The Bobcat or the Tiger?
April 7, 2015 7:19 PM   Subscribe

I got accepted to two PhD programs in physics, one at Clemson University, and the other at Ohio University. I have one week to make my decision and I'm frankly terrified of making the wrong one. I don't really know how either school is seen in terms of what a degree from either one would mean for my future career. I know that neither is particularly well known or prestigious (at least I'd never heard of them before I applied). So, can anyone, especially anyone who knows the ins and outs of grad school, and particularly anyone who has attended either (or both!) help me make my decision?

Some background:
I will graduate with my BS in physics in May. My main interests are in astronomy (I didn't get into any solely Astronomy/astrophysics PhD programs), particularly black hole physics, high energy phenomena (GRBs, supernovae, quasars, etc.), and exoplanets (detection, characterization, etc.). I have already visited both campuses and met with the faculty of both physics departments. The stipends are almost exactly the same and from what I can tell apartments are similar prices (though I think Clemson has better options if I want a small cottage with a yard for my dog). However, Clemson is offering me a 2 year fellowship totaling $6000, and I have summers off if I want them.

Clemson had nicer facilities, and a better looking campus (though to be fair, it's already full on spring in SC). I am not a fan of football, which seems to not be an option at Clemson.

Ohio's current astro research is more interesting to me, though I was able to talk more in depth with the faculty at Ohio because I was visiting by myself and not with a group of other prospectives like I did at Clemson, so it might not be a fair comparison.

Anything else you want to know about me or the what I thought of the schools, just ask.
posted by runcibleshaw to Education (71 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What are your career goals? Do you want to go into academia? Industry? Something else?
posted by un petit cadeau at 7:21 PM on April 7, 2015

Response by poster: Career goals? I'm not sure I have very specific career goals right now. I just want to keep learning about cool stuff. I wasn't able to do much (or any) astro research during my UG, mostly due to the astro staff disappearing six months after I started. I'm hoping I'll learn what kind of work/research I like to do as I go. Right now I'm assuming that after my PhD I'll do research in astrophysics, either at an academic institution, industry, or federal lab.

Oh, this is another question I had that I forgot to ask:
Can I accept an offer, attend for some period of time and then apply/transfer to another (better?) PhD program (CalTech anyone?) or is it like a contract?
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:30 PM on April 7, 2015

To be honest, part of me wants to tell you to say no to both of them and reapply again next year, because the fact that you don't know how to answer this question makes me worry that you didn't do sufficient research about going to grad school/the life of an academic/the next six years of your future to make the right choice - and you might well have missed out on programs that would have been perfect for you. I have a PhD in the Humanities and my fiance has a PhD in engineering and he's sitting next to me going "TELL HIM TO TAKE A BREATH AND GET A JOB FOR A YEAR. SERIOUSLY."

Alarmist portion of advice over. Now, the next step: get your butt to one of your professor's office hours ASAP and ask him or her this question, especially the prestige/ranking piece of it. This is not information you can just grab off the internet - it matters what branch of physics you are planning on studying (and if you don't know what branch, well, see advice in all caps above).

Important question: the stipends of incoming students are almost always approximately the same at programs of similar prestige because they're competing for the same set of candidates; the real differences start to show later in the program. What happens in later years? Do you have to start paying tuition at any point? Will you have to start writing your own grants? Money matters; good funding is not just important because of, well, $$; good funding is really good sign that the university supports its grad students in all kinds of ways in large and small.

You are obviously very smart and very accomplished. Grad school is one of only many possible paths available to you. If you really want to do astrophysics, hold out for that. Or just, you know, take a breath and get a job. The PhD track will always be there for you if you want it.

Oh, and congratulations!
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:36 PM on April 7, 2015 [29 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, if it helps, I will be around 40 by the time I get my actual PhD, assuming it takes the normal amount of time. This is one reason why I don't want to wait and apply to "better" schools for next year.
posted by runcibleshaw at 7:36 PM on April 7, 2015

IAAP, albeit absolutely not in this field.

You need to grab (figuratively, not literally) one or more professors in your department and ask for advice RIGHT NOW. The people who wrote you letters of reference would be a good place to start. Yes, the reputation of your doctoral program will absolutely matter for your future career.

Moving programs happens with some frequency (usually after the MA, but not always), but again, the quality of your first program will definitely impact your ability to move elsewhere.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:36 PM on April 7, 2015 [12 favorites]

All I can say is: slow down!

Just judging from your questions and the motivations you express in your follow-up, you don't seem ready to make the kind of commitment a PhD program requires. You haven't done any astro research -- how do you know it's the kind of thing that you'll want to do for 5+ years? You remind me a lot of myself as I was entering a PhD program (which I eventually left with a Masters) -- I did have more research experience, but I was still naive, thought I'd figure it out as I went along. A PhD is not the kind of thing you figure out like that -- it's a whole different ballgame from undergrad. You can't transfer in the same way you can in an undergrad program, because your research is very dependent on your advisor. Take a job for a year, try to get some research experience, think about Masters programs. Don't jump into something you don't entirely understand.
posted by peacheater at 7:40 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

Just saw your follow-up about your age -- to me, that makes it more important to do your due diligence. What's your endgame at the end of all this?
posted by peacheater at 7:41 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

I haven't been to either of these universities, but I am working on a degree in plasma physics at a Midwest research university, and the one thing I've learned is that for physics graduate school, way, way more than undergraduate, it isn't the school that matters so as the individual professors you end up working with.

So I'd look very specifically into who's doing what at each school, maybe browse the abstracts of papers they've published recently, and get a good idea of who is doing projects that you would be interested in. You probably want to have a couple

And, honestly, email the faculty members you think you might like to work with. Read about what they're doing, come up with questions to ask them - I'm assuming if you're going into a science PhD, you'll probably come up with a lot. And don't be afraid to ask if they're looking for students and have funding. Generally speaking, research professors are super happy to have someone smart, motivated, and interested in the specific projects they have in mind. Even if you find out that one of them is kin of a jerk, that's great, too. You do not want to spend 6 or 7 years of your life working closely with someone you don't get along with.

Good luck! And I hope you find a great thesis project that you enjoy.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:42 PM on April 7, 2015 [9 favorites]

Everything else being equal, Clemson puts you closer to some nice beaches.
posted by vrakatar at 7:42 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Speaking as a person who does the admin for admissions for a highly ranked physical science program that is not physics - doing an MS and then moving on to another school for your PhD is okay (especially if your MS advisor writers you a great letter.)

Leaving a PhD program after a year or two is virtually never done, unless you're moving with your advisor (they got hired somewhere else), or there's someone at the new school who is very interested in taking you on.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:47 PM on April 7, 2015 [3 favorites]

If it were me (I'm undergrad, but I'm closer in age to grad students, so we chat a fair amount and sometimes I get little glimmers of what they're going through) I would be making this decision more based on the faculty you'd be likely to work with, and what their current studies/areas of interest are, rather than prestige. I'm basing this on your interest on just wanting to keep learning cool stuff. I totally get that! And frankly, if you feel like you can afford it, one way or another, what's so bad about having your goal for the future be as simple as "keep learning"? But you don't want to be stuck with a department that you can't stand or that you have no shared interests with.
posted by Secretariat at 7:47 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Do these departments do rotations, or do students apply to specific labs? If the former, contact some potential professors and get in contact with them. Find out how they mentor, and it's imperative that you get a chance to talk to some of their current students and hear about the pluses and minuses of the department and that lab in particular. I am honestly kind of impressed you got to the point of acceptance without doing this--in my department, students effectively never get into the program without contacting a specific PI first.

And nthing all the advice about talking to profs in your department. Your prospective PI is hugely important to your grad school experience. Find someone you like and who you think will be easy to work with. Also, try to make sure you have a backup plan--what will you do if you wind up hating your supervisor and miserable? Are there other labs you could transfer to?
posted by sciatrix at 7:52 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I know that neither is particularly well known or prestigious (at least I'd never heard of them before I applied).

Why did you apply to them?

So, can anyone, especially anyone who knows the ins and outs of grad school, and particularly anyone who has attended either (or both!) help me make my decision?

"grad school" is not a uniform thing, and "Clemson" and "Ohio U" are not uniform things when you're looking at graduate programs. All you are concerned about is the Physics graduate program of these particular schools. If someone on Mefi has attended one of those schools as an undergraduate or a grad student in Literature, it is not very useful to you. They can give advice about the weather and the cost of living, but not about the kind of reputation you would end up with. Even someone who attended the Physics program twenty years ago would have to be careful telling you what's what.

