Science grad school application filter: I have informally (but explicitly) accepted a graduate assistant position (in conservation biology) at my current undergraduate institution. I am now having second thoughts and am wondering what, if anything, I should do about it. Help me, Hive Mind! I don't know what to do!
Okay, I will do my best to be concise. I am an undergraduate biology student who wants to be a conservation researcher. Specifically I want to do my work around the subject of biodiversity reserve success -- how can we identify successful candidate reserves, how can we implement them well, how can we maintain and modify existing reserves so that they can be more successful, etc. I am a Senior and will graduate next spring. That means this is the semester when I apply to grad schools.
I work in one of the labs at school. A month or so ago I was offered a graduate position by the professor for whom I work currently. The project that I would be a part of is definitely relevant to my interests -- it is a large international collaboration with the aim of identifying new candidate biodiversity reserves. I've read the grant proposal and it's definitely the kind of project that I want to be a part of both in grad school and later as a senior researcher. My position on it would involve basically heading up a major subsidiary of the project, and I would be involved at every level from the fieldwork to the final analysis and publication. This is a project with over 100 scientists on it, and my boss is one of three co-PIs, in charge of essentially half of the project as a whole. I have a good relationship with my boss and we sat down and discussed the position that he offered me quite frankly and in fair detail. I am satisfied that I would be getting a pretty good deal on this project -- competitive stipend, opportunity for first authorship, opportunity to work with collaborators and build my network, etc.
As I said, I accepted the position. My PI and I shook hands on it, but nothing is in writing. I am applying to a couple of other schools but I am not pursuing those applications aggressively -- I am just hoping to have a safety in case of some unforseen development, like for instance if my PI (with whom I am on very good terms) and I (a virtual pacifist) got into a fistfight next week or something. I do have the option of bailing with a Master's a few years in, but I am in my late twenties and am looking at a PhD and a post-doc before I really have a chance of trying for one of those coveted tenure-track academic positions which are still my dream. Yes, I know how rare those jobs are but I really want one and I think I would be ideally suited to the mixture of teaching and research that is involved. Really, that is the goal I am working toward here. Yes, really. Yes, I know how remote it is. I am still going for that.
However, I have some reservations that have been growing and I am wondering if I should try to change my path and break my agreement with my PI. I feel like I have been taking the easy route here, that I am passing up what might be better opportunities simply because I have been offered a good one here -- a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, etc. The city in which I am living now is one that I do not really want to live in for another five years -- I was looking forward to a change of venue with grad school, and I am feeling stressed about losing that. My partner of two years is feeling that same stress but even moreso and has pretty much told me that she may not stick around if I do stay in this town after I graduate. Also, my current school is not very prestigious. My favorite professor classified it as "fifth rate? maybe?". I think my boss does good work (he publishes in journals with good impact factor, and fairly regularly, and his students get decent numbers of first-authors) but my school is definitely not a well-known school in my chosen field, or really any field. I also don't know what I think about taking a PhD at the same school as my BsC. I think I might have what it takes to get into a "better" program -- an OK GPA, exceptional GREs, great recommendations (albeit one of those is from my current PI, who might not be happy if I decided to break my agreement) and two years of continuous lab experience. I am worried that I might have just chosen this path because it is the path of least resistance, not because it is the best path to my goal of becoming a researcher and a professor or because it is good for my quality of life for the next five years.
OK, so rambling over. Let me break it down. First, here is my transcript:
- GPA: 3.14 (had a rough sophomore year and there's an F on my transfer transcript from 10 years ago.)
- GREs: 170 Verbal (99th percentile), 6 Analytical (99th percentile), 163 Quantitative (89th percentile)
- Recommendations: very strong, but potentially jeopardized if I break my agreement with my current PI
- Statement of Purpose: nice, coherent, well-written, focused
- Experience: two years of laboratory experience
- Goals: gain fieldwork, lab work, analytical, bioinformatic, and collaborative skills required to be a useful researcher and project leader addressing questions surrounding the success of biodiversity reserves
- Interests: biogeography, community ecology, evolutionary biology, computational biology, scientific outreach, research ethics
- Age: 28
Here are what I see as the "Pros" of my current path:
- Virtually guaranteed acceptance to program, with full funding
- Good working relationship with current PI
- Confidence that my PI is not going to screw me
- Assurance of a significant role in a major project directly relevant to my long-term research interests
- Opportunity for international fieldwork and collaboration with researchers in desired field
Here are what I see as the "Cons":
- Don't like my current location, don't want to live here for five more years
- SO with whom I am in a serious relationship may leave me if I stay here
- Current university not very prestigious at all
- Feel like I might be able to get into a better school that might position me better later, assuming I can find the right PI
- Might be shooting myself in the foot by getting a PhD from the same institution as my B.S.
- Feel like I'm doing myself a disservice by not seriously exploring other options
So with that, these are what I see as my options. 1) Continue on my current course because it's probably the best deal I'm going to get. 2) Continue on my current course and reassess in a couple of years when I am a bit wiser and when I expect my GPA will be much higher. Bail with a Master's if I'm not happy with where things are going, take the hit in terms of lost time/opportunity/continuity, and try for another, better program. 3) Burn some bridges, try to find a 3rd recommendation at the last moment to replace current PI, and go all-out in applying to all of the top schools in my field.
What do you think would be my best plan, given my pros/cons (and any I haven't thought of) my current transcript as an applicant, and my desire to maintain a decent reputation in my field? Do you think it would be realistic in the first place for me to apply to the top schools/programs in my field (given my mediocre GPA) and if so where do you think I should be applying/who should I try to work with? Am I already in the best spot that I am likely to be for now, and I should just try to find someplace more prestigious when I apply for the inevitable postdoc? Am I missing out on some option that I hadn't considered? Are there major factors that I am neglecting?
Thank you for your advice. I am really stressing about this and things are so stressful in general what with it being the end of the semester and me trying to finish my applications etc etc that I am totally unable to tell whether I should even be stressing at all or not. Help me figure out whether I should just chill the fuck out or whether I should be making a major course correction or what.
If clarification or whatever is needed I have a throwaway account (Pseudonymous Bosch) that I will use to post replies. It is not "mature" (less than a week old) or else I would use it to ask this question in the first place. Thanks again, in advance.