Choosing a PhD Program

No, this is not a checklist for choosing a PhD program…this is much more honest.

I began to make my decision to attend University of Michigan in September 2008, the start of my last year at University of California Los Angeles School of Public Health. I faced a difficult decision. There are few public health graduate programs, so my options were already limited. And I needed funding.

University of Michigan was not my first option, but it had a serious advantage over UCLA: money and resources. I was living in Los Angeles with my mother while I attended UCLA, which was not an ideal situation. I could not continue to live in Los Angeles and be a productive student on the funding that UCLA School of Public Health’s provided for its doctoral students. Many intelligent and hard-working doctoral students struggled for decent funding. And I did not want to take out loans in order to live independently in Los Angeles, which was a crucial goal for me. In addition to taking care of my finances, independence meant being able to control what I did with my time, e.g. set aside your time for studying and writing, maintain personal and social support, and have clarify of mind to conduct the kind of work, e.g. research, teaching, volunteer, to be a successful doctoral student. I did not have independence at the time and was desperate to attain it.

When I first started at UCLA, I lived in the on-campus graduate housing apartments — i paid $1,200 a month for a 500-square foot apartment (with parking!) that I shared with another graduate student. It was a decent deal, but within two months I realized not keep up financially. And my parents could not supplement my income. My mother insisted I live with her. It was a tough decision, but I decided to move with her to keep my budget in line.

However. I paid the price in other ways.

My time living at home wobbled between being tolerable and terrible. I often stayed on campus well into the night to avoid working at home. Home lacked the autonomy that I had grown used to while away at college. There was no real respect for the work I was doing and my mental space was used up by someone who constantly needed attention. The silver living is that I formed strong and lasting bonds with fellow graduate students, intelligent, thoughtful, and amazing women who are still very good friends of mine. And participating in A LOT of extracurricular research jobs. But I still could not be scholar on my own terms. Working towards a PhD at UCLA would be nearly impossible to be achieved if I continued my living situation. Any graduate student knows how important it is to have close friends and family who understand the pressures, stress, and lifestyle of a doctoral student who is wrapped up with numerous demands.

How much each program offered was so important. University of Michigan offered more money and resources than UCLA, but at UCLA, I could stay right where I was and would not have to make new friends (I already had a great set of girlfriends), get used to a new school (I was familiar with UCLA and its resources), new state (California is the greatest, Michigan is not), new weather patterns (because Michigan winters are harsh). Although at UCLA I had a great supportive network, established relationship with professors, and could have easily turned my thesis into a dissertation, University of Michigan was the best institution to research and study health disparities and had an excellent alumni network. UCLA was just beginning to develop critical racial health disparities research programs with the addition of two young and promising research professors who studied heath disparities.

My decision was driven a lot more by personal and emotional factors than professional wants and needs. Its only now that I realize that my stifling living situation in Los Angeles motivated me to move clear across the country. Hindsight is the best foresight. If given another chance, I would have seriously evaluated my financial health — whether living on $1500/month was truly feasible and my available resources garner to maintain some consistent financial support from sources other than my stipend. I was so dead-set on gaining independence and autonomy from my living situation at the time that I only saw my acceptance into the doctoral program as a ticket out.

I vividly remember my first visit to Michigan in winter of 2009.

I had never felt air so icy, unless you count sticking my head in the freezer to cool off from the California heat. The look of Michigan was also shocking. It was VERY small town. In Los Angeles, Main Street is a major thoroughfare in Downtown where many of LA’s historical buildings are located. Nobody goes there for fun. In Ann Arbor, Main Street is the center of the town’s humdrum nightlife. On my drive back to the airport after that visit, I just stared at the colonial-style homes, as my taxi bumped and rocked down the street pockmarked with potholes, thinking that indeed this would be a sacrifice: to leave California to attend the prestigious University of Michigan. At the time, it was worth leaving my smothering situation in Los Angeles for independence. That icy independence, dressed in flannel and a mediocre-at-best food scene, was the most viable option for me at the time.

Needless to say, I do not recommend making a major life decision like this if you can help it. But I don’t blame or fault those who do! I always thought I could leave Michigan or come back to Los Angeles but, in the end, I had committed to stay in Ann Arbor and moving to Los Angeles was not a real option.

I am always curious about stories of other alumna of PhD programs and the sacrifices they made to attain their PhD because often we are doing the best we can with the cards we are dealt. Do you have similar struggles? Was your decision to attend you doctoral program motivated by personal factors as well? Do tell!