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Should I consider applying to mid-tier schools? Or will I have better long-term success by working or doing research for a year and re-applying to top-tier schools? I don't want to be a professor, I just want to be an expert in my field and then do research in industry. How much does the institution you attend actually matter?

Details about my situation: I am a senior at Worcester Polytechnic Institute currently applying to PhD programs in machine learning and robots. 3.98 GPA, two grad classes, a few research projects with professors, one publication as first author at a tiny workshop, and some solid internship experiences. I am planning to apply to MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, Georgia Tech, and CMU. I think I am a competitive applicant, but I also know that those schools are insanely hard to get in to in my field. I'm planning for the event I don't get into one of these top schools.

Clarification: If I end up taking a year before grad school, I would be doing research at a company (Uber) or getting a research internship at a university lab somewhere (not sure how or where).

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    In what context would you be doing your "year of research"? Would you be staying in your current lab, another lab, industry, your parents' attic? – nengel Oct 6 '17 at 5:13
  • This is an important detail that I've added to my question – Peter Mitrano Oct 6 '17 at 15:47
  • Sounds like very much of a personal decision to me. I have thoughts on what I would personally do in your situation, but I can't claim that you should do what I would do. This is something that you will have to decide for yourself if the time ever comes. BTW, one way of minimizing the chances that you ever have to make such a decision is to apply now to as many acceptable "top-tier" universities as possible. Are you sure that there are no other universities that you want to add to your current list? For example, I believe that Cornell has an excellent robotics program. – Samuel Weir Oct 6 '17 at 19:40
  • You'll also have to weigh the likelihood of getting sidetracked, especially if you go to a company. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but I've seen people going to industry "just for a bit" and end up abandoning their academic ambitions. But on the whole I'd say there are no bad options here, do what sounds most attractive to you! – nengel Oct 7 '17 at 6:17
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    I had planned to enter a mediocre program for a year or two, get some research experience, and then apply to a better school, but I ended up liking the research in the mediocre program, so I'm just staying here. Unless it's a huge difference, like getting into MIT, ranking seem to matter less in grad school than the quality of the group you're in, at least that's been the case in my experience. Short version: Apply to the mid tier schools, it may be worth staying there if you don't (or even if you do) get into the good ones later. – iammax Oct 16 '17 at 0:35
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Doing research for a year and reapplying would definitely be the better option IMO. Even though it's true that when it comes to performing research, it matters less where you do it, there are certainly undeniable positive effects from getting a degree in a prestigious university - from the peer group you'd be surrounded with to the visibility your work could get later on. After all, the research that you will do during the one year is not going to get wasted. Even if it doesn't get published, it only sharpens your ability to perform research.

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