What a drastic, dramatic difference this experience was from my previous interview at Program #4 back in February.
I arrived in Western City on Sunday afternoon to find beautiful, perfect weather and my ride waiting for me at the airport. Having never ventured this far west in the US before, and having lived my entire life in New England, I could not get over how vastly different the landscape and everything was. I was like "Wow, so that's what REAL mountains look like!" I was standing in 75 degree weather looking up at snow-capped peaks off in the distance. It was amazing.
I was brought to another student's house for a homecooked Easter dinner that was de-lic-ious. The first couple of students I met were nontraditional students with spouses, kids, actual LIVES and experiences. Everyone was so incredibly friendly, warm, easygoing, and funny. They actually seemed really excited to have me there, and it was very cool to feel so welcomed. They spoke to me openly and frankly about the program, the faculty, and the students so I feel as though I got an honest assessment of what it's like to be a student there. One was a 3rd year, and the other was a 5th year.
Before heading off to bed, I was fed homemade chicken and dumplings. YUM! I felt like a family member coming for a visit, not a stranger from the other side of the country or a temporary inconvenience.
The following day I met with a bunch of faculty members beginning with the department head, attended a 1st year graduate class, was treated to a delicious lunch at the student union with a bunch of other grad students ranging from 2nd-6th year. I felt like the new exchange student in high school, with everyone scrambling to get a chance to talk to me. One of the students accidentally got pregnant around admissions time, and had her first baby in the first semester of her first year there. She was very blunt about it: "I don't recommend it. It was a nightmare. 2nd year, absolutely. But not your first year."
I got to spend time with a variety of students, with different people escorting me to each meeting, taking me on campus tours, showing me around facilities. Though I got sick of repeating the same information about myself twice an hour all day, it was fantastic to talk to so many people about their experiences there.
The faculty there are fantastic. They are not intimidating, arrogant, or any of the things I experienced at Program #4. Many of them are quietly well-connected and networked to important researchers throughout the country, without tying those connections to their own reputations. I noticed that several of the textbooks used in the graduate courses were written by faculty members at my undergrad MRU, which was very cool to see. One of the professors I met with keeps a Wall of Fame in her office, where students put their name and a little blurb about a project when they publish it with her. It was a pretty big wall. But the important thing about it was the pride with which she showed it to me - it was blatantly obvious how much she WANTS her students to succeed.
One of my biggest concerns about this program was that it was an R2, and there was a lack of major journal publications on the part of the faculty. I wanted to make sure that I would have adequate opportunities to publish so that I would be marketable in academia when I graduate. One 5th year student I spoke to has 8 publications, 11 presentations, and 7 more publications under review. A 3rd year student had 5 publications and 6 presentations. This was the pattern I saw.
When I asked the students about the deficit in major journals, they brought up and issue that has been discussed over at ScienceBlogs many, many times - the Least Publishable Unit. They told me that if they wanted to go for a major journal, there was adequate support and knowledge there for them to do so, but most of the students prefer to send their research to high-impact niche journals where they feel it will make the most difference.
I had a frank discussion about this with several students and a couple of faculty members. The general consensus (and I know this to be true from my own MRU), is that JPSP (the major journal of my field) has become highly politicized and incredibly difficult to get into. They keep publishing the same authors over and over and over again, and the material is becoming less and less accessible to readers. In other words, JPSP is putting itself into a position where it is a major journal because of prestige, NOT actual impact and visibility. I heard stories from students who had submitted there, received a "No thank you" email within 24 hours of submission, and a month later received a very excited message from a 2nd-tier journal saying "Yes, absolutely! We love this study!" I now have the understanding that the lack of JPSP articles has more to do with pragmatism than lack of quality research.
The students are all very passionate about the work they do. Because of a specific, unique quality of this program, many of the students are working toward industry jobs rather than academia. About 1/3 are pursuing faculty positions. This means that the competition between students is simply not there. They are a pretty cohesive group, albeit quite large. You are able to work with any faculty member you want who is willing to work with you - there is none of that "You're MY student, you will study what I'M interested in, dammit!" Though you do choose a primary advisor, you can change that at any time and faculty members can also "pluck" you from another faculty member if they want to and no one gives a shit. I mean, they do, but not in the political sense. You know what I mean.
This is a great quality for me in this particular program, because as I have mentioned before there is no single faculty member there whose research interests are perfectly aligned with my own. But the nature of the department is such that for any given project, I can consult with as many different faculty members as I need to in order to incorporate their specific expertise in my research. The boundaries there are nonexistent.
The grad student body is pretty diverse. The ages range from 21 to 50's. There are married students, single students, divorced students. Students with kids and students without. When they do have kids, they range from age 2 to age 35. There is religious diversity and ethnic diversity, though I did not meet a single African-American grad student. This bothered me to some extent, but apparently there is a black male student who would be in my cohort if I decided to go there this fall. It is a politically liberal city that shares many of my personal views, though apparently the outskirts contain the gun-loving, homophobic, racist, Republican good ole boys that are common to rural areas pretty much everywhere.
