Joining a school without prospective advisor

  • As many already know, studying for the physics GRE and getting accepted into a graduate program is not the final hurdle in your physics career.
  • There are many issues current physics graduate students face such as studying for their qualifier, deciding upon a field of research, choosing an advisor, being an effective teaching assistant, trying to have a social life, navigating department politics, dealing with stress, utilizing financial aid, etc.

P-representation
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Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Mon Mar 25, 2013 6:21 pm

I'm facing a major dilemma right now and I would really like to have the inputs of senior grad students. It's a choice between research fit and overall program reputation. I've been accepted into a top program in my field at a top 20 (barely) school which offers excellent research facilities as well as many really good groups I can work with. The only thing that concerns me is the slightly subpar overall reputation of the school, esp. since I want to continue in academia (like every other graduate student). On the other hand, I've also been recently accepted into a top graduate program in physics (by top I mean the lower end of top 10) which has only a handful of profs in my area, with only 1 prof (widely acclaimed) doing exactly the kind of research I'm interested in. I've tried emailing all of them to ask about RA positions (I must do this before joining) but I haven't heard back from any one of them (tried mailing the secretary and sending reminders...but nothing), so I must assume that none of them are interested in taking me on. Would it be really worth joining the top school in this case? In the worst case, that I cannot find anyone to work with there, how difficult is it to transfer to the lower school? Would they have a problem since I turned them down once? (I'm asking for actual facts... I know that they shouldn't, but would they??) Also, since I'm an international student would there be a problem with my visa if I have to leave a school and join another one? I would be really grateful for any advice on this. I'm at my wits end for over 2 weeks now and I have to make up my mind soon.

TakeruK
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby TakeruK » Mon Mar 25, 2013 6:59 pm

Firstly, I don't think you should consider transferring schools as an option to think about for the future. I get the impression that transfers are really rare and I think they're only used as a last resort -- if a student absolutely cannot stay at his/her current school (due to a complete lack of fit/funding, personal reasons, advisor moving, etc.). It does not sound like the "top 10" school will have absolutely zero fit. I mean, if they accepted you, then clearly some profs would want to work with you. There may be other reasons why you have still not heard back yet. So, I think you should make your decision as if you will be unable to transfer, instead of thinking "well, I'll go here for a year and then transfer if things don't go well". The "transfer" process often means starting all over and reapplying to the new school. As for your visa question, it won't really be a problem -- you will just go from student status at one school to another. International scholars who finish their PhD on a student visa and then get a post-doc in the US on another visa/status often do this. It would mean more paperwork and more fees possibly, but I wouldn't factor this into the decision either.

Secondly, I don't think there is that much of a big difference in ranking between e.g. a 20th ranked school and a 10th ranked school. They're both good programs. Although your PhD school ranking may have a nonzero impact on your job opportunities afterwards, I don't think it's one of the major deciding factors. Other things like having a really great and interesting research skill-set and being well-known are more important, and you don't need a high ranking program to achieve either of this. I definitely think that the small ranking difference would be negligible! I know the undergrad-to-PhD transition isn't the same as the one between PhD and post-doc, but I'm at a top 10 school right now and so far, the majority of the people here / people accepted for next year do not come from top 10 schools. This admission year might be abnormal, but only about 10% of the admitted students in my program for next year actually came from Top 10 undergrad programs.

So, I think you should really emphasize fit over ranking, especially in your situation where the rankings are so similar! Pick the place where you will feel more welcomed and more happy. That will allow you to produce great research, which is far more important in the job-hunt than anything like rankings.

P-representation
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Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Tue Mar 26, 2013 12:41 am

TakeruK wrote: Secondly, I don't think there is that much of a big difference in ranking between e.g. a 20th ranked school and a 10th ranked school. They're both good programs. I definitely think that the small ranking difference would be negligible!


