Is this an offer I'd be a fool to refuse?
September 24, 2012 5:15 PM   Subscribe

I am a senior undergraduate biology student who wants to become a conservation biologist and a professor. I work part-time in a lab at my university, and my principal investigator recently made me an offer that on the face of it seems pretty great. Should I take it?

OK. That's the bones of the situation. I'll try to fill it in here. Here's where I was at last week: I'm in my next-to-last semester of college, where I'm getting ready to graduate with two and a half years of laboratory experience, some great recommendations (I hope), and a pretty mediocre GPA. I have yet to take the GRE or apply to any schools but obviously that would be happening very soon now.

I was seriously considering staying for my master's at my current place because I have such a good relationship with my PI and I could use some time to improve my transcript, but not for a PhD because I'm tired of my current city and also the research I am doing isn't exactly in line with my interests. And also I'm not sure of my chances out in the wide world of grad schools with a GPA that's down in the low threes.

Very recently though, my boss took me aside and made me what seems like an excellent offer. She told me that her lab is moving into a very exciting new phase and she was going to need an additional grad student next year. She said that she had been planning to advertise for the position but that she first wanted me to look at the proposal and tell her whether I was interested.

I have not yet seen the proposal but what she described was very exciting. There would be a large component of international field work in a very ecologically-important (and beautiful and interesting and "sexy" in a popular-science sense) but under-researched part of the world. There would also be a significant bioinformatic and molecular wet-lab component. There would be cross-disciplinary sociological aspects and a major part of the project also involves capacity-building at higher education centers in the developing world. I would be involved in all of these aspects. I would be a Research Assistant paid through her grant, rather than a Teaching Assistant paid through my university. I would get to do a lot of collaboration with senior scientists on multiple continents, so there would presumably be excellent networking opportunities.

This sounds like a golden opportunity that I should jump at but I worry I am missing something. One hitch is that she'd prefer a PhD student (as would my department) but if the proposition is that good then I am OK with that. I would have to spend more years living somewhere that I'm really not so keen on anymore, but at least I'd get to travel. My significant other says that she understands that we'd be apart a lot but that she's willing to take that on and try to make it work. The exact groups that I would be doing fieldwork on are probably not my favorites but just because I would be doing my PhD on (for instance) birds doesn't mean I couldn't transition later to working on tortoises or something later, right? And it's still a cool group, just not my dream group.

Is this opportunity as good as it sounds? Obviously I need to read her proposal first, but it sounds pretty great at this point. What should I be bearing in mind in terms of evaluating the proposal? Should I still even try applying to other schools if I can be assured of having this position? (It seems to me like I would sort of be insulting my PI if I said I was interested but wanted to also apply elsewhere, and that I might lose her recommendation as it would be a conflict of interest for her.) Is this work the kind of thing that would help me later on when I wanted to try and become a professor?

Thanks for all your advice. I appreciate it, as always.
posted by Scientist to Education (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What is this offer, exactly? Is this a lab technician job, or is the PI saying that she wants to bring you on as a Ph.D. student?

If you have a mediocre GPA, and your PI loves you, then if your PI is offering you a spot in the PhD program, it would be a pretty important offer to consider. If the PI is offering you a lab-tech job and expecting you to do anything more than stick around for a year or two while you polish up your CV in preparation for going to a decent Ph.D. program, then you probably want to look elsewhere.
posted by deanc at 5:32 PM on September 24, 2012

Response by poster: I thought I made it clear in my question but yes, the position being offered is for a PhD student (or possibly a Master's student if I insisted, but she would prefer a PhD student and my department is trying to transition to being more PhD-oriented so they would prefer that too).

The Research Assistant thing (possibly the source of the confusion?) is simply to differentiate from a Teaching Assistant. What that would mean is that my pay would come out of her grant and be based on my research work, rather than coming out of the school and being based on me teaching classes. I would still have the opportunity to teach classes (I want to, since I want to be a professor one day and consider it valuable experience) but my degree would be primarily connected to my research rather than my teaching, which is a plus.

Hopefully that clears that up.
posted by Scientist at 5:39 PM on September 24, 2012

It sounds like an excellent offer from a career sense. I don't think you're mistaken in that.

