On the pursuit of a PhD program: What would be your ‘School of Sagres’?

As a native Portuguese speaker and descendant, I was told in history classes about the so-called School of Sagres. This school is regarded as responsible for many technological advancements between the XV and XVI centuries that enabled, among other things, the first world circumnavigation (and nowadays puzzle people from other cultures for the fact that the language of such a small country like Portugal is spoken in almost all continents and borrowed words to diverse cultures like the Japanese and Indonesian). However, there was never a physical place with such label: some historians now believe that it was simply a gathering of the best European experts along taverns in the Iberian Peninsula. This is somewhat what I feel about the academic world, and five centuries later I wanted to find the best corridors along which I could move my coffee mug while pursuing a PhD degree. And the experience was an interesting one!

I wondered whether to pursue a PhD or not for quite a while. During such time I earned a MSc degree, kept publishing the results of my work, explored some topics that could be the subject of a doctoral thesis, and interacted as I could with the OR community. Despite doing all of this, I was yet undecided about pursuing a PhD mostly because I already had a good job in the industry doing what I like – something that I meant to have after obtaining a PhD. It was at such point that I went to ICAPS last year, and I had an intense week that reminded me of many good things from academia that were absent from my work routine. In the following week, I was already studying for the TOEFL, and the application process was only over a couple of months ago. As a result, I got some amazing formal offers, some polite rejections, and gave up on some other ongoing applications after receiving those offers.

The application process and the general tips to excel at it abound on the internet: apply only for places to which you would definitely go if offered admission; ask for recommendations from professors that know a lot about you instead of those who gave you the best grades; do not attach yourself to specific lines of research, specially to methodologies; let it clear why you would like to pursue a PhD; be concise; etc. However, I read little advice about how to effectively target schools. I have heard from very successful applicants that I should try every top school that I could, but the fact that I could barely see myself in many of them made me include in the list a few more than those in which I was already planning to apply. As a matter of fact, all of my formal offers came from applications in which I mentioned faculty members and extensively discussed common interests in the essays. Some of those schools were in my radar as the obvious choices for my interests but there was an outlier which was somewhat a surprise: I decided to apply to that school only after accessing their website for the second time and reading every word about their program. Despite that first impression, I ended up feeling that it could be a good match, they felt the same way upon reading my application, and that made the final choice even harder!

Choosing among those programs who replied positively was difficult for the same reason that I had such an enthusiasm for applying for each of them: I read about what they were doing, I feel that I understood what they were targeting, and I wanted to be part of each of those efforts. And then everyday new information came to me that tempted me to accept one of those offers, but it was the fact that CMU was my top choice before receiving any offer and that visiting the school did not change my impression of it which make me accept their offer. Declining the other offers was very hard and belated second thoughts are inevitable, but I feel that I would have deeper regret feelings if I had chosen differently. Besides, I have an entire career ahead to join those schools in other ways that not as a student.

In short, the most important advice – and the only one I would dare to offer to a prospective student already full of them – is to focus more on those schools that are closely related to your interests, but still make a comprehensive scan of the programs out there in the hope to be surprised. There are too many great schools and some of your friends will advise you to try a lot of them, but the fact that you are unable to make a strong claim for studying somewhere also means that your chances in this place are smaller and you are wasting time that could be used in other applications. When you find your personal ‘School of Sagres’, words go out much more easily.

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