It's heartening to see that rankings don't play that much of a role as I might have expected. But nevertheless, it's still something I'm considering. If the ranking difference was small (~5-6), then I would seriously only go by better research fit. But in my case, to get a feel for the rankings (I don't want to reveal my identity so I'm not gonna be exact), it's more like a choice between say MIT/Cornell vs the UCLA/John Hopkins. The ranking difference in my subfield is even smaller as both programs are ranked among the top 10 in the USA (acc. to US News).
Last edited by P-representation on Mon Apr 08, 2013 9:43 am, edited 1 time in total.

bfollinprm
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Mar 26, 2013 12:58 am

MIT, Stanford, UCLA, and Johns Hopkins are all top graduate schools in physics, though not in every subfield. I'm having trouble understanding your quandary. For Newton's sake, go to the school where the research best fits your interest. Going to a program because some faculty member in some field you've never even given to a thought to happens to have a Nobel is really dumb. It's even dumber to go because some (non scientific!) magazine told you to. The reputation benefit of a school emanates from your advisor, to a lesser extent your qual committee, and no one else. Unless the person you're trying to impress is your grandmother, this seems a no-brainer.

P-representation
Posts: 61
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Tue Mar 26, 2013 2:56 am

I'm having trouble understanding your quandary. For Newton's sake, go to the school where the research best fits your interest. Going to a program because some faculty member in some field you've never even given to a thought to happens to have a Nobel is really dumb.


Well as I've mentioned in my post above, both the schools I've been accepted into are highly ranked in my sub-field (within top 10). There is one professor at the top 10 school who I'm really eager to work under and who's research I've
been actively following over the past one year. So it's not as if I'm applying to some faculty member in some random field who just happens to be good. The other two professors in the school also do work closely related to my area of interest. I'd choose this school in a heartbeat if I had a chance to work with any one of them. The only thing that worries me is that I've written to them and haven't heard back so I'm not sure if they'd be interested in taking me in their group.

My school highly recommends that I find an advisor before I join. In the worst case, I might have to spend a semester or two looking for an advisor there, but I've heard it becomes really difficult by then. That why I was wondering if transferring to another program was a backup option or not.
Last edited by P-representation on Mon Apr 08, 2013 9:44 am, edited 1 time in total.

blighter
Posts: 256
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby blighter » Tue Mar 26, 2013 3:02 am

P-representation wrote:
TakeruK wrote: Secondly, I don't think there is that much of a big difference in ranking between e.g. a 20th ranked school and a 10th ranked school. They're both good programs. I definitely think that the small ranking difference would be negligible!


Actually there is a big difference in ranking and that's what bothers me. If it were a choice between a 10th ranked school and a 20th ranked school, I would seriously only go by better research fit. But in my case, to get a feel for the rankings (I don't want to reveal my identity so I'm not gonna be exact), it's more like a choice between say MIT/Stanford vs the UCLA/John Hopkins. The ranking difference in my subfield is even smaller as both programs are ranked among the top 5 in the USA (all rankings done acc. to US News).


You say that the difference is big and go on to give examples where there's hardly any difference at all.

blighter
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby blighter » Tue Mar 26, 2013 3:07 am

P-representation wrote:
I'm having trouble understanding your quandary. For Newton's sake, go to the school where the research best fits your interest. Going to a program because some faculty member in some field you've never even given to a thought to happens to have a Nobel is really dumb.


Well as I've mentioned in my post above, both the schools I've been accepted into are highly ranked in my sub-field (within top 5). There is one professor at the top 10 school who I'm really eager to work under and who's research I've
been actively following over the past one year. So it's not as if I'm applying to some faculty member in some random field who just happens to be good. The other two professors in the school also do work closely related to my area of interest. I'd choose this school in a heartbeat if I had a chance to work with any one of them. The only thing that worries me is that I've written to them and haven't heard back so I'm not sure if they'd be interested in taking me in their group.

My school highly recommends that I find an advisor before I join. In the worst case, I might have to spend a semester or two looking for an advisor there, but I've heard it becomes really difficult by then. That why I was wondering if transferring to another program was a backup option or not.


I'd email the faculty member asking if he/she would be willing to take any new students in the near future instead of directly asking for an RA position. They might be a little wary to invest on you without knowing you.

P-representation
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Tue Mar 26, 2013 3:20 am

You say that the difference is big and go on to give examples where there's hardly any difference at all.

The schools I mentioned were purely for the sake elucidating the difference in the overall ranking of their physics programs and nothing more. I never in any way meant to say that they don't have good (or even great) programs in specific sub-fields of physics. To make it more explicit, maybe I should've said that the difference in rankings is ~ 20.

bfollinprm
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Mar 26, 2013 11:25 am

To make it more explicit, maybe I should've said that the difference in rankings is ~ 20.