Certainly talk to a professor in your department, but I would also reach out to the departments you are considering. Many grad schools have a student in the dept who gets a stipend to answer your questions and act as an ambassador / liaison to potential or incoming students. Send emails to people who've already made the choice and try to get the dirt.
posted by mdn at 8:10 PM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Ask about what your first couple years are like. I did an engineering PhD so there are likely big differences.

Do you rotate through labs and then you and an advisor both pick? Then there should be at least two labs that are accepting students, that you are interested in, so that if you have a horrible time in one lab you might be able to get into another lab.

What are the big hurdles? Ask students at each how painful/insane quals, candidacy exams, etc. are.

Quality of life matters re which city.

One heuristic I used was that, because both programs were nearly objectively equal, I picked the program that made TAing optional. This indicates that you are not used as cheap labor and then 50% of you are kicked out. The graduate chair did indeed greatly care about the doctoral students and went to bat for them. Speaking of which, try to get a sense of the graduate chair in each program and whether they'll be sticking around for your entire PhD or rotating out.

Find out the average attrition rate. It should be online, I think.

Find out the average length of time to PhD in the labs you're interested in. Talk to the doctoral students in those labs.

In the labs you're interested in, hopefully past students are listed on the lab web page and what they're doing in their career now. See if you want to be doing things like that. Look at how many papers they've published and in what journals. Their achievements are predictors of what you may be able to achieve in that lab and afterwards with that lab's pedigree and that lab's PI going to bat for you with letters of reference, connections, etc.

See how many years doctoral students and postdocs have left, i.e. for how many years will they still be around, and whether they seem friendly and mentor-y, etc.

This is so hard before actually doing it: But, do the absolute best you can to understand the research each lab is doing, why you like it, why you care, why you think it's worthwhile, whether they're still doing that research or they've moved on, what the daily grind is with that kind of research and how that would feel to you--ask, ask, ask, try to go out for drinks and food, hang out, and ask some more.

This is 4-8 years of your life and a big opportunity cost. Good luck.
posted by zeek321 at 8:11 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Career goals? I'm not sure I have very specific career goals right now. I just want to keep learning about cool stuff. I wasn't able to do much (or any) astro research during my UG, mostly due to the astro staff disappearing six months after I started. I'm hoping I'll learn what kind of work/research I like to do as I go. Right now I'm assuming that after my PhD I'll do research in astrophysics, either at an academic institution, industry, or federal lab.

Hah. I'm finishing up my PhD (in History, at one of the most prestigious universities in the world), and I don't know whether to laugh or cry at this statement. I'm not entirely sure how much it varies by department, and I understand that some of the sciences may situate you somewhat better for gainful employment post-PhD (although I'm doubtful about physics being especially employable, especially the theoretical corners of it - I have a brilliant theoretical physicist friend who has gone on the market and has come up empty-handed, in spite of a killer academic pedigree, and he has complained that all the money is going into applied fields). I am going to be the killjoy in this thread and tell you not to go to either of these universities - certainly not this year, and probably not ever.

Look: even if you have full funding, a PhD is never "free". You're giving away 6ish years of your life to work at what amounts to minimum wage, and you're rendering yourself *less* employable for most jobs (apart from academia, which is a serious crapshoot). Since you're in your mid-30s (you say you'd be 40 by the end of your PhD), this is doubly so. There is a huge opportunity cost involved in you taking up either of these PhD offers, and I think you need to have really clear reasoning for your choice, and a very delineated game-plan about a path during- and post-PhD. PhDs are unfortunately not really about "learning about cool stuff". Undergrad is like a buffet where you can keep walking and sampling lots of little tapas that you might find interesting. Grad school is like being force-fed a food you once liked, for fourteen hours a day every day for six years. Once you get past the coursework, you'll be honing in on an incredibly narrow topic, and any interest you once had in that topic dissipates quite quickly, leaving you in a loveless marriage that will take you years to extricate yourself from.

The other thing is that in most fields, academia has gotten relentlessly competitive. You probably won't listen to me here, because all of us doing PhDs have always been told that things were competitive, and we've always beaten the competition. But this is unlike anything you've ever seen before, and it's not really strictly merit-based either (it's far more down to "fit", and whether your particular niche topic fits the particular niche they're trying to fill). If you like spending 5 years post-PhD doing a string of post-docs (i.e. slave labor for someone else's project), all for the chance to compete against 200 other just-as-qualified applicants for a job that starts at $45,000 in rural Wherever, teaching a 3-3 load of introductory courses and never getting any time to do your own research (except in your free time), all so that you can have a tenure-review seven years down the line to assess how your research meets par and have your entire future staked on that meeting, you'll love academia. If, like most other sane people, this scenario sounds crazy to you, you should just slowly walk away from those acceptance letters on your kitchen table right now.

Academia used to be a decent profession. In the last decade especially, it has entirely imploded in most academic fields (and unless you have specific knowledge that your subject is not among these, you should assume that it is). Modern academia is not about some sort of intellectual skipping-through-the-meadow-in-the-sunshine experience; it is for ruthless hard-nosed intellectual entrepreneurs who have a knack for selling ice to an Inuit. If your professors tell you otherwise, they haven't looked for an academic job in the last 10-20 years (academia was effectively an entirely different, and much gentler, industry prior to that). To be competitive, you need a smoking hot research topic, you need powerful professors behind your project writing you recommendation letters for jobs, you need to publish as a grad student in areas that are sellable, you need a clear game-plan going in, and you need to only consider going to a department that is prestigious and a top-5 in your field. People with unbelievable CVs from Harvard aren't getting jobs, and it gets exponentially worse the further down you go. Unless you have these things, you need to avoid getting tangled up into this mess. Some of us have sunk years of our lives in this quicksand, but that doesn't mean you have to follow us and ruin yours.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:16 PM on April 7, 2015 [66 favorites]

Also, of the students who are about to finish in a lab, pay close attention to the most cynical and jaded one and also the one who's most drank the kool aid. Each one will have a really interesting perspective/retrospective. Figure out which of them your personality is more like.

All of this digging/reading/thinking/asking is really challenging and time consuming, because it's sort of social-engineering-y and there's still this huge cloud of uncertainty. But the more you do, the more you stack the deck in your favor. You do the best you can and then pick and it's still a big, huge unknown.
posted by zeek321 at 8:20 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To answer a few of the questions:

I understand the advice to wait a year, and that is still a possibility but not one I'm strongly leaning toward. I have talked to the professors at my school who I respect and the advice of the only professor who is in the astronomy field (planetary science really) was that the chances of getting into a school that is considered "top tier" was pretty slim and that unless I got into a Harvard or a Caltech or Arizona State the school didn't matter so much as the research and the people you work with. He told me an anecdote about a student who graduated the year before me with a 4.0 in physics, high GRE scores, and research at NASA didn't get into any of the schools he applied to because, according to this professor, those schools don't think of our school as a place that astronomy students come from. He also said that in his experience many of the people who graduate from our program and take a year off lose their momentum and stay in industry. That's fine, but it's not what I want to do. In fact, I'm old enough that I've already done that several times in my life, working a decent job while waiting for the perfect thing to come along, and then ten years pass. Honestly, I'd rather learn grad level physics and astrophysics for six years than get a job. Also, any job I'd get would probably not be in the field I'm interested in.

I guess this is an important thing: I don't care about the money. More precisely, I only care that I have enough money to live and anything extra is cake. I've been poor my entire life and if I get I go through six years and can't get a job, then I'll be exactly the same as I am now but I'll know a little more and will have picked up a few skills.

To the people suggesting I pick option c) neither, what do you suggest I do in the meantime?

I'm not sure what people are saying when they talk about a lab. Certainly some physics research is done in specific labs, especially nuclear, particle, condensed matter, etc. but astro research is done at telescopes, on computers (sometimes of the super variety). There's no lab, just a professor or group who has a research area and a group of grad students.

I wasn't able to get much dirt from the interactions I had with the current grad students at either school, although one I talked to at Ohio seemed very jaded about grad life, but still liked Ohio because he was able to do his own research in addition to working on his PI's research.

Okay, I must sleep now. Class in the morning. I will check back tomorrow. Thank you all for your responses so far.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:33 PM on April 7, 2015

I know Tom Statler at Ohio U. He is a well-respected researcher who works in both galactic and solar system dynamics.

