One of the first considerations
was location. For each program, I
asked myself whether I would be
happy living there for 5 to 6 years.
For example, I value the stability
that hobbies bring, and I’ve found
that having an outlet away from
the lab—such as swimming or
community outreach—drives me to
work harder when I’m there. I worried that I might be making a mistake by not exploring scientifically
exciting options in less exciting environments, but I reminded myself
that I could only have a successful
graduate school experience if I was
happy both in the lab and beyond.
As I traveled to seven programs
across six states for a whirlwind
of interviews, I gauged the culture
and environment of each one. It
was only after I met the students and faculty members that
I gained some clarity about which schools would truly be
a good fit. I asked students about their work, and I also
probed other issues. What did they do outside of the lab?
Did they have any regrets about choosing their program?
Above all else, were they happy?
In a few cases, I was greeted by disillusioned students
who answered “What do you like about being in this program?” with a shrug, or mildly hostile faculty members who
seemed irritated that they were required to take the time to
interview a prospective student. A couple of programs in
particular felt riddled with arrogance, leaving me puzzled
that anyone would want to spend 5 or 6 years in such a
negative environment. But there were just as many where
students seemed tired but hopeful and faculty members
asked tough but fair questions. I felt confident that I could
be happy in one of them—but I still didn’t know which one.
Scientifically, the Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program
at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), seemed
to be the best fit for me. I also
believed that the university’s cul-
ture and surrounding environment
would support my outside interests,
and that the city’s vibrant research
scene would offer valuable career
exploration opportunities. But it
lay across the country from most
of my family and friends. I knew
that my family members would be
disappointed, although they would
try to be supportive. When I called
my mom the morning after my
interview to tell her how I had been
blown away by how intelligent and
thoughtful the students and fac-
ulty were, my eyes welled up with
tears at the thought of being so
far away from home and all that
I would miss.
In the difficult days leading up
to my decision, I reached out to my network for advice.
One mentor shared her story of taking a position at an-
other institution, even though she worried that doing so
would disappoint a good friend and colleague. Not only
did her friend understand and support her ambition, but
they continue to be friends to this day. Hearing this story
helped me realize that the people who love and care about
me would understand. And I decided that in the end, the
benefits of choosing UCSD were too great to pass up.
Could I have been happy somewhere else? Yes, absolutely.
Did I make the best choice? I guess I’ll never know. What I do
know is that I’ve avoided the intense burnout I see students
around me experience, which I attribute in part to prioritizing location and quality of life. By taking care of my life outside science, I was able to be my best self in the lab. ■
Samantha H. Jones is a Ph.D. student at the University of
California, San Diego. Do you have an interesting career
story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.
“I needed to weigh factors
outside the lab.”
Choose a program, have a life
As I formally accepted the offer to join my Ph.D. program, the massive weight on my chest began to dissolve, my shoulders relaxed, and my headache subsided. Choosing a program had been quite the roller coaster ride, filled with uncertainty and sleepless nights. “Phew, well that’s finally over,” I said to myself. But just before that moment of relief, I felt a brief but intense wave of panic: Had I made the right choice? More than 4 years later, I think I chose well, and I hope that my difficult decision process offers some tips, and some solace, for others who are
struggling with similar decisions. Looking back, I see that the key was realizing that it wasn’t enough
for a program to meet my research interests; I needed to weigh factors outside the lab as well.
By Samantha H. Jones