....which is of the order of the systematic error in the US News rankings. So, not a big difference.

TakeruK
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby TakeruK » Tue Mar 26, 2013 1:32 pm

P-representation wrote:But in my case, to get a feel for the rankings (I don't want to reveal my identity so I'm not gonna be exact), it's more like a choice between say MIT/Stanford vs the UCLA/John Hopkins. The ranking difference in my subfield is even smaller as both programs are ranked among the top 5 in the USA (all rankings done acc. to US News).


The ranking within a subfield is far far more important than overall rankings or even physics rankings. For example, not everyone will think of the University of Arizona, a big public state school to be a world leader in graduate programs, but in the planetary science community, their program is considered one of the best in the US. So, when you say both programs are ranked among the top 5 in the US for your subfield, this really means the two programs are pretty much equal, as far as rankings go.

In addition, like others and I said above, rankings don't really make or break your career. For sake of an example, let's use your example school names. Sure, MIT is a more prestigious school than UCLA, but that doesn't mean profs / potential employers / etc. would automatically assume the MIT grad student is more qualified than the UCLA grad student. Both are good enough programs that the difference in prestige between the two of them are negligible. Like bfollinrpm said, the extra prestige that MIT might bring will only impress people like your family and friends. Not that these aren't important people, but impressing them will not help you get a job in academia! Having a stronger "brand name" might help with non-academic jobs, but I would think schools in the same rank as UCLA and John Hopkins are pretty darn impressive!

Rankings might matter in cases of extreme rank difference (e.g. 10th ranked school vs. 100th ranked school).

P-representation
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Fri Apr 05, 2013 5:00 am

Thanks for your reply Takeruk! I realize that rankings are not the be-all and end-all of things and your own research as a graduate student naturally counts much more. However, since I'm just going to start graduate school, I really have no way of predicting how things will turn out and where I'll be more happier. In any case, my situation as it now stands is as follows:

Top 10 school:
1) Small department
2) Only 2 professors in my research area, one of whom is really well known in the field and the other one might not be taking students for the project I am interested in.
3) Flexible program, I can work with any prof there and students are known to change their research areas after going there.

Top 20ish school
1) Top ranked program in field
2) School not really well known apart from a couple of fields in physics
3) Lots of groups in my field doing really pioneering work, renowned experimental lab/center and strong collaborations with NIST + some Nobel laureates there too
4) Wider choice of research topics in my field and very active (and younger) PIs.
5) Lower stipend :| and much higher living costs (kind of strange because it's in the mid-west as opposed to the coasts)

At this point, both schools seem to be kind of equally good or bad to me. I spoken to students and alumni in the top 10 school and they have only good things to say about it. I'm naturally a bit worried that I might have only 1 person to work with in the worst case, and it might get really difficult if things don't work out as expected. On the other hand, I'm also concerned about the lower ranking of the top 20 school. It's virtually unknown outside the field (I apologize for using well known schools like UCLA and John Hopkins) and my job opportunities outside academia might be seriously affected (maybe even in academia, what with the law of descending prestige and all, thank you Donald Asher). I do recall someone posting on this forum that he was thinking of re-applying rather than joining this school.
Last edited by P-representation on Sat Apr 06, 2013 10:28 am, edited 2 times in total.

jigsaw
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby jigsaw » Fri Apr 05, 2013 8:55 am

