Thursday, April 9, 2009

Update on the Grad School Dilemma

Ever since my last post about grad school at the conclusion of my Hawaii visit, I have been agonizing over my grad school decision. I mean, this is the next 6+ years of my life, most likely. My entire career path may rest on this decision. The decision will even affect the non-career portion of my life. As my mom put it, "Six years or more? You might be 30 by the time you finish. You'll probably meet your husband while in grad school!" Thanks, Mom.

I've already basically made my decision of where to go to grad school. To review, I only have two choices, and one of them is a considerably more exciting school than the other. For the record, I have heard through the grapevine that I was on a shortlist of seven applicants for one spot in the MIT-WHOI program; once you're on that shortlist, everyone is qualified and it's a matter of matching interests (for example, a certain professor may be looking for a student who particularly wants to work on jellyfish). Yes, my pride was hurt by my rejection there, and yes, this makes me feel somewhat better. Still not thinking about it too much. So anyway, one of my grad school offers is at the lab where I currently work. I even just learned that I won a two year fellowship to go here, which I guess is pretty exciting. Still, Hawaii is Hawaii. So I'm going to go to the University of Hawaii.

The problem still remains of which professor I will work with. I have two very tempting options. Allow me to organize my thoughts "out loud".

Option A

Professor A is a new faculty member who hasn't had any grad students yet. I would be his first, along with "Germany is a landlocked country" girl, who recently accepted his offer (though she said she might switch advisors after the first year--she's starting as a TA, so I think she has different rules than I do). But in spite of his inexperience, he comes with rave reviews from his colleagues. One professor said that of all the hires she's been around for, she is most excited about him. Another called him "both smart and really really nice". And Professor B (who will be discussed next) said he "thinks the world of him". He was also one of the three main professors who hosted us prospective students on our visit to Hawaii, so I got to spend some time with him, so I can confirm that he is really, really nice.

Furthermore, he wants me. Because he is a new professor, he is trying to form his lab group, and he needs students. He just won a load of money for an exciting new project, and he thinks I'm the person to take it and run with it (the project, not the money). It's cutting edge stuff that is in high demand with very few people actually working on it. He told me that if I work on this project, he thinks I could be a "superstar". I could win my own grants, give talks at conferences, and have my pick of the world when I graduate. Basically, he's doing a really good job of selling it. It's working. I worry, however, that he has been trying so hard that I'm starting to feel guilty about not accepting him already. And guilt is not a good thing to enter into the equation when making this decision.

So what is the topic of Project A? It is something that is way over my head at this point, and I could try to explain what little I understand about it but you would just find it boring. It is highly theoretical model analysis stuff, and I'm pretty sure it would not involve any field work. I think it sounds potentially interesting (I like math-y puzzles), but since I don't really understand exactly what it is I would be doing on a day-to-day basis (programming in Matlab? running ANOVAs?), it's hard for me to tell how much I'd enjoy it. Maybe I'd love it. Maybe I'd find it really dull. I am certainly tempted by the thought of being such a "superstar", but that sets me up to be a huge disappointment if I am merely mediocre.

To sum it up, I think Professor A would be a great advisor, and I'd get lots of attention. I'd probably love my project (though it's hard to tell at this point) and be very successful, but I'd have to put up with lots of questions from my friends and family: "Now, what is it that you do again? How is that relevant?" But I've dealt with that before.

Up until 3:30 pm on the last day of my UH visit, I was completely prepared to sign on with Professor A. But my last appointment of the visit introduced me to Professor B.

Option B

Professor B has been around longer than Professor A, but he is probably about the age of my parents. So not exactly the Old Guard. He has four students right now, and one of them gushed to me that "he is probably the nicest professor in the department." I did get to talk with him for half an hour, and I concur--he is very nice. Apparently, he tends to be busy because he is so nice that everyone wants to work with him. Still, he always finds time to help his students.

He has not been anywhere near as persistent as Professor A in convincing me to work with him. The fact is, he is planning to go on sabbatical for at least next semester, if not next year, so he had not intended on taking any new students. But he said that if it would help me choose UH, he would offer to be my advisor. It's almost like he is offering to be my advisor as a courtesy to the department. Because he is not as eager as Professor A is to get me as a student, he has done much less selling, and I think this causes an unfair bias in my assessment of the two options. How cutting edge is Professor B's project? Will I be a superstar? Being wanted by an advisor who's ready to devote his time to helping me is a valid advantage to consider, but choosing something due to flattery is not the way to go.

So what is Project B? To be honest, it sounds much sexier than the other project. Project A may be cutting edge, but Project B might actually interest a non-oceanographer. Basically, it would involve going out on boats and scuba diving around coral reefs. Yeah. Again, I'm not sure what the analytical part of it would involve (likely computer modeling, statistical analyses, and more). The project is more specific and probably not as universally applicable as Project A, but did I mention the scuba diving around coral reefs? Getting money to scuba dive sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

To sum up Professor B, his project is more accessible than, but not as unique as, Professor A's. He was very nice to offer to be my advisor, but he will probably be away for much of the time my first year and he hasn't shown that much excitement and passion about having me as a student. Still, if he were my advisor, I'm sure he'd be great.

Time to review the pros and cons:

Professor A:
-Really wants me
-Cutting edge project, I could be a "superstar"
-New professor, so would devote a lot of attention to his student
-New professor, so may not turn out to be a great mentor
-Project is very technical and, let's be honest, would bore most people to tears

Professor B:
-Sexy-sounding project
-Experienced professor, proven mentor
-Busy in general, and he will be on sabbatical for the first semester or year
-Project may not be universally applicable or cutting edge
-Not overly excited about me

The emotional side of me wants to side with Professor A. It's nice to be wanted, and to have someone think I am the perfect match for a project. The pragmatic side of me also wants to side with Professor A. Who can argue with being a superstar in high demand once I graduate? But Professor B's project sounds like so much fun. Scuba diving will probably be a very small portion of it time-wise, so it won't all be fun and games, but it still sounds pretty cool. So what are the "right" reasons to choose an advisor? How do I filter all these different emotions and reasonings? How can I make the best decision for me without knowing how each will turn out?

I need to make a decision soon. People keep telling me that both are great options, so it's a win-win situation. But if both are great, and choosing one means I'll miss out on the other, a part of me can't help but see it also as a lose-lose situation. How will I ever break this standoff?


Anonymous said...

I say A....sounds like you're already writing more neagtive things about option B, but trying to convince yourself that it's better!

Eleni said...

...Or am I writing more positives for A to compensate for a gut feeling that B is the right choice?

You're right that the numbers of pros/cons favors A, but I have been told that the most important thing is whether you like working on the project, because you'll be stuck with it for six years.

Thanks for the input, though :-)

insomniaclolita said...

I think for serious matters like this you have to work more with a person you actually like, The con list for B is longer, someone might be brilliant but it doesn't mean you'll work best with him or her. Just a thought. Don't feel guilty too much though, it's not exactly an easy decision to make :)