48

I've been admitted to more than one PhD program, and I'm having a very hard time making a decision.

The programs I'm accepted to have advantages and disadvantages with respect to one another. How do I weigh the relative importance of difference aspects of the program in order to make an optimal decision?

Ultimately, this is not a decision that anybody else can make for me, because everyone has different values and priorities, and the right decision for me may not be the right decision for somebody else. However, you can help by giving me more information about how different features of a program will affect my experience in graduate school and my future career.

The offers under consideration differ in a variety of ways:

I need to know more about what kinds of things are important and how these will affect me, so that I can make an informed decision about balancing competing criteria.


Note to readers: These answers quote extensively from other answers on this site (and link to them). If you read something quoted here that you find helpful, please follow the link to the original source and vote it up!


This is a special community wiki 'canonical' question that aggregates advice on a very broad topic - see more information in this meta post.

Each answer here relates to a different metric that one might take under consideration. If you have a new "critical" metric not in the list above that you believe should be an important part of the decision, post a new answer. If you want to add something related a metric that's already represented in its own answer, edit that answer.

  • 1
    A simple rule of thumb: by far the most important are supervisor and topic. Everything else can be sorted out. Do you get along with your supervisor (and can he provide the support that you need)? Do you love the topic? (You'd better do, as you will spend 3 years of your life with it, it's longer than many a marriage). Both should be an unconditional yes. – Captain Emacs Apr 14 '16 at 8:39
  • 1
    @CaptainEmacs I partly disagree, not only supervisor and topic are important but also the research environment in university and possibility of interaction with other people are also very very important factors. – optimal control Apr 14 '16 at 9:14
  • @optimalcontrol You have a point - but I think the OP has difficulties with prioritisation. If research environment is fine and the two points above are not, this cannot be compensated. However, the other way around might work. Plus, I caveated it: "rule of thumb"... – Captain Emacs Apr 14 '16 at 9:18
  • First and most important criteria is Passion. Please Take up a program or subject to which you are really passionate about and you are sure that you will never get tired of it. Rest Everything will fall in place. – gatolgaj Apr 15 '16 at 11:19
25

Advisor

Your advisor will be a really, really, really key part of your PhD experience, and can make all the difference between success and failure.

There are many different advising styles, and you should learn more about potential advisors to find one whose style works for you.

walkmanyi sums it up:

Many don't speak about this too often, but with an advisor you are not only choosing a field of interest, but you are choosing a mentor. By all means, you want to "tick well" with him/her. There is not much good for a PhD student having a star researcher advisor whom they see once in a quarter and who is a sociopath on a personal level (this is a bit too extreme, but think about it as a continuum between extremes). Choose somebody with whom you will be able to work, whose example it is worth to follow, from whom you want to learn, not only the scientific stuff, but also workstyle, level of quality he/she strives for, etc. These soft reasons are often more important than anything else.

Fomite has a fairly comprehensive answer on how to judge potential advisors by looking beyond their recent publications:

There are a few things I would generally look at in a potential advisor beyond just their research/publications:

  • Who were the co-authors on their papers? Are they actively collaborating with people in your field - people who could be potentially useful for post-doc posts, etc.? Do their students often show up as primary authors on publications, or are they invariably buried in the middle of a long list of authors?
  • Personality. This goes beyond just do you like the person. Do they prefer frequent updates, meetings and the like, or is the occasional check-in enough? Are they a morning person and you prefer working nights, or the other way around? If you send a long email, would it get answered, or do they not often fail to answer emails? I've had some professors who I'm very fond of nevertheless would make poor advisors because of wildly disparate working styles.
  • How are their students funded? Your funding stream can have serious impact on your completion time and productivity. If every semester, its a desperate Pick-N-Mix of funded side projects, TAships, etc. you're going to have a lot on your plate that, while potentially an interesting experience, will slow down your progress.
  • Where do their students end up? Do they have decent career trajectories? Are they supportive of alternative paths like industry or government?
  • Rank and age. A young professor might be more aggressive and eager, on the other hand they're less established, don't necessarily have the same level of institutional support, and if they're not yet tenured, its possible they'll disappear. An older professor may be more established and stable, but might not use "cutting edge" techniques, or feel less of an internal drive to publish.

