The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

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The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

Post by THERAGINGCABOOSE » Sun Oct 02, 2016 8:23 pm

Hello! I am a current senior trying to decide where to go to graduate school. I do not do well in cutthroat environments; that is, I don't like environments where the students are extremely competitive, or where the professors are not very interested in working with students and/or have a hardcore "sink-or-swim" attitude. I am more than willing to put forth the work to get a Ph.D. and am fine with schools that foster healthy competition, but I would not succeed in a school with an extremely competitive atmosphere.

Are there any schools that you know of that stick out as being very cutthroat? Alternatively, are there any schools (preferably near the top, though I would love to hear about any schools) that are known for not being overly cutthroat? I am primarily interested in theoretical physics, but I am also interested in experimental.

Thank you!

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Re: The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

Post by bfollinprm » Mon Oct 03, 2016 12:28 am

This is something that you'll have to get to know a department closely to know exactly. A proxy could be graduation rates and research funding rates. These two are weighted in some manner by a US News and World Report survey, which is used as part of their graduate school rankings. You can filter based exclusively on this either metric (the details of which you'd have to dig to find), which might serve as a first pass of places on the healthier end of graduate community. The list gives, on graduation rates:

Oklahoma State
Carnegie Mellon
William and Mary
Stony Brook
U Penn
Kansas State
University of Central Florida
Case Western
Michigan State
Wake Forest
Western Michigan
Penn State
U Washington

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Re: The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

Post by TakeruK » Mon Oct 03, 2016 6:55 pm

My advice is a little different. I definitely agree that you will have to get to know the department to know.

But, I don't think it's a good idea to try to guess ahead of time whether or not you will be happy/thrive in an environment. A lot of schools with good and bad environments won't have enough data available to develop a reliable proxy. Also, what is "good" for one person can be different from another.

It's fine to talk to other people about their experiences at a school, but I would be careful to find out things like when did they have their good/bad experience. Since grad students change very often, the environment can change in just a few years. And again, everyone will experience things differently based on who they are and what they value.

So, my advice would be to *not* consider this when it comes to choosing schools to apply to, unless something recently happened that is a giant red flag for you. I would wait until the schools make their decisions and then use the school visits to get first hand experience on what the environment is like. You will be able to learn a lot more from interacting with students and seeing it for yourself.

The reason for this advice is that while proxies like bfollinprm suggested are fairly good, I think it's easy to accidentally use them to take a school off your list when the environment might be good for you. I think the cost of applying to a school, getting accepted, and then visiting and learning that the place is terrible for you is much lower than the cost of not applying somewhere based on wrong, outdated, or incomplete information.

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Re: The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

Post by paulharrylemon » Sun Oct 09, 2016 12:29 pm

I would not base where you apply on perceived cutthroatness. One, it is often incorrect. And two, you'll get a chance to visit the program for free if you are admitted and can make a much more accurate determination of the culture at that time. I am at MIT for my PhD, the school I thought would be the absolute worst in terms of cutthroatness. In fact, I have found the program to be the exact opposite. All of the incoming students are extremely inclusive and collaboration is huge here. Also, I feel that there is much less competition in PhDs than in undergrad because people are focusing on very small subfields, so it is difficult for an experimental condensed matter student to compete against a string theorist. Lastly, a great deal of the pressure you will feel in grad school will stem from your adviser and the group culture, which varies wildly within programs. So I would say when the time arrives, focus more on the culture of the group you are joining than worrying about the cutthroatness of the school/program.

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Re: The Most/Least Cutthroat Schools

Post by quizivex » Mon Oct 10, 2016 5:17 am

I agree with the previous poster. Graduate student experiences at a given school vary wildly by department (and even by advisor). I loved the atmosphere at Princeton overall and had a great experience in the plasma physics program. During my six years there I met countless students in other departments. Many of them also had a great experience but others had a lukewarm or miserable time due to departmental characteristics and/or their advisors. So when you take into consideration what other people say about a school, try to distinguish between school-wide issues and departmental issues (of course if you'd be joining the same department it does matter).

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