The question may be -- is a good career move important enough to outweigh the negatives (such as time apart from significant other and town you don't want to live in.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:57 PM on September 24, 2012

Are you being offered a fully supported doctoral position without having to apply or take the GRE? If so, and if things are as good as you are suggesting, I have trouble thinking of reasons why you would say no.

Living a so-so place is an integral part of academia. You go where the job is, not where you want to be. You need to be at a respected place with a good adviser who has a track record of getting their students through on time and gets them jobs when they finish, period. Unless you are juggling two identical offers, climate and how beautiful the city is just aren't big parts of that decision if you are serious about the academic career.

And be honest here -- how key is that academic career? Are you ok with taking a job at a Directional State University where you teach 4/4 and suffer through endless winters? Because that's where the bulk of academic jobs are, for better or worse. A few people get hired at Princeton and Grinnell, and a few thousand get jobs at less illustrious places, where the teaching loads are higher, the salaries aren't, and the publication expectations aren't always commensurate with the lower research support.

So assuming that a) you are serious about the academic career, b) this is a serious offer (eg full support for enough years, etc), and c) you are willing to do the things (like international field work) that are required to be successful in this position, it sounds like a good deal. There are advantages to going to the best program in your field and being a small fish in a very fancy pond, but there are also advantages to being a bigger fish in a less fancy place that is trying very hard to climb up the ladder.
posted by Forktine at 6:00 PM on September 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are you being offered a fully supported doctoral position

Scientist is not being offered a spot in the Ph.D. program. The position he is being offered was originally intended for a Ph.D. candidate but his PI is willing to hire him if he enrolls in the MS program.
posted by mlis at 6:03 PM on September 24, 2012

If, as you say, you have a mediocre GPA, the hard reality is you may never again be offered a funded Ph.D. or M.Sc. position - it's extremely competitive. Two further things stem from that:
1. Why do you have a mediocre GPA? If you are working hard, then that's great, but hard work can take someone only so far -- at some point in graduate school you really do have to have some brainpower. If you aren't working hard, then why not? You'll need to work hard to be successful.
2. Find out if you will get an MSc along the way to the Ph.D. if you can, then by all means, jump into the Ph.D. program. Saves uncertainty of upgrading, and yet you can still bail out and have a degree.

The GRE is a significant stumbling block. You might need to be in the percentile 90s on all scores to be truly competitive

It sounds as though you love the research and its importance, and the supervisor and institution is a known quantity, not a pig in a poke. That counts for a lot. I mean, funded position with no GREs and a mediocre GPA at what sounds like a setup you have a lot of reasons to like -- wow. Don't see how you can pass this up -- very risky to bet on something better coming along.
posted by Rumple at 6:06 PM on September 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: mlis, that is not correct. The position I am being offered is intended for a PhD candidate and my PI would still prefer that but might be willing to make it work as an MS position. Trying to do it as an MS spot would be a third way of sorts and more in line with my original intentions but my question is primarily about whether or not I should accept the offer for a fully-funded PhD position.
posted by Scientist at 6:10 PM on September 24, 2012

If you get along great with your PI and she has a track record with her graduate students finishing on time and doing well, that is worth quite a bit. I would take a mentor I knew something about over a near stranger who is more famous but less invested in his/her students any day.

The alternative you should be considering is NOT a masters necessarily; I got into a good PhD program by doing two years of paid RA work to mitigate a bad GPA. I would never suggest doing a degree you have to pay for to get into a long PhD program where you are still not guaranteed a job at the end. Whatever you do next, someone should pay you.

Can you apply elsewhere, wait and compare offers? I think your professor would understand and even happily write you recs if you carefully spell out to her that her offer is GREAT but you also really want more tortoise work in the long run and Prof Z at Other University is the only one doing tortoises. It's only insulting if you pass up her offer for a bigger name/fancier school rather than a better research interest match.
posted by slow graffiti at 6:22 PM on September 24, 2012

Take it, at the PhD level.
posted by jann at 6:30 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Things I'd want to know:
1) Is the grant absolutely 100% happening, like he has the money already? Is it three years or five years, and what can you do for funding when that runs out?
2) Is the grant going to fund all your travel expenses for the fieldwork (assuming you're involved with that arm of it)?
3) Is the fieldwork taking place at an established research station? Are their collaborators from the host country on the grant?
4) Has the PI conducted fieldwork in this country before? Has he graduated Ph.D. students already?
5) Does he have tenure?
6) Would your admission be guaranteed, or what exactly is going to happen here?