Henry adds that there may also be some benefits to having an advisor who is generally well-liked by his/her peers:

I'd add to your list how your advisor is viewed in the rest of the field. Not just on the quality of research (though that's important too), but again, how much people like your advisor personally. Again, a small factor, but having other people in your field like your advisor can make a difference.

But really, the best way to find out about a potential advisor is to talk to their current students, and we have plenty of questions for you to ask!

Piotr Migdal says the most important question to ask is

Are you happy with your PhD in general?

It covers a lot of issues, but usually you don't want to do a PhD in a place where students are unhappy and frustrated. The good thing is that if students feel really bad, they rarely hide it.

but he adds a few more, too:

  • General contacts on the line student-advisor (How much contact and support can you expect, both for research and administrative stuff?).
  • Funding (Is it a problem or a non-issue, e.g. for attending a conference?).
  • Research (What the actual research looks like? What is the toughest part, biggest emphasis on, the most time-consuming part, etc?)
  • How much time does it typically take to finish PhD? Does it happen often that someone drops out?

Suresh suggests asking:

  • does PA [potential advisor] have time to meet with you when you need help ? Or does PA [potential advisor] want too many meetings ?
  • how much guidance are you given ? Too much ? Too little ?
  • is the relationship "work only" ? Do you talk about non technical academic issues ?

Theresa Liao has some more good questions to ask current students:

  1. Do/Did you (the current/former PhD) enjoy working in this supervisor's research group? Do research group members work with each other collaboratively and help each other? And ask the PhD student to elaborate.

    This question tries to get at what the research group dynamic is. This is fairly important in my opinion - the last thing you want to concern yourself with is politics in the research group. I have seen PhD friends frustrated by this.

Ideally you should ask this question in a less formal setting (some grad school visits will have time for social events). And sometimes you meet grad students who are comfortable sharing their experience openly. If you are not comfortable asking this question, as it can be an awkward question for the supervisor's current PhD, you can simply observe the interaction between group members, and between group members and the supervisor.

  1. Is the supervisor generally available? Does it take a long time to arrange a meeting to meet with the supervisor (used to be the case with my supervisor because he was so busy)? Does the supervisor respond immediately and effectively (another friend's supervisor tend to leave questions to last minute)?
  2. Are group members expected to work 24/7 or 9-to-5? Some supervisors expect you to reply to emails immediately, and some work strictly business hours.
  3. Does the supervisor take a hands-on or hands-off approach? Are students expected to be really independent with lots of freedom, or are they guided/directed along the way with less freedom?
  4. Does the supervisor support his/her students to consider career paths outside of academia? Some supervisors only want their students to go into academia, and it will be harder to discuss options with such supervisors.

For Q2-Q5, the right answer will depend on your own preference - what you want is a supervisor whom you will work well with.

  • 2
    The relationship with your advisor is probably the most important thing - to be blunt, there's no point being on the highest-ranked program if you're going to quit because of the stress. This answer also touches on how the advisor can help deal with some of the other issues. I feel like it needs a Tl;dr as it's so comprehensive - maybe I'll be able to help with that when I've got time. – Chris H Apr 14 '16 at 8:09
  • 1
    I second Chris H's comment. Advisor is key. I have had students who went chasing after 'brand name' (high ranking) universities but got burnt because their supposely famous adviser is hardly to be found or has a crap personality. So they dropped out. An adviser's ability to produce good research is also key. I've had a very good student go with an adviser who happens to have a pot of money. The adviser has a poor track record. After three years in, the student hasn't got a single publication. – Prof. Santa Claus Apr 14 '16 at 21:38
  • [pardon the sarcasm] Although this answer is good, how can someone who has never met potential advisor know in so much detail about him/her? Should they pack their bags and make an (overseas) trip to interview all the advisors of all the universities from which they have an offer? :) – morpheus Apr 15 '16 at 15:45
  • 1
    @morpheus As it says in the answer, "the best way to find out about a potential advisor is to talk to their current students" (and Skype works just fine for that) – ff524 Apr 15 '16 at 17:54
10

Funding

On questions related to self-funding a PhD vs. accepting an offer with funding, most answers point out that lacking funding has broader implications for your experience in graduate school - it's not just about the debt. There is a strong consensus that it is not a good idea to accept an offer without funding in any field and country where funding is typical. In some areas, however, such as humanities studies in the United States, a funded Ph.D. is not typical.

