Posted by: unlikelygrad | February 6, 2009

what I want to do vs. what I should (?) do

My acceptance letter of earlier this week has got me thinking about a difficult choice I’m going to have to make.

I want to go into academia. I know, academia is a crappy way to make a living (not just for monetary reasons, but for others as well). SL (my PI) is always reminding me of this. Nonetheless, I still want to be a professor.

As I’ve said from the very beginning, I love to teach. I’ve done a lot of teaching: large workshops, small classes, one-on-one, and I’ve loved every single minute of it. In academia I would teach both large classes (Chem 1) and small classes (upper-division undergrad classes/grad classes), and mentor one-on-one (research students). Plus I’d hopefully get to do some very cool chemistry in my research. (Although I have to say, after observing SL in action for a month, professors seem to do far more teaching and committee work than research…but I might be able to do some, and I can get students to do some for me.)

From what I understand, if you want to get an academic job, it’s in your best interest to attend the most prestigious school possible. The problem is, most of the professors I really, really want to work with aren’t at the most prestigious schools. Case in point: the school I was just accepted to is near the bottom of the NRC chemistry rankings. But if I didn’t care about the prestige factor, it would be my #1 or #2 choice.

So, what do I do? Do I automatically accept an offer from the “best” (read: highest ranked) or maybe “second best” school that accepts me? Or should I go with the professor I most want to work with, no matter how lousy other people perceive the school to be?

Decisions, decisions…

My gut feeling is to go to the school that I would get the most out of. As an undergraduate, I first attended BigNameU (a very highly-ranked private institution), then transferred to the local state university to finish my degree. I loved StateU: I got far more attention from my professors than I had at BigNameU, and the professors were far more interested in teaching. I got a much better education there. So I guess it’s natural for me to wonder if I’d also get the best graduate education at a state school.

I must admit that I’ve also been spoiled by working for SL. He’s a brand-new assistant professor, so he only has three people working for him: a freshman (who can’t do much yet), a post-doc (who is so independent he almost never consults SL) and me. Needless to say, I get lots of face time with my PI–something that might not be the case at a highly-ranked school. One day SL & I visited the group of a (very well-known) professor at Stanford. This guy had something like 5 post-docs and a dozen grad students. How much time did he spend with his students outside of group meetings? I doubt as much as SL spends with me…

So I really think attending a small state school might be the best at helping me develop the skills I need. Sadly, it would not be the best decision for my academic career.

What a quandary!

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Responses

  1. I’m just finishing my dissertation at Enormous Midwestern University and am on the job market, and I can say that it really sucks just now. If marketability is your main criterion, then you want the top tier school and the biggest name as your chair, because that seems to matter a lot to hiring committees.
    Having said that, I don’t think it’s a very good idea to use that criterion. All things being equal, then go for the highest tier school, but all things are not equal. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to go somewhere where you fit well, and make sure you are passionate about your research topic — you are going to be stuck with those people and with that topic for the next 5-8 years of your life, so you need something that you can stick with. It’s hard enough to finish when the research is really interesting, and darn near impossible to keep engaged over the long haul if you loathe your topic — don’t know what it’s like in chemistry, but over 50% of those in the social sciences who are ABD (coursework and comprehensive exams passed) never manage to finish.
    The other thing about the market is that you just don’t know what it is going to be like by the time you are ready to get hired. In the end, your best job qualification is the quality of your work, not necessarily where you went to school.
    Good luck!

  2. […] What I want to do vs what I should do […]

  3. I am in the same boat…. I have realized that the largest number of profs doing research that interests me are at the Good but Not Awesome U. They post the hiring stats for grads…. most of the folks that get tenured positions do so at institutions that do not grant PhDs in my field. But Good but Not Awesome U gave me an early admission offer and is paying to fly me out so I can visit. So perhaps meeting some people will help. I agree with Unknown Adjunct in that the next 5+ years of my life need to be somewhat enjoyable for me to survive them. Especially since I’m already pushing middle age and I’m starting to see life more as a journey than a destination.


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