Hard time saying no. (grad school.)

I have a serious problem with making decisions. I’m vexed by such choices as, '‘TV Dinner or ‘Hamburger Helper tonight?’’ I usually just give up and eat potato chips or something. The problem is, I imbue everything with finality and moral weight, even what to effing cook for supper. It’s annoying as hell, just ask Sr. Olives.

But this thread isn’t about my atrocious eating habits. It’s about graduate school. I got into both Penn and Columbia’s graduate school of social work. A blessing you say? Absolutely, unless you are chronically indecisive! I’ve been to both campuses, talked with alumni from both schools, and sat down one-one-one to ask detailed questions about the programs. I’ve exhaustively weighed the pros and cons of each school.

I have concluded, based on some painful confrontation with myself, that NOT going to Columbia would be damned stupid, despite the vast number of inconveniences I’d have to put up with (most of them transit and moving-related, but some having to do with the program’s size and the feel of the community.)

Columbia’s particular program is ranked 4th in the nation, and I believe that is attributable to the fact that you can basically do anything you want there. I can have a practice method in Advanced Clinical social work with a specialization in International Social Welfare/Services for Immigrants and Refugees. I can also do the Generalist Practice and Programming practice method which would enable me to move seamlessly from clinical to macro issues, or as they put it, ‘‘case to cause,’’ and still specialize in International Social Welfare/Immigrant Services. Basically you can chose between 7x5 = 30 different combinations of study as an MSW student at Columbia. What I want to do is practically unheard of, and yet here they are, saying, ‘‘Sure, you can do that! In fact we have a special program for it!’’

Then there’s the fact that I’ve already been e-mailed personally by one of the professors, who says she’s excited that I’m coming because my my interest in immigration will give me plenty of opportunity to work with her and a number of other faculty members (which she listed by name.) Columbia’s incoming class is 450 students. Being contacted for a research opportunity this way, before I’ve even accepted, is kind like having the chocolate ice cream come to you, without having to pull it out of the fridge and run the scooper under hot water. Mmm, chocolate.

There are a shitload of things I don’t like about Columbia, but the above stuff pretty much outweighs them all. I can do things there that I can do nowhere else. Things I don’t think I can do at Penn. At least, not as easily.

Anyway, I really connected with the folks and the campus at Penn. The interview was a dream-like experience. There was a true connection between myself, the faculty and students. Pretty much all the things I don’t like about Columbia, Penn has. It took them forever to officially admit me, because I had to get a transcript in from one college course I took when I was 17, but I got a personal voice mail today from the admissions director herself informing me the decision was official (she also called me personally to tell me they’d received the transcript, and called me personally to ask for the transcript.) She asked me to call her back for some ‘‘wonderful news.’’

Damn it there is so much I love about Penn. One reason I continued jumping through the hoops to get that damned transcript in is so that years from now, when I’m applying for my Ph.D, they’ll have it on record I was admitted, not that my application was incomplete, because I can’t think of a better place to do doctoral work.

Now I have to call this lady… and what, tell her that even though her school is filled with amazing people, I can’t do it? After hounding the admissions office for weeks asking if they got my transcript? Imply in any way that there is a preferable option to working with her community? Would it be inappropriate to send a thank you card, at least, for giving me one of the most important experiences of my life?

My husband says they won’t take it personally, but the thing is, I will. I feel like I’m losing something important by closing that door.

What does this mean? Am I making the wrong decision? How do I know for sure?

Making hard decisions is hard. But, the good thing is that you entirely forget about it once you’re there and enjoying the experience you chose. Feeling bad about having hounded people for no reason just means you’re empathetic, which is good. It might be a hassle, but overall you’d rather have it.

Always make sure you make the right choice and that you do so with politeness and humility, that’s the only important thing. Everything else will resolve itself.

How would you feel if you were turning down Columbia? If it wouldn’t affect you as strongly as turning down Penn does, then go to Penn.

Admissions folks understand that they’re not going to get everyone they want, so no, they won’t take it personally, especially since you’ve clearly put some thought into your decision.

I’m not seeing anything wrong with writing a thank you card or a note or a letter, letting them know that this was a really difficult decision, and that they do well a number of things that you don’t like about Columbia.

But you know, reading your post–I’m not sure I think your reasons for picking Columbia are the best. I think you should seriously consider whether you are choosing an opportunity it would be stupid to pass up over happiness and convenience. Happiness and ease of living aren’t everything, but I think you are undervaluing them.

My mother is an officer of a local chapter of an international women’s organization. As such she’s been in contact with a woman who has been visiting chapters, picking which one to commit to. This is far less life-changing that which grad school to attend. Still, this lady called to say, “Sorry, I picked another chapter because as much as I liked your group, as much as you made me feel welcome, the other chapter met on a better day of the week, and that’s why I’m picking them”. Mom was sad, because she liked the lady and would have been glad to incorporate her into the chapter. But she appreciated all the kind things the woman said about her chapter, and will endeavor to make other people feel welcome.