In some fields and locations (e.g. computer science in the United States), a standard PhD offer comes with funding. In situations like this, JeffE says:

Do not accept a PhD admission offer without funding. If they really want you, they'll pay for you.

and elaborates:

A typical PhD offer from a strong department includes guaranteed funding in some form. My department promises five years of funding to every incoming PhD student, assuming they make steady progress toward their degree. (Do not accept a PhD admission offer without funding. If they really want you, they'll pay for you.) Most of our students take 6 years to finish, but in practice, (100-ε)% of our students are funded for their entire stay. A typical theory student in my department is a TA for 2-4 semesters and an RA of fellow for the rest.

When a student is admitted, the department is making a contractual commitment to funding that student, assuming they make adequate progress toward their degree.

This is echoed in an answer by ff524 on another question.

vadim123 warns:

Choosing the no-support program is a large gamble. You should take it if you're confident that the program made a mistake in not offering you funding -- you have tremendous talent that for some reason has not been revealed in your record. Absent such a situation you should take the support.

On a similar question, L Platts points out that a program offering funding is likely to be more committed to your success, which has broader implications for your experience in the program (not just your debt):

If option A is research council funded (or is funded by a high-profile UK body or another funder demanding results for their money), this would weigh heavily in my decision to take it, even if it is at a less prestigious university. There will be consequences for the group and department if a council-funded student fails to finish by the four-year deadline, and this means that both the supervisor and institution are absolutely committed to the student succeeding and solutions will have to be found if things start to go wrong.

Paul points out that many programs won't even allow self-funded students, for good reason:

In science-related graduate schools, it is quite often the case that students will not be accepted into the program unless they have some sort of support (i.e. department assistantship, scholarship/fellowship, etc...). Students who try to do it all on their own often find themselves under even more pressure than a funded student. On top of trying to pass extremely difficult courses and pursue original, cutting edge research, they may find themselves also working multiple unrelated jobs that barely make ends meet for rent, much less tuition and all other debts incurred along the way. Often, unfunded students succumbs to financial pressures and drop out to pursue more financially stable opportunities.

and continues:

I believe this is a major reason why self-funded students are often not even allowed in graduate programs: statistically speaking, their success rate is likely too low to merit taking a chance.

ending with this bit of advice:

My advice to you: If you're offered funding, take it!. If you are accepted into a graduate program and are not offered funding and don't have any other source of funding apart from yourself, then don't try to do it all on your own. The sheer cost of graduate school, combined with the uncertainty of you graduating from the program, along with the nightmare of trying to pay off student loan debt for the rest of your life (even bankruptcy will not save you from student loan debt); it's just not worth it to you.

You may be wondering whether it's a good idea to rely on the possibility of getting funding after you enroll in the program. ff524 says that it's a gamble:

It's not impossible to get funding after beginning the program (e.g., if you really hit it off with a potential PhD advisor who has grant money to spare). But this depends very much on luck and circumstance, not just on merit; so unless you like living dangerously, it's not an advisable strategy.

Having said all that, if you do go the self-funded route, Paul has some reassurance for you:

You need not worry about the existence of a caste-system among graduate students. You will not be treated any differently than any other student if you are accepted into a program and not funded.

and Suresh says not to worry about how future hiring committees will perceive this:

All a recruiting committee should (and does) care about post-PhD is the quality of your work (for faculty positions there are additional issues). No one cares about how you were paid to do that work.

9

Research group

This answer by JeffE is so perfect, I'm just going to quote it verbatim. He says that asking about the quality of a research group is the wrong question,

What you should be asking is "How can I judge which research group will best support my educational and career goals?" And yes, this is a very different question. And while lab productivity may be correlated with the future career prospects of its members, the two are not identical. Some great researchers are terrible advisors.

  • Do the lab's students have a consistent strong track record of publishing new results?

  • Are the lab's students strongly represented at conferences, workshops, and the like? In particular: Are the lab's students given ample opportunity to present their research outside their home department?

