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I work in industry. I applied to a good mid-tier biochemistry PhD program and was accepted. College buddies, who are now grad students at prestigious programs are advising me to break my word/signed acceptance to start with this program in the fall and apply to prestigious programs the next application cycle.

The thought of doing this feels horrible. I enjoyed meeting faculty on a visit, and my acceptance took a spot from a hopeful student on the wait list.

At the same time, I'm feeling "FOMO" at the reality of being a less competitive applicant for career opportunities as a result of not attending a top program. I acknowledge that the faculty I spoke to at this mid-tier program all earned their PhDs from top programs. Lastly, I must admit, I dreamed of being at a top program while working in my undergrad years.

I'm torn, and have only heard advice from current grad students on the matter - who are fairly one-sided on what they think is best.

What would you do, personally, in this position?

Thanks for your time.

Edit - I realized I didn't tell you what my goals are! Sorry! I'd like to do research in a government or industrial setting. I'd like to one day work my way up to running a group. I should add that at the time of applying, I was feeling disillusioned with academia as a result of a poor fitting 4-year long mentorship - so I applied to one program where I felt very comfortable. Thanks again.

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  • 11
    You haven't told us what your goals are! May 4, 2022 at 22:28
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    Fear of missing out on what? You picked a program to apply to, did so, and got accepted. In what way is the program and faculty 'mid-tier' in what you want to do? What do you want to do? You made deliberate, presumably reasoned-out, decisions on where to apply and how you liked it. Now your 'buddies' are hassling you? Might be time to find new buddies...
    – Jon Custer
    May 4, 2022 at 22:43
  • Geeze, that's an important bit to omit! Sorry Kevin and Jon, I just updated my post. May 4, 2022 at 22:46
  • Well, then I think you will do just fine. And you might well have a better experience then the others...
    – Jon Custer
    May 4, 2022 at 23:20
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    Your comments on other answers say you've decided to go with this offer (my advice too). Come back in a year and tell us how it went. May 5, 2022 at 15:22

5 Answers 5

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Reality check:

First, "mid tier" schools by a reasonable definition are very good. And most of them have faculty that are there for reasons other than they can't be at a "top tier" school. Life is more pleasant in some places and you can actually have a life.

Second, you aren't guaranteed a place in a top tier school if you turn down this offer. And you lose a year in trying to get in anyway. Maybe longer.

Third, you aren't guaranteed to do as well at a top tier competitive place as you might at a mid tier school.

I went to a mid tier place (ranked around 50) and we had several (several) world class mathematicians on the faculty. Some of them wrote the definitive (grad level) textbooks in their specialty. The faculty was good. The students were good. The local atmosphere was good.

Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don't feel bad that you only got the Ferrari when, maybe (maybe) you coulda got the Lambo.

Your future career will depend on a lot of things the ranking of the university at which you earn your doctorate isn't the major one. You can go to Yale and do poorly and squeak by but end up unprepared for the career you want.

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    Thank you, Buffy. I'm grateful for the reality check, and am feeling settled with my decision. I'm looking forward to getting there, working hard, making friends and learning how to do good research. I feel a bit ridiculous for having felt this way (publicly no less!), but am very glad I posted here and got your input. May 5, 2022 at 0:35
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    At least in the UK, you can buy a new Lamborghini for less than the cost of a new Ferrari. Now, if it's a Koenigsegg that you've set your heart on...
    – TonyK
    May 5, 2022 at 15:42
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    @TonyK, I'm saving for a Bugatti, actually. Hard to get serviced, though. Maybe I'll get two so that I can drive one while the other is in the shop.
    – Buffy
    May 5, 2022 at 15:55
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    +1 for "Your future career will depend on a lot of things the ranking of the university at which you earn your doctorate isn't the major one." If you go to Yale and never publish anything, nor contribute to your field in a meaningful way, nobody will care that you went to Yale. (Except your parents, who will bring it up whenever they can) Similarly, if you go to Random University and publish impactful work in your field during your career, nobody will care that you went to Random University.
    – lfalin
    May 6, 2022 at 15:18
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    Upvoted and excellent answer overall. But about the second sentence of the second paragraph, I don’t know, that sounds like a pretty dubious claim. I suspect the number of people who were actually offered a job at a top tier school and turned it down to be at a mid tier school because “life is more pleasant” is vanishingly small. (And by the way, I know such people, so I don’t deny they exist, but I’m skeptical that they’re as common as you make it sound.) It’s more likely that this is the rationalization some people offer, rather than admitting they weren’t offered a job at the top school.
    – Dan Romik
    May 6, 2022 at 21:34
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If your goal is not academia focused, pedigree matters very little. As long as your program is accredited and produces publishable research, you will be fine.