If I was in your shoes, I'd go for the 20ish school without hesitation now. I know what you mean, because I felt the same way when I was applying for grad school. I'm interested in HET and I can give you a similar example : Cornell (top 10) vs Stony Brook (20ish). If you go by the ranking (not just overall Physics, but even in String), Cornell is a no-brainer, and so I ranked it higher in my preference list when I applied. But now in retrospect, I can assure you that if I had an offer from both, I'd have turned down Cornell for Stony Brook! The reason is simple : Cornell has only one professor who I'm truly interested in (Henry Tye), whereas Stony Brook has several (Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Michael Douglas, Warren Siegel, Martin Rocek to name a few). Never rely on only one professor, just because his research interest matches yours, and he is very good at his research doesn't necessarily mean that you two will get along. You don't know him as a person, and if you are unlucky you may end up discovering that his personal traits are so incompatible with that of yours that you two absolutely can't work with each other (whereas you have to work very closely with your advisor for 5-7 years), in which case you will be in a deep trouble. Don't allow that to happen, don't play russian roulette with your life & career, always have options! All this assumes that he actually stays at that school for the next 5-7 years, and takes you (or anyone for that matter) as an advisee - neither of which you can take for granted (unexpected things may happen preventing him from staying there for the next 5-7 years, or he may end up finding someone who is a better match than you are) - what are you going to do in that case? If that happens in the case of your top 10 school, you have no one else to work with, but in case of your 20ish school you still have plenty of professors to work with. Contrast (3) & (4) of your 20ish school to (2) of your top 10 school and it will be quite clear. Remember that if you don't get along with that person in your top 10 school, there is nothing you can do, you can't just change yourself (or the professor) all of a sudden so that you two start getting along, it simply is not in your hand. So I'd strongly suggest going to the 20ish school in your case (atleast I'd have surely done so if presented with the choice). I've seen people turn down MIT for Colorado Boulder incase of AMO for example, so I'd not worry about the overall reputation (UCSB sucks in most subjects other than Physics, but it is one of the topmost choices for many including me). It is (5) incase of your 20ish school that you should be worried about.

But in any case, it should ultimately be you who decides what you should do, if you make a decision because everyone is saying so, you will not be happy even if you made the right decision. The biggest complaint I've is that I never got the chance to choose, MIT chose me for undergrad (I didn't choose MIT, everyone else rejected me, so I never had an option) and Rutgers chose me for grad (again, I had no other option, sort of), I'm ok with MIT/Rutgers - they were indeed good choices for me, but I'd have been happy if I had another option and *I* had chosen to attend MIT/Rutgers instead. You should consider yourself lucky, you got options to choose from. [Disclaimer : I'm just a grad school applicant myself, not some expert, so use my advices at your own risk.]
Last edited by jigsaw on Sat Apr 06, 2013 2:39 am, edited 1 time in total.

TakeruK
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Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby TakeruK » Fri Apr 05, 2013 11:48 am

Here's some of my thoughts, if it helps!

P-representation wrote:Top 10 school:
1) Small department
2) Only 2 professors in my research area, one of whom is really well known in the field (and equally well known for his "reputation" of being tough with his graduate students) and the other one might not be taking students for the project I am interested in.
3) Flexible program, I can work with any prof there and students are known to change their research areas after going there.


Point #2 is a big deal, I think. Having a bad relationship with your advisor is a good way to have a miserable time in grad school and it will affect your chances to finishing as well as the quality of your work. It might not be as easy to switch profs as you think because people don't usually switch at the first sign of a problem -- you would just look flaky. So, people usually wait until the problem grows to be unbearable, but by this time, it might be 2 or more years into your project. I've seen people get to this stage. At this point, they might quit, or completely change projects, but it might cost a lot of time and good will in the department.

But maybe in your first year, you will decide to not work with the two profs in your research area after all and join a different group initially instead. This might be better/easier than switching after finding out you're not compatible! I think a lot of students might think "Well, I'm different, I'll manage to get along with Grumpy Prof X!" but most people I talked to who initially felt this way said they end up wishing they had listened to the other students.

Top 20ish school
1) Top ranked program in field
2) School not really well known apart from a couple of fields in physics
3) Lots of groups in my field doing really pioneering work, renowned experimental lab/center and strong collaborations with NIST + some Nobel laureates there too
4) Wider choice of research topics in my field and very active (and younger) PIs.
5) Lower stipend :| and much higher living costs (kind of strange because it's in the mid-west as opposed to the coasts)


Point #2 is not ideal, but not horrible. Even if you don't end up going in academia, having a supportive environment will allow you to do good work. I'm assuming by "non-academia" job, you are still talking about some job where your skills as a scientist will be utilized, but not necessarily doing research in your field. You'll likely do better work in a top program in the field and have the support and resources. This will make you a more appealing job candidate! I think going to this school might put you at a small disadvantage compared to going to a top 10 school, but you can more than make up for it by demonstrating your skillset. That is, having this school name might not look that great on paper (i.e. your CV) but I don't think very many jobs nowadays are gotten by someone looking at your CV and deciding whether or not to interview you. You can wash out/overcome any "on paper disadvantage" by showing how great you are through in person connections.

