happy life or good research?
June 12, 2006 9:49 AM   Subscribe

It's the end of my first year of grad school, and the only professor I am excited about working with is moving to another university...do I go with him?

It seems like a straight up choice between my personal and (potential) professional life. On the one hand, I love the city I'm in and have tons of friends and a boyfriend I adore. On the other hand, I've only been able to find one professor here who was researching something I was interested in, was able to take students, and did not have some kind of personality issue. That professor is leaving to go to a big name university in my field: one that I specifically did not apply to because I didn't want to live there. I feel like I'll want to drop out if I stay here because I won't be that interested in the project I end up with, but I'll want to drop out if I go there because I'll hate the lifestyle, climate, losing my friends and boyfriend, not having any family around, etc.

I guess I'm asking people who have been through science grad school: which became more important to you as the years went on? A personal life outside of research, or deep commitment to the project you're working on?
posted by emyd to Education (21 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
A personal life outside of research, or deep commitment to the project you're working on?

In some sense you seem to be acknowledging, quite correctly, that these are mutually exclusive. So its up to you to decide: what is your priority?

In the future you may find its easier to overlay a personal life on an active career than the other way around.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:56 AM on June 12, 2006

I'm not sure I could live without both, to be honest. I did a PhD that I was really into, in a city with loads of mates and a good social life, and still went through several dark nights of the grad-student soul. I think that having the social support mechanisms helped a lot, but so did having a cool supervisor who was properly enthusiastic about the project.

Is is definitely an either-or for you? Are you sure there are no others you could work with in the current department? Would your adorable boyfriend follow you? Would cool prof continue to take an interest in your project from afar (in exchange for, say, name on any publications)?

I think that if I were forced to make the choice I'd probably follow career rather than social life, but you have to be really very confident that it'll work out career wise. I can tell you from bitter experience there is little worse than moving 250 miles for the sake of your career then finding out that it isn't going to work out. The emotional investment you put into moving really doesn't help evaluate things objectively either.
posted by handee at 10:03 AM on June 12, 2006

Find your own grant money and work on something you like. I operate on fellowships I won myself and I am able to work with whoever I want on whatever I want because I am not a financial burden on my advisors. If you are feeling brave you could try to write your own grants. I will admit that this is easier said than done but you have a chance if you are in a science related field.

If you are a masters student, then worry less about research. You are looking for skills that will help you land a good job. If you are a Ph D. student put the professor who is leaving on your doctoral committee and ask them to advise you from afar.
posted by Alison at 10:04 AM on June 12, 2006

Sorry, 'them' should be 'him'.
posted by Alison at 10:06 AM on June 12, 2006

Go after the career, after the project in which you have deep interest. Friends are everywhere -- maybe the friends you have now are the ones you made at your current school after you left your old friends behind for your career? If so, don't be afraid to do it again. Or if you're still stuck in with your childhood friends, maybe it's time to try something new. Either way, I would follow professional happiness and make new friends without necessarily losing all of my old ones. And the city, you'll get used to if the work is good. You won't find a great research project just lying around anywhere.
posted by pracowity at 10:23 AM on June 12, 2006

Ouch, that's a tough one. A couple of questions:
  • Is the work you would be doing with Professor Nice theoretical, or experimental? If it's the former, I know of one person in my program who is trying to work out a "commuter" arrangement, where he would visit his advisor1 face-to-face about once a month, and would conduct most contact via e-mail.
  • You say that you've looked at other profs, but I would encourage you to reexamine those professors whose research interests you initially dismissed. Any problem is interesting if you look at it deeply enough. My own personal experience here is that I dismissed a large area of my field as "uninteresting" before I even got to grad school, even though I later got quite interested in it. Don't let any prejudices you might have inherited from your undergrad career blind you to possibilities.
  • Along the same lines, how persnickety is your department about finding advisors from other departments? One of my good friends had lots of trouble getting an advisor in the field he originally wanted to enter, but ended up finding an advisor in the mathematics department instead who he ended up being very happy with.
  • How certain are you that you would be miserable at Big-Name U.? It might be worth your while to visit the place ahead of time; perhaps it's not as bad as you fear. Of course, it's possible that it's even worse, but you won't know unless you go.
Generally, even if you're not going into debt to finance it (I assume that's the case, since you said you're in the sciences), it's not worth it to be utterly miserable while you're at grad school. Some degree of misery comes with the territory, of course, but if you already *know* that you're going to be miserable, then that's a problem.

