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Does it Matter What Grad School You Go To?

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I'm trying to decide between 2 schools for a MSc thesis based program. One is larger, in a much more scenic location, more institutional funding, and has a better global reputation. The other is much smaller. I am doing my masters because I enjoy the topic I'm studying, hoping a masters will help with my application and at the same time, give me training needed to prepare for an alternative career. 

Everyone is telling me to go to the one with a better reputation because they think better reputation = better faculty = more diverse class = better educational training = better job prospects in case med doesn't work out and the location will make my experience more pleasant. Even I agree with these points. Despite everything though, I am STILL leaning towards the smaller school because I think it'll mean a more close-knit and supportive community. More faculty attention means possibly more support to publish (isn't research productivity the main benefits of a masters?), and securing stronger reference letters in the end. 

If my end goal is medicine, what ultimately matters when choosing a grad program? How likely you will publish, and the fit (regardless of reputation)? 

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Having done a master’s degree, I would advise you to go to the place you think you will be the happiest and most productive. A thesis master’s can be a tough couple years, and I think it’s a way more rewarding experience when you have support.

It’s actually hard to anticipate what the support be like just based on the school. Department culture is a much bigger determinant than university-wide culture, and even more so than that is your supervisor and how well you work with them (and potentially with other students in the group/lab). If you’re instincts are telling you that the smaller school seems to have what you want, then it might be the best choice for you. Do the schools host any visits so that you can get more of a feel for each place and grill some current students about their experiences? Do you know yet who your supervisor(s) would be at each school, or would you find one later in the program?

If your end goal is medicine, I would argue that the reputation of your school doesn’t really make much of a difference. Publications can help a med school application, depending on the scoring for the school. But how many publications you can even expect to get out of a master’s varies a lot — in my field, it was generally ~1 for the productive MSc students, and many finished with 0. The maturity and skills that you’ll gain by going through the process of a masters are likely to be just as important, if not much more important.

Could you see yourself doing a PhD later if you decided not to go into medicine? Because if you do think it’s possible that you may wish to pursue research further, you might want to consider that possibility when picking a school as well. (Although my advice would still be go the place you think you’ll be happiest!).

Edited by frenchpress

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On 3/6/2018 at 1:17 AM, frenchpress said:

Having done a master’s degree, I would advise you to go to the place you think you will be the happiest and most productive. A thesis master’s can be a tough couple years, and I think it’s a way more rewarding experience when you have support.

It’s actually hard to anticipate what the support be like just based on the school. Department culture is a much bigger determinant than university-wide culture, and even more so than that is your supervisor and how well you work with them (and potentially with other students in the group/lab). If you’re instincts are telling you that the smaller school seems to have what you want, then it might be the best choice for you. Do the schools host any visits so that you can get more of a feel for each place and grill some current students about their experiences? Do you know yet who your supervisor(s) would be at each school, or would you find one later in the program?

If your end goal is medicine, I would argue that the reputation of your school doesn’t really make much of a difference. Publications can help a med school application, depending on the scoring for the school. But how many publications you can even expect to get out of a master’s varies a lot — in my field, it was generally ~1 for the productive MSc students, and many finished with 0. The maturity and skills that you’ll gain by going through the process of a masters are likely to be just as important, if not much more important.

Could you see yourself doing a PhD later if you decided not to go into medicine? Because if you do think it’s possible that you may wish to pursue research further, you might want to consider that possibility when picking a school as well. (Although my advice would still be go the place you think you’ll be happiest!).

Thank you so much for your response frenchpress. My journey through a non-trad pathway has been full of difficult decisions, so I cannot express how much I appreciate the time you and others take into answering our questions. 

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Frenchpress summed it up pretty well.

A few more specific comments.  It is most important that you end up with a good PI and working group.  I would make that your first priority in deciding.  You need to know who you are working with before deciding on the school. You should talk to current students in the PI's group.  Talk to people from adjacent labs even if you can. Does the PI give Masters students any time ?  Does the PI teach their students anything ?  Is the PI a slave driver ?  What kind of hours does the PI expect.   Is the PI active in the lab or MIA. Is the research the PI's principal job or are they also active clinical medical doctors as example.   Does the lab publish often.  Where does the lab publish.  What would your project tentatively be ?   

It is very difficult to get a 1st author within the 2 year masters window.  Very unlikely you could publish prior to applying for medicine during the middle of 2nd year of the masters so achieving "productivity" for schools such as UofT would be difficult in that time frame unless you have previous runway to work off.   You also should have an early understanding of your expectations from the PI.  Note that many lab-based Masters actually take 2.5 years to complete.

A larger school may give you more choice/variety in optional training than a smaller school.  External things like local seminars and talks in or outside your field are valuable.  You probably want to attend a school that also has a Medicine faculty and maybe you are co-located for your Masters lab. A part of Masters is also networking and building your contacts for the future.  

 

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