Tuesday, January 29, 2013

B.S. and Ph.D. at the same institution?

A reader writes in:
I'm curious if you've ever polled your readers/run a piece on the "disadvantages" of getting your graduate and undergraduate degree from the same research institution (from a top 10 program, in particular). 
...based on life circumstances ([redacted], not wanting to be out of school for too long before going back, etc.), I'm looking at getting a PhD from the same place I got my BS. I've had a few years of research experience in another lab (same institution, though), and I'd be shifting fields somewhat from my undergraduate research focus. 
Any thoughts from you or the readers regarding getting academic and/or industrial positions? Is it as simple as explaining the circumstances to a potential employer?
That's a good question -- I don't quite know the right answer, but I suspect that if it works for you (i.e. you find a good group, that you did well during your graduate work), it does not pose a problem.

I suspect that some (most?) academic institutions might give pause to a tenure-track candidate that worked in the same group for B.S. and Ph.D., but that's rare enough that I doubt there's a good data set to base a judgment on. (I believe it's discouraged.) I don't think that most industrial employers would care, but again, they'd be looking at the quality of your work first. Being able to explain the circumstances would probably be good enough.

I would also ask myself: do I have to get a Ph.D.? Is that the degree that aligns with my long-term goals, career and otherwise? Readers, what say you?

27 comments:

  1. Getting a PhD from the same institution gives you a pretty big leg up on deciding which lab to work for. In most cases you'll know at least one person who works there, and may have taken classes taught by the prof.

    The institution/professor should be relatively prestigious, though it doesn't have to be Harvard/Baran.

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  2. I don't see BS/PhD from the same place as a big problem - if you did BS/MS/PhD in the same group you may not have had the same breadth of experience as if you went and did something in another group though.

    But PhD/Post-doc from the same group / department sets off alarm bells in my head. I've seen that in person and in CV's, and it doesn't reflect well.

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  3. I can think of two proffessors of the top of my head, Scott Miller at Yale, and Elizabeth Sattely at stanford.

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  4. Many schools follow a policy of "Don't eat your own young," or at least they try to. I spent 3 years as Director of Graduate Studies and I actively discouraged our undergrads from staying. Of course, there may be very special circumstances (e.g., a special-needs family member) that keep one geographically constrained, and we certainly did not discriminate against people who opted to ignore my best advice, irrespective of their rationale ('the code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules'), but in general it is to your advantage to go elsewhere for your next degree.

    Why, you ask? Because every department is a bit like a nation state -- they have their own cultures, their own specialties. Let me be North-Americacentric for a moment: If you had a chance to visit Europe two summers during college, one country each summer, would you go back to the same country for the second summer, or would you explore a new one? In the absence of a really compelling reason, wouldn't you want to expand your horizons?

    Same goes for postdoc after Ph.D. -- bias towards gaining new skills and new perspectives in the absence of strong reasons otherwise. Note the tangible side benefit that you're going to start collecting people who will write you letters of recommendation who do not all have the same letterhead. Note the tangible benefits of getting to make a "fresh start" in each new place, with no preconceptions of new colleagues based on your activities of possibly years ago. Etc., etc.

    Now, of course at a huge institution, you can argue that two different groups can be enormously different, too, but nevertheless there does tend to be a significant cultural value associated with exposing oneself to as many situations as possible during those years when you actually get to focus your time on learning/training, and I, for one, am a strong advocate of doing so.

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    1. How interesting that you discourage undergraduates from remaining at your institution! At my university in the UK (and I think many others over here), undergraduates are actively persuaded to remain on for their PhDs. The PhD mix, therefore, is about half-half UK v Overseas, but only a small slither of the UK students did their batchelors/masters elsewhere.

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    2. Yes, I spent a sabbatical year in Barcelona. The rule in Spain seems to be, you go to a University VERY close to home, you do every degree there, and if you want a faculty position, you try hard to end up there. There is definitely a cultural difference between US and European institutions (I have less insight into UK culture, but you've summarized your own nicely, of course). We could debate the merits of the two approaches, but I'm not trying to establish hegemony or anything!