  • Are the lab's students given ample mentoring and support, both in developing their own research agendas and in applying for external fellowships, lab exchanges, internships, postdoctoral positions, faculty positions, and so on?

  • Are the lab's students given ample opportunity for substantial intellectual contributions to the lab's published research, or are they just lab/code monkeys?

  • Does the lab's research agenda closely match your own research interests and abilities?

  • Most importantly: Where do the lab's former students work now? (The worst possible answer is "We don't know.")

Almost none of these questions can be answered accurately without physically visiting the lab and talking directly to the students without the PI present. If travel is impractical, use Skype / Google hangout / Facetime / whatever. Or telephone. Or, if all else fails, email.

Publishing is key in academia, so to get a sense of a research group, it's also a good idea to look at publications that have come out of the group, as suggested here:

  • How many articles are published, particularly in high quality journals relevant to the field of interest

  • Is there a consistent strong track record of publishing new results?

  • Their history of representation and contributions to conferences, workshops and the like

8

Ranking

In deciding how to weigh the ranking of each department under consideration in your decision, it's important to realize how the ranking of the department where you get your PhD will affect your future.

In this answer, JeffE says that the quality of your research is by far the most important factor in faculty hiring in his field:

Nobody in theoretical computer science cares where you got your degree. Really. We. Do. Not. Care. We only care about the quality and visibility of your results. Publish strong papers and give brilliant talks at top conferences. Convince well-known active researchers to write letters raving about your work. Make a good product and get superstars to sell it for you. Do all that, and we'll definitely want to hire you, no matter where you got your degree.

but suggests that the quality of the research you produce during your PhD will depend on the environment you're in, which in turn depends on your department ranking:

In my experience, where you get your degree is strongly correlated with successful research. I got my Master's degree at UC Irvine in 1992 and my PhD at UC Berkeley in 1996. The biggest difference I saw between the two departments was the graduate-student research culture. Every theory student at Berkeley regularly produced good results and published them at top conferences. When the FOCS deadline rolled around each year, the question I heard in the hallways from other students was not "You know the deadline is coming up?" or "Are you submitting anything?" but "What are you submitting?", because "nothing" was the least likely answer. Everyone simply assumed that if you were there, you were ready and able to do publishable research. Publishing a paper wasn't exceptional, it was just what you did. That cloud of free-floating confidence/arrogance had a huge impact on my own development as a researcher.

In other words, he concludes:

getting a PhD from a top department definitely helps, but more by helping you become a better researcher than by making you look better on paper.

xLeitix offers similar advice here: don't go to a particular university just because of its high ranking, but make sure that the environment in which you do your PhD is one that enables you to do high-quality research.

Corvus strongly emphasizes the importance of surrounding yourself with high-quality peers, which you're more likely to find in a highly ranked program:

I think what matters most is the quality of the students who will be your peers. You need to surround yourself with students who, from day 1, expect nothing less of themselves than to produce novel scientific research of the highest caliber, present it at top meetings, publish it in top journals, and forth. Ultimately you will learn more from your peers than from your advisor. A sufficiently talented and ambitious cohort will hold the bar high for you and push you to excel whereas a sufficiently talentless and unambitious cohort will help you make excuses for your own failures to reach your potential.

In my experience, top schools with top graduate programs have the sorts of students you want to surround yourself with. Second tier regional programs may, but I have yet to see it.

eykanal adds that if you're interested in a career outside of academia, then ranking matters more, even irrespective of its impact on the quality of your research:

When looking for a job in academia, potential employers will look at many factors, including publication record, research success, research track, who your advisor was, etc. The school is important but other factors are involved.

When looking for a job outside of academia, they will look at your GPA and the name of the university from which you graduated. In this case, your university could easily be a "make it or break it" part of the deal.

If you're concerned about being outclassed by the other students in your program at a top school, Dnuorg Spu says not to worry:

My experience as a student at a Extremely Well-Ranked School is that other students are very supportive, and empathetic to the experience of getting through a tough program. In short: don't worry. It will be ok.

and JeffE adds:

Do not listen to the Impostor Syndrome.

(More on that insidious impostor syndrome here.)

