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In the past days I was accepted in two PhD programmes about biomedical imaging processing and I have a big dilemma about which one to choose. Both of them are in similar biomedical imaging fields but the mathematical and computational techniques to develop are not the same. Lets call them Phd program A and B.

I find PhD programme A really motivating, fits my interests and I like the mathematics involved in it. Although, the institution where it is done is a good place to do research the supervisor has just ten years of research experience, not big amount of citations and the journals in which he publishes have not a big impact factor.

About PhD programme B, I do not find it so interesting and I guess that after some time I could loose some motivation but it is also fine (in fact, if programme A would not exist I would accept programme B without too much hesitation). Nevertheless, the supervisor has a huge experience, he publishes in good journals (like PNAS) and has contributed to the writing of some books in the field. Moreover, the research centre is quite tough/challenging (there would be more pressure but I find it necessary for doing good research) and students there are motivated and enthusiastic.

About other aspects of the programmes, like country or funding both of them are more or less the same, good public funding but perhaps I prefer the country of project A but it is just a guess.

Has anyone faced the same situation? What would you do? Perhaps I am missing some important point?

Thanks in advance for the answers.

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Based on what you've said I like option A. But of course you know more about this situation than can be conveyed in a post, and there is more information you can find out, to help make the right decision. For context, I am a math PhD student just about to graduate.

Some points for option A:

  1. In my opinion, the most important thing in pursuing a PhD is to be passionate about the work. I have known people who went about it differently, picking a topic that they thought would gain them a reputation so they could later do something interesting, but most of the time these people end up either not graduating, or taking a very very long time to graduate, or settling for a mediocre thesis just to get it over with (which makes it hard to find a job). What you are about to do is extremely challenging, and you need that personal drive to get through it.
  2. Now, you can pursue something you are passionate about with both A and B. But the fact that you already know a project that gets you excited with A outweighs that the supervisor at B has a better reputation. Especially since the adviser at A is young, maybe s/he just does not have a good reputation yet. Someone interested in what you are interested in is valuable, and more rare than you may expect, and a collaboration can bring good things for both of you.

  3. When someone has a good reputation in academia, it usually is not a result of their skills as a mentor, or in finding jobs for their students, or in helping students find their place in the community. A professor might be good at those things, but it is not required for them to be known as a great scientist or mathematician. Nonetheless a professor with such a reputation is going to attract a lot of students, often for the wrong reasons, and they must compete for his/her attention, also often for the wrong reasons. You don't want to join a fleet of satellites.

  4. Schools that are concerned about their reputations are less likely to encourage exploration of unconventional topics.

Everything I've said though is coming from my more categorical impressions. You have the ability to get more information, and maybe what I've said does not even apply. So my main advice is to get more info until you are confident about a choice. One of the best ways to do that is to visit each school over a weekend and, in particular, buy some of the supervisors' students a few drinks.

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Here are some good things to think about.

  1. Research topics look very different when you dig deep into them. Right now A's work might look sexy, but you can get 3 months in and realize details that make you understand why it's not "hight impact". The reverse can happen with B: when you actually start doing it you may find it more interesting than you thought (this is quite common!). The fact that B's research generates so much buzz means I think it's likely that when you learn more you'd find it more interesting, or you might not.
  2. Your Ph.D is a long hard process where you will have plenty of doubts. I personally believe the only way to keep your sanity is to be working on a project you truly love. I am saying that as a current student where right now things are tough but I'd never leave because this is the only thing I want to be doing, while I hear others who are almost ready to quit because it's a lot of work and the reward is quite far away. I know I'd be reconsidering what I am doing if I didn't love my projects.
  3. You will do much better work and put more time into what you find interesting.
  4. When you say the research centre is tough/challenging, did you get any bad vibes from the students? Trust your gut instincts. They won't say anything bad about their boss when he's around. The only thing you'd hear on a visit is little sour notes dropped around. Pick them up and understand them. Look at the professor's CV. Are his/her students doing well after graduation? If they aren't, that's a big warning sign.
  5. Have you asked B to explain to you why his/her work is interesting? Sounds silly, but that's probably the most common thing B has to do. It may totally change your perspective.
  • Thanks for such as detailed answer. I completely agree with your first point, after some deep study of the field perhaps I change my mind about project A but I have some experience in project B and I know that I do not find it completely stimulating. About point four, I explained myself incorrectly, I meant that the research centre expects a lot from its students but I consider it as a good point although project A is also a good place to do research. I will go out to practice some sport and then I will make a decision :) – user51760 Apr 3 '16 at 19:07

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