(For the record, I'm a graduate student in physics. My e-mail is in my profile if you want to ask further questions privately.)

1The advisor in question was denied tenure, for reasons that remain somewhat vague and obscure, so he found another job elsewhere.
posted by Johnny Assay at 10:24 AM on June 12, 2006

Has the departing professor asked if you want to follow him? You may be assuming an option that isn't actually there.
posted by LarryC at 10:37 AM on June 12, 2006

I chose (to stay in) a town I don't like because of its better research opportunities. I'm also a miserable person who hijacks any potential opportunities for happiness, so YMMV.
posted by Eamon at 10:50 AM on June 12, 2006

My wife spent six years in graduate school, only happy when doing lab work, always unhappy when dealing with her boss (a PI and department chair at a top university in the field my wife was in) and I can't imagine how she would have been able to cope with it without her friends in the same field. If you are already friends with others in the lab and they are going, then you are probably going to be ok going. If not, and you know yourself well enough that your work would absorb any chance of creating new relationships, well... weigh how much you really are interested in the field.

My wife finished her PhD and has decided that she basically doesn't want to have to be the kind of person you end up being in order to succeed in academia, so she's pretty much looking at the six years as "Well, at least I got a PhD and I got paid and now I know what I DON'T want to do." Sad, too, because she's got a great mind and was a fine scientist, but I worke at the same place she went to school and come to find out that most people are at the top of their fields not because they are particularly smart, but because they are particularly good at manipulating their already overworked students into writing grant proposals for them.

For the record, I'm all for my wife abandoning her field. As said, sad, but honestly, I'd rather see her enjoy her life than have a career in a field that would end up making her miserable.
posted by smallerdemon at 1:10 PM on June 12, 2006

Some advice I got before going to grad school was that you should pick your advisor and not the school. If you choose an advisor wisely (sounds like you have) then the grad school experience should be the more rewarding than if you just pick a school and go there.

Obviously (as you know) there are intangibles. What does your SO think about moving with you?
posted by achmorrison at 1:30 PM on June 12, 2006

Masters or PhD? If it's a MS stay where you are, do any old project and get out asap. If it's a PhD and you want to stay in academics then I'd think about moving.

Honestly what you do your project on is way, way less important than who you meet or how quickly you get done and how good an impression you make.
posted by fshgrl at 1:38 PM on June 12, 2006

I was in almost exactly this position myself in the personality--science grad school, advisor leaving my university, one transfer option that wasn't where I wanted to be, no other good prospects at my university, and of course, a satisfying home life in my then-current city.

It wasn't an easy decision, in the end. One thing that actually helped me make a decision was a reminder from the NSF that they require 2 years of work in your field for every year that they fund you in grad school, so factor that in to your decision.

I chose to take a leave of absence and did something different (Teach For America) instead of heading out to live someplace I didn't want to be. I think it was a very smart decision in retrospect. I had also thought seriously about joining a lab populated by lots of MD-PhDs, as they tend to finish their projects quicker, and I reasoned that I could work there with an advisor who isn't averse to helping students move through quickly.

If I were you, I'd also talk with your advisor about his/her colleagues' labs and see if you might be able to switch universities to go work on similar work someplace else where you DO want to be.

But don't neglect quality of life, as this decision will probably affect your life for the next 5 years or so.
posted by yellowcandy at 1:52 PM on June 12, 2006

UGH. Spellcheck changed '1990's' to 'personality'. Sorry!
posted by yellowcandy at 1:52 PM on June 12, 2006 [1 favorite]

Goddamn that's a tough situation. I've been there, or close enough. You ask which is more important, outside life or research. I feel like I really ought to be able to tell you something useful, being able to look back with 20-20 hindsight and all, but I find I'm still clueless...

I chose the outside life in the school with few prospects. I'm in the 6th year of a science phd program, I hope to be done a little over a year from now. I don't have anything good to say about my research experience, it's been pretty unpleasant and soul sucking. But on the way I met and married my wife, which has been wonderful and soul enriching.

