19 March 2009

Grad school visit

I don't blog when I'm too overwhelmed with work, and I don't blog when I'm recovering from being overwhelmed with work.... when will I just blog?

Now that the griping is out of the way, onto the real topic for this post: my recent graduate school recruiting visit. This visit was to Decent U, further away from home than might be ideal, with an exceptionally charismatic PI with whom I really clicked. The visit was literally wining and dining: every meal for three full days was eaten out, catered, or (get this!) cooked by a faculty member. I was pretty blown away by the level of effort put into that visit, and if any of the next visits are like that, I'm going to need to really step up my exercise regime!

There were some highlights. One evening, the prospective students and faculty went to a very chichi restaurant---the kind that describes the wines as having "fruity and floral notes." Way out of my normal restaurant class. The faculty were pretty easy going, and there were lots of laughs all around (particularly at the expense of one faculty member, but that professor seemed to really hold his own in the group). I've never had that kind of interaction with such a large group of professors, and it was wonderful! After the dinner, I did stop to wonder if maybe I'd been too relaxed and too social; after all, I was still on an interview of sorts, and they were probably still judging me. I expressed my concerns to another prospective student, who'd had the same thought. There was nothing to be done, but I was extra polite to everyone for the rest of the visit.

Another highlight, on the opposite end of the relaxation spectrum, was the one-on-one meetings with professors. I wasn't interviewing, per se, but again, the feeling of being judged did make the four hours very draining. By my last conversation, I breezed into the professor's office, plopped down in a comfortable chair, and exclaimed "You're my last meeting!" He seemed amused, so I hope my presumptuousness (borne of exhaustion) was not taken the wrong way.

I was told when I applied to PhD programs that graduate students will always tell you the truth. (Actually, I was told that by everyone but the one person I trust most in this process, who said that graduate students will tell you the truth within limits, but to never forget that they're advocating for their PI and their lab.) The grad students I met during this visit were absolutely fantastic in hosting us. They showed us all around town, ferried us from place to place, and were always open to conversation and questions. Most importantly, they were happy. I can't imagine going to a grad program where I'm competing against my lab mates for papers. These students clearly cheered each other on and felt like another student's win was a win for themselves, too. It was so wonderful to see such a warm, intelligent, supportive (but hardcore!) grad community.

So, after all these positive descriptions, why wouldn't I cancel all my other visits and overnight my enrollment forms? Unfortunately, the research doesn't fit, and that kills everything. The work they're doing in the lab I would join utilizes aspect Y of my multidisciplinary background, but I'd really like to focus and hone aspect X. In fact, I would be the expert on aspect X in the lab. That sounds very flattering, but I'm really looking for peers in X that can help drive me to improve my skills. Y is very interesting, but I see it as more tangential than central, and I don't want to be defined by it for the next 5 years (and, let's face it, until I get tenure and can change my research area). Despite the Major Research Flaw, the atmosphere at this school was so good that I'm still not crossing it off my list. (That's right, I have a list. It's hanging in my office. I do literally cross schools off of it.)

This coming week, I have three more grad school visits. I'm traveling a total of 7,700 miles in 7 days. I really need to get my frequent flier miles in order! I will report back during or after this week with impressions of the very different institutions I'm visiting, but in the end, I expect it to be a difficult decision.

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