7

Other considerations

Sometimes all of your offers are equivalent with respect to the "key" considerations, and you may want to take some "minor" criteria into account.

aesmail reports:

I applied to six graduate schools in my field, and was accepted at all of them. The criteria I used to whittle down the choices were:

  • Did I like the people in the department I was visiting? (This surprisingly did eliminate one school.)
  • Did I want to go to live in the city where the school was for five or so years? (One more down, four left.)
  • Could I find enough people I was interested in working for, so that if I didn't get my top choice, I'd still be happy with the projects I'd be taking?
  • Can I financially afford to live in the city? (One more down, two left.)

At that point, however, the remaining criteria were all competing with one another: one school offered me a lot more money, the other had a lot better location. Both offered plenty of research, and both had excellent reputations in their field. Ultimately, for me, the location, combined with the slightly higher general profile of the school I attended, swayed the balance for me.

Dan C. emphasizes the social and cultural benefits of leaving your comfort zone:

One big advantage of changing schools is that you meet new people. Most people have a few things they're really good at. By meeting new people, you get to learn the new things that they are really good at. More generally, you get to experience the culture of a different place and group of people (both academically and socially). This helps to give you a more developed sense of what is normal (reasonable to expect), and likely will expose you to new insights. All else being (close to) equal, I suggest that you move.

On a similar note, ff524 addresses the advantages and disadvantages of continuing in your bachelors/masters department for your PhD vs. leaving your academic comfort zone:

If you stay, you won't have to interrupt your research to apply to other schools and transition to a new group. Staying where you are is a "safe" choice.

If you go somewhere else, some of your weaknesses (which you are able to ignore in your current position) may be exposed, and you'll have to work on improving them. And you will probably meet new collaborators (especially if you go to anther country) and be exposed to new ideas and techniques that will be difficult to learn, but will make you a better and more capable researcher.

So the answer to your question depends on what you want to gain from your PhD: Do you want to get a degree and some nice publications? Then staying where you are sounds like the easiest way. Or do you want to improve yourself and broaden yourself as a researcher? Then you might be better off leaving.

Having said that - of course, even if you stay, you can still challenge yourself and improve yourself and your capabilities. But since you don't have to "prove yourself" in your current position, there's nothing forcing you to do so - you'd have to be exceptionally self-motivated and disciplined.

7

Alumni and placement

Different programs and adviors produce different types of students. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does the school fit into your career goals?
  • Where do students from your prospective advisors and programs end up? Do their career paths align with yours? Do they require post-docs? If so, how long?
  • If you want to go into academia, do the alumni hold professorships at schools you want to work at (e.g., Ivy League schools tend to hire more from other Ivy League schools, Big 10 schools often hire from other Big 10 programs)?
  • If you want to work in a government lab, does your program place students in those lab?
  • Do students from your program work for industry? Are they the companies you want to work for? (e.g., Big-Pharm, Google, etc.)
  • Would networking with the students in the program help your future career goals? These students may be potential collaborators for the rest of your career.

As an example, my graduate program places most people in industry, consulting, and government, but only a few in academia. Job placement is a point of pride for my PhD program, but many programs do not publicly disclose where alumni end up or only showcase students who end up in academia. This posting on Eco-Log talks about placement more. I wanted to be a government research scientists so my program was a perfect fit. Also, I was co-advised by a math professor who places many of his students at Department of Energy labs because he previously worked at one.

Similarly, for life sciences (e.g., biology, ecology, natural resource management), students getting a PhD in a USGS Co-op program greatly increase their chances of getting a job as a government researcher or having the network to get USGS or USFWS grants as an academic.

Placement is important if you want to avoid potentially long post-docs; academia and other research jobs can be difficult to break into. Both Nature and Science talk about this. Also, many posts on this site focus on the post-doc experience because it can be more stressful than the PhD experience for some. For example, see When should you move on from a postdoc position?, Failing postdoc?, Is there a stigma in computer science toward too many postdoc positions?.

In summary, think about where you want to end up after your PhD and try to choose a program accordingly.

Edit This new post talks about placement after finishing a PhD: Is it a red flag for a PhD program if their graduating students cannot find postdoc?

  • Also, I could not find any answers on Academia.SE talking about job placement. Please edit in any that I missed and let me know what key words you used for your search. – Richard Erickson Apr 14 '16 at 14:38

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