An Affirmation of an Ambivalent Decision

Thumbs up or down? (Photo by Yuem Park)
Thumbs up or down?

There are moments in life when we are faced with a major decision. Whom should I ask to be my thesis adviser? Which department should I concentrate in? Should I get queso or guac with my chips? In some of these cases, there is a clearly correct decision for everyone (guac), or a clearly correct decision for you (the Geosciences Department, in my case). But there are also a substantial number of cases in which there isn’t a clearly correct decision, and you are forced to weigh pros and cons for all options. I currently find myself in such a dilemma, trying to decide which graduate school I should attend.

It is of course encouraged that I seek out advice from third parties, and sometimes they say something along the lines of, “I see that you’ve got a tough decision, but you should try to pick what’s right for you.”  But how do you know what’s right for YOU, especially since YOU haven’t actually experienced all the options yet? For me, this involves questions like, “From which adviser will I learn the most?”, or, “In what kind of atmosphere would I be most productive?”, or, “What types of research would I enjoy the most?”

For those of you unfamiliar with post-graduate studies in the sciences, the factors that are most important for choosing a grad school are very different from those for choosing an undergrad institution. Most notably, you essentially dedicate several years of your life working on a very specific research project with your adviser. So factors such as extra-curricular activities, or whether the architecture looks really nice, play a much less significant role. Your future adviser and their research, on the other hand, are integral to the final decision.

There are ways in which you can approximate the experiences that you would have with each of your options. For example, I visited the respective departments to get a feel of the atmosphere, met with many of the faculty and discussed their research to have a peek at what sorts of projects I would be involved with, and chatted with current students about their experiences and what they thought of their time there. I also asked my advisers here at Princeton about their thoughts on the other schools, and learnt what I could from information that was available online.

But as I said earlier, even with all of this information on hand, you can only ever approximate what your experience at these places will be. After all, you are not those students that are currently there, you will be starting at a different time from them, and you haven’t actually worked at those schools on a daily basis.

So how, then, can you know what’s actually right for you? Unfortunately, my answer here is quite pessimistic – I don’t think it’s possible to really KNOW what’s right for you. You can get close using some of the techniques that I mentioned earlier, but there will always be a sizeable shroud of uncertainty.

“Great post Yuem. You didn’t really give me any advice, and now I’m even less confident about the decision I’m about to make.” Unfortunately, it’s true that I don’t have any advice beyond what I mentioned above about gathering as much information from as many sources as you can. But I would like to end this post by affirming your decision:

You only get out what you put in. You will never know what life would have been like for you at those places that you decide not to go to, but you can determine to put in the effort and courage to FORGE a path that suits you, from wherever you currently are! So try not to be weighed down too heavily by the uncertainty of your decision – make your environment work for you.

Yuem Park, Natural Sciences Correspondent