Decisions and Doctoral Programs

April 15th looms in the distance, an ominous number on my calendars, both electronic and paper. It is a constant presence, in emails, texts, Skype conversations, and phone calls. It is ever approaching at a steady pace, and this time I cannot run away from it.  Besides being the deadline for filing my taxes, April 15th is the date set by the Council of Graduate Schools before which no member university can compel a student to accept an offer of admission or financial support. Essentially, it’s the National Signing Day of graduate schools. It is the date by which I have to make a decision on what doctoral program I will enter.

I applied to eight schools, which seemed like a relatively good idea at the time. But now, I realize that having so many wonderful options can be paralyzing, and time consuming. I’ve been blessed to be invited to visit all of the schools I applied to, so lately I’ve been spending lots of time in airports and on planes, racking up the frequent flyer points. From an 11 hour flight direct from Heathrow to San Francisco, to a long talk in a tiny prop plane with a material physicist, to sleeping in O’Hare, my travels this time around have provided plenty of interesting stories and conversations.

Besides getting to see the school campuses and lab facilities in person, these conversations have been the most rewarding aspect of my exhausting travels. At visit weekends, you get to meet not only current graduate students at that university, but also fellow prospective students. Talking with the current students has been especially enlightening as I compare how doctoral programs function on different sides of the ocean. To contrast with my current situation, I have classmates who are currently going through the application process for PhDs at Queens. While my US applications are departmental specific, here they apply for specific research slots, often industry sponsored – the source of funding is assured before you enter the program. In the US, funding is usually assured as well, but the source is often vague.

In the UK and Europe, PhDs usually only take 3 years and do not have nearly as large of a taught component as American programs do – you start research immediately, taking very few classes and often getting away with never being a TA! Since I am facing anywhere between 4 to 6 years more of grad school, I must say that the prospect of getting out in 3 years is appealing. However, this means fewer chances to publish papers other than your thesis, a disadvantage if the academic track is your goal, as it is mine. The different structure of doctoral programs is just another contrast between the academic systems of the US and the UK.

I have plenty of time to think these days, as one can only do so much homework on the tiny tray table in a Boeing 757 (people like to stare when you pull out a nuclear engineering textbook apparently). I’ve been using this time to reflect on my time spent so far this year, and the more professors I talk to, the more I realize how valuable this year is now and will be in the future. As my ultimate goal is to enter academia, knowing how different educational systems work will be invaluable for global research collaboration. Plus, I’ll be able to take the positive aspects of my time here, and bring it into my future lecture hall. I’ve heard so many times in my conversations at visit weekends how much people want to travel abroad, but that engineering undergrad programs tend to be inflexible to allow such opportunities – something I would want to address when I end up in a faculty position.

But to get to that spot, I’ll need to make a decision. Well, actually multiple decisions – where to go, what to research, who to work for, etc. Well, the IRS gives extensions for expats, can I get one for this graduate school deadline?

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