It is true that getting a faculty job is very hard nowadays, but a Ph.D. gives you marketable skills if you're willing to be flexible when you graduate.
posted by lukemeister at 8:38 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what people are saying when they talk about a lab.

(Sure, sorry, I didn't really work in a "lab" either, but that's what we happened to call it. It was all computers. But, translate that as the people ahead of you and behind you in your likely career path, ideally at every stage, from months to years to decades, who you're around for many hours a day.)
posted by zeek321 at 8:50 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

but a Ph.D. gives you marketable skills if you're willing to be flexible when you graduate.

This depends. My impression is that you have to carefully stage yourself as some sort of stats, programmer, mathematician, data science, finance, analyst person (pick one or two). And, outside of that, you'll be perceived as both overqualified for most things and underqualified for most others. If you think you won't go the tenure track route, a non-tenure-track job is something to (usually carefully privately) think and scheme and plan for for your entire PhD. Otherwise you could get caught flat-footed. Physics can most definitely prepare you better than most PhD topics to craft this marketable narrative, along with acquiring enough of the skills, but it's not a done deal.
posted by zeek321 at 8:58 PM on April 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

Not knowing what schools to apply to or what schools to accept offers from suggests that you haven't done your homework. I don't think you realize what a mistake you're making by being so rash.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [6 favorites]

There's no lab, just a professor or group who has a research area and a group of grad students.

That is what people mean when they talk about a lab. The word "lab" in this context does not literally mean "room full of bubbling beakers and people in white coats" or whatever, it means "research group."
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [13 favorites]

Best answer: I am an astronomer.

To clear up some potential misconceptions . .

For most people, continuing in astronomy after your PhD means doing one or two postdocs, each of which is 3 years long. Then you try for a permanent job.

Although some people with PhDs in astronomy end up in industry, they are not doing astronomy research there.

Although you don't care about money, it would be good to understand the stipends. Is funding guaranteed? For how long? Is that through a TA or an RA? If you have to TA to get it, realize that this will make it harder to get research done, especially if you also have classes. If you need to find an RA, are the professors you are interested in flush with money? It struck me as a red flag that you could have your summers off. To me that just means that someone doesn't have enough to pay you over the summer. What will that do to your benefits?

In most Astronomy PhD programs in the US, you have to take some courses. However, the number and flavor of those courses is highly variable. What is the course load at each institution, and are the requirements flexible enough for you to take astronomy courses?

Seems to me that most people I know who are leaving astronomy right now are going into Data Science. However, that and other exit fields seem highly biased towards young people. Not sure what your experience will be applying as a 40-46 year old.

Sorry if I am coming off as negative. It's a great job if you can get it, but it's also really bleak out there right now.
posted by pizzazz at 9:05 PM on April 7, 2015 [12 favorites]

The other things that I forgot to mention (that hopefully goes without saying) is that you should absolutely never go to a PhD program that isn't completely fully funding you (which means: tuition plus stipend that is enough to live on, provided for all the years that you will be doing a PhD). Yours don't sound fully-funded. This is not an exotic venture that you should be willing to go into debt for. Also, if you don't get a fully-funded place at one of the top 5 departments/universities in your field, that's sadly a key sign that you're not going to be competitive for an academic job six years down the line. Looking at your update, everything you have said unfortunately suggests that the above is true: your undergraduate department is not highly regarded enough to get you a place and full funding at a top grad program. This means you absolutely should take this as a bad omen and not go. Again: fully-funded PhD students at Harvard aren't getting jobs. If you aren't fully-funded at a top-5 program in your field, you're not even going to be competitive for a job at the end(and "competitive" doesn't at all mean "a likely thing", as I and my friends have found out).

If you are determined to go, I would seriously recommend following the steps I enumerated in my last post. You need to hit the ground ready to go if you want any hope of an academic job. In making your decision, if I were you, I would have a frank talk with your prospective supervisor about his vision for your project, how he imagines your working relationship (how much help will he provide?, how often will you meet?, etc.), and - especially! - where have his graduates gotten academic jobs (because hopefully they have). Also, in deciding, talk to as many of your prospective advisor's PhD students as possible, gauging their vibe about the advisor, the department, their chances at an academic job (and those of their friends in the dept), etc. But really, please just don't go.

To answer a few of your follow-up points:

I guess this is an important thing: I don't care about the money. More precisely, I only care that I have enough money to live and anything extra is cake. I've been poor my entire life and if I get I go through six years and can't get a job, then I'll be exactly the same as I am now but I'll know a little more and will have picked up a few skills.

You won't be exactly the same as you are now: the PhD, while giving you a certain je ne sais quoi at cocktail parties, will actually make you *less* employable for many actual jobs (rather than more employable). As bizarre as it may sound, most employers are more reluctant to hire a PhD than a BA or BS. You will also have lost six years of work experience in the meantime. And if you are not fully funded and have to take on debt to finish the PhD, you're even worse off. You won't have picked up "a few skills": much is made about "transferable skills" by desperate careers advisers anxious to placate hysterical impoverished doctoral students, but trust me, any "transferable skills" you would gain from the PhD you probably already have, or could get via a much less torturous method.

To the people suggesting I pick option c) neither, what do you suggest I do in the meantime?

Literally *anything* else. As my dad keeps telling me, "If you had started flipping burgers instead of starting your PhD, you could be a fast-food manager by now."
posted by ClaireBear at 9:15 PM on April 7, 2015 [15 favorites]

OP could you go a little more in depth into your work history + academic history? No job sounds appealing to you, yet you would consider a non-academic job after your PhD? What kind of jobs do you envision yourself doing post-PhD?
If you don't know, figure out what's feasible ASAP, then do some version of that for a year before starting your PhD. It might be that a quant/industry job + taking some non-degree graduate courses in Physics/Astronomy would be a much better fit, and it wouldn't have taken 6 years of lost wages and savings to get there.
posted by hejrat at 9:20 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

He also said that in his experience many of the people who graduate from our program and take a year off lose their momentum and stay in industry.

"Lose their momentum" is, frankly, a completely clueless way for this guy to have put this. A lot of professors take this sort of attitude, that anyone who crosses over into industry and likes it and succeeds there must have "lost momentum" or "given up" or be floundering or whatever. Respectfully, that's total bullshit. Most people who go into industry after their BA or MA, rather than getting a Ph.D., do it because they want to be working in industry — or at least, because they prefer having a stable job that pays a living wage — and not because they've somehow gotten bogged down and confused and forgotten that grad school is an option.

Now, you've already decided that you're not most people — that you don't want to be working in industry. Great! That means you can spend a year or two in a straight job while you get your shit together on grad school applications, and then go for your Ph.D. once you've done all your homework and figured out exactly what you want to study where. A day job is not going to cast some magic spell on you that confuses you into abandoning your dreams. It's just going to be a way to put food on the table while you get your ducks in a row.

To the people suggesting I pick option c) neither, what do you suggest I do in the meantime?

The very first thing you need to do is become much more familiar with the conditions in the field you're interested in going into. Starting graduate school with the intention of just following your nose and finding your way into an interesting topic is a spectacularly bad idea, for a few reasons:

1) For most topics, there will only be a small number of programs where you can realistically do a dissertation on that topic. If you follow your nose like this, it is incredibly easy to find that the topic you're interested in working on is actually off-limits to you, either because none of the faculty in your program are qualified to supervise a dissertation on it, or because nobody has the right gear or the right technical skills, or (this is more common than you'd think) because the one professor who has the qualifications and the gear is a dysfunctional asshole who you can't work with.

2) Most professors have limited resources. Let's say you finally decide you want to work on XYZ — and let's say by some stroke of luck there's a professor in your department who specializes in XYZ and she's a great person who's easy to get along with and a fabulous mentor. It's still entirely possible she'll say "Sorry, I've already got all the students I can support. Unless I get another grant, I can't possibly take you on. You'll have to work with so-and-so instead, he's the only one in the department with room for another student right now, and I'm afraid he's not at all interested in XYZ."

3) Grad school is a ticking time bomb. You have a certain number of years to finish before your funding runs out. You need to make sure that you are pretty fucking impressive by the time that happens — with a nice track record of publications and conference presentations and so on — or else you will not get a job. Time you spend at the beginning of your program figuring out what topics interest you is time that you can't spend making yourself more impressive, and that puts you at a disadvantage.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:36 PM on April 7, 2015 [25 favorites]

Agree about time off = turn off.