At some point grad school will end, but I'll still be with my amazing wife. At that point I will declare that I won.
posted by Shutter at 3:19 PM on June 12, 2006

I was in sort of the opposite situation; I left a wonderful city to go to science grad school in a town where I turned out to be miserable. I thought of transferring to a less highly ranked department in a better city. I tried repeatedly to convince my advisor to move out of this lame town and take the students with him. After a while, I just gave up and decided to finish here. I'll (probably) be done in a year, I have my first publication, I love my research and I have at least one friend who hasn't moved away yet. And it only took me five years to get to this point! So, worth it? I'm going to say yes because the alternative is too depressing.
posted by transona5 at 3:33 PM on June 12, 2006

You said you're still in your first year? Don't lock yourself into anything, it's too soon. Stay where you are, enjoy your life, work on things that seem interesting, and don't worry too much about picking something and settling down in it just yet. In fact, the advice I often give new science grad students is to try several labs for 3-4 months or a summer each. You've got your whole life to work on this, and due to the pace of research these days, you'll change areas a couple times anyways. Stay where you're happy, branch out into a couple things you can pursue simultaneously, that way youy're not set back when one project hits a slow spot.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 4:01 PM on June 12, 2006

It also depends on how old you are right now (and I concur with the MSc* vs PhD suggestions above).

Consider: does this prof you want to follow have a great system to do experiments on? Does he/you have a solid project idea in mind? Is there potential to publish in a high impact journal? Anyone else in his lab ready to spew out a bunch of papers (which you can get in on)?

If you follow this prof and are able to publish prolifically and in good journals, then your future becomes a lot less restrictive. You'll be better able to select where you want to work (instead of hoping from one "junior investigator" position to another at podunk schools).

OTOH, if all you want is the degree so you can make a few extra bucks at a science company, by all means stay at U-dub (? right) - get to know the PI's who have their own companies so when you graduate you'll know some of the players which can help land a job in a city that you love.

Also, if you did your undergrad at the same place you're doing graduate work - follow the prof if you can. Undergrad/grad is less important than doing a post-doc somewhere else, but when you're trying to get a real job (especially when applying to the University which you did the undergrad+grad work at) it looks bad, especially if the location is really nice.

*oh, but the horror stories I can relate to you about MScs dragging on and on and on with no fault of the student
posted by porpoise at 6:41 PM on June 12, 2006

You are much more likely to drop out of a PhD program because of a bad research project or advisor than because of a bad city. The bad city is temporary and you are spending most of your time on school things anyway.

Are you committed to continuing in academia and researching the topic you're working on with this advisor? If yes, go with the advisor. Not having a good advisor you can work with will be death re: getting a good academic job. Grad school is temporary (although long) and if you stay in a nice city but at the end don't get the job you will kick yourself. It's hard enough to get an academic job as it is.

Otherwise, stay. And if you stay think about whether it is really worth it to go through the insanity and opportunity cost of getting a PhD.
posted by underwater at 8:27 AM on June 13, 2006

Once upon a time a little bunny rabbit sat in the forest, typing away furiously at a typewriter.

A fox walked up and asked the rabbit what he was doing. "I am writing a thesis," came the reply, "and the title of my thesis is HOW RABBITS KILL FOXES".

The fox did not believe this could be done so he asked the rabbit to show him. The rabbit said: "OK, just follow me down to my borough and I will demonstrate." So off they went into the rabbit's borough.

A little while later, the rabbit reappeared, by himself, and went back to his typing.

A wolf came by and asked the bunny what he was doing. "I am writing a thesis on HOW RABBITS KILL FOXES AND WOLVES".

The wolf was incredulous at this so he asked the rabbit to prove that it was actually possible. Again, the rabbit invited the doubter into his borough. Again, the rabbit came back up a few minutes later, without the wolf, and resumed typing.

A man walked by, saw the rabbit hard at work, and asked the bunny what he was doing. The reply came: "I am writing a thesis on HOW RABBITS KILL FOXES, WOLVES AND HUMANS".

The man had a good laugh about it and demanded the rabbit prove to him how it was done. The rabbit said "Come down to my borough and I shall show you."

So down they went into the borough where the rabbit lived.

The man looked around and saw a pile of fox bones in one corner, and a pile of wolf bones in another corner.

He turned around, and saw that there was a big lion behind him smacking its lips.

The Moral of the Story:

It does not matter where you go to school.
It does not matter what the title of your thesis is.
It does not matter who believes you or does not believe you.
The only thing that matters is who your advisor is.
posted by Wet Spot at 9:57 AM on June 13, 2006

As cute as that story is, it's not true.
posted by yellowcandy at 2:07 PM on June 13, 2006

I'm with yellowcandy on that one. Cute, but BS.
posted by handee at 1:34 AM on June 14, 2006

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