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econhopeful2018
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Can anyone comment on whether the PhD program at Chicago deserves its bad rap? Concerns about things like extremely large and poorly-performing cohorts in some past years, uninvolved/inattentive advisors who don't care about their students, intense competitiveness/unfriendliness within cohorts, and extreme criticism at seminars come to mind.

 

 

I still have many pending decisions but I'm mentally ranking my options now and trying to figure out whether I would prefer to go to Chicago or do an RA stint and shoot for better (HMSBP) in 2 years. In particular I'm still recruiting for RA positions because I'm not totally sure I would choose Chicago over being an RA. My interests are more or less within applied micro (labor, devo, political economy, I/O).

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Well, I never thought I'd feel relieved to be *rejected* from Chicago. It's a hard decision, frankly. It would be pretty tough to give up an offer at Chicago to chance a second shot at the admissions cycle after a couple years, or to accept somewhere considerably lower in rankings now over Chicago. That said, you are committing 5/6 years, and being relatively happy is an important factor in the production function of research (and also useful in its own right).

 

I won't add too much on Chicago beyond agreeing that you're probably right to give it due consideration. I have heard that Chicago faculty will sometimes interrupt student presentations - mind you, not with a question, but to literally end the presentation midway if it's not good enough.

 

On the positive side, note that Chicago econ got a huge donation recently. Perhaps they won't try to kick out so many of their students, since they have an easier time funding them through the Market. Also, word has it their recent junior hires are good and possibly part of a culture shift.

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I can only comment secondhand, but the grads I know from the program have made it sound like it's not as bad as it's portrayed. Likely a bit of selection bias given they made it through...

 

You're not crazy to consider passing on it and doing an RA gig, but 2 years is a long time in a young life and you have a top 10 offer from a school that's great for your interest. I would take Chicago if I were in that situation. Let the visit day speak for itself if you have the luxury of waiting that long (and hopefully you'll get other offers and this is all hypothetical).

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"criticism at seminars" is inconsistent with "inattentive advisors". Feedback to student research is a key part of the the advising process, and UChicago econ pays a lot of attention to it. At large programs, you can't expect your advisor to give you all the negative comments in 1-to-1 sessions where you won't feel embarrassed. That opportunity won't exist when you have an independent career.
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I don't believe Chicago deserves as bad a rep people may have heard on the internet, but that's because I believe the top departments will reach a stationary equilibrium with treating their first-years: 20-ish member cohorts, not using prelims to screen out an unbounded number of people, focusing on admits with as much research experience as possible. This also means the number of wild card admits is falling.

 

Chicago doesn't admit 40-member cohorts anymore (I think last year they had 25ish?) They are offering much more generous stipends given their donations, as you must have noticed in the admit email. The program's biggest problem is not having enough advisors willing to go to bat for the median student. While they're recruiting hard for good junior faculty, given tenure concerns they won't go online as advisors for a few years longer.

 

If you can get an admit for Chicago out of undergrad, I think you should either take it; do a 1-year RA at a prestigious institution and reapply next cycle; or, if you can get in, do a 2-year RA at one of the golden ticket programs (e.g. Chetty Lab, Laibson's group, Amy Finkelstein's NBER group). Your choice between those three depends on your risk aversion.

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If you're hearing this stuff from anonymous forums, keep in mind that it's impossible to know who speaks from experience and who is only repeating second, third, fourth+ hand knowledge (that they themselves may have gotten from anonymous forums). That said, I've rarely seen someone claiming to be from Chicago deny the cold-blooded nature of the program - a lot of them seem to view it as a virtue.

 

A good suggestion I heard recently: if you're deciding between Chicago and another school, look through both departments' faculty for people who have moved between the two schools recently. Email them to explain that you're deciding between the two, and ask them about any differences between the two PhD programs. They will likely be biased in favour of their current school, but if you keep their bias in mind the information is still useful. In the event that one of them ignores your email, consider what this implies about the department's attitude towards students.

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If the goal of working as a RA is purely just to get a better shot at other top tier schools, then I don't think it's worth spending 2 years of your time.

 

However, I consider working as a RA a good investment for developing one's research skills that go beyond the benefits of purely getting into a "better program." Although it's true that there are aspects of research that you can only learn during grad school, you still do learn a lot about research by working as a RA. This is especially true if your interests are empirical/applied micro, where most of the RA hiring takes place. You pick up a lot of the technical skills you'll need in graduate school, and you spend a lot of time thinking about what a good study design looks like and learn from the faculty you work and interact with. Keep in mind that many of these programs are designed to prepare their RA's for graduate school.

 

I also think there is more of an overlap between working as a RA and being a grad student than what many people would expect. The vast majority of RA's at my office take classes, attend seminars, read (a lot) of papers, interact with & learn from faculty, have discussions with other research-oriented peers, and even develop their own projects after work hours. I'm not trying to say that being a RA is effectively the same thing as being a grad student (they're clearly different), but I am saying that there are *a lot* of opportunities to grow as a researcher while working as a RA.

 

If you're on the margin between going to U Chicago VS working as a RA purely because the time cost of two years are similar to the benefits of going to better programs, I'd give more consideration to working as a RA after factoring in the benefits of personal growth as a researcher. You should take my words with a grain of salt because I'm currently working as a RA and clearly biased, but I'd still give it a consideration.

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Not giving you any suggestion, this is just my 2c on UC bad rep. I have been to quite a few seminars at UC during my RA time here. I also heard mixed responses on the Econ Department in terms of advising. In my opinion, Booth faculty overall are better at interacting with their PhD students. From the seminars I attended, students at Booth overall have much better presentation skills and seem more well-prepared with their research compared to those of the same cohort at the Econ Department. For your field of interest perhaps you can choose to work with some Booth Professors for better advising if you decide to attend UC.
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Not giving you any suggestion, this is just my 2c on UC bad rep. I have been to quite a few seminars at UC during my RA time here. I also heard mixed responses on the Econ Department in terms of advising. In my opinion, Booth faculty overall are better at interacting with their PhD students. From the seminars I attended, students at Booth overall have much better presentation skills and seem more well-prepared with their research compared to those of the same cohort at the Econ Department. For your field of interest perhaps you can choose to work with some Booth Professors for better advising if you decide to attend UC.

 

I'm not OP but I've heard that the more junior profs are quite a bit better about advising and trying to change the culture a bit. Any comment on whether that's true?

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