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How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

  • 1.  How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

    Posted 03-13-2018 10:37
    As stated in the title:

    I am nearing a point of career transition and am strongly considering entering a PhD program for ChemE. I am in the phase where I whittle down which schools I would apply to. The biggest factors I've used so far are location (proximity to family is nice), and whether or not the school offers a Chemical Engineering PhD (surprisingly fewer schools in my immediate area than I expected). I've also been trying to look into specific research areas and laboratory focuses.

    But one of the biggest unknowns, to me, is how to handle school ranking. USNews and others curate their lists of the 'best' schools, but what does 'best' mean? I could essentially keep my current apartment and attend a top 30-40 school, or I could move 3 hours away to attend a top 15 school; or move 4 hours away for a top 5 school, etc.

    How much does this actually matter in terms of:
    • Quality of Education?
    • Cost of Attendance?
    • Availability of Funding?
    • Reputation in later job markets?
    • etc.

    Joseph Whitmore
    Nuclear Engineer
    US Navy
    Carlisle PA

  • 2.  RE: How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

    Posted 03-14-2018 03:53
    It depends on what you want to do with your PhD. I would argue that rank itself is not that important, but reputation is. If you want to go into industry at the PhD level, the reputation of the department itself is probably going to be the bigger factor because in most cases, the people hiring you are also going to be PhDs (or at least they will be heavily involved in selection) and so as active researchers they may tend to know more about the kinds and quality of research at various universities in their sphere of expertise. But it's really tough for a prospective student to know the reputation of the department ahead of time.

    For a career in academia (or perhaps among highly research focused companies or national labs), the reputation of your supervisor is probably going to be the biggest factor. There are a lot of amazing people in lower ranked institutions that can not only provide high quality training but will be well respected within their field of expertise. Similarly there are a lot of terrible people in the very best institutions. Academics usually know the difference and have this in mind when considering candidates.

    As for what will actually educate you the best, I would say the individual you work with is 90% of the factor. The rank of the institution may help the supervising professor get more money for students and better toys, but once you are that student, what really matters is the kind of training, networks, and opportunities you will have.

    All that being said, there is some value in having your job application on letterhead with a top ranked university logo--it will at least get looked at when mixed into a pile of 300 other applications for the same job.

    Thomas Adams
    Associate Professor
    McMaster University
    Dundas ON

  • 3.  RE: How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

    Posted 03-14-2018 14:29
        Great question with few easy black and white answers.  As background, I was in a similar situation back in the late 1960s after completing BS in Chemical Engineering at a top 15 nationally ranked school and also a 2 year active duty obligation in the US Navy (as an Engineering Officer on an aircraft carrier). I wanted to go to graduate school in Chemical Engineering, using the GI bill and Fellowships to help with financing. Many of the factors I considered were the same ones you are considering. I ended up getting a Ph.D at a top 25 graduate school in the same region of the country where I had grown up and currently lived. During my career, I was involved with many academia-industry consortiums (during which I talked with many graduate students) and also was an ABET Program Evaluator for many years, during which I was involved with accrediting chemical engineering programs- so became familiar with the chemical engineering programs at several different universities. In hindsight, I have no regrets over my choice of a "non top 5 graduate school".   In addressing some of your questions:
    1. My perception is that the higher ranked a school is, the more likely that the faculty are consumed with their research interests, often at the expense of teaching excellence.  In my case, in attending a program focused on both research and teaching excellence, I ended up spending lots of one-on-one time with faculty and benefitted greatly from them being truly focused on quality of their lectures and education of their students.
    2. My perception is that graduating from a top 5 program provides a higher probability of immediate job offers. E.g., in the pharmaceutical industry where I spent my career, it was known that getting a Ph.D in biochemical engineering at MIT almost guaranteed a job offer from companies such as Merck.  However, I am unaware of any significant problems with Chemical Engineering Ph.Ds obtained from other top 25 universities eventually getting a job offer.
    3. Regarding the effect of getting opportunities later in one's careers, my experience is that the choice of university has little influence.
    I.e., the choice of university, and perhaps the professor sponsoring the student's research,  has some influence getting one's initial job, but, thereafter, its what one does with the tools and skills that have been acquired and utilized (along with interpersonal skills) that determines raises, promotions, and future opportunities.  I.e., its what I accomplished "on the job" that drove future opportunities at the company I worked for.  If most of my mid and late career supervisors and colleagues had been asked what university I got my Ph.D at, they would not have known.  Nor, to them, did it matter.

    Hope some of the above is helpful.

    Joseph Alford
    Zionsville IN

  • 4.  RE: How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

    Posted 03-14-2018 23:47
    "Program rank" is useful for high-level comparisons between programs, but they're only a rough guide of quality. There really is not much substantial differences between schools that are close to one another in rank.

    High-ranked schools can have some downside, though:  highly ranked programs become more attractive and get more applications, which make gaining admissions harder overall.

    But I should stress that PhD programs always boil down to the research environment. Some questions to ask yourself: 

    • Who has the wider range of faculty working in areas that interest you?
    • Where would you like to live as a grad student (in a city, a small town, etc.)? Does region of the country matter?
    • How does your stipend compare to cost of living where you are?
    • Will you be close to potential collaborators?
    • Do you want to work in a small department or a large department?
    • What do your current faculty mentors and advisors think of the two departments?

    / Ahmed E. Ismail
    Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering
    West Virginia University 

  • 5.  RE: How important is school 'rank' when choosing a PhD program

    Posted 03-15-2018 10:37
    ​If you don't know what research area to do your PhD on, try to get into the best schools possible because there are more good people and research programs to select at those institutions.  However, if you already know which area you want to pursue, try to get into the research groups of the best/active people in the area, and if these people are in the top schools, that is even better.

    Trung Nguyen PhD
    University of Kansas
    Lawrence KS