How I flipped a coin to decide on my grad school

So you decided to do a PhD, applied to a few schools, and visited schools you got accepted to now. Now comes the hard part of the process: deciding which school you’re going to spend the next 5+ years at. While I cannot provide a checklist or a simple answer, I can talk about my experience when deciding on which school I should go to and a few questions that I answered while making that decision.

The title is obviously clickbait. However, in my case, it was not untrue.

Why are you doing a PhD?

In my first interview during admission period, Matthias Felleisen asked me “Why do you want to do a PhD?” While simple, superficial answers such as “I like learning new things”, “I enjoy research”, or “I want your job” 1 usually suffice in interview settings, they do not help with profound life decisions.

For my decision, answers 1 and 3 pulled me in two different directions. Between my choices, A, B, and C, I felt that going to school A might maximize my chances of getting an academic job while going to B or C would maximize my ability to learn new things.

In the end, answer 1 won out and choose to go to Cornell because I felt it had cool people who enjoy programming languages research.

Are the grad students happy?

This was the primary reason I chose Cornell over other schools. All my choices were good technical fits, but graduate students at Cornell seemed content with what they were doing. Cornell’s free agent system initially turned me off because I was terrified of not finding an advisor. However (as the above linked post mentions), this concern was ill founded and I started working with my current advisor within a week of joining.

On friends

My good friend Sam Ginzburg helped me out a lot with the decision process. Having a peer to talk to about graduate school decisions can be incredibly helpful since they are not invested in recruiting you to a particular school and might provide some objective insights about your own thought processes.

The biggest argument that both my Mom and Sam made that help me make a decision was, “the worst case is that you end up not enjoying and transfer to one of your other choices”

On coins

It is in fact true that I flipped a coin to make a decision about my graduate school. However, it wasn’t the coin flip that convinced me to go to a particular school; it was the fact that I didn’t want to flip the coin again.

On decisions

Finally, I will end with this quote from my undergraduate advisor’s dissertation 2:

During a particularly trying time, Joe observed that “Some decisions in life are so important, like picking a career or a spouse, but you can’t iterate until you make the right decision, so you just have to do it,” and thus inspired me to press on.

Graduate school decisions might seem hard and the processes seem random. Perhaps, a leap of faith is the only right choice we can make.

Have comments? Email or tweet at me.

  1. This is the answer I gave to Emery Berger when he asked me the same question.
  2. Reading the “Acknowledgements” sections in PhD dissertations is a preferred pass time of mine.