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    3. I heard this same advice when I was looking at grad schools and followed it. My undergrad institution doesn't even consider their own graduates for their grad programs as far as I know. However, my graduate institution did bring on their own undergrads and I don't recall seeing them have any more/less trouble finding employment than other people who came from other schools.

      I agree that PhD/postdoc at the some institute is worse, and in nearly every case I've seen someone do this it is related to their spouse being geographically constrained to that area. It's unfortunate that devotion to one's spouse can sometimes negatively affect your career.

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    4. Yes, Europe tends to go in for the domestic route, certainly up to undergraduate degree level. I think many other countries internationally may follow similar models. In the UK, students tend to move away from home to go to University, although obviously the distance back home may be much smaller than in the US.

      I'm afraid I'm one of those terrible, institutionalised people- UG, PhD, 2 x post-docs (albeit in different departments) and now working in a professional/managerial job all in one place. To be honest, I did apply for jobs elsewhere but rarely saw one's I was interested in and the best option, and most likely of success in a difficult job market, tended to be the local one.

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    5. CoulombicExplosionJanuary 29, 2013 at 7:42 PM

      This UK/European culture sounds similar (according to my understanding) to the "old-school" (circa WWII-era and earlier) culture in the US. Exceptional undergraduates were invited by the faculty to pursue graduate studies at the same institution. I'm not sure what inspired the change in the US. Perhaps the growth in the number of departments/colleges/universities post-WWII factored into this?

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  5. I don't think there's any problem (from a "getting shortlisted" perspective) in having your BS and PhD from the same institution. However, PhD and post-doc is another story, and I'd strongly recommend switching at that point. That said, you can learn a lot from experiencing new scientific communities and getting a new group of folks to network and collaborate with, so if another top program is feasible, it's at least worth applying.

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    1. I do agree with Dr. Becca that the same institution for postdoc/Ph.D. raises far more eyebrows than Ph.D./B.S., notwithstanding that I still think an individual is best served by a change in both instances. (Mind you, the former has become increasingly common as so many grad students become two-body opportunities having different graduation dates -- indeed, for a search committee it's become something of a flag -- if you stayed in the same city for your postdoc, we figure there's a good chance that you've got a significant other in the field (we don't hold that against you at Minnesota! -- indeed, we sometimes see that as working in our favor since as a Big-10 R1 we can typically afford to make joint offers if we love you both, while competitors may not be able to come up with those resources...))

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  6. I had a friend who really benefited from staying at the same institution.
    He hit the ground running in his PhD, and built off a lot of good work in his undergraduate research. His time to degree was much shorter than the average in the lab, and he benefited by getting a couple papers out early in his career which seemed to open up some opportunities for fellowships etc.
    Personally I would go with the new experiences from a new institution, but staying can have some advantages.

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  7. This is a little like worrying about how best to invest your lottery winnings before the numbers are even drawn. Go to the place where you will have the best lifestyle and enjoy getting your degree the most. Don't buy into the idea of living a crappy life for 6 or so years with the promise of a payoff on the other end. It most likely isn't going to happen. I know plenty of grads from top, world-renowned groups that can't make it work in industry or academia. Get the Ph.D. because you want to get the education, not because you want a good job. Otherwise, you are likely to be disappointed.

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  8. I think the comments posted thus far touch on some important points. From an academic perspective, staying at the same institution tends to be discouraged for several reasons, one of which is the perceived breadth of experience (not just chemical knowledge and skills, but cultural as well) one obtains by going to a new university/group. If you are planning on pursuing an academic career, in may not be looked on favorably, but it probably won't make the difference between being shortlisted or not. (In contrast, as several comments have suggested correctly that a PhD and postdoc at the same institution raises red flags.)
    I did my Bsc and PhD at the same university and am now a faculty member at a small-to-medium sized university. Would it have worked out differently had I gone elsewhere? Who knows?
    I do think we are overlooking Chemjobber's final point: Do you need to get a PhD? Does it align with your long term goals? These are important questions. In an ideal world, I would like to be able to say that pursuing a PhD should be for those who have the passion and skills for scientific research and the pursuit of knowledge. However, we have to be pragmatic and consider our future career paths.

