I'm finishing my undergraduate degree this year, and I'm deciding which PhD program to attend: School A, or School B. I do have other offers, but these two stand out to me. My background and current interests are in topic X.

  • School A has exactly one professor working on X, but my would-be initial advisor works on topic Y. I don't oppose doing research in Y, but my background and current research interest really is X. This initial advisor is recruiting me very aggressively, so it'll really hurt turning him down.
  • School B has 2-3 professors working on X, but I can't see myself working with anyone here whose research is not in X, which would be bad if I lose interest in X someday. If the would-be initial advisor at School A weren't recruiting me so aggressively, I'd choose School B.

All of the aforementioned professors are quite productive, though the students at School A are slightly more productive than those at School B. If it matters at all, I prefer the location of School A slghtly.

tl;dr: School A is aggressively recruiting me and may be the better place overall, but for my current research interests, School B is the place to be.

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    Go to School B. What does it even mean to "recruit agressively"? This does not make sense to me. After all, the aggressiveness of the recruiter should not be a relevant factor in your decision making. Also, I also don't think it is reasonable to consider the possibility of suddenly loosen interest in X. Do you see any sign of that?? – Shake Baby Mar 4 '17 at 2:44
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    I guess the recruiting has made me more emotional about the decision than I should be. He basically sounds like he wants me to go quite badly. And no, I don't see myself losing interest in X, but I've repeatedly heard the advice of keeping an "open mind" and such. – Pom Pom Mar 4 '17 at 2:47
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    He may want you badly as much as he want. For me this only count against him. It makes no sense to go do research on Y, if you are really interested in X. Your research topic is the most important choice that you have to make, and discarding your first option seems the worst action. You should keep your mind open, but you can always try to transfer school if everything goes wrong with topic X. – Shake Baby Mar 4 '17 at 2:53
  • Supervisor & topic are the most important criteria for your thesis. Everything else is secondary. If one of them is iffy, don't. Aggressively recruiting? For a topic that is less interesting for you? That sounds as if, when you choose this topic and it is indeed boring, you will be aggressively hassled to do it. Do you want this? Do you need this? (Some students do, the question is not rhetoric). – Captain Emacs Mar 4 '17 at 21:36
  • Also, going somewhere with just one person working on X is dangerous. What if they leave or retire? What if you don't get along? What if they have no funding to work with you? There are people who are terrible advisors, and the fact that you haven't been paired with person X (even though presumably you stated that you were interested in X) might be a bad sign about one or more of those things... – Dawn Mar 5 '17 at 2:16

If you want to do research on X, you should go to a place where you can do that! Going to school A, working on Y, and hoping that you might be able to switch advisors does not sound like a good idea. How much the professor at school A wants you should not really matter, you have to do what is right for you; he will find someone else. Moreover, I would not already think about what to do if I lose interest in X. This is hypothetical anyway, and in this case, there might be some topic Z that is more interesting than Y etc.

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Before you decide, you need to

  1. Ask the recruiter to give you some space to think on your own. Insist if necessary.

  2. Figure out how compatible you are with the professors in your target field (X) at both schools. (Look at some papers, try both some email and phone communication.)

  3. Make a chart of pluses and minuses of the other schools. If any are reasonable candidates, include them in #2.

  4. If money is tight, make a careful comparison on that aspect.

  5. Similarly with respect to health coverage.

  6. (Optional) You might want to add some other criteria to your chart, e.g. if you like cross-country skiing, that's a minus for "free time" for a school in a warm climate.

You may wish to plan one or two campus visits.

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