Picking between institutions with specific vs general opportunities

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Jun 11, 2018
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Am stuck trying to pick an MSTP to matriculate to this fall, and looking for any advice I can get. I figure others might be facing a similar issue, so here goes:

Basically, I am picking between two USNWR T10 med schools MSTP programs. First and foremost I'm extremely grateful, and know that I can't go wrong either way. The two stack up in an interesting way:

Choice 1: Has one of the most prominent laboratories in my field. The work of this PI, and the other PIs in the center led by him, are more or less the reason I became interested in this field. The idea of joining this community and contributing to this work is very, very attractive to me. I've discussed opportunities with these folks, and its clear that (1) they aren't going anywhere, and (2) there would be a place for me to fit in if I choose to come.

Choice 2: a T3 juggernaut institution. Has no individual opportunity close to the one above, but is absolutely massive and has a sheer tonnage of opportunity not touched by Choice 1. Even if the work available isnt right on target for my current interests, there are definitely many well-funded labs here I'd be happy to join. If my interests were to change, I'm more confident that I would find top labs in a different field here than at Choice 1. For what its worth, although its splitting hairs at this point, there is a "prestige factor" to Choice 2.

(Also, with respect to changing trajectories, note that I have fairly strong dedication to my current direction. I've always been the type to make plans years ahead and execute them. But I am certainly not closed off to exploring other paths.)

I know there are a million other factors (location, curriculum, etc.), but I'm curious what other applicants, current students, and faculty make of the contrast above. That is, between institutions with specific, very special opportunities, and institutions that offer more in a general sense. Also, I'm curious to hear peoples takes on the extent to which marginal differences in institutional prestige for MD/PhD training shape career outcomes in academic medicine. Eventually, I would like to lead a laboratory at an academic medical center.

Sorry if this is difficult to parse, I'm trying (and probably failing) at being deliberately vague as to what the institutions are.

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Oct 19, 2017
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choosing 8 years based on one lab is in general, not the best idea, although can work out in individual cases. what i think is important is whether md-phd program is well run and based on my interview experiences its not always the case among big research places.
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Jan 5, 2002
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While it's usually true that you might not want to pick based labs, the difference between a top 3 and rest of top 10 is very arbitrary. Between top 10 and top 50, maybe there's a case to be made.

Is going to JHU really better than going to UCSF? Is going to Stanford really better than going to Columbia? And Stanford wasn't even top 3 two years ago, and NYU was #1 a year ago. Even if you are talking about Harvard, which has been most consistently #1 in the last decade, the reputation has been deteriorating. Anecdotally HMS grads end up not doing as well because 1) don't want to leave Boston => malignant job competition situation; 2) institutional anti-support (i.e. the infamous "affiliate" program, poor cross-talk between various institutions); 3) phd taking forever, making people less interested in persisting in the academic track. People pick Tri-I over Harvard all the time to work with someone at Rockefeller (as an example), and end up training at MGH or UCSF for residency. These things are really immaterial.

USNWR med school ranking has been pretty unstable. I wouldn't base your decision on that one.

The level of PI also somewhat depends. While it's true that you might not want to pick labs, it's often not a bad idea to pick a school based on a lab of someone in his prime (i.e. someone who just won a Nobel prize in his 50s 3 years ago), if you know what you are getting into (i.e. is this a good place for your personality?)
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Will Walk Rope for Sandwich
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Oct 22, 2013
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Are there several other PIs at choice 1 you could see yourself working with in your field? If you truly are set on continuing on in the same field, and there are more than the single big name PI to work with to advance that goal at choice 1, then purely on research I’d say go with choice 1. Working alongside with or knowing the big names in your discipline is important. Alternatively, you could straight up just tell this big name PI you are an admitted MSTP who wants to work with them and want to know if they plan to stick around the institution/email their current students to ask what they are like as a mentor to make sure it’s a good fit. If they are both T10 I honestly doubt there’s any marginal prestige benefit to speak of, even if choice 2 is HMS. From what I’ve seen MSTP grads at any T10 all match in their top few choices.

If you are not married to your field and want to explore other things and know that the breadth and depth is deeper at choice 2 then I’d probably go with choice 2 if on balance it has more overall resources in a greater variety of potential fields that interest you.

That’s the way I see it from your description. That said, this sounds like it’ll be a tossup on research so I’d probably use different metrics to make my decision. A graduating MSTP at a second look gave me this piece of advice, “go to the place where you can see yourself growing the most over eight years in every sense” which I thought was a good way to frame it. But you probably already know that.

Good luck making your decision!
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Moderator Emeritus
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Jan 30, 2006
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There is no right answer and you have to decide for yourself obviously. That being said, I usually advise to go to the better institution/program with the greatest number of possible faculty. There are many reasons for this, but basically, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket. Here are some reasons:

1. The "one" advisor you want at institution 1:
a. Dies/retires
b. goes on sabbattical or transfers to another institution
c. Loses their funding
d. selects another student or has no room for you that year
e. Is a jerk or hard to work with (this is very important)
f. Mentorship style just doesn't match your learning style.
2. Your research interests change
3. Your field of interest changes
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