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  9. It's amazing this blog is stil here. I suppose there's some appeal to all the unemployed chemists lingering at one site. You guys seem to enjoy being preyed upon.

    The guberment is about to allow in an UNLIMITED number fo foreigners "take your jobs". The cap on h1-bs will be tripled and every foreign college grad in the STEMs will get a green card.

    Seantor Marc Rubio from Florida says: "I for one have no fear that our country is going to be overrun by PhDs. I for one have no fear that this country is going to be overrun by nuclear physicists and inventors and entrepreneurs," Rubio said in introducing the bill.


    Jan 29, 2012 Reuters - "In parallel immigration push, bill focuses on high-skilled workers"

    http://tinyurl.com/bj4l7lo

    The above article is a hoot. So how about a petition to Mr. Rubio?

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  10. I think you should blow off the PhD and do something else that is more marketable.

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  11. It's one thing to give advice to those on their way up, but move a bit higher to the young PIs - you have to stop clutching at your graduate students and twisting their arms into staying for a postdoc. They aren't your technicians and they aren't your lab managers. It's your job to encourage them to seek a broader set of experiences. I think a great deal less of people I see doing this.

    And it's a bad habit to break - I know a postdoc who is one of the few to 'escape' from the lab of a prominent West Coast researcher - you can't get your PhD without promising to stay for a postdoc, apparently.

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  12. In Japan, it's very common to get all three degrees at the same university, especially at the more prestigious universities such as Kyoto University or Tokyo University. I have my BS and MSc from the same uni because it was convenient to do so and I liked the projects I was working on, however, I'm going elsewhere for my PhD.

    I have been told that it's okay to get all three degrees from the same uni in the US or Europe if the institution is prestigious. I have no idea if that's true or not, but I've heard it several times.

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  13. CoulombicExplosionJanuary 29, 2013 at 7:35 PM

    The best general advice is to change the scenery. Personally, I don't think that one's educational development would be severely hindered by staying at the same institution (to borrow Prof. Harting's Twitter response) if you are already at a top ten program (though I might even open it to include top 20). But to Prof. Cramer's point, your skills and letter-writers (aka network) are likely to improve by the diversity of a move. There are exceptions, of course. My grad department had professors in organic and inorganic that were PhD/postdoc inbreds at Harvard and MIT, respectively.

    In any case, I would expect the institutional redundancy on the CV to beg questions as to why the individual didn't spread their wings a little - so be prepared to be asked about it in the future. That being said, I think any interviewer that isn't satisfied by an answer involving personal circumstances probably isn't someone you want to work for anyway.

    And ultimately, to Prof. Maly's point, all of this advice may not apply to this particular reader depending on his/her aspirations. A colleague in my old group earned his BS in chemistry, left to work at a nearby government lab, and then returned to enroll in the graduate program. He's progressing toward his PhD (on the government lab's dime) and will resume a position at that lab upon completion.

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    1. 1. When I went looking for my PhD-granting institution, I asked a professor whose opinion I valued highly about where to go. He said "Do you like it here?" I answered "Yes," as which point he said "Well, go to [School X, 7 states away], because it's just like here, but with a change of scenery." I did exactly that, and was pretty satisfied.