Maybe. I hate moving with the burning passion of a thousand suns, but it’s really a very temporary inconvenience… a month at most. And I will have to move either way, it’s just that moving into the NYC metro area will be trickier, more expensive, and necessitate a more drastic change in my lifestyle. I want to be clear: I really like New York City. I used to work downtown near WTC and Wall St. and now I work in Midtown across from Madison Square Garden (for those who wondered, it’s not a garden, nor is it square… humph.) Part of choosing Columbia involves being able to take advantage of the city whenever I want to, and having a rich, diverse plethora of options for field placement. We almost never go on weekends since I’m so sick of commuting there. If we moved to Jersey City it would cut my commute to Morningside Heights in half, and we could be downtown inside of 20 minutes.

My major stress about Columbia’s program is that it is enormous, the most enormous in this country. 450 incoming students this year. Class sizes capped at 50, average class size is 25. I went to Michigan for undergrad, and it too is an enormous school, so I know exactly what kind of annoying red-tape bullshit I’m in for. The chief complaint students of Columbia have is feeling they have to advocate strongly for themselves to get the placements and financial aid, etc., they have to actively seek out faculty and research opportunities, etc. That’s a valid point, and something I was hoping to avoid… but considering my undergraduate school had 50,000 total students and I managed to advocate for myself there, I figure I’ll be okay. Despite all the work I had to put into making things happen at UM, I don’t regret it for a second… it was one of the best choices I ever made. And anyhow, as UMSSW puts it, ‘‘If you can’t learn to advocate for yourself, how can you be expected to advocate for your clients?’’

My final complaint about Columbia is I don’t like the campus. And you know how much that matters. Also, it was pouring down rain the day I visited… not exactly a vibrant, exciting experience. I am probably going back today to show my husband around, and see how it looks in the sunshine!

Those are the inconveniences of which I speak. Are avoiding those frustrations worth throwing away the opportunity to study my life’s passion with experts in the field of immigrant advocacy? I don’t think so. I’ve talked it over with my husband and other people whose opinion I trust, and they agree.

I appreciate this anecdote, because it indicates to me that something positive can come out of this no matter what choice I make. Knowing that your mother appreciated the kind words even though she was turned down makes me certain that I do need to reach out in some way to say thank you.

And, as I mentioned before, I’m not closing the door on Penn forever. As a doctoral student it would definitely be my number one choice.

Don’t forget that most of the really excellent candidates will get accepted to two or more graduate programs. Admissions committees and program directors are used to seeing potential students turn down offers; they won’t take it personally. Think of it as making room for somebody else on the waiting list.

That said, I agree with Eureka; it sounds like you may be undervaluing several factors that are really quite important. Grad school can be heaven or hell, depending on your living situation, your finances, and the other people in the program. This stuff matters. Assuming that both of the choices are well-regarded and a reasonable fit for your academic interests, I’d say go with a lower-ranked program where you want to live and really click with the people, over a higher-ranked one where the fit isn’t as good. (This is, in fact, precisely the choice I made when I was picking a PhD program, and I’ve never regretted it, even though it meant that I ended up specializing in a different subfield from the one I originally planned.)

Wait, did you call Penn back yet? Maybe their wonderful news is that they’re offering you full funding!

Deciding what grad school to go to was really difficult for me, too. (I posted something like ten threads asking for advice on the issue.) The hardest part: I got into some of the top programs in my field, REALLY good schools - and then my safety school (which is a perfectly good school in general, but their program in my field is very small and new and not particularly well-known) offered me full funding. Turning it down was probably the hardest decision I have ever made. It came down to: “which of these schools is going to get me to the career I want?”

One thing you might want to ask current students is how well their career services office works. You want a quality career services office that will help you find the job of your dreams. It’s not something I thought of before grad school, so I’m feeling lucky that I chanced into a school with good career help.

Grad school is a tough decision. But don’t worry for even a moment that you would be hurting Penn’s feelings by turning them down. Grad schools compete for students; that’s what they do. Some times students accept their offers; sometimes not. As others have said, they’re used to it.

I would like to add my voice to the chorus, though, of people who say that quality of life issues are crucial. I, like other people, chose to go to a lower-ranked program over a higher-ranked one because I felt really good about the environment at the lower-ranked one and not so good about the higher-ranked one. I also have never regretted it. I was happy and comfortable there, the professors actually had time for me, gave me feedback on my research, etc.