You probably know most of these thing now -- something you might not have a sense of is how much room you'll have to contribute intellectually to the direction of the project. My attitude, which I acknowledge is very field-specific, is that a Ph.D. student with academic aspirations should carve out a section of their work over which they have intellectual control -- to me, this is the definition of original work, and will help you get a job down the line.

All this aside, it sounds pretty great to me. If you go for it, I would go for the Ph.D.

Also, as for the conflict of interest part: you have to respect yourself enough to realize that if people value you enough to take you on, they also want to succeed. Today, for example, I asked my postdoc advisor, who I've been working with for about three weeks, to go through my research statement with me for a job I'm applying for this Tuesday. It's awkward on one level, and you can get burned, but good mentors will set aside their interests to help you along. And if this guy isn't a good mentor . . . well, what better time to find out?
posted by inkfish at 6:30 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I say you should at least seriously consider it, but you need a back-up plan in case admission falls through. Unless your school is very much out of the ordinary, whether your boss wants you or not you will still have to be admitted to the graduate school and department. Graduate school admission is just a matter of whatever the absolute requirements are, the ones you really have to have in order to be admitted - if they say GRE, then you really will have to complete it. A primary goal of grad school admissions is to prevent the university from being successfully sued by unsuccessful candidates, so they make sure everyone fulfills whatever the pre-set minimum requirements are. Department admissions are a matter of ensuring that the student balance is right for the department. It is excellent to have a faculty champion who wants you admitted and who has funding in-hand for you. That enormously increases the likelihood of your admission. But it doesn't guarantee it - there are politics at work at every level in every department.

You need another back-up plan in case your project fails or the funding disappears. You prefer a terminal master's now, but you need to decide if it's still going to be okay with you after you've invested four years. (I can hear people saying, "Oh, don't be so gloomy." My dad's dissertation advisor died while my dad was writing. I got hit by a car and couldn't do the lab-based diss I had gotten approved. Bad things sometimes happen at inconvenient times, and it increases the likelihood of success in grad school if you've considered your options. Choosing to leave graduate school is a perfectly cromulent decision, but it feels shitty if it just happens to you because of unforeseen events.)
posted by gingerest at 6:36 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Also, make sure you are making choices based on fairly real information, not romantic ideas. Like, ever notice all those questions on AskMe about "Wow, I totally love reading great books, so how do I become a professor?" and how people laugh? That's what I mean. There are a bunch of really good books about being a successful grad student (eg Getting What You Came For) and being a successful professor (eg The Academic Self), as well as the usual forums.

There would be a large component of international field work in a very ecologically-important (and beautiful and interesting and "sexy" in a popular-science sense) but under-researched part of the world.

So, for example, the romantic vision of international field work has you making a great discovery in a slightly less than totally comfortable, yet still safe and fun, situation along with your insightful native collaborator, right? We've all seen that movie, more than once.

The less romantic but more common version of field work has you sitting in a super depressing hotel room (with flaking lead paint and incredibly greasy eggs for breakfast) in a third-tier industrial city for weeks, waiting for permission to come through from the Ministry of Whatever. Hey cool, the internet is working today! You get an email from the professor you have been cowriting a paper with to ask you to please edit the proofs by Friday, oh and by the way, he's taking your name off as a cowriter, you totally understand, right? And your mom emails to say that no, she can't cover your expenses for the summer, the school promised to pay you and you should make them follow through. And then your girlfriend writes to tell you that she totally misses you, but that your friend Bob has been keeping her company and they had a great time last night trading massages.

