Because I’m interested in going into academia long term, I heard over and over how important it was for me to go to a highly-ranked school–Stanford, in particular. And why not? Stanford has:
- name brand cachet
- one of the top chem departments in the country
- a healthy stipend for chem grad students
All this, and it’s close enough for me to commute from where I currently live.
As I mentioned earlier, SL got his Ph.D. at Stanford and kept telling me to go there. My mom, who is incredibly rankings-conscious, told me I really had to apply there. And–worst of all–my husband, who loves living in the Bay Area (and really didn’t want to move) said he would be disappointed if I didn’t apply to Stanford. That’s a lot of pressure to apply.
I checked out Stanford’s chemistry department and saw no one doing chemistry I liked. I checked out their chemical engineering department: ditto. Environmental engineering? Ditto. I knew I wouldn’t be happy there. But still, when people you know and love really want something from you, it’s hard to turn them down. I was starting to lean towards applying, just for the heck of it.
Luckily, my parents came to visit for my son N’s 14th birthday, and I had the opportunity to do a walk-and-talk with my dad, who has a Ph.D. in chemistry (from a well-regarded school, I should add). Dad, who knew I was struggling with which schools to apply to, asked me about my current thoughts on applying to Stanford.
“Well,” I said, “There’s no one there doing research there that interests me.”
“Hmm,” he said. (Dad’s a good listener. I could tell he had something to say, but he held back.”
“I think that if I got accepted there, I would go,” I continued. “But only because of the prestige factor. That’s the only reason I’d apply.”
Prestige alone isn’t enough of a basis to choose a school. It’s a bonus. But choosing a grad school based on prestige alone is like eating the icing without the cake.
I didn’t apply to Stanford. And when it came time to choose which school to go to, I remembered Dad’s words as I struggled with the decision to reject one of the most prestigious schools in the nation.