      2. The entire discussion sounds like another Feynman moment. When about to complete undergrad, Feynman goes to speak with Prof. Slater about an MIT graduate appointment. This exchange follows:

      Slater: "We won't let you in here."
      Feynman: "What?"
      Slater: "Why do you think you should go to grad school at MIT?"
      Feynman: "Because MIT is the best school for science in the country"
      Slater: "You think that?"
      Feynman: "Yeah"
      Slater: "That's why you should go to some other school. You should find out how the rest of the world is"

      (Feynman ended up at Princeton)

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  14. I have a friend that did one of the few "acceptable" post-doc at (nominally) the same institution. He had arranged a post-doc with prestigious Prof Y in his 3rd year of graduate school. During his 4th year of graduate school, his PhD mentor moved institutions to the same institution as Prof Y. Consequently, after finishing his degree (granted from his prior institution), he moved floors in the building to work on his post-doc.

    Less drama/hassle in the move from PhD to PostDoc, but I think he always felt that it would have been way less disruptive if he hadn't moved mid-PhD. It never seemed to have hurt him during interviews, but I opine that he wasn't viewed as someone that failed to change institutions.

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  15. In a hiring scenario, the main question that this scenario begs is how well can a person who has spent a decade (or more) in the same geographical, social, and scientific environment adapt to a new work environment?

    Obviously, being able to adapt to new job specifics is important, but there are other more subtle factors: whether a candidate will have issues with irregular time and geographical demands (ie: travel for work), or whether a candidate has had adequate exposure to different cultures (ie: for dealing with foreign clients).

    These things might or might be important depending on the career/position, and your actual scientific achievements will always take the forefront. That being said, you will likely be competing against others with comparable achievements to yours, and the last thing you want your potential employer to wonder is whether someone who has only had a single set of co-workers/supervisors for the past 10 years is going to fit in with a new set of co-workers/supervisors.

    Ultimately, I don't think doing BS & PhD at the same institution will be a ball and chain to you, but you might find it makes for a glass ceiling.

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  16. I think the B.S./Ph.D. at the same institution isn't necessarily a black-and-white answer but more gray that depends on the individual institution, field of research, location, etc. I'll agree with CoulombicExplosion that staying at the same school if it's a Top10 or so probably doesn't matter. While I went to an extremely small school that no one really knows about for my B.S., I did my Ph.D. and postdoc at the same Top10 institution. However, I did switch labs and type of research, which I think is essential if you're doing this type of a choice. For what it's worth, I chose to do this since I was already at a Top10 (and no other high level labs/schools were around) and my spouse was employed in the area (and I didn't have any interest in spending a year or two long-distance since we'd already done that for many years).

    Upon applying for industry jobs, I got asked why I chose to stay, gave that answer, and it was never an issue and got a few very good offers in various geographical locations. But if you were to choose to do B.S./Ph.D. or Ph.D./postdoc at the same average institution, especially if there are other labs/institutions in the area that are equal or better, and you don't have a good answer to that question, it might not be thought of as acceptable.

    Thus, I think it really comes down to what a person is aiming to do with the degree and their life.

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  17. All the comments have made for a very interesting read. Thanks for the insight, folks!

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  18. I think working in a few different places as a student is good preparation for the modern world of unstable, short-term employment. I've had 4 jobs in less than 10 years out of school (not by choice), doing very different chemistry each time, and each company's culture was unique. I don't have a PhD, but I did research at 3 different institutions as an undergrad, REU, and grad student (quit a PhD with a MS). Not just different chemistry, but very different departmental cultures in each place too. It was great preparation for real life, as my laid-off co-workers often had never worked anywhere else, and had much more difficulty adjusting.

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  19. Everyone has different life circumstances and different goals for grad school. Tenure track is specifically mentioned in the OP, but maybe the person writing in isn't after the elusive tenure track job?

    If the writer already has a good relationship with the department in which they did their undergrad work, I don't see any harm in staying, especially if there's the added bonus of easing life circumstances. If that person is already working in the lab where they might do their PhD there's also the added bonus of starting their research project before starting grad school.

    My life circumstances dictated I had to move elsewhere and be functional. And while that's fine for getting work done it's a pain in the butt sometimes when it comes to family obligations. Cross country flights ain't cheap and are difficult to get on a moment's notice. Now that I'm working for the same university where I did my PhD I'm finding that my vacations are spent visiting family instead of on...well, vacation.

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