So joking aside, the real answer here is to talk with advanced grad students in the department and make sure they say the right things about being supported and graduating on time, and check that recent grads are getting jobs, rather than getting fucked. Anything else is just speculating.
posted by Forktine at 7:14 PM on September 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

The advice above is good. A few more things to think about:

1) How is your PI at placing students? Do they go on to good postdocs and positions?
2) Is the department competent at treating its grad students with respect? What is the health insurance like, particularly if you are doing a lot of international field work in non-first world countries.
3) Don't underestimate the intellectual diversity that one encounters when you change departments. I'm now at my forth institute (undergrad, PhD, and two postdoc locations) and each place was useful for bringing certain topics and approaches to my attention that I never would have encountered had I stayed at just one. All else being equal, I would always suggest that students change schools for grad programs, but all else is not always equal.

If you do say yes to your advisor, you are going to be with them for your PhD and need to have the ability to have honest conversations with them. Now's a good time to start. Mention your concerns and your goals. It would be utterly unprofessional of them to not provide good letters of rec just because you turn down their offer, but you should probably understand that their offer may not stand through the spring if you do apply elsewhere.
posted by Schismatic at 7:25 PM on September 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Don't underestimate the intellectual diversity that one encounters when you change departments.

This is the biggest downside to your plan, assuming your proposed supervisor is good at her job and will obtain the grant. A bird in hand is great, but a degree from another (strong) program is also a major plus on a resume.
posted by bonehead at 7:54 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Federal funding is going to go into the toilet next year and stay there for the forseeable future. So if you can get confirmed funding now I'd do it. But I'd definitely have a backup in case the money doesn't come through.
posted by fshgrl at 9:03 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd lean towards taking it, but I think it's important to consider a lot of aspects of this decision:

*Signing on for the PhD spot being offered is an easy way for you to guarantee you'll be able to skip significant admissions hurdles later. If your grades are indeed middling, you will probably struggle to be admitted elsewhere, even with laboratory experience (and I'm reading between the lines and think that may be why you're working in a lab in the first place), So this option saves you a lot of hassle and heartache later.

*That said, one way science graduate students who change universities (in the US) sometimes do it is by meeting PIs from other labs who are working on similar research. When you have a PI sponsoring your application, you can often bypass some or all of the admissions process (similar to what your current manager is offering to do for you). So if you have your heart set on going to University of Random State and you happen to work with someone there while you're doing this project being offered you by your current manager, you may find a way to get yourself admitted to that university without worrying about your GPA. So in essence, you can see the PhD (or MS) slot not just as a networking opportunity, but as a transferring opportunity.

If you do decide to go this route, be candid with your supervisor about your desire to transfer; she will very likely need to vouch for you to the other PI in order to make this happen.
posted by yellowcandy at 10:06 PM on September 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the food for thought. I'll try to answer some of the questions as best I can and maybe rephrase the original question a bit given some of the information that I'm getting here, in hopes of receiving some more refined and specific advice.

She does not have the money already for this part of the project but seems very confident that she is going to get it. I obviously need to talk to her about this aspect of the situation because I don't fully understand why she is so confident and I need to be able to make an informed judgement for myself about whether it would be sensible to put a big chunk of my future on this. For now though let's just assume that the money is a sure thing -- if it turns out not to be then I can take that into account on my own.

I also need to know whether the grant would fund my travel, my insurance, etc. as well as what my stipend would be. Much of that information is likely to be in the proposal that she is sending me but I'll definitely need to know that before I can accept her offer.

My P.I. has conducted extensive fieldwork in this area. The logistics of working in this part of the world are quite difficult (which is part of the reason why it is under-represented in research compared to its ecological importance) and there are relatively few other people who are doing this kind of work in this location. Many of those who *are* doing this work are collaborators of hers, both from Western institutions and local institutions, many of whom I would be working with in the course of my PhD.

Does the chance to work with other scientists (her collaborators) seem like it would help offset the issue of spending so much of my education and early career at the same institution? I absolutely see how it could be helpful to get experience working with people outside of my own department, both in terms of my development and in terms of enhancing my career opportunities. I expect I would probably do a postdoc after getting my PhD, and I would definitely do that at a different institution. Would that help counter any narrowness, real or perceived, that might hinder my career opportunities?