Anecdote–One of the members on my dissertation committee, when I commented on how great it was to have committee members read and comment on my draft chapters, said that a member of his committee (a well-known Harvard philosopher) never read a single word of his dissertation, but merely showed up for the defense and asked some big-picture questions. Surely that’s an extreme case, but professors at top-ranked schools simply have more demands on their time, and most of them are (frankly) more important than you are, at least in their minds. It sounds like this is especially the case in the Columbia program. I mean, I don’t know about other grad programs, but I have never heard of a program where 25 students is the *average class size *for a grad program. Hell, that’s kinda big for undergraduate. The professors’ advising loads must be huge; how are they going to make time for you? (I suspect the answer is, “They won’t”.) Again, though, I’m in a totally different field.

So that’s my $0.02. Others will tell you different.

Go with your gut. Don’t worry about which one appears to have the stuff you want for what you want to do – you’ll make that happen in either place. Which one is calling out to you as where you want to be for the next few years?

Absolutely, it’s their job. If she was personally upset by the fact that some people didn’t accept Penn offers then she would not have gotten a job working in admissions.

But I think you are getting ahead of yourself, you don’t even have a final decision yet to tell her. You have your offers, now you are in the phase where you consider your offers. Call this woman at Penn back,tell her that that you were delighted to be accepted, listen to what she has to say, and then tell her you’re also considering Columbia and you’ll follow up as soon as you have a decision. She’ll tell you to let her know if you have more questions, you’ll say thx and that’ll be it.

And yeah, totally find out what this “wonderful news” is. If it’s funding related … that’s a damn fine reason to pick one school over another.

You’re at U of M aren’t you? That is NOT a hard decision! :stuck_out_tongue:

I definitely see your point, and if Penn did offer me something ridiculous like full funding, I would go there in a heartbeat with no regrets. I feel like it would give me the excuse I need. Unfortunately I have to wait until Monday to call her back… she called me on Friday while I was on the way home from work.

Suse, saying no to Columbia would not be nearly as difficult emotionally because I’d be saying no to an institution, not a community. It would be an impersonal no.

At Penn, during my interview, I sat down with this woman and said, ‘‘this is who I am, and this is what I need,’’ and she said, ‘‘we know who you are, we love who that person is, and we can meet your needs.’’ I’m not sure how to put this… we were for the most part just having an honest conversation, and we were working not only with the words in front of us but with the subtext of those words. I spend a great deal of time feeling like I have to hide my vulnerabilities, but during that interview I didn’t have to hide anything. I felt like I was 100% authentically me and that as an institution Penn was still willing to embrace that me. I didn’t have to say anything, either. I at no point opened my mouth and said, ‘‘Look, undergrad was a dark time for me, and I’m scared of being alone while working on social justice issues that remind me of my own past.’’ I never said that at all. It was all just right there in the subtext. I can’t even put it into words; it was a completely surreal experience.

At the info session (post-admittance–they don’t interview) with Columbia I fired a bunch of a questions and got a bunch of canned responses… good responses, but you could practically see the lady’s eyes rolling into the back of her head as she struggled to remember the correct answer. Very kind lady, but she could have given a shit less if I’d accepted or not. Hundreds more waiting to take my place, that sort of thing.

twix, if it really is that simple I guess the choice is clear.

Sophistry, the Master of Social Work is a terminal/professional degree, so classes are bigger no matter where you go. Penn’s incoming class is 175 and their classes are capped at 25. They are ranked lower than Columbia but still #14 nationally for my program. The rankings are almost meaningless when that close together. It would be a stretch to say Penn isn’t a top school in social work, as it’s currently #1 in the nation for publishing original research. That’s what’s stupid about this decision… it’s almost arbitrary.

Where Columbia outshines Penn is the variability of structured options, as I said, there are 35 combinations of study in a highly structured environment. Penn is different, you chose Clinical or Macro and you can definitely specialize, but there is less preexisting structure in place, I would therefore have to beat out my own path.

Well, shit.

This is going to be true anywhere you go, even if there are more faculty than students in a program.

One other thing to consider is that if you do end up wanting to go for a doctorate at Penn, having letters of recommendation from professors at Penn will count for a lot. Having letters from professors at Columbia won’t hurt you either, but it’s not quite the same.

Yeah, I mean honestly complaining about having to put yourself out there really seems like a bunch of whining to me. I attended a school with 50,000 and busted my ass to make my voice heard. Fighting to stand out among 900 students, while not ideal, is not some kind of insurmountable hurdle.

Hmm I never thought of it that way. I always assumed it was harder to get into a Ph.D program if you had a Masters from that institution. I have no evidence to base this assertion on, but I get the impression that Penn is more academically rigorous than Columbia, and that appeals to me.

I just had a very enlightening conversation with someone I trust, who believes I have a tendency to imbue every decision I make with moral value, and that I’m basically torturing myself and should just go to the school I like best. This person thinks no matter where I go I will create opportunity for myself.

