Thursday, April 11, 2013

On Choosing Between Good Schools

I have been talking to many people recently about choosing schools, both for undergraduate and graduate education. Here is a compilation and elaboration of what I have been saying. It is important to read the last point so you can appropriately discount this advice!

Note that this advice is for the last stages of the decision process. For some more substantive advice about doing the research to get to this point you may want to read my blog posts on school visits and choosing schools/advisors.
  • Don't assign yourself too much responsibility for deciding your life outcome. Do your research and all about what's good and bad and what's a good fit, but remember that there are many things out of your control. For undergrads: you might find that you are interested in completely different fields from what you expected. For grads: your advisor might transfer; you might transfer; you might decide to do research in an entirely different area; you might decide to drop out. It's good to plan but always remember that if you over-optimize for your current life plan while screwing yourself over with respect to all other possible futures, you're probably doing yourself a disservice.
  • Look at what people are showing rather than telling. It's easy to become convinced by schools telling you how great they are, especially according to metrics they have designed to make themselves look good. In addition, professors can be really awesome, but how great someone is on paper or during a short interaction is not necessarily indicative of how your life will be like working with them. Look at the senior students in a program and ask yourself and them whether they represent what you want. What resources have they had access to? What are they going to do with their lives? Are they happy? Are you impressed with how smart they seem? Are you impressed with the work they've done? Are you impressed with the people they have become? Ask about past students to help with extrapolation.
  • Go with what you're in love with. We are governed by our emotional selves. In some cases you will have a gut reaction. You should pay attention to that gut reaction. If you really want to be somewhere, even if can't put your finger on why, you will be fine doing more work (for instance, having a lower standard of living or taking on a heavier courseload) to make that happen. If you only like something on paper but can't become emotionally invested, it's going to be hard work.
  • If you're not in love with anything, then the choices probably aren't that different. If you've done the research and there are a bunch of choices that are the same to you, flip a coin (or roll an n-sided die). Yes, your future will be different based on the choice you make but in most cases there are multiple parallel universes in which you develop into different versions of yourself but are happy. At this point you're not going to screw up your life with any of the choices. It's about making a choice in such a way that you won't keep wondering what would have happened had you made another choice.
  • Nobody (reasonable) will hate you for not choosing them. This doesn't matter at all for undergrad, as you might expect, since nobody is really keeping track. As for grad school, I still keep in touch with many of the professors at schools where I didn't go: I am friends with many of them on Facebook and we say hi at conferences. I found my current advisor because I had talked to his advisor at Berkeley and ultimately decided not to go there because I liked the cultural fit of MIT better. (It helped that I communicated that I had decided go elsewhere for reasons of cultural fit rather than research fit.)
  • Beware of advice. A professor once told me once that during her assistant professorship she stopped taking advice because it was all "highlights and wishful thinking." People tell you a lot of things but you have to remember that our world views and value systems are different from yours. And before you know what you want it's useful to ask people what they would do, but remember it comes with the context of what they wish they had been told.
The important thing to remember is to have fun. Nothing is so important and life is all about what you make of it anyway.