My P.I. has graduated PhDs before. She recently turned out three, all of whom seem to be doing fine albeit two of them are from other countries and have returned to their home countries since graduating. We are in touch with them though and they're doing well for themselves. She has a couple of PhD students currently in her lab as well.

She does have tenure. Also, given what I've seen of her other PhD students' work, her students do have a fair amount of intellectual autonomy over their work. Obviously as advisor she provides a lot of guidance and is able to be firm when necessary but my impression from observing her advisees and from working with them is that they have ownership of their projects and are not merely executing directives from above, so to speak.

I do not know if my admission would be guaranteed. I assume I would still have to apply to the program. I had intended to ask about this and see if I still would have to complete the entire application process, but I assume I would. I think that I could expect to be accepted though should I apply with her sponsorship, especially given that the school wouldn't have to pay for me. I'm pretty well-known and well-liked among the department faculty and I don't think I'd have any difficulty meeting the minimum objective requirements.

Given this information, what do you think would be my best course of action? Should I accept the offer and make this my plan? Should I defer the offer and apply to some other schools who perhaps have faculty doing something else that I find exciting? I do find this project very exciting, by the way. Should I try to find a middle way?
posted by Scientist at 10:12 PM on September 24, 2012

One this I haven't seen mentioned: Publications. If you want to even have a shot at making it to professor (something which is already incredible difficult and looking set to become more so) then your whole life is going to revolve around getting those publications. Not coming out of your PhD with several high impact factor publications, at least one first author (preferably more), should be a deal breaker for you, so this is something you need to look into.

Where does your PI already publish? What kind of strings can she pull (makes more of a difference than it should)?What kind of collaborators are you going to be exposed to and able to publish with? How do the students in your department publish (who gets credit for what, how often do people get first author, who gets shafted, that sort of thing). What kind of support is there for publications from the University? Just assuming that because you want to publish then you will isn't enough, you really need a supervisor who is on board with this stuff too.

Publications play more of a factor in, well, everything post PhD than you'll think right now so make sure that is one of your key focuses going in.
posted by shelleycat at 12:45 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

Take the GRE; go online, pay ETS their blood money, and make an appointment right now so that you can find out how competitive you are as soon as possible so as to jerk your PIs chain as little as possible. If they're as great as you say they'll understand.

When you say mediocre GPA its at least above 3.0 right? If not jump on this shit like you've never jumped on anything. If that means above 3.4 than you honestly can afford to be a bit picky with two years of lab experience.
posted by Blasdelb at 1:33 AM on September 25, 2012

Best answer: Publications are huge.

Look at her publication record, it should be on her web page (or just ask her for it, saying you would like to do some reading. Things to look for:
- High impact-factor journals. A minimum of 2 for ecological science is ok, but she should have some high 3s or 4s in there too. A publication in Nature, Science, PNAS or PLOSOne is a good sign too. Journals usually list their IF on their web page.
- Citation index, which can be found in one of the relevant indexing services, Scopus or similar (ask you librarian for access). How many papers does she have with high citation ratings?
- How often does she publish? An active group should have several per year.
- How diverse is her co-author list? Does she have many pubs where she has co-authors for other institutions? Is she listed as a co-author (second to second-last) on pubs coming from other groups? this indicates her level of connections, and the opportunities you might have for collaboration. This can open doors for you later.
- How does the author list get ordered on her pubs? Are students or post-docs given first authorship, or does she put her name first often? Beware of glory hogs who are first on every paper out of their group, but she should have her own active research.

Publication rate, where your publications will go, who your co-authors will be, etc... are very important for your post-doctoral and junior professor career. You should have a bare minimum of a couple good papers coming out of your degree, with you as first author. I've known one exceptional individual to have 12 as first author (the man was a machine in the lab), but 4-6 is common for people who go on to success later.
posted by bonehead at 6:16 AM on September 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

N-thing the others who have said you will still have to formally apply for a spot in the PhD program. This means you will probably still have to take the GREs (it's really a formality unless your scores are extremely low). It also means that other professors on the admissions committee will have to review your application - are you confident that other professors in your department look upon you favorably/neutrally? Have you made any bad impressions from the classes you've gotten your mediocre grades in? They won't be giving you the benefit of the doubt if they know you got a B- because you never came to class.