The PhD/tenured professorship grind explicitly promotes running lots of kids through the grinder and give them PhDs.

In bad programs, kids who know too much or think for themselves too much are a liability and are punished. In good programs, they're wished well by all and they may or may not get another postdoc before they give up trying to get a tenure-track position.

On the other hand I have friends who may have a legitimate shot at a tenure-track academic posting at a reasonable school... but there's no commonality that predicted their (potential) success. Luck and timing and more timing has a lot to do with success.

If you have the (financial) means to make the gamble and a have fallback plan - hell, go for it!
posted by porpoise at 11:01 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree that you need a clear vision of what you want out of grad school. It's very unlikely that you can wander your way through the program and serendipitously end up with a research job at the end. Astronomy is a bigger field than most, I suppose, but you need to be really darned good at what you do, and everybody in your field needs to be aware of it. This is something I did not have a full appreciation of when I started.

You can always bail out of grad school, since there is an endless supply of people willing to take your place.
posted by Standard Orange at 11:49 PM on April 7, 2015

Eh, just go with your gut. If you really think you're interested in studying physics more and don't have anything else you'd rather do with your life, go ahead. Be prepared to deal with a lot of very dramatic colleagues who start worrying about padding their CV before they even get to orientation. You're probably not the next Feynman, and that's okay. Every teaching oriented university in the country needs somebody to teach intro physics to pre-med students, and they don't care what your research is like as long as you can teach. They can't support research anyway, so don't believe people who say there aren't any jobs available even for people coming from the top programs. The same people who say they wouldn't dare attend anything but a top 3 school have the same opinions about what tenure track positions to apply for. I found that the people who treated grad school like a job - albeit one that pays you incredibly poorly to learn something that you love - were much happier and fulfilled by the experience than the ones who treated it like another rung in their career ladder.
posted by one_bean at 1:24 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

People have covered the financial aspects of the PhD already; one thing that I want to reiterate is that your choice of PI/advisor is incredibly important, way more than your choice of schools. In some ways, the PhD is an apprenticeship to a specific person. That person will have an enormous effect on your quality of life. You can have incredibly different lab cultures within the same university, and before you decide who you want to work for, you really need to figure out what you're getting yourself into. Are you expected to work 60 - 80 hour weeks? What is your potential supervisor's personality and leadership style? Hands on or hands-off? What is the funding situation like? (I have heard stories of students being forced out with master's after their PI ran out of funding for them).

In terms of transferring, in my experience it's rare-ish. Generally it's because of a funding situation, personality conflict, or their PI moved to a different university. Also, if you do move to a different university, you may have to take all the exams/courses over again.
posted by Comrade_robot at 4:11 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Just another science professor to say that the most important factor in making your grad school decision is choosing the best advisor and research group (usually called a lab even if there is no literal lab). Ideally, the school you choose should have two or three professors who do research you're interested in and whose research groups you can imagine joining. This is true whether the school does rotations (you spend time in a few labs and choose the one to join after your first year) or if the school admits students directly to a lab.

If you met professors you liked on your visits but did not get to meet their groups, email them and ask for contact info for their grad students. Although you can likely find this info on their webpages, they should be delighted to give you the contact info themselves--if they are not, that is a big red flag. This is a great guide to the kinds of questions you should ask about the research group before joining.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:11 AM on April 8, 2015 [10 favorites]

Best answer: Talk to the professors in your department, particularly the ones doing research closest to what you want to do.

Talk to the professors at Clemsom and Ohio that you are interested in working with. See if they have space in their lab, see if they reply to your email, see how many publications they've put out in the last 5 years. See if you can talk to their students. Grad school is a lot like working in a very small business, and a lot less like undergrad. Get to know the people you'll be working with for the next 5-10 years. A thing I regretted about my grad school choice was not looking into the funding situation of the profs I liked interviewing with, and not talking to the students in the PI's lab I ended up in.
posted by tchemgrrl at 4:19 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know what to tell you about PhD programs, but I did go to Ohio U for grad school, spending two years there. At first it was a big change, as Athens is pretty removed from the larger cities in southern Ohio, but after the first three or four months I really came to enjoy it. My undergrad at ND felt like a huge campus plopped into (or always further invading) South Bend, but lacked the college town surrounding area with shops and restaurants and cafes. I got that at OU. Feel free to memail me with any Athens/OU specific questions.
posted by icaicaer at 4:40 AM on April 8, 2015

Best answer: The main ways I chose my school was to think about the adviser I'd want to work with if I went there, then about what my backup plan would be if that guy turned out to be a total nightmare to work with. School B had exactly one prof I was enthusiastic about (while school A had 2 excellent possibilities and 2 good) and I wasn't willing to put all my eggs in one basket.
posted by aimedwander at 4:54 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

8% of PhDs in the life sciences go into academia. Eight. That is not a typo. I understand physics/astronomy isn't the life sciences but that statistic isn't far off for most disciplines.

You don't care about the money - great. You should still NEVER GO INTO DEBT FOR A PHD never go into debt for a phd seriously do not go into debt for a phd. I don't care about money either. The debt isn't about you - it's about what your research home says to you about your value. Going into debt means that you couldn't find an institution to support you during your training. This will hurt you in many ways throughout your graduate career and will impact your prospects after graduation.

If either school is not offering you full funding for the amount of time if will take to get the degree, do not go there. This may mean that this is not your year to go to grad school. That's ok.

So: choose your school based solely on the money. Not because you care about money, but because academia - like everything else now - is a business. Money talks. It says, "There's support here!" Money matters.

If you're hell-bent on going and you don't have full funding at either place, go to the place that has more money. Look at what resources they offer grad students. Offices? Travel funds? Free poster printing? Options to buy out your teaching time by working on grants? Do grad students publish? In what journals? Do you get teaching support or do you have to create courses? Are you a TA or instructor of record? If you rotate in research groups how is your final research group assigned? Do the other students seem like normal people?

I understand that grad school seems like an extension of undergrad but it is not anything like that. It's a job and it's a job where you get paid very very little. Don't go into debt for a job.
posted by sockermom at 6:05 AM on April 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I am a professional astronomer working in academia.

Your interests seem incredibly broad (black holes, high energy astrophysics, exoplanets) and, frankly, what a lot of people claim to be interested in before they have experience in the field. This isn't to say that you can't study these things, but it puts up a small red flag for me that suggests that you don't have a good handle on the field and what is out there. Are there people at Clemson or Ohio U. that are doing research in these areas? If not, what are they doing research in?

To be honest, neither of the two places you mentioned are very strong in Astronomy (I don't have as good a sense of their strength in Physics). There are some good people doing work there, but you will need to be an absolute superstar there to get a good chance at a permanent faculty job. The place you got your PhD absolutely matters. It shouldn't matter, but it does.

Moving grad schools is unusual, but it can happen; probably ~10% of the students I knew in grad school did this.

If you take a year off, one thing you should consider is working in an astronomy research position to build your experience. These take many different forms and are at many different places (Space Telescope, Harvard-Smithsonian CfA, AAVSO, JPL, Caltech, etc.), but most of them can be found on the AAS Job Register under "Predoctoral" or "Scientific/Technical Staff".

If you want to talk, MeMail me.

I assume that you will be fully funded at both of these places (either through TA or RA). If not, don't even consider going to them; there is no reputable astronomy/physics grad program in the country that doesn't fully fund their students.
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:07 AM on April 8, 2015 [15 favorites]

What do students who go to these programs do when they graduate?

According to USNWR, Clemson is ranked #111. Ohio is ranked #85.

In my discipline programs outside the top ten don't place. Do you really want to go to a low ranked PhD program?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Yeah, I really don't understand the logic of people who are saying don't go to either. My goal is to learn about high level astrophysics and then do research in astrophysics. To do astrophysics research I need a PhD (as far as I understand). Say I don't go to either school. I could get a job in science but probably not in astronomy/astrophysics as I have no previous experience in those fields. But, say I do get a science-related job. Will that significantly improve my chances of getting into a prestigious astrophysics focused university? If the answer is "yes", then maybe that will change my thinking, but if the answer is "only slightly" then I don't see the point in waiting.