Point #5 is also a valid issue if you're not going to be able to live comfortably. You also didn't mention location of these schools (I don't mean actual city, but how you feel about each location). Are they in big cities or small towns? Where would you like to be living? Would you be happy there? This is also important in doing good work, in my opinion!

P-representation
Posts: 61
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Fri Apr 05, 2013 5:40 pm

Thanks so much for your insightful comments!

I think a lot of students might think "Well, I'm different, I'll manage to get along with Grumpy Prof X!"

I can hardly deny that I too feel that way at times when I think about this decision :mrgreen: . I realize it's a risk going to a school with only a couple of Profs I can work with. However, as I've said it's a small department and this situation is actually true in a lot of other fields (some fields have only 1 person). I've also heard of students switching groups more than twice and the school was still fine with it. There are also opportunities slightly outside my area of interest where at least some of my experimental skills can be utilized even if I'm not really interested in those research topics as of now.

Regarding the other school, well as an international student I think I'd have to be a little more concerned about the opportunities I would get after my Ph.D. I mean if academia is going to be tough outside the top 20, then getting a job outside physics might also be tough for an international like me (issues with visa and all). In that sense, maybe the top 10 school is a clear winner (better location for industries + better connections). I've heard it's really become difficult for internationals to get visas if we're looking for long-term employment in the US. I don't mind returning to my country, but it's really very difficult to do good experimental research in this country especially in AMO and my opportunities might be severely limited. I realize that most of this stuff is FAR into the future and I might not be able to do much about them, but these factors are also weighing on my mind to a certain extent.

@jigsaw
Well it's pretty clear you've gone through this situation before so you know how I feel about his and I thank you for sharing your valuable insights. It never really is easy to turn down an opportunity to study at a prestigious and world renowned school is it? And yeah there is certainly a lot of pressure from my peers and teachers to choose the better ranked school.

P-representation
Posts: 61
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Sat Apr 06, 2013 6:20 am

Also I had one more query: Does the relationship between an advisor and a student matter more in theory than in experiment? I mean, experimental groups are pretty large and people generally work with the entire team of graduate students and post-docs, so is the role of an advisor different from that in theory (where the relationship might be more one to one)? Are issues between students and advisors less common for some reason in experimental groups?

All the above points mentioned about having the option of multiple prospective advisers by jigsaw, will the situation be different in any way if I work in experiment (as opposed to his example of professors in theory)?

jigsaw
Posts: 40
Joined: Sun Mar 17, 2013 10:59 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby jigsaw » Sat Apr 06, 2013 10:44 pm

P-representation wrote:Also I had one more query: Does the relationship between an advisor and a student matter more in theory than in experiment? I mean, experimental groups are pretty large and people generally work with the entire team of graduate students and post-docs, so is the role of an advisor different from that in theory (where the relationship might be more one to one)? Are issues between students and advisors less common for some reason in experimental groups?

All the above points mentioned about having the option of multiple prospective advisers by jigsaw, will the situation be different in any way if I work in experiment (as opposed to his example of professors in theory)?

Pardon me, I wrote from the point of view of a theorist, where you work with your advisor closely on a one to one basis (e.g., in HET group at Rutgers, they have 13 professors but only 8 grad students). Somehow it slipped out of my mind that you are an experimentalist, and may be working in large groups, in which case the compatibility requirement will be less important (or so I think). But that may not be the case even for experimentalists if you are talking about a school that has small class size (like Caltech, Princeton, Rutgers etc) : the HEX group at Rutgers for example has 14 grad students and 9 professors, so I guess it will still be very one to one. The situation may be different for a school like Berkeley (large class size), but I'm not sure. You should just email a grad student in the AMO group of the school you are talking about, and ask how closely they work with their advisor, they can surely provide you the exact scenario.

P-representation
Posts: 61
Joined: Fri Dec 23, 2011 12:56 am

Re: Joining a school without prospective advisor

Postby P-representation » Mon Apr 08, 2013 9:33 am

Thanks jigsaw and Takeruk for your comments. I think I've more or less made up my mind to go to the Top 20 school. It was still a difficult decision to say no to the top 10 school, but in my mind, I feel I have made the right decision. The top 10 school has even listed my POI's research area as CME when it's actually closer to AMO. Plus, hopefully the location might not make much of a difference in the end. I guess I will find some time to visit New York if not stay there for the next 5-6 years 8)




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