I have many contacts in government research and industry. They are men and women of influence in their field. They have PhDs from universities we've heard of (Washington State, U of New Mexico, Nevada-Reno, Central Michigan, etc.). No one cares that they did not go to Harvard or Berkeley. (And they get paid the same as if they had).

When I was deciding on PhD programs, I got into some top tier programs and I got into some mid tier programs. I ended up going to one of the lowest ranked schools I got into because it worked better for my family situation. For a long time it was a bit hard to swallow that I could have gone to a top 20 program and instead went to a program that USNews does not rank highly. Yet, here I am, working alongside (and managing) people who went to much more "prestigious" programs.

Program fit and your personal happiness are critical for success in a PhD program.


p.s. A USNews Top 50 program is actually pretty good. Those are some good universities.

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  • Yeah, the prestige of a school is more for bragging rights around the watercooler than anything else. Education is heavily reliant on what the student put into learning, regardless where they are doing it. FYI, I have an associates from a small time night school, yet I worked a government contract. Employers care more that you graduated than where you went or, sometimes, what your degree was in. May 6, 2022 at 18:08
  • +1 Speaking personally as someone who works at a government research organization - no one cares where you went to school. I have no idea where most of my colleagues went to school, and a lot of them I don't even know what level of degree they have. Especially if you start as a researcher and work up to group lead, the only thing that matters is whether you can do the work.
    – David K
    May 6, 2022 at 18:59
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Feeling comfortable and happy through your program will be a key to your success so if you like the university and advisor where you have been accepted, I suspect that will be the best spot for you to succeed.

Additionally, if you are ready to start now, I would suggest sticking with your current program. Rescinding your acceptance and going through the application process again will likely take at least a year.

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  • Thank you Selene, the program is somewhere with fun extracurricular activities, and I think it's a great place for me to be. I'm gonna go for it and be more than happy with what I have! By the way, your work seems so cool! May 5, 2022 at 1:30
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The best students in "mid-tier" programs publish more than the average student in the most prestigious programs. There are many factors that help explain this.

  1. Happiness - being below average is quite discouraging and we compare ourselves to our peers.
  2. Resources - as a top student you will win a larger percentage of internal funding.
  3. Professor attention - as a top student professors will want to work with you. You'll often have more attention from your supervisor, but you'll also get more attention from other professors. Nothing makes a professor happier than working with a really good student.

In general, a huge predictor of success and happiness is how well you perform relative to your peers. All else being equal, I'd argue that you want to be in a program where you will be in the top 10% of your graduating class.

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  • The supervisor is under pressure to publish in Nature Science PNAS. They will often accumulate results over a succession of PhD students in a (often futile) attempt to "save up" a groundbreaking paper. This can drag on for many years, leaving the students in the XXXX with too few publications on their resume.
    – Deipatrous
    Feb 9, 2023 at 13:26
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In addition to the other fine answers, you might consider this: if you want to excel as a research group leader, you are going to need people skills -- confidence, rhetoric, leadership -- along with your core competency. You will also need some grounding in business administration subjects, for setting up your department hierarchy, navigating grant applications, etc.

You can gain exposure to these skills in a number of ways. Audit business admin classes. Join student council and get on a committee.

Off-campus, join Toastmasters or a similar self-improvement club. Volunteer for community projects. Coach little league.

You will have more time for these activities in the relaxed atmosphere of a mid-tier university community than if you are pushing yourself to excel in a more intense school.

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