Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Staying Put or Switching Camps?

Staying at your undergraduate institution for graduate school or choosing another is a decision not to be made on a whim

By the editors of gecc

If you're thinking about graduate school, choosing the right program is a key concern. Should you opt for the familiar territory of your own undergraduate school or start fresh at a new institution? You may have been told you simply must change schools if you really want to succeed. In fact, some departments don't accept their own students into their graduate programs. But perhaps this is not the correct view in today's complex world. There may be compelling reasons why staying at the same school might be the best decision you could make.

In 1984, David W. Pershing, a Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Utah, convinced JoAnn Lighty, a former U of U student, to leave her successful career as a project engineer for a major national company to return to graduate school. Lighty had received her bachelor's degree from the University of Utah and worked in Pershing's laboratory as an undergraduate. Following are some issues Lighty considered when she made the decision to return to her alma mater.

BECOMING WELL-ROUNDED

Staying at the same institution means having some of the same professors for some of the same subjects you studied as an undergraduate. Clearly this limits your educational experience and your exposure to certain subject matter. However, graduate courses are not merely a repeat of undergraduate material and the same faculty member may use completely different teaching styles at the graduate level. Furthermore, most doctoral institutions are large enough that you're bound to encounter faculty with whom you haven't previously studied. To be sure you're getting the big picture, it's important that the faculty member you're working with be up to date on what is happening globally and actively researching in the field of study.

SELECTING AN ADVISOR AND AREA OF STUDY

No matter where you go, choosing an advisor you can work with and a relevant technical field of study should be the most important factors in making your decision. You'll be working with your advisor on the chosen subject for four or more years. If you're miserable, that time can be an eternity and you may get too discouraged to finish your degree. If you stay at your undergraduate institution, you're far less likely to choose a poor advisor because you already will know (and may even have worked with) the professor. You can easily meet the current graduate students and find out what the advisor's really like. In addition, you're more likely to understand the real, worthwhile research opportunities in the department.

Lighty had worked in Pershing's laboratory since she was a sophomore. She knew what he would be like as an advisor and understood the research focus of the laboratory. In fact, her prior experience in the laboratory paid off because it helped her complete her Ph.D. in a timely manner. Since she was already familiar with the experimental equipment and instrumentation, she didn't have to spend time learning the essential information. From the professor's perspective, Pershing knew Lighty was an outstanding student and was willing and eager to structure a financially attractive offer.

THE CHANGING FACE OF ACADEMIA

Thirty years ago most graduating engineers and computer science students were 22-year-old single men. Today's graduates are often dual career couples, single mothers or parents with several small children. As a result, they're much more likely to want to stay in a specific geographic location. Lighty's husband was in graduate school at the University of Utah completing a doctoral degree in psychology. Moving away was not a choice she could easily make. In fact, she might not have gone to graduate school at all if she couldn't have gone to the University of Utah. If your choice comes down to choosing your undergraduate school or not going to graduate school at all-go back!

"BUT THE FACULTY ALREADY KNOW ME!"

That's right, but this can be an advantage. If you were a good student, the faculty will want to see you succeed. After all, many faculty will go out of their way to direct and mentor "one of their own." In addition, knowing your way around the institution and the community is a big initial advantage. You'll know which courses are likely to be the best, where you want to live and have the support structure of family and friends. Most important, you'll be able to rapidly select a major professor and research topic.

THE REWARDS

The issue of where you get your advanced degree may not be as critical if your sights are set on a career in industry. Companies looking for Ph.D. engineers and computer scientists are more interested in technical expertise than academic pedigrees. But even in academia, being a "homegrown candidate" can lead to a successful career. After completing her Ph.D. in 1988 at the University of Utah, Lighty turned down other opportunities to accept a faculty position there.

In 1990 Professor Lighty won the prestigious NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award. She is now a tenured Associate Professor and was recently promoted to Associate Dean for Academic Affairs with responsibility for the academic programs in seven departments and almost 3,000 undergraduate and graduate students. She has continued her research in the area of waste remediation she developed as a graduate student and has secured more than $5 million in research funding as Principle Investigator. In addition, she collaborates with Pershing on many large projects including a new $20 million grant from the Department of Energy.

The choices Lighty made were clearly the right ones for her and her experiences are similar to colleagues at other institutions. But the decision to stay at your undergraduate school for further study is complicated. Consider all of the issues and make the best choice for you.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice

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