Well, I like Penn best. I can think of 1,000 reasons I ‘‘should’’ go to Columbia, but damn it, I like Penn! It fits me like an old t-shirt. I sure as hell hope that wonderful news on Monday involves funding… it never even crossed my mind, I just thought it was sweet she would call me personally to tell me I was accepted rather than make me wait the extra week or whatever for the official letter.

Since Penn and Columbia are both institutions but you only feel like you’d be letting Penn down because it’s where you don’t feel like a number, then choosing Penn is the right decision. The many ups and downs you will have along the way will be easier ones to handle if your heart tells you you’re in the right place.

From masters to PhD? I don’t know social work but I don’ think that’s necessarily true. If their own masters program is intended to be more pre-professional then they may prefer PhD students from other research-focused programs, but that’s not quite the same as wanting to see students switch schools. Regardless, this is definitely something you can ask Penn about – do they have students go on to PhD programs, where to they place, etc.

One other thing I wanted to add is that it sounds like you’re giving a lot of weight to your conversations with this admissions director, but she wouldn’t have much impact on your career after you enroll. I’m not sure how much you’ve been able to chat with students and faculty at Penn but if the answer is ‘not so much’ then I’d hold out until you have a chance for another visit – which I presume they’ll arrange for you but if not you’re admitted now so you can ask for appointments.

At this point I’m sure all this woman would want you to do is be open-minded and give each school your full consideration. But you don’t even have the offer letter from Penn yet! if you make up your mind this weekend then you haven’t really given Penn a chance to make their case. So I’d at least wait until monday’s phone call and perhaps another visit before you worry about how to politely decline. And enjoy having the choice to make! You did all the work on the applications, now it’s your turn to ask questions and be picky.

Thanks. I’ve definitely considered how much weight to give my experience with the admissions director. Thing is, she’s a recent graduate (2004) of the MSW program and knows a lot about it from the student’s perspective. She’s been honest with me about the limitations and the strengths, so I think her perspective does carry a bit more weight than if I had interviewed with some random older person who didn’t have the benefit of immediate hindsight.

I have interacted with other faculty at the school, though I definitely plan to go there again and ask some more detailed questions. Today I took my husband to see the campus and we just sat on one of the park benches, holding hands. I felt so at peace. ‘‘Do you understand now?’’ I said. ‘‘Absolutely. This place is amazing.’’ We watched the squirrels chase one another. On the way home we ate dinner at Elephant and Castle in Cherry Hill, New Jersey and agreed we could see ourselves living there. We figured out what life would be like, and it was good for both of us.

I called my Aunt (who attended my visit to Columbia) and told her I’d decided on Penn and she said, ‘‘I kinda knew you would.’’ She said while we had a good time at Columbia, she had a feeling something wasn’t clicking and I was trying to intellectualize and rationalize the decision. ‘‘With Penn it was more visceral, when you came back from your first time there, you were just ecstatic and bubbling over with joy and you couldn’t stop yourself.’’

I just pulled up the post I wrote the first day I visited Penn’s campus and met the staff:

I don’t know why it took me so long to get that it’s totally okay for me to just go to the place I like best. If I just close my eyes, eliminate all the ‘‘shoulds’’ and ‘‘shouldn’ts’’ and just ask myself ‘‘where would I rather be every week for the next two years?’’ the answer is so obviously Penn.

Thanks for helping me see that. Hopefully that phone call on Monday will lead to some righteous good news.

Good luck, Olives! Don’t forget to keep us posted on how the phone call goes!

FWIW, olives, I think most of the people in my program doing a PhD were originally admitted as masters students and then they just couldn’t leave. I’m also doing a professional masters, so I think that should be quite relevant.

Brief update – Called the admissions director of Penn and it is good news – I did receive the Dean’s Merit Scholarship because they feel I have excellent potential… it’s not full tuition or anything like that, but definitely every bit counts and makes me feel very good about my future there. She said they will make a decision on the rest of my financial aid tomorrow, and by the end of the week I should call for the full report. :slight_smile: I’ve decided to apply for the joint Ph.D program once I’m eligible (after my first semester.) That means it’s time to gear up for the GRE!

Sr. Olives and I went apartment hunting and have decided to settle down in Cherry Hill, NJ, a very easy 25-30 minute commute into Philly (an hour drive to Rutgers for him, but he doesn’t mind and it still beats my current 2:30 roundtrip NYC commute.)

I feel so at peace knowing I’ve made the right choice. It’s been the best weekend ever and I’m so excited for Penn! Thanks to Eureka, Fretful Porpentine, Sophistry, Suse and ** twix **for helping me see things differently. Thanks to all of your for your much appreciated and valued input.