Conversely, if I go to one of them and I leave with a masters, or I get a PhD and can't get a job after, or I just plain hate it and have to leave then what have I lost? Only time, time that I would spent in a job in an unrelated field, or *shudder* in retail. I've already had a career as a manager of a retail store (among other careers). I hated it. If I can't get a post-doc job then I'll just be older, with a lot more knowledge and the title doctor while doing something else. I can paint houses for a living if I want to.

For the stipends they're both small (much less than I made as a retail manager) but more than adequate to live in either town (I have priced out general cost of living and it's do-able). Tuition is covered for both but there are graduate fees (which I find bizarre), that are like $1600 a year. The offer letters both say that funding is not guaranteed. I have to work about 20 hours a week as a TA for both. I'm interested to know if grad schools offer guaranteed stipends for the entire stay as a PhD. That seems unpossible, but of course I don't know. Both schools offer grad level astro courses, but only Ohio told me that there's a specific astro sequence I have to take. Clemson made it sound like I work with a committee who recommend courses that I need to complete my PhD. I should e-mail and get more info on that.

As far as not doing my homework, I only applied to schools that offer PhDs in physics and/or astrophysics/astronomy because according to the only astronomer I know, you can do astronomy with a physics PhD. For the physics schools I only applied to schools that had active astro research going on. I looked at papers from current faculty from all the schools I applied to and didn't apply anyplace that didn't have anything I was interested in even if they were doing some astro research. UPenn for instance was not doing anything interesting so I didn't apply (though it probably wouldn't have changed anything if I did).

Here's another way to think about it: If I had only gotten into one of these schools, I would have just accepted the offer unless there was something about the faculty or school that truly horrified me during my visit. So, what I'm looking for are specific ways to distinguish between two very similar schools, either of which I would attend if they were my only offer.

You guys have given me a lot of good things to think about, and sorry if I sound a little defensive, this is a tough decision. I'm gonna memail some peeps. Later.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:27 AM on April 8, 2015

Response by poster: In my discipline programs outside the top ten don't place. Do you really want to go to a low ranked PhD program?

This is a thing I'm not understanding. If I can't get into a top 10 (or 25 or whatever) school, I shouldn't go?
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:29 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I cant answer that for you. What do students who graduate do when they graduate? Do you want to do that?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:32 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I cant answer that for you. What do students who graduate do when they graduate? Do you want to do that?

I think that's a good measure to compare the two programs. Is there someplace on the internet that tracks that sort of thing or is really just hunting around LinkedIn or something like that?

But again, whatever I do after my PhD will almost certainly be better (or no worse) than what I was doing before I started pursuing it, so I don't understand why I wouldn't go just because most PhD jobs go to people who attended only a handful of schools that I likely will never get into.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:40 AM on April 8, 2015

"In my discipline programs outside the top ten don't place. Do you really want to go to a low ranked PhD program?"

This is a thing I'm not understanding. If I can't get into a top 10 (or 25 or whatever) school, I shouldn't go?

Yes, exactly - that is exactly right. Essentially what I and others are saying is that unless you get into a top-5 school, have a killer project idea, and have a powerful professor with sway behind you at your advisor, with full funding for all of your PhD years, you should not consider going. I know that I sound harsh, like the academic equivalent of kicking your puppy, but I really have your best interests at heart. Better face flinty reality now than after flushing six years down the toilet.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:42 AM on April 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, I understand that grad schools pay their students for shit and are a lot of work, but I completed my physics undergrad in two years and racked up a nice chunk of debt doing so, all the while doing research and tutoring 15+ hours a week. Having a guaranteed pay check and waived tuition doesn't seem like the nightmare people are making it out to be compared to undergrad. (Yes, I know it's much, much, much harder, but I'm not put off by hard work.)
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:43 AM on April 8, 2015

Is there someplace on the internet that tracks that sort of thing or is really just hunting around LinkedIn or something like that?

The department websites will have this info. If they don't its because they are embarassed about their track record.

A lot of the 'don't go' advice ignores class and race issues. Sure, working for daddy's hedge fund is a better job than not going to get a PhD. But like every decision, its about alternatives.

Do whatever makes you happy. Just do so with as much information as possible.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:44 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, exactly - that is exactly right. Essentially what I and others are saying is that unless you get into a top-5 school, have a killer project idea, and have a powerful professor with sway behind you at your advisor, with full funding for all of your PhD years, you should not consider going. I know that I sound harsh, like the academic equivalent of kicking your puppy, but I really have your best interests at heart. Better face flinty reality now than after flushing six years down the toilet.

Yeah, this doesn't make any sense from my perspective on risk versus reward. If I don't go in six years I'll have a shit job in a shit town and I know something about physics. If I do go in six years I'll, at the very least, have a shit job in a shit town and know a lot more about physics and astronomy. I don't understand what anyone thinks I"ll be losing. Yes, if I have to start taking out huge loans to continue maybe that will change the equation, but even that is a privileged perspective for those in STEM fields isn't it? I've been lead to understand that grad school in other areas don't offer full funding. Perhaps I'm wrong.
posted by runcibleshaw at 10:49 AM on April 8, 2015

Also keep in mind a lot of the 'dont go' advice is a lot of "I shouldn't have gone".
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

Re. your last two in-thread updates:

1) Re. your penultimate in-thread update, I really disagree with you there - your assertion that doing a PhD won't hurt your employment chances (and might help them). I think you aren't aware of the stigma in the workplace against people with PhDs. PhDs (and only from name-brand places) are really only valuable when trying to get an academic job, or in a handful of similarly snazzy upper-middle-class jobs (quant at an investment bank, management consultancy, trying to parlay the PhD into a top law or med school acceptance, etc.). I'd bet my last year's stipend that having a PhD will absolutely make it far more difficult to get a job in retail, as a painter, or whatever else you might try to do to earn a living after your PhD. Being 35 with a Bachelor's degree looking for an entry-level job is *much* preferable to being 40 with a PhD looking for an entry-level job.

2) Re. your final in-thread update: what you're proposing sounds like you don't have any ideas for gainful employment, so you want to try to postpone the decision for six years while you tread water in a PhD program making minimum wage. A lot of us went into graduate school in part because we didn't have any good ideas about what else to do next. But the solution to this isn't to go to grad school; rather, it is to brainstorm other better alternatives. Otherwise, you're going to find yourself with the same problem, but more intractable and yourself deeply dug into a hole, in six years.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:50 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

...the most important factor in making your grad school decision is choosing the best advisor and research group

This is the single most important piece of advice in the thread. This is exactly what I tell my students to do: pick an advisor/research group or two that excites you and is field leading. Then consider the university.

Look at number of publications, citations, and breadth of co-publications. One of the most important things an advisor does is set students up with their network of collaborators. That's how you get the best post-docs and job offers, through formal or informal networks. You want to work for someone great, but you also don't want to work for a hermit.
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

Misantropic Painforest:

Actually, I disagree with your assertion that: "A lot of the 'don't go' advice ignores class and race issues. Sure, working for daddy's hedge fund is a better job than not going to get a PhD. But like every decision, its about alternatives."

As far as I'm concerned, the situation is really the reverse. If OP were independently wealthy, or came from a rich family who could support him, a vanity PhD wouldn't be a problem. In my own program, a lot of the kids are from rich families, and can afford to take lots of extra unpaid work (my department now invites us to volunteer to teach undergrads for free, which we're supposed to be thrilled about since they pitch it to us grad students as "free work experience" - how generous of them). Also, it's only the rich kids who can keep themselves afloat for the five or so years of post-PhD adjuncting/VAPing/unemployed but trying to publish/etc. while they compete for academic jobs while making little or no money. Among those whom I know who are finishing their PhDs, the biggest factor separating out those who are throwing in the towel and moving out of academia, and those prepared to give it a few more years even though they haven't secured a position yet, is (family) money. If OP had a parent or spouse bringing in a robust income, I would be more prepared for him/her to try out this risky venture. It's those in the lower classes and those whose families aren't funding them for whom academia is structured to present risks that they simply can't afford. (Ask me how I know.) Coupled with the fact that getting a PhD will bar OP from virtually all non-elite jobs (jobs that he/she probably doesn't have a shot at to begin with, because they're often based on wealth/class-markers/connections), getting a PhD is far more risky for the OP than for an upper-middle-class person in his/her position.
posted by ClaireBear at 10:58 AM on April 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

OP: I think it would helpful, if you're willing, to post the exact details of the funding packages you've been offered. I'm having a little bit of trouble determining specifically how much funding you've been guaranteed, what nature it is (in exchange for teaching, etc.), and for how many years (and sometimes universities leave all this deliberately opaque for their own nefarious purposes). If you're serious about potentially taking up one of these two offers, sussing out exactly what funding you've been offered and where is a major piece of the puzzle.
posted by ClaireBear at 11:13 AM on April 8, 2015

If I can't get into a top 10 (or 25 or whatever) school, I shouldn't go?

