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I'm an undergraduate currently. I am looking to pursue a PhD next year. I have an established PI here who I have been working very well with, and we already have, well, probably at least 2 years in the future worth of plans for potential projects. Obviously, it often does not look good to do your PhD at the same program as your undergraduate, as I have read that institutions view it as though the student does not want to leave their comfort zone, will have a more restricted network, fewer diversity in the background of recommenders, etc.

The problem is, my undergraduate institution is number one in the field I am doing, and in the graduate field I hope to pursue (its "specialty" is a different subfield than mine, but I am sure it is still at or near the top of the specific subfield I work in, and the entire program itself is still number 1). So my question is, could it potentially harm me in pursuing my PhD at the same place? What potential impacts could it have on me down the line? If I have other connections that I also have worked well with in the past at, say, the number 10 school in the field and am accepted there, would that be better, worse, and why? If I could instead work in a similar field at a different campus of the same university that is also top 5 (and also would allow me to perform the same research, take as interesting and focused coursework, etc), and my current PI would be able to co-advise me with a faculty member from that department, would that change things and be "far enough" of reaching from the undergraduate institution?

I am not at all concerned with rankings, but obviously with the current pay structure and employment market in academia, that is not something that can be taken out of the equation. I agree that I really enjoy pushing my comfort zone as well; at my current university, The only places with that sort of funding for the area of research I perform are top 25 schools, and getting hired by one of those is obviously a majorly uphill battle to start with. I really appreciate any insightful feedback/suggestions/tips you guys can give!

  • is that a little better? sorry about that! – Eric Jan 27 '17 at 6:27
  • You could reduce potential harm by interning elsewhere and, subsequently, taking a postdoc position elsewhere. – user2768 Jan 27 '17 at 9:23
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but I heard it was only bad to do a PhD at the same university you want to teach at. Undergraduate + Graduate at a university is no problem. – A_Happy_Student Jan 31 at 21:10
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The problem is, my undergraduate institution is number one in the field I am doing, and in the graduate field I hope to pursue.

Here's a well-known story:

Richard Feynman did his undergrad studies at MIT. Near the end of his studies there, he approached John Slater (the head of physics at that time) asking to stay on as a PhD candidate. Slate asked him why, and Feynman's response was:

"I want to go to MIT because it is the best school in the country."

Slater then said: "That's why you should go to some other school. You should find out how the rest of the world is."

(Paraphrased from "Surely you're joking...")


Here's a personal story:

When I was applying for graduate schools, everyone is applying everywhere, and in particular most of my cohort also applied for the graduate school program where I did my undergraduate degree. Now, most of them do not really want to stay another four or five or six years there---entirely understandable as the town is not very exciting, and after four years of undergraduate studies there one typically cannot wait to go away for a while. So the department is often reluctant to admit their own students for fear of "wasting an offer".

So I was slightly surprised when I got a phone call from my then undergraduate thesis advisor inquiring about my intentions, after laying out the above "facts". This being rather early in the process and before I had received any concrete offers, I responded in a way that is mostly truthful but also (I thought) calibrated to not ruin my prospects of getting some/any offer! So I equivocated that only an offer from one other institution would seriously tempt me away, and in the case I get offers both from that other institution, and my then current one, I would have to think harder before making up my mind. But the chances are 50-50 absent any significant differences in the offer.

My thesis advisor then asked me whether I am out of my mind, and why I would consider going anywhere else when he is the best in the world there is.

I stayed, and I am not sorry for it. (Well, at the very least, I still have a job.)


Having been in hiring discussions: I have never heard the esteem of any candidate lowered solely because he or she studied for both the undergraduate and graduate degrees at the same place. Concerns about "leaving one's comfort zone" and about "lack of connections" are more often raised in the context of

  • Having postdoctoral research that closely mirrors doctoral research (no growth).
  • Having a very small set of collaborators, one of whom is the doctoral advisor (no connections).

By the time most of us finished our undergraduate degrees, we are significantly less mature than we are after we finished our PhDs. No reasonable person would judge you on one decision you make when you are so young. Besides, if you really are the type that cannot venture far from your comfort zone, it will show up (probably more clearly) elsewhere in your CV.

So your consideration should really be: will I learn if I stay? Will I grow if I stay? Can I count on myself to reach out and make more connections should I stay? Will I perform excellent research if I stay? Your decision should ultimately rest on your expected growth as an individual (both scientifically and otherwise) and not on unreliable perceptions from "the community".

  • wow, very very insightful. The last few questions I hadn't really thought of; thanks so much! These honestly sound like questions that I could make sure to address with my PI here, and maybe he would be able to help me address them over the next few years if I decide to stick around. Thanks! – Eric Jan 27 '17 at 20:28
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Yes, there is some taboo about it.

Yes, I have met people who did this and they are now professors at top schools.

From a logical perspective, if you are already at the best school in your field, then it may not make sense to go elsewhere. But like you said, it can also be beneficial to get out of your comfort zone and work with other groups.

In the end, if you do great research then no one will care where you did your undergrad. The important thing is to pick the university/department/advisor that you believe will enable you to do great research. We can't tell you what is best for you.

  • what is your opinion about ppl that changed field from undergrad and grad' how they are regarded? – SSimon Jan 27 '17 at 6:27
  • Thanks @Austin. It's just like, literally every positive I can think of a negative. My PI here does good work, and maybe I could get more papers out here; the PI I could work with at another school gets more citations even though the work is equivalent in quality. I have lots of collaboratory here; maybe I'd get some more elsewhere. Such a hard decision :( – Eric Jan 27 '17 at 6:28
  • @SSimon, I think it depends on the field. For instance, physics is a very broad topic area, in which many people with a undergraduate degree in physics go into many far reaching fields, simply because physics is such an amazing undergraduate major for preparing you for a variety of mathematical questions (and mathematical questions form the basis for most, if not all, quality research in any scientific field). I think fields that teach you a concept like physics, math, etc (problem solving, mathematics skills, etc) are far easier to apply in other graduate study than say, a sciences field. – Eric Jan 27 '17 at 6:32
  • It is far easier to learn math, and then learn how to apply it specifically, than to learn some other subject, and then learn the mathematics behind it. Knowing the mathematics, you can accelerate your learning of the sciences just by seeing the mathematical proofs, whereas knowing the science itself will do little to help you understand the math in most situations. – Eric Jan 27 '17 at 6:36

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