It was the cleanest city I have ever seen in my life. It makes New England look like a glorified trash heap. Especially if you compare it to Boston (no offense, anyone). It was absolutely fucking beautiful. Every outdoor activity you could possibly imagine is available to you in great variety. From the moment I arrived I could see my husband and I living there and raising our kids there. And here's the kicker - there's no TRAFFIC! I was like "Wtf? What do you mean you can be anywhere in the city in 15 minutes? What about rush hour?" Only the folks from LA knew what "rush hour" was. Everyone else just gave me a blank stare.
Okay, so that about sums up all of the positive things. On to the concerns.
The state economy there is in serious trouble. Jobs are somewhat hard to come by, because it is not an industrial city. When my husband was laid off from his job here a couple of years ago, it took him 4 months to find a new one. It would probably take a lot longer for him to get a job out there. My student stipend is not large (of course), though it is enough for both of us to live very frugally on. Under normal circumstances, this would not be a problem. But given my impending unemployment this summer, the recent news of my husband's military pay being much lower than previously thought, the dwindling savings under these circumstances, the incredibly high cost of moving to the other side of the country, not knowing whether the military will be able to transfer him out there and not knowing whether he will lose his signing bonus if they do, and not having a job for him when he arrives all combine to create an incredibly scary situation for me.
The department head was not very sympathetic to this, saying "Well, our students do this all the time. I'm not sure I understand why it's any different for you." She seemed to take it as a lack of committment on my part, which I tried to dispel. I understand that I would be moving from a very high cost of living area to a very low cost of living area. But losing 60% of my salary and not having savings in the bank terrifies me. If my car died, I'd be fucked unless my husband was working. I get that people do this all the time with no problems. I GET IT. But I inherited from my father this constant anxiety over finances. I spent several years in my twenties living paycheck to paycheck, and I really don't want to do that again. I don't want my life to be harder than it has to be, and I don't think that's unreasonable. It's not about being able to spend money on frivolous things (I don't do that now). It's about having a cushion for emergencies and unexpected events. And in this real estate market, it is highly unlikely that my husband and I could sell our house and get any money back from the sale at all.
The department head suggested that my husband return to New England when he gets out of the military and live here until he finds a job and gets his military transfer. My reaction was "Hell the fuck no." I did not explain to her that we had been separated last summer and that I am unwilling to be apart from my husband for a moment longer than I have to, because I got the impression that she would think of my marriage as unstable and me as being co-dependent. She said, "Who knows, maybe this could be a good test of your relationship." I told her quite bluntly that if I had to choose between my husband and my degree, I would choose my husband because there is always a way to work it out. If graduate school was such that I could NOT have both, I would choose the degree and be away from him for awhile. But the fact is that there ARE ways to have both and I will seek them out to the exclusion of the alternative.
This led to my asking about a deferral of admission for one year. She wasn't sure if this was possible but said she would look into it, followed by telling me that she gets the impression that I am ready to jump into this right now. I told her I feel that R2 is where I definitely want to go, and while I would love to start the program immediately I also don't want to cause myself an unnecessary amount of stress. The whole conversation kind of left a bad taste in my mouth. I don't like it when my level of dedication to my field is called into question. I also don't like it when my dedication to feminist principles is called into question because I express that my spouse is important to me. I could not get her to understand that this is a timing issue, and one that was not anticipated because of changing financial circumstances.
A couple students had told me that this faculty member doesn't seem to understand work/family issues. One student didn't tell her that she was pregnant because she didn't want to hear what she would say. Everyone there is apparently very supportive of family issues and balance, but this one person just doesn't seem to understand it on a personal level according to what they told me. So I'm not taking it personally, but it does make the decision more difficult.
I should note that a seemingly-fantastic assistantship has been offered to me that incorporates both my experience and interests, but if I wait a year to start it will most likely no longer be available to me. There would be something else, but there is no guarantee that it would be as good or better than this one.
Part of me wants to say "fuck it" and fly by the seat of my pants into the program this fall. But part of me is really enamored with the idea of taking the year to spend time with my husband when he gets back, get some money saved, and take on the move as a team - taking our time to get him transferred, find him a job, get him enrolled in their engineering program. Doing this would put off starting a family for another year, or going into my first year with an infant in tow. There is low-cost, on-site daycare at the campus, but it apparently has a very long waiting list.
They are giving me plenty of time to make the decision, so I can relax about it somewhat for right now. I am still applying for the RA job at my MRU. I feel like if I get that job, I will defer for a year. If I don't, I will go this fall. But that's not set in stone. I really don't know what to do. I wish I could talk to my husband to find out what he thinks. He's more of a Jump In Headfirst kind of guy than I am, but it's possible that being away has made him want to enjoy some downtime with me when he gets back. He does not like to be without a job. I think he would go crazy in a new city with all new people and nothing to do with himself. I know he wants to move out there - he was more excited about it at first than I was. That's not an issue.
So I don't know. What do you guys think?