I assume you would be entering the program next fall - this gives you time to apply to other graduate programs in more desirable locations. Unless you would be starting your program while in undergrad, you're not really deferring the offer by applying to other places - you are awaiting an official offer from your school. Be open with your PI - you should ask for a reference, and suggestions as to other programs that would be a good fit for you and your interests. A good PI will want to keep you, but will do anything in their power to help you succeed else where too - if they don't do this, this is a big warning sign. You might have a PI that will turn on you - a bad PI can take you off papers, prevent you from graduating to squeeze more free labor out of you or give you a bad recommendation if you are thinking of switching to another subfield or a competing laboratory.

I'm actually deep within a PhD program I applied for non-traditionally (over the summer for a September start) on the recommendation of my undergrad PI. She definitely helped me get in, but I had to be accepted by the other professors, and meet the minimum standards of my university. My PI was also willing to support me in applying to other programs, and even suggested several that would have been good fits, and offered to introduce me to PIs at those institutions.

Another factor is money. If you are doing a science PhD, it is a given that you will be fully funded and receive a stipend. For a masters, you usually have to pay. If your professor doesn't get her money, or if her money runs out a few years in, what will happen to you? Does your department guarantee money? What sort of strings come with it - would have have to switch labs 4 years in, or TA 40 hours a week on top of research? Or is there another pot of money the department can use to finance you? If your department is more than a decade old, this has definitely happened before, and you can ask around to see how it is handled.
posted by fermezporte at 7:28 AM on September 25, 2012

I can't speak to this too well but wanted to say the following:

Mrs. Eld's adviser in the final stages of her Ph.D program (which is not in biology) has made her life hell on earth. Message me for details on how their dynamic is unhealthy and what this means to our life. I'm trying to point out that if you like your boss and he/she is fair and helpful then that's a huge part of surviving the grad school experience. If you get a bad adviser.... it's not pretty and, from what she's told me, changing advisers is frowned upon and means a pretty hard reboot of your progress.

The not exactly the precise sub-field you want to work in stuff sounds like it could be resolving itself, which is good, so I'll leave this to those more well versed in the matter to discuss.

Honestly it sounds like you've got a bird in the hand. Would you trade it for 2 in the bush? What about 1.2 birds in the bush?

Secondly, Congrats and good luck with grad school. And thanks again for your cigar help a while back.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:45 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

Blech, please forgive bad structure up there, cold meds are killer. To clarify: she's had the same adviser this whole time.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:46 AM on September 25, 2012

Best answer: (Sorry for the lazy gender assumption about your boss . . .)

This is sounding really good on the science side, but I'm still concerned about the admission side. Department politics are basically impossible for you to be in a position to know, and it's possible that you might not be admitted even if this funding for your position is assured. The most likely bad scenario would be if your advisor has recently grabbed several Ph.D. students from the previous class, and now has to defer to someone else for the limited number of admission slots. Even with the grant, you may not be a "freebie" for several reasons. Given the situation, I think you have to consider applying elsewhere, and you have to find a diplomatic way to discuss this with your current boss and get their recommendation. You can phrase this as a backup plan, with the promise that you will accept the job if the money comes through, and if you get admitted -- it's hard to see how she could argue with this, and I would consider it a red flag if she did.

I expect I would probably do a postdoc after getting my PhD, and I would definitely do that at a different institution. Would that help counter any narrowness, real or perceived, that might hinder my career opportunities?

I agree completely -- I don't see a downside here, unless you were to stay on after your Ph.D.

Really, this is sounds pretty good!
posted by inkfish at 9:07 AM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the advice here. I've been checking up more on her publication history and such as per bonehead's suggestions and things seem to check out pretty well (and I've also gotten ideas for a few more questions to ask). I also have some questions to ask her about pay structure and admission prospects and about opportunities for collaboration, though I feel positive about those aspects of the situation as well.

