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I got a Master's degree in Electrical Engineering from a school which is among the top ranked of Europe. Nevertheless, this is a pure coincidence, I did it here because it was the closest to my home.

For purely personal reasons I am tired of living in a place where there is such high population density, and having to suffer city life, crowded trains, traffic (even though I do not drive, I suffer the noise and pollution a lot), and spending so much time every day in queues is very annoying. My dream would be to return living in the countryside in a small village where people know each other, like when I was a kid (the village where I grew up is now today part of a suburb and mostly lost its soul).

I'm considering applying for a PhD position in a very small university in a medium sized town, in order to relocate and live in a rural village near the town. That university would be quite small and barely large enough to offer PhD programs, and definitely does not have much international reputation or anything. The exact opposite to the university where I got a Master's, which is high ranked and has amazing international reputation.

What I'd be doing would be the exact opposite of the mainstream, where people are always more willing to live in cities despite the disadvantages, and also are wanting to have their PhD from a school that is prestigious. I am afraid to kill my academic career because of a caprice of mine ("live in the countryside") would have taken up all the other advantages over staying here in the same School for a PhD.

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    Does it have to be that particular university? There are lots of prestigious universities in the world which are located in small towns, so if you are willing to relocate further, you may be able to get the best of both worlds. – Nate Eldredge Jun 20 '15 at 20:43
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    i think the important question here is "what do you value most?" there is no universal answer to your question. the answer depends on what kind of life you want to lead. – dbliss Jun 20 '15 at 22:42
  • I can imagine a job interview .. Such a decision really makes you sound like a lazy guy, who only care about having a soft, cushy work with not much challenges and comfortable, slow life and the most important thing is his life that he can go fishing early afternoon. This is a huge red flag for most industrial jobs, and for many academic. As @NateEldredge pointed out many (if not most) prestigious universities are in rural places. Many people actually have the opposite problem: going to an institute that is good, but not in a terribly rural area. – Greg Sep 14 '15 at 22:29
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No. I did it. From King's College world rank 15 to Queen Mary world rank 150. Your PhD wipes out everything. All my friends who continued their studies at King's had a better chance in finding jobs at good companies while I had to convince people over interviews why I made such a decision.

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I guess the first question is What do you want to do with your PhD?

If you want to stay in academia, you will have the same problem after graduating all over again (and, speaking from personal experience, as a young postdoc/faculty, one does not generally have the luxury of choosing where one goes next). Further, going to a (presumably) under-funded local university with weak research programme is going to severely reduce the probability of you doing world-class research. While Moriaty is correct in saying that "It's the quality of your individual work that counts.", said quality is definitely strongly correlated to the excellence of your advisors and fellow students and collaborators. Another problem may be funding (e.g., for going to conferences), which may not be plentiful in a small university.

What I am also wondering is whether you actually need to switch university, or should just live off-campus? I work in Zurich, and I have one student who used to live between Zurich and Bern (about a one-hour car drive away), in an area that was pretty much as rural as it gets. He just did a lot of home office, and took the train approximately 3 times a week. Maybe an arrangement like that helps you more than throwing out the baby with the bath water?

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    Re Switzerland, EPFL is pretty well regarded, and Lausanne is not what I would call a major city. When I worked there, I could bike to countryside in half an hour or so, or maybe 10 minutes to parks on the lake shore. But I thoroughly agree with the OP's choice for living in smaller towns or country. I got my degrees from a smaller, mid-rank state university that happens to be where I wanted to live. I've done fairly well professionally, and enjoy the rest of my life, too. – jamesqf Jun 21 '15 at 17:57
  • I was in EPFL, Lausanne, and for my standards it is a major city (at least when it comes to nuisances) (see my original post). They built a new metroline and the day it was opened it was already too small to transport the waves of people that wanted to use it. There is constant traffic jam from 6 AM to to 7 PM everywhere everyday, even using bycicle or foot it makes it very unpleasant. This is this kind of stuff of "big city nuisance" I'm talking about, not the # of inhabitants. – Bregalad Jun 21 '15 at 18:02
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    @Bregalad If Lausanne is too metropolitan, your options may indeed be limited. – xLeitix Jun 21 '15 at 21:48
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    @Bregalad: I think that rather depends. You could find big-city annoyances in Lausanne, if you looked for them, but I lived in Ecublens, just a 5 minute walk from the lab. Could bike (following national bike routes du Rhône & du Jura) to country in short order. Same is true of where I live now: I can find all big-city stuff if I want to travel 20 minutes in one direction, but still am in country and can be in wilderness 20 minutes in other directions. – jamesqf Jun 21 '15 at 21:59
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    @Bregalad: honestly, in that case just pick any of the dozens of villages in Vaud which are like 30' car/bus/train commute away from Lausanne. I have several friends who live in rural towns along Lac Léman and study/work at EPFL. – fgysin Jun 22 '15 at 9:51
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I totally get your dilemma, as I'm going through a similar thing (I'm not sure what I want to do after my PhD, in a university in a city of ~200,000 people).

Remember that a lack of overall reputation shouldn't greatly harm your chances of having further success in academia. It's the quality of your individual work that counts. Having a PhD is rarely necessary outside of academia, so your Master's degree from a great university should be adequately impressive.

Don't forget that there are many great universities in smaller towns, and some cities have small "satellite villages" where you can live outside of the city but still easily commute to work. I think that you're restricting yourself too much. In saying that, if you're motivated and convinced that you can do a great PhD at this particular university, you should still give a paid PhD offer some serious consideration.