The school doesn't have to be Harvard, but the program/your advisor should be recognizable to others in your field if you are planning on a job related to your graduate work.

To compare graduate programs, look at the lab’s website. I don’t know about astrophysics/physics, but in my field you would go to Pubmed or Google Scholar and type in the lab head’s name. Look at the first authors on their papers and whether they’re primarily from the lab head’s group and who the corresponding authors are. Google stalk people and see whether they’re currently faculty, still graduate students, postdocs, in industry.

Having a guaranteed pay check and waived tuition doesn't seem like the nightmare people are making it out to be compared to undergrad. (Yes, I know it's much, much, much harder, but I'm not put off by hard work.)

A lot of people here are talking about not going into grad school because the academia market is terrible. That is true, but a separate matter. I think it’s fine to go to grad school if you're interested in the field, but you should absolutely think much more about the research subfields themselves and what you want to work on.

A lot of people in my grad school lab (me included) joined because we didn’t really know what we wanted to work on, but X and Y seemed kind of cool and so did Z, and at least it wasn’t industry or Starbucks. My grad school lab had something like a 20% graduation rate because our advisor was hands off and none of us really knew what we wanted to work on, so everyone sort of meandered around for years from project to project until they dropped out or their significant other forced them to graduate. The worst part was that a lot of people ended up not learning much about what they were interested in, because their interests and our advisor's interests didn't match up, so they left the same as they'd started, only now they were unemployable!

It worked out for me (I was very lucky), but multiple people I knew are still there in year 9 or 10 or 12. These are really smart people who worked really, really hard, but now they can’t get a job in industry because "they’re overqualified”, and they can’t get a job in academia because none of their research worked out, and they can’t even get a job in food service/something unrelated to their graduate work because no one will hire them. It’s a really bad position to be in, and much worse than not having a job right out of college.
posted by angst at 11:17 AM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel like I should jump in here, because I am also a professional astronomer working in academia, but you have a lot of good advice upthread, as hard as it is to hear. I'll just flag a couple of things from the thread:

You said: the current grad student [...] I talked to at Ohio seemed very jaded about grad life, but still liked Ohio because he was able to do his own research in addition to working on his PI's research. This sets off HUGE alarm bells for me. This might be a thing in the humanities, where grad students are cheap labor paying for the privilege of doing their advisor's research, but that should ABSOLUTELY NOT be the case in physics and astronomy. You should have a fully funded position - otherwise, run away - with promised funding through the expected duration of the PhD. And your research should be the same thing as your PI's research.

The way this worked for me was this - we established a relationship where my advisor wrote the grant proposals that brought in the money to keep us funded, and I wrote the observing proposals and did the work that went into the papers and grant outputs. (Then he wrote me some lovely letters that got me a great fellowship and came to my wedding. And now, circle of life, I slave away at grant proposals.)

So here's something that you should ask: what is the specific research that is being done at your prospective programs? What have they published in the last 3 years? Who funds them? (In astronomy, the typical answer is either NSF or NASA. DOE, in some specific cases.) Which of these projects could you see yourself engaging with? Go to the place that has at least two, maybe three, of these projects.

Reading your responses, it looks like there's a fundamental disconnect, too: you're going to grad school as an apprenticeship, where you will learn by doing. Not by coursework, though that is prerequisite. No one will care about your grades once you pass whatever qualifying exams. Instead, you'll be expected to do original research in collaboration with your advisor and publish the results (seriously, you need first-author papers).

From above: What I and others are saying is that unless you get into a top-5 school, have a killer project idea, and have a powerful professor with sway behind you at your advisor, with full funding for all of your PhD years, you should not consider going. I'd say top-20 is fine, and I'd say that you don't have to start with a project idea because you're going to work with your advisor on that. I didn't know what my PhD was going to look like until I already had a paper under my belt. But the spirit of this advice, I'm absolutely seconding.

Again, from Betelgeuse's excellent advice above: Your interests seem incredibly broad (black holes, high energy astrophysics, exoplanets) and, frankly, what a lot of people claim to be interested in before they have experience in the field. This isn't to say that you can't study these things, but it puts up a small red flag for me that suggests that you don't have a good handle on the field and what is out there. [...] If you take a year off, one thing you should consider is working in an astronomy research position to build your experience.

Yeah, exactly. I've known people who were interested undergrads, but without the required academic pedigree to get into top-20 schools, who worked for a year or two in related areas (specifically, operator for the NRAO telescopes, scheduler for the Chandra X-ray Observatory) and then went on to a much better career in grad school. Consider that.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2015 [6 favorites]

What do students who graduate do when they graduate?

To find the answer to this, you want to ask the departments about their "placement record" - where do their students get jobs after finishing? Ask about both the first job out, and then the eventual job... often people get postdoc's for a few years before getting more permanent positions, or before quitting to do something else. Ask both the faculty and the grad students. How long do students take to finish? What percentage actually do finish?

Talk to your advisors about the reality of what graduate work involves -- it's not just general "learning about cool things" like undergrad, it can be a lot more of a tedious grind, since you'll be required to focus very narrowly. (It can be great too, but just don't have illusions that it will be all interesting stuff. It's a job with plenty of boring work and dues-paying like any other; it's more prestigious-sounding but the pay is low, which may not matter now but will matter more to you in 5 or 10 years.)

Also think about what you would do if you didn't go to grad school now. Suppose the option didn't exist. You have good quantitative skills, presumably -- those are desirable to employers, and could be a ticket to a good entry-level job somewhere in industry. Devote some thought to figuring out a couple of possible job tracks and what the first step would be for those tracks. You will need to do entry-level work at some point, and it's much better to do it sooner rather than later. Your entry-level job isn't where you'll end up, but it's a step toward having good qualifications for a really great job in 5 years or so. Don't be put off by the apparent prestige difference between an entry-level job and telling people you're going to grad school... the entry-level job is a smart first step in a plan that will lead to good things in a few years.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:56 PM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

> Is there someplace on the internet that tracks that sort of thing

Many departments do. The Clemson physics department alumni page asks alums for updates, and probably compiles that information internally. You can ask for it. Or you could LinkedIn stalk the alumni listed on that page who are doing the kind of thing you want to do. I don't see anything similar on the Ohio page, but a department secretary might be able to help direct you the right way. Some departments have newsletters that list recent graduates and where they're going (mine did). Many PIs show a list of where past students have gone, too, and if this is a question that gets deflected or the PI doesn't know the answer, I would be very wary indeed. I'd also be super, super wary of a science grad student that describes themselves as "doing their own thing." A grad student doing their own thing in the sciences is a grad student in a lab you don't want to be in (because they're floundering and the PI isn't helping, or because the PI doesn't have any money coming in and so doesn't need a specific question answered.)
posted by tchemgrrl at 1:07 PM on April 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

In response to the concept that OP doesn't see what she/he would be losing by going to grad school...

You say you're looking at a crap retail job right now and a crap retail job 6 years from now; and if you went to grad school, then 6 years from now you could at least be contemplating physics (and how The Man (in this case The Prof) has done you wrong and milked you dry) while you work your retail job. Okay, that's probably not the place that most of the "don't go to grad school" advice is coming from. Most people who go to grad school in the sciences have a strong undergrad science degree under their belts and some kind of technical skill, and veer off to do programming, or data analysis, or lab-tech work, or some other interest that has a skill-based market. I think most of the commenters above aren't accepting your premise that your life without grad school would be 100% dead-end.

In some sense, the opinion that "it's a top school or no school" is based on the assumption that your only goal is to do the kind of work that completely requires a strong astro PhD, namely to be a professor or work for a lab that puts you in the position of applying for research grants, carrying out research, and writing papers for peer-reviewed astro journals. If you don't go to a top school and do strong research, those PI jobs will be out of your reach. Very true. No arguments from me. But it sounds like that wasn't your question, really. If you go to a mediocre school and they treat you like crap and drop your funding, and you get fed up and leave (we're also sounding discouraging because underfunded schools are really tougher going than high-end schools in a lot of ways), you'll probably have a masters, and you'll probably also have some skills that you're happy to market. Programming, data analysis, image processing, technical writing, or whatever you find yourself spending time on during your research.

