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It seems that high profile universities are not the most enjoyable work environment to be in.
Even though big institutions attract big names and grant money, it seems to me that the pressure to perform leaves everybody, from the undergraduates to the professors, overworked. On the other hand, the idea of less prestigious university is attracting me for the, perhaps overly romantic idea, that as passionate people could be working in these institutions.

I am thinking: perhaps moving out of a big institution to a smaller one could increase quality of academic life, as well as creativity. But surely quality of science need not be inversely proportional to department enjoyability?

-Is this a realistic expectation?

-Does this depend on the research interest?

-Does achieving a PhD in an impressive institution open many doors that would otherwise remain close (for example, being able to be an independent researcher)?

Additonal info:

I have graduated from a MSci in Theoretical Physics in a big London university, and I am currently doing a MSc in Applied Mathematics there. Interests were fairly broad and decided to prolong my taught education to "taste" more subjects.
I love Physics and Maths almost as much as air, but I am a bit concerned with the dullness of my current environment. I haven't been to other universities, or know many passionate people from other universities, so I have not had the chance to ask these questions to many people.

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    Hi, and welcome to Academia.SE! Unfortunately, I'm not sure that your question has any sort of objective answer: which path is best tends to vary wildly with personal preference and how well matched the person and institution are. – jakebeal Apr 8 '15 at 21:59
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    For your 3rd question, see here: academia.stackexchange.com/q/90/19607 (in particular, the end of JeffE's answer) – Kimball Apr 9 '15 at 2:23
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    After further and closer look at this question, I decided to retract my close vote. I think this is an important question for those who are seeking graduate school admissions and/or transferring schools. It is opinion-based. However, many who come to our site are looking for expert opinions.. – scaaahu Apr 9 '15 at 5:30
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Let me focus on the question in the title. In my experience, a vibrant mathematical community is the best environment for creativity. More prestigious universities/departments tend to attract creative and passionate people, who create vibrant communities, and being surrounded by them will help you be more creative and passionate. While this is not a rule, and some departments just have bad atmospheres (you need some individual knowledge of the department to know about this, so visits etc are good), you're more likely to find inspiration at a place with cutting-edge research, than at a place where most of the research is "pedestrian."

There is a caveat, however. If you can barely keep you head above water, it's hard to be creative. Fortunately, most places won't admit you if they don't think you can handle it, though it does happen. Again a visit, or browsing student/faculty webpages/blogs may help with this. See also this related question on MSE.

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I would recommend you try to answer your own question by meeting people who are currently doing their Ph.D.'s in a variety of institutions, and asking them what their programs are like.

Technical conferences are a great venue for doing this. It is also acceptable to (on your own) visit departments to which you think you might be interested in applying. At least in the US (and I'm guessing also in the UK), professors and current grad students are generally happy to meet you and talk about their experiences.

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  • The limit of going to other departments is the obvious geographical/timetable complications. That is why I though to ask here. But you say it is OK to contact professors and grad students (that I have not necessarily met) via email and ask to meet? And thanks for the advice about technical conference. I will apply to a couple this summer, – Andrea Apr 9 '15 at 11:22
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    "But you say it is OK"... generally yes, especially at departments whose profiles are less high. But "obvious geographical complications" --- I understand that this will take time and money, but opportunities won't necessarily just come to you, in which case you have to seek them. – Anonymous Apr 9 '15 at 12:37

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