Don't unnecessarily restrict yourself to Europe, either. Most towns and cities in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand are generally much more spread out and feel far less claustrophobic.

My advice would be to try to get the best PhD you can, as long as you're willing to put up with the lifestyle compromises. Or else, why bother getting a PhD? I can understand Paris, London, or New York being right out. But any campus that's an acceptably short cycle, bus, or train ride (commuting at off-peak times helps, if you can get away with it) from a smaller village shouldn't be ruled out automatically.

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I don't really get your dilemma unless there are further geographical constraints you haven't mentioned. In the US at least, the quality of the university is not much correlated with the population size or density. The American university currently rated #1 (according to a famous ranking that should not be taken too seriously; but certainly it is and has been a very top university) is Princeton. Princeton is located in such a small town that I did not want to go there for graduate school. On the same list we find places like Dartmouth, Cornell...

I am not nearly as familiar with universities outside of the US, but for instance I was a visitor at Universite de Bordeaux I. It turns out that there is some mildly false advertising here: UNBI is not actually in Bordeaux (which I thought was a charming, beautiful small city, by the way), just very close to it in a tiny town called Talence.

Also many people -- probably most -- who like to live outside of cities nevertheless commute into them for their work. One hour's drive from a prestigious university puts you in almost any kind of living situation I can think of.

Are you really asking whether moving from one of the top ranked European universities to "a Phd position in a very small University in a medium sized Town, in order to relocate and live in a rural village near the town. That university would be quite small and barely large enough to offer Phd programs, and definitely do not have much international reputation or anything. The exact opposite to the university where I got a Master's, which is high ranked and has amazing international reputation" will cause your academic career to suffer? Okay, fair question but an easy one: yes.

What I'd be doing would be the exact opposite of the mainstream, where people are always more willing to live in cities despite the disadvantages,

That is obviously false. Lots of people do not live in cities. In fact, lots of people who would prefer to live in large cities instead take jobs in small cities / college towns in order to keep their academic career alive. (I am one of them. I grew up in a city of two million people. I now live in a city of one hundred thousand people and have a really good academic job there.)

I suggest that you think more carefully about your long term goals. It seems to be implicit that you want to stay in a very small geographic space. That kind of priority is anathema to an academic career, and that's true in Europe as much as or more than in the United States. I know that because I know many excellent European mathematicians who have tried for years to find a job in their home country, to no avail. In many cases they need to leave Europe entirely in order to find a suitable academic job. Or maybe you don't really want an intense academic career following your PhD but would be content to have a mostly teaching position in a desirable geographic location (maybe even at a good high school?). In that case, simply getting your PhD anywhere might be enough. You should look into it. But considering a much worse PhD program wondering how much you're sacrificing by doing so is a very poor investment in your own future.

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    I think in Europe there is indeed a trend that most well-respected universities are in capitals / big cities, and often directly in the city (e.g., ETH, TU Munich, UCL, KTH - even though KTH is actually in Kista, which is arguably worse then Stockholm if you can't stand pollution). – xLeitix Jun 20 '15 at 21:48
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    @xLeitix: There are fewer universities per capita in Europe, so that must be true overall. Still, I know of several quite reputable universities in France (which is the European country I know the best) which are far away from Paris. So the OP could: (i) go to one of the smaller number of good universities which are not in a big city. (ii) Commute into the city (as both you and I have mentioned). (iii) Go outside of Europe if it is really highly important that he match top-ranking world university with small town. There are plenty of European students at Princeton, Stanford.... – Pete L. Clark Jun 20 '15 at 21:52
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    Wait: Oxford? Cambridge?!? Or does that not really count as Europe? – Pete L. Clark Jun 20 '15 at 21:53
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    Listing Stanford with small-town universities is not really accurate. Yes, the census-designated place "Stanford, California" does have a population of only 13,809, but this is really just a quirk of city limits: it's in the middle of a dense metropolitan area of population almost 9 million. Though I do suppose you could commute from Half Moon Bay or something. – Nate Eldredge Jun 20 '15 at 22:49
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    (Data point: I was in the vicinity of Stanford a couple of weeks ago. Traffic was so bad that it took over an hour just to get onto Highway 101.) – Nate Eldredge Jun 20 '15 at 22:58
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Your concern about sabotaging your career is real. Academic hiring for full professorships in even second or third tier universities is overwhelmingly from higher prestige institutions in many countries/programs. (Not terribly surprisingly - people usually fall back to prestige when asked to make high-stakes decisions among things that aren't really easily ranked.)

Now this may vary by country and/or program, so I would look at places that you would consider and take a close look at where the candidates got their PhD. That's the level of institution that you'll probably need to attend if you are serious about that sort of job.

(This doesn't mean don't choose a smaller institution - but it does mean being aware of how that reduces your chances of success in certain areas. Everything's a trade-off.)

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You should consider more cities that are smaller than the city you live in now, even if they are not as small as your ideal. For example, the difference between four million and one million people is vast, even if your ideal might be fifty thousand. Already this brings a good reduction in traffic flow, lines, and general rudeness. Beyond that, if you can find a place where you can do great research and make good connections, then you should go for a better environment. If you are quite adverse to large urban centers then that could also seriously negatively affect your work.

  • But from comments above, it appears that the OP's idea of 'large' is Lausanne, which has (or had when I lived there, a decade or so ago) a population under 200K. – jamesqf Jun 22 '15 at 18:54

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