So, if you're truly honestly looking at retail work right now, I'd predict that your job prospects will have grown, even if you're not qualified for a truly-100%-astrophysics job. Then the question becomes, is that appealing to you, enough that you're willing to risk the effort and frustration of grad school?
posted by aimedwander at 2:47 PM on April 8, 2015

I fear that you don't have a good sense of how academia and graduate school work. I'd suggest reading Getting What You Came For and Professor Mommy as well as The Professor Is In blog and book.

The Professor Is In's "Should you go to grad school" thread is key. Can you answer yes to all of these:

- You do not have substantial debt from your undergraduate degree, that is to say, debt above $15,000-$20,000.
- You are offered a full funding package that includes tuition waiver, all fees, and a stipend.
- You take out absolutely no new debt to undertake the degree. This means that you must either be prepared to live on a stipend of approximately $15,000-$20,000 a year, have a partner/spouse/family member who can augment that stipend, or work a second job to augment the stipend yourself.
- You go to one of the very best programs in the country, judged by funding available, prestige, and job placement rate. This is not because of elitism, but because only these programs deliver the financial support and connections that give you a fighting chance of a debt-free degree and permanent employment at the end.
- You avoid any second or third tier Ph.D. program like the plague, regardless of what they appear to offer by way of programs in your area of interest. Your Ph.D. will not be competitive for a wide enough range of jobs at the end. Online Ph.D.s are beneath consideration.
- You align yourself, before signing on, with an advisor who is well known, who is at the peak of his/her career (no asst profs, no emeritii), who has recently placed other Ph.D.s in tenure track jobs before you, and who is genuinely and personally invested in your arrival to the program.
- You understand that the system is entirely hierarchical and productivity-based, and you will be judged by your high-status output (publications in major journals, national grants, high profile conferences, famous recommenders) more than by the inherent “brilliance” of your ideas.
- You approach academic pursuits as a job, not a calling.
- You approach graduate school as vocational training for a job.
- You do everything I say in the column, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job, religiously and without excuses.
- You are under 35, and ideally, under 30. If you fail to find permanent employment within 3-4 years after completion of the Ph.D., this outcome will be far less disastrous if you are still in your thirties and can reinvent yourself for a different career track. The financial stakes for middle-aged people are exponentially higher, the risks exponentially greater, than for younger people.

There is a lot of wisdom in this MetaFilter thread. I must agree that deferring for now is a good idea. These are not excellent programs. You will not get an excellent education. Nor will you be well-placed to find employment in the traditional places where PhDs get jobs. And then your PhD will count against you in other jobs.

If you learn more about how academia works and you still want in, you need to do everything in your power to get into a top program. This will involve getting better GREs and getting (maybe) better grades in the courses that matter to astronomy programs. This will also, most importantly, involve having such fantastic relationships with faculty that are "in the system" (products of the best astronomy programs, go to the conferences where the best astronomers go, publishing in the venues where astronomers publish) that these people write you letters of recommendation that are stellar.

I agree with others that a second-tier program is a waste of time.
posted by k8t at 2:50 PM on April 8, 2015 [10 favorites]

I'm interested to know if grad schools offer guaranteed stipends for the entire stay as a PhD. That seems unpossible, but of course I don't know.

Yes, some almost do. My deal at U of Michigan involved a 2-year fellowship; some entering grad students had a 2-year TAship, same money but for hours worked. After year 2 we were expected to find a lab to work in, but most professors had enough funding to pay as a research assistant (RA), which meant the same money but for doing the research we need/want to do anyway. Occasionally professors would have more students than funding or be between grants, or students would leave a lab, in which case they would go back to being a TA. The chance that there would be a student who was in good standing (or even occasionally some who weren't) and the department couldn't find some way of paying them ($18k/year in 2000 for RA, TA, fellowship) was basically nil.

Consider what you'd do if next year they don't have a TA position for you, and they're offering you the chance to pay $1600 in fees to continue doing all your classes and research, but also working retail on the side. Ask the school what percentage of the students are unable to find TA or RA positions. In fact, ask the school what percentage of students have RA vs TA positions, because if you're still doing 20hrs/week (also known as 30++ unless you grade like lightning) while trying to do research and write a dissertation, you're going to go nuts.
posted by aimedwander at 2:57 PM on April 8, 2015

Every (social scientific) graduate program I've been affiliated with as a faculty member or student funds PhD students for either 4 or 5 years, depending if they have an MA already. I know of some that don't fund the first year, but this is pretty exceptional.
Those that take longer than 4-5 years find alternative funding as a research assistant or have some RA position elsewhere in the university. Or they play a game where the department needs more TAs than it has graduate students and they look to people "out of good standing" to fill those spots. That is risky, but many people do it.
posted by k8t at 3:03 PM on April 8, 2015

All reputable programs in my field fund all their students for 5 years, guaranteed from the outset (I'm in the social sciences). The ones that don't fund are shit programs. I can't imagine it any other way.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:19 PM on April 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

I am in a kind of astro-adjacent physics field with a similar structure, in that most of the experimental work happens at a few big facilities, and getting on the schedule for one of them if you're working somewhere else can be tough.

I agree with folks above that it is definitely not the case that eh, at worst you're 5-7 years farther on and you know some more astro and have a PhD and if it wasn't great you can just pick up where you left off before grad school. I went straight into a top-5 program after undergrad, did well there, but couldn't in the end see myself living in any of the places with relevant facilities and left academia. I've been struggling to find a job because outside of my narrow specialization, I'm a jack-of-all-trades with just enough skill to be a bit above entry level, but not enough above entry level that people are comfortable with the fact that I have a PhD. And they don't understand that I'm not planning to up and move to a city with one of the relevant-to-my-PhD facilities. (Imagine interviewers asking you constantly why you're not working at Arecibo, because it's the only telescope they know and they assume that if you're an astro PhD you must want to work at a telescope.)

As a side point:

However, Clemson is offering me a 2 year fellowship totaling $6000, and I have summers off if I want them.

In case it's not clear, "summers off" does not mean "frolic in the sunshine for three months." It means you won't have teaching obligations while you spend the summer working on your research. It also means you're on your own for arranging summer funding, usually through your PI. My department also had "summers off," mostly because they reserved the few available summer teaching jobs for the poor high-energy theorists who couldn't scrape together enough funding any other way. You should absolutely not be actually taking summers off from a full-time grad program.
posted by dorque at 5:42 PM on April 8, 2015 [5 favorites]

Oh, also: sometimes a fellowship is not extra money on top of your stipend -- it's just out of a different internal account and can be used to sweeten the first-contact with a potential PI, where you get paid the same amount you would have anyway, but the PI doesn't have to put up all of it from their grants. You should find out whether this is the case before getting too excited about the $6000 in Clemson's offer.
posted by dorque at 5:53 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

If I don't go in six years I'll have a shit job in a shit town and I know something about physics.

I hope you are still reading this thread because this is the GIGANTIC flaw in your reasoning.

When people get worked up about grad school + missed opportunity costs, they're not saying "PhD programs are such giant garbage wastes of time that it would be better get a minimum-wage job at McDonald's than to attend them." (Or at least, people other than ClaireBear's dad don't, and he's wrong. Most PhD programs offer decent health insurance and lots of free lunches, for one thing.)

What they mean is this: anyone who is smart, talented, and hardworking enough to get into a PhD program is almost certainly qualified to do something that is ultimately both better-paying and more rewarding than a PhD program.

The reason that going into a PhD program is so often a mistake is that it is a six year+ endeavor in which all the benefits are front-loaded. The work you'll do on the very first day of your PhD program, when your advisor assigns you to read a fascinating article full of ambitious ideas you've never previously encountered, will be both comfortingly familiar (you've succeeded at this before!) and feel as interesting, satisfying, and rewarding...much more interesting, satisfying, and rewarding than the 856th day you spend in the end stages of your PhD hacking away the project you wandered into at random because of a lack of any interest from your advisor. Almost certainly, your first stipend paycheck will be bigger than your last one, when you're carrying debt from an unfunded semester and the university has started piling on fees in order to *motivate* you to graduate.

