Say you decided to go for grad school and got into multiple schools (congrats!). Now you’re wondering which to choose. Remember that while the reputation of the university, program, and PhD advisor are important, it’s best to think about how your life will be for the next x years. Consider the following:
Masters vs. PhD
I’ll be frank here. If you want to lead your own scientific research, especially biomedical, in a university, private sector, non-profit, or startup company, get a PhD. Masters in rapidly-developing fields like biology, neuroscience, or Biomedical Engineering (BME) rarely confer great benefits (unlike traditional fields like Civil Engineering). You can get a benchmark of desired degree by look at the degrees of the people who have careers you’re considering, and I can only speak from my experiences in BME, Immunobiology, and Systems Biology. In most of these Masters programs, you don’t have the time or environment to develop true research skills, and Masters students often don’t get the same attention from faculty members as PhD students (since they won’t be there long and are thus not a long-term investment). Also, Masters tend to be expensive and can be regarded by universities as fundraisers, since supporting PhD students costs the university money. And again, some tough love: bio-based Masters are not well respected.
I believe that if you are equivocating between a Masters and PhD, go for the PhD, and if you get burned out or an exciting opportunity comes along, you can leave with a free Masters (not recommended, but it happens). Of course, there are exceptions; if you’re on a career trajectory that recommends a Masters to advance within your space, or if you want to learn just enough about the field to be dangerous, then get that degree (especially if your employer pays for it)!
OK, so now you’re thinking about the PhD; let me share with you decision criteria that I wish I’d known:
Choosing a PhD Program
Research-based PhD’s are lengthy, independent, and introspective experiences. Many PhD students, especially those who are used to succeeding, get discouraged by the difficulty of conducting novel research. Therefore, to optimally buffer against lab failures, it’s useful to design your life outside of lab for maximal enjoyment.
I recommend considering the following factors when choosing a PhD program:
1. Location. If you hate the winter, going to school in Maine is going to be especially difficult. Remember, the place you choose to complete your PhD is also the place that you will be residing.
2. Multiplicity of faculty members that you could see yourself working with. The most strongly deterministic factor of your success and sanity (and even happiness; I don’t mean to be so pessimistic) in grad school is your PhD advisor. While you may identify the perfect PhD advisor based on his or her research, it’s impossible to ascertain the lab culture and advisor’s mentorship style until you’ve spent some time in the lab. It’s not uncommon for people to discover that they are incompatible with the PhD advisor who looked so good online, and it’s best to switch into a suitable lab as early as possible. I would strongly recommend that you choose a school in which there are at least 2, hopefully 3, faculty members that you could see yourself thriving in their labs.
3. Lab and Department culture. Most PhD programs offer revisit sessions for accepted students, and it’s to your advantage to take advantage of these visits. Don’t be afraid to go right into the labs that you’re considering and talking candidly with grad students and postdocs. That’s where you’ll get the real information about how the lab operates. Also ask where people go after their tenure in the lab. Do people in this department go on to academia, industry, totally leave the sciences, pursue business careers, etc? Do the career paths that alumni of your potential PhD program excite you?
4. University and community. Not only will having diverse and bustling communities be helpful for your enjoyment (and that of anyone you may bring along with you to grad school), but also can provide invaluable networking opportunities. Choosing a school with strong and well-connected alumni networks can only help you.
5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to anyone you think may be helpful in your decision. You are going to spend the next 4 – 8 years of your life pursing your PhD, which can be incredibly rewarding when you know the lay of the land.
6. Follow your gut. If somewhere just doesn’t feel right, honor that feeling. If somewhere seems right (even if it’s not the best choice on paper), go for it. It’s better to succeed marvelously in a middle-of-the -road program than fail in a top-ranked program.