My current plan, if everything checks out the way I expect it to, is basically inkfish's recommendation. I plan to tell her that I want to accept her offer and apply to be a PhD student in her program to help work on this project and that assuming I get in I'd be glad to work with her, but that I also want to apply to a couple of other programs just as a backup in case something falls through, and I'd appreciate it if she'd help me as much as she is able with both parts of my strategy. I expect she'll be amenable to this, but we'll see of course. And of course if she's not OK with this then it'll be good to find out about that now rather than later.

I feel comfortable with this strategy after reading everything here and talking it over with my S.O. and parents and all the other folks who I typically ask for advice. I'm going to go ahead and mark this resolved! Of course, if anybody still feels that they have something that needs to be said then I'll still be listening.

Also I just signed up for the GREs and will be taking them soon. Blood money indeed.
posted by Scientist at 9:25 AM on September 25, 2012

I plan to tell her that I want to accept her offer ..., but that I also want to apply to a couple of other programs just as a backup in case something falls through...

This is an entirely reasonable plan. If a student said this to me (and they more or less have), I would be very happy. Slips and delays are all too common with grants and administrators.
posted by bonehead at 9:36 AM on September 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

but not for a PhD because I'm tired of my current city and also the research I am doing isn't exactly in line with my interests

I have not yet seen the proposal but what she described was very exciting. There would be a large component of international field work in a very ecologically-important (and beautiful and interesting and "sexy" in a popular-science sense) but under-researched part of the world.

It's not clear from this whether the research you'd be doing would be something that interests you. That would be a key factor in the decision, although it's less important if you know you'll have some freedom to guide your project into more interesting areas. As a current phd student, I can't imagine doing a phd on something that doesn't interest you at all - it's hard enough when it's completely fascinating.

Other critical factors:
-sanity/competence of PI - both scientifically and mentoring-wise
-funding - stability and enough to live on
-publication history of lab
-expertise/training/equipment available

I really wouldn't put location on there at all, unless you think it'll make you suicidally depressed to stay where you are. If everything is perfect except the location, you're doing pretty well.

But yes, definitely apply elsewhere as well, just in case - not only might this fall through, but you might find a position in a more interesting city with a more interesting project.
posted by randomnity at 12:31 PM on September 25, 2012

Response by poster: Followup: I accepted the offer today. My PI sat down with me and answered all the questions that I had.

The project was officially funded as of two days ago; there's going to be a department party for it. I would be fully funded through the grant (at a competitive salary) for four years and she has already lined up departmental support for a fifth year. Travel and medical expenses would not come out of my salary.

Her previous grad students have all had multiple first-author publications. There is a spot for me on the program but there is also room for flexibility regarding my role -- I will have a primary role (itself encompassing several aspects of my field) and also ample opportunity to branch out from it. The analysis that I would be doing will be on the cutting edge of my field.

I will have multiple opportunities to travel to other institutions, attend development conventions and training workshops, and to work with several of the many collaborators involved in the project, thus mitigating the potential drawbacks of doing both my degrees at the same institution. I will get to work directly with many of her collaborators and will have good opportunities to start building my professional network.

She is happy to help me apply to a couple of other programs so that I can have some contingency plans in place. We agreed that by accepting her offer I was committing to take the position assuming that my institution accepts me into the program, which seems like it's as near a sure thing as these things can be. I am going to have to start learning French.

It was a productive conversation and I feel happy with all the responses I got. We shook hands and she welcomed me aboard. I do still have to apply to the program as normal, but she has already spoken with the relevant people in the department and expressed to me that she expected the department would be "highly supportive of my application".

Thank you to MetaFilter for all your support and help, both in answering this question and the many questions that I have had in the past regarding going back to school, positioning myself for grad school, taking an undergraduate research apprenticeship to get experience (which is what put me in this lab and under the eye of this professor), and everything else this community has helped me with over the years.

I truly don't think that I would be in the position I am in now without all of your help. When I look back on my development over the last four years, the ways in which I've found myself and educated myself and learned to be my own advocate, I know that I have this community to thank for a significant part of that. Whenever I have a significant decision to make, I consult three sources: my significant other, my parents, and Ask MetaFilter. Your advice has been and no doubt will continue to be invaluable, and I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
posted by Scientist at 9:40 PM on October 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

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