In contrast, whatever job you get after college will almost certainly be pretty shitty. It will be dull and it won't challenge you, and at the same time, it will be unfamiliar and you'll feel insecure about your performance and afraid you'll be stuck there forever. Your paycheck will probably be garbage and your benefits won't be stellar and there will be no student gym.


If you are smart and dedicated and hard-working, which you have already demonstrated that you are, the odds are after two or three years of bumming around and feeling unsatisfied and looking for something that challenges you, you are going to find that thing. And once you do, you will apply the single-minded focus and top-1%-of-the-population intelligence that got you into your PhD program, and you will begin to succeed at it. And, in contrast to grad school, the more you succeed at it, the higher you rise, the more interesting and challenging the work will be, and the more money you'll make, and there will be nothing getting in the way of your rise.

All of these warnings coming from people - especially those of us in fancy programs telling you to avoid slightly less fancy programs like the plague - can seem like horrible sour grapes and condescension and elitism and like we think you're just not good enough to cut it. But that is absolutely not true.

If you are good enough to get into these programs with shit advising and no relevant work experience, which you have already done, then I promise you the following:

You are good enough to get into an equivalent program without doing much of anything different whenever you decide to try again.

You are good enough to get into a much stronger program if you find a kickass mentor and keep adding relevant work experience to your resume.

You are good enough to get an entry-level job or internship at dozens of fascinating places relevant to your interests. I'm pretty sure internships at NASA and JPL are paid. Why not try that, or shoot your resume over to SpaceX? Or find an unpaid but incredibly desirable internship and apply your stellar work ethic to saving up enough money so that you can take it?

I am not saying that these opportunities are simply going to fall at your feet. I'm saying that if you turn the energy and commitment you aimed at a PhD program towards them, one of them will eventually open itself to you. You finished a physics degree in two years with grades and a CV good enough to get you into a two separate goddamned PhD programs. It is not that these programs aren't good enough for academia. It is that they are not good enough for you.

posted by pretentious illiterate at 6:16 PM on April 8, 2015 [32 favorites]

Seriously, what pretentious illiterate said directly above is gospel truth. You'd be very wise to take it to heart.
posted by ClaireBear at 6:37 PM on April 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I came here to get help choosing between two programs and now I'm having an existential crisis. I am not nearly as confident as others seem to be that I can get a job in a relevant field right now. I already went to a four year university and spent ten years of my life trying to get a decent job. Admittedly it was for film which was probably a mistake. But, I just applied to 15 different summer internships at NASA and did not get any of them and had to default back to my research here. I don't understand how if I apply again for a full time job in the fall that I will somehow get it. They already knew that I'd have a physics degree in the summer and my GPA can only possibly go down for any new applications. I dread going back to retail.

Deferment is a possibility, but I don't know how that works. There seems to be two options, defer admission and defer application. I assume I'd want to to defer my application not admission because deferring admission would be an agreement to go? I don't know.

As far as packages go, Ohio is offering $18,000 for nine months, waived tuition, and summer research for about $4700. I don't have my award letter in front of me but I believe it says that the stipend is not guaranteed. Clemson is offering $20,000 for nine months, waived tuition, $3000 per year Curry Astro Fellowship for two years. There is some summer TA work available but that sounded like not everyone could do that. Both packages are for TA work. I think Clemson also mentioned that the stipend is not guaranteed if funding dries up. Both have graduate assistant fees that are something like $1500 a year I think.
posted by runcibleshaw at 8:12 AM on April 9, 2015

How many years of that level of support for at each program? And what about health insurance in each program?
posted by k8t at 8:46 AM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also, please figure out the following information:

- the individual (not their name) that would likely be your primary advisor, the level they are at (assistant/associate/full), and their h-index, and any sense you have of their grant success, and any sense you have of their "placement record"for previous PhD students
- the number of other faculty that could be your advisor if the relationship with primary advisor sours
- looking through the offered courses for the past few years, does it seems that the program offers the courses that you need on a regular basis?
posted by k8t at 8:51 AM on April 9, 2015 [2 favorites]

Why not just go, but once you are there, take as many stat courses as you can and learn how to code well and do data analysis? Parlay that into a job.

If a program isn't offering a full guaranteed funding package then I have no problems recommending using them to your full advantage.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 8:56 AM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

Alright, here's what I recommend, based on how I see what possibilities are available to you. Choose which option best meets your goals:

A) IF YOU CAN'T SEE YOURSELF AS ANYTHING BUT AN ACADEMIC/AN ASTROPHYSICS PROFESSOR/RESEARCHER: Do not take up either of these two offers. You almost certainly will not be able to get an academic job from either of these two programs. I would doubt you could get anything in industry, either, whatever that might be. If you want the most decent crack at astrophysics research/academia that you can have, you need to beef up your CV such that you get into a top-5 PhD program in your field, and you need to not take one of these two PhD offers.

B) IF YOU AREN'T TOTALLY SET ON ACADEMIA, AND SIMPLY WANT TO LEVERAGE YOURSELF INTO SOMETHING MORE EMPLOYABLE THAN YOU ARE NOW: Take one of these two offers, and either leave with a Master's (are you allowed to leave the program with a Master's?), or stay for the PhD if it works out and if you get full funding. From the first moment of your time there, understand that academia almost certainly isn't going to work out for you, and instead try to use whatever resources are available to you there to make yourself more employable in something else. As MisantropicPainforest says, maybe you can try to take stat courses and/or learn to code well. You could also decide that you might want to teach high school physics, and try to get in as many teaching courses as necessary, as well as maybe some sort of core educational class for prospective teachers (maybe found in the Ed School of your university). You might also have to get a certification if you want to teach in public schools; my understanding is that private schools can hire whomever they want. I don't know what your odds are with a master's or PhD in physics, but I believe there is a shortage of science teachers, so you might have a (good?) shot with some relevant teaching experience and classes. There might well be other non-academic careers that a Master's or PhD in physics even from a mediocre school would unlock, and this would definitely be something I'd look into if I were you, and ideally get some help from a university careers advisor. I am not in your area so I can't offer too much more specific advice. In short, if your alternatives at this point are literally unemployment or working retail, and if you're not dead set on an academic career, taking one of these two offers might make sense, but only if you go in with your eyes open about what your future possibilities are or aren't going to be.
posted by ClaireBear at 9:25 AM on April 9, 2015 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Bear in mind your choices aren't only astronomy work (NASA, grad school) or minimum-wage dead-end stuff. There are lots of good jobs that involve physics/math -- look at defense contractors, satellite operators (commercial and intelligence), airlines, big banks, consulting firms, industrial operations, logistics, anybody who's doing big data, etc. Look at There are so many good-paying jobs out there for people with solid math skills. Really try to get a handle on what's out there, before you decide on grad school.

Going to grad school without a plan, for a Masters, and coming out debt-free, in two years, with a lot of strong math skills is a fine plan - especially if you use the time to research jobs in industry or academia and what skills you should have to do those jobs. That is a plan that can easily lead to you shopping yourself to these jobs with better qualifications, and the opportunity cost of two years is much lower.

Going to grad school without a plan, for a non-brandname PhD, and coming out with or without the degree but with new debt, in six or eight years, is the thing we're warning against. If you want to be a professor, this is not a good plan. If you want to be a professor or have a high-end astronomy job, postpone, brush up your application and re-apply until you get into a top program with full funding.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:14 AM on April 9, 2015 [12 favorites]


Its that simple. If you want to be an astronomer, go to a better program. If you can't get into a better program (now or in the future) you cant be an astronmer.

FWIW, I speak from experience. A couple years ago I turned down a PhD offer at a school ranked in the 30s in my field. It was my dream. I said no because it would not enable me to be what I wanted to be. It was hard. My parents who never went to college couldn't understand it. But enough people are doing what we are doing here and told me it was not worth it.

I beefed up my application and am now at a top 5 program in my field. Yes I'm older, yes I'm married, yes I'm going to be writing a dissertation with at least two young kids, yes I have a long commute since I coulnd't upend my family, yes I make half of what I used to make.

But it is a helluva lot easier knowing I have a chance at a job, rather than risking everything to be the sole superstar who gets a good job from the lower ranked schools, or even worse, knowing that I'm fucked because I went to a program that couldn't even pay its PhD students.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 11:35 AM on April 9, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'll send you MeMail with contact info for someone who got a Ph.D. at Ohio U. and got a good postdoc.
posted by lukemeister at 12:19 PM on April 9, 2015 [1 favorite]

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