference to the other research.

Based on these parameters, you formulate a formula (say, a linear inequality) that captures the threshold you need to decide in favour of the top-ranked university or not.

For instance, if the top-ranked university is MIT, and the low-ranked university is really "horrible", plugging in the numbers should end up in you going to MIT.

If it's TUM against Lausanne, probably not so much.

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It is crucial that your rubric of a study and interest in a specific field parallels that of a scholar associated with a University.

Graduate departments are looking for graduate students that can actively contribute significantly pioneering work to a specific area under the supervision of a scholar completing research in that specific area.

Thus you are most likely to be admitted to the institution in which the scholar’s interests parallels yours more completely rather than selecting ahighly ranked institution in which the parallel doesn’t align as completely.

To conclude, it is better to pursue interest within an institution that parallels your research more passionately that one that may be higher ranked

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  • Thanks for the response! Just wanted to point out though that the question isn't so much about which institution is more likely to admit a scholar; it's more about which option a student should choose given different PhD offers or opportunities
    – meraxes
    Feb 3, 2022 at 1:45
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    Thank you for your commentary. You are correct. I did mention the importance of “interest parallel” and its influence on a student’s choice and outcome Feb 3, 2022 at 1:48
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If this is the only difference, go to the top university.

The reason is that what is "exciting" to you right now can very easily turn out to not be exciting once you start working on it. An example from last century is the search for Planet X. This hypothetical planet beyond Neptune had been predicted from theory, and now "all that's left" is to actually find it. Given that Neptune had been found a few decades ago from similar theoretical considerations, this can very easily sound exciting. After all there were at the time only 8 known planets in the Solar System. Finding the ninth would permanently etch your name into history. If you find it, you would also be looking at something nobody has ever done before, treading new ground, writing new chapters in humanity's knowledge from a blank slate.

But what if I were to tell you that finding new planets involves looking at millions of otherwise-unremarkable images of the sky using a blink comparator? It's boring, manual work that still has to be done because there's no better way to do it, and you need to do it for years.

Something similar could easily apply to your case. The end goal might be exciting, but the process to get there is what you'll be dealing with every day, and that might not be exciting. It's not easy to predict from the outside (or even from the inside) what the process will be like - a modern example might be you discover that your calculations work for simple cases but for the more interesting cases they are too slow, so you need to find ways to improve the speed. If you dislike figuring out how to make code more efficient, then you are not going to like the process even though the end result is still exciting.

This neglects the other advantages of going to the top university: more/better colleagues, visitors, library access, brand name for post-PhD job searches, etc.

This doesn't mean never go to the lesser-known university, but you need more/better reasons before doing so, e.g. they offer better funding, your supervisor there is well-known even though they're based at a lesser-known university, your current supervisors recommend you go there, etc.

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