Guest Blog Post: The lucky prospective’s dilemma: Every grad school is good! by Gigi Lin

UT austin clock tower

I met Gigi last year, when she visited Stanford as a prospective student during visiting weekend. Gigi chose Stanford among the many schools she had gotten admitted to. And she shares her perspective (and dilemma) of choosing the right graduate school. 

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People choose graduate studies for different reasons. For some, it is the prerequisite stepping stone to a professorial career or to becoming a senior research fellow. Others are drawn to the scientific frontier, nature’s own Sirens. It is enough to make them jump aboard into a rocky 5+ year voyage. I want to complete a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering, because graduate school offers a spectrum of opportunities. Not only do I find scientific research rewarding, but a Ph.D offers me a greater role in choosing what sort of research I can do—the content and direction.

We agree that many social and scientific problems exist in our world. It seems to me that an advanced science degree would alleviate some of the friction that I’d encounter in choosing which problems I want to work on (like catalysis for sustainable energy or food production). If I were to enter technical consulting or create my own company, a graduate degree in engineering would merit more trust in my abilities to provide sound solutions. Don’t get me wrong—I love (inorganic) chemistry! I also appreciate my transport, kinetics, and thermodynamic fundamentals when I observe them in my daily life. But I see graduate school as a means for honing critical-thinking abilities and developing other skills that I’d like by the end of graduate studies.

Of the seven schools that I’d applied to as a prospective Ph.D graduate student, most were in the top ten for chemical engineering research, and luckily, most of them accepted me. This meant that regardless of which school I eventually attended, I was guaranteed a reputable program with technically competent students and distinguished researchers. Given that the schools were on an even playing field, my choice of a program boiled down to my personal fit with the program and campus. Many people that I’d talked to during my graduate school visits agreed with this philosophy. In fact, many felt an instinctive “rightness” about the place and committed. Take my boyfriend for instance (Sorry ;- ) !). He and I thought that he’d choose MIT or STANFORD, but he made a startling U and chose Caltech, which had been the innocuous contender.

I found much to like at each of the schools that I’d visited—UT Austin, Princeton, Stanford, UCSB. Austin was exhilarating! Exciting projects in battery and catalysis research were everywhere, like an explosion of wildflowers in early spring, yet mellowed by the touch of honest Southern hospitality. Princeton was dear with its small community, its refinement, and its history of intellectual rigor across all departments. I felt very posh and calm while there and could see why Albert Einstein had happily chosen the “liberal atmosphere of Princeton.” The Chemical Engineering Dept. of UCSB offered not only a gorgeous beachfront view but also down-to-earth professors with whom I struck a personal connection with through comical conversations. Everyone, everywhere, was very friendly. So why did I choose Stanford?

I still can’t present the answer as a neatly wrapped package. The bow hasn’t been tied yet. I can only say that it probably was the overall pleasant feeling that I had about Stanford, especially regarding the people. Everyone, most notably the students, radiated vibrancy. Not just raw energy, for Texas had plenty of that. No, what I really liked about Stanford was that I felt directed energy. People were full of purpose and channeled passion into their research and extracurricular activities. In five years, I want to see myself excited about my role in the scientific and larger community. During visit weekend, I felt that the people I met were most grounded. Not only were they competent researchers, but they were confident, proactive in many areas, and the most responsible and engaging group of host students that I’d met during my visits. I could see myself as one of them and as a Stanford Ph.D graduate who would be prepared for anything. Entrepreneurship? The start-up culture thrives in the Silicon Valley, with many veteran mentors located around Stanford. Community engagement? Visit weekend demonstrated to me that many of the graduate students lent their technical knowledge to developing solutions for communities in need, such as countries with potable water concerns. Personal health and work-life balance? I met people at Stanford who biked, swam, and participated in marathons and triathalons! One could say that they push through mental and physical sorts of tour de force! Stanford had the academic caliber, the industry connections, and the people who shared my values. It had the best combination of everything I wanted. It is also close to my family home, but that could be interpreted as both a boon and a bane.

I will not know whether I made the right decision to choose Stanford until I wet my feet in graduate school, but I have a good feeling… Here’s to optimism! I’d also like to thank Saad for his good humor and advice throughout my visit to Stanford. He said to me something along the lines of, “It’s like a relationship… You decide what you can compromise on in a graduate school and run from there.”

 

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