Am I doing the wrong thing here?
November 28, 2012 2:57 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by anonymous to Education (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
•GPA: 3.14 (had a rough sophomore year and there's an F on my transfer transcript from 10 years ago.)

Your GPA in your field is probably as, or more, important than your overall GPA.

The placement record of programs is important and not something that you mention.
posted by Jahaza at 3:03 PM on November 28, 2012

Why do you need to "burn bridges" to interview with other potential supervisors?

You're probably going to get the same answers as you did with your very very similar non-anonymous question recently, but again, what's the harm in applying everywhere, exactly?

If you have a good relationship with your PI I'd really recommend talking to them in depth about everything you mention here. They will have much more knowledge and experience with your questions, and will have a network of profs they can recommend you apply with. In fact, that's exactly how I found my (awesome) phd supervisor.

If they're the kind of PI who would prioritize your working for them over what's best for your future career, you probably don't want to be working for them anyway.
posted by randomnity at 3:11 PM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Where do your potential advisor's students go after they finish their PhD? Do they get hired at top institutions? Research centers? BFE State? This will be a good guide to what you might expect if you join his lab.
posted by MsMolly at 3:12 PM on November 28, 2012

I am applying to a couple of other schools but I am not pursuing those applications aggressively.

I have nothing to offer in terms of specifics in your field, but I would advise that you pursue those applications aggressively. The problem you have right now is that you have a real offer that is concrete and familiar vs. a whole bunch of question marks. You need to know what other schools can offer before you know whether they are offering something better. If you then get an offer that is clearly better for you, it should also be clear to your PI that it's better and I would hope he'd be happy to see you move on.
posted by looli at 3:32 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

SO with whom I am in a serious relationship may leave me if I stay here
Current university not very prestigious at all

These are the only two serious issues in your list. To be bluntly honest, both grad school and overseas fieldwork are capital-D-death for relationships; if that's your real priority you may want to pick a different path. And while it's great to be at a top school, it's way better to be the bestest ever student at a lower tier place than it is to be the worst student at the top place.

So what are you looking for here that you didn't get in your previous questions? Permission to explore other programs? Permission granted! Some kind of certainty about what option is better? No one can give you that, because it's unknowable. You have one option in hand, other applications out there but no answer probably for two or three more months, and then you are also sweating things like maybe applying elsewhere in a year or two with the MA in hand -- but that simply isn't a decision you need to make today.

If you are agonizing this much over this (by my count this is your third question about this, and I might have missed one), you need to give some thought about how you are going to approach higher stake decisions later in the process. If you stay like through an academic career, you are going to paralyze yourself before you even hit ABD. Academic success is all about satisficing, not optimizing. It's about being willing to turn something in when it's good enough and being able to move on to the next task, not in getting stuck before you have even started.
posted by Forktine at 4:45 PM on November 28, 2012 [6 favorites]

Edit: These are the only two serious issues in your list in my opinion.
posted by Forktine at 4:47 PM on November 28, 2012

The PhD position offered by you PI is pretty much the best you can expect. Could you work with a bigger name? Maybe. But it sounds like your PI is pretty well known and well positioned. In Conservation Biology there isn't as much focus on where you go, rather it's about who you're working with and most, what you do. Overseas field experience and contacts with dozens of researchers is awesome and setting you up well for what you want.

The biggest problem I see is your SO. Sorry. Why don't they like where you are now? Because you're probably going to live in several medium-small towns far from serious culture. There aren't many post docs in NYC or SF. How would you and your partner feel about Cornell, Michigan, Ohio or Florida? Or, how about Australia? Because that's where the top researchers are (in fact, they have money - check them out).

Maybe you need some field experience with other people to see what the options are? I know my experience at one of the top schools taught me that that school is kind of over-rated and I'd rather hire from a less well known school. Find a job doing point counts (for example) for someone at another school in another region so you'll have a better idea of what you're being offered.

If your first response to that is to think you can't leave your SO or you'd need serious money, you may need to rethink grad school in ConBio.

Sorry if that's harsh.
posted by hydrobatidae at 5:54 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mod note: OP, you can post follow-ups via the mods.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:09 PM on November 28, 2012

« Older What parts of Oakland, CA are best to settle in?   |   How to convey to my boss that I'm not incompetent? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.