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Ranking or Advisor? What matters most in picking a PhD program?

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I’m in a little bit of a dilemma. I have received two offers from history PhD programs and have thoroughly enjoyed both of my visits. What should then be the number one thing on my criteria when making my final decision?Having had an advisor from hell experience at a decently ranked history MA program, I am weighing mostly quality of facility/available support. I feel like I have received 2 quality offers in terms of advisor but...

According to US News and World Report School A’s history grad dept ranks somewhere in the 30s and School B ranks in the 70s. The advisor at school A is an established legend & the president of major conferences in my field, while school B has a rising star who in a little over a decade has already published numerous books, which have been praised by the legends of the field. People at the top tier programs in my field, in fact, all recommended that I apply to be his student. He also runs a lot of academic institutes and is well respected. One student at school A told me while my prospective advisor is great she can be “a little head in the clouds” and thus a dual advising situation would work better. Plus her bread and butter is a different century than mine but she has nonetheless backed my project. Advisor B not only does my century but I’ve read his book numerous times even before grad school, it was really an inspiration. So his subject matter is more in my wheelhouse. And the students didn’t really have anything negative to say about him, plus there are numerous other people who could serve on my committee at school B. In full disclosure I do the history of race in modern Europe. 

Loved my visit to school A but school B’s visit blew me away: I was mainly impressed in the tight knit support and the financial package is better (tho it is much more expensive to live in the area school B) & the grad student culture. For whatever it’s worth B is on the beach and A is in the snow.

   I am leaning toward school B to be honest, but would the low ranking screw my career prospects? I should note that School B, despite its low ranking seems to have had a recent placement record (mostly in a regional field outside of mine in history) and School A seems to be more unclear.

   I really liked both but I feel like School B is beginning to really separate itself from the pack. Am I neglecting the rankings too much? Or focusing on them too much? Advisor/support or rankings? What have you guys weighed the most?

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Everyone weighs these decisions differently. For me deciding between several programs relatively close in rank, it came down to funding and fit with my adviser. I think the rank disparity between your two programs would've been enough for me to rule out school B. Unfortunately, there is a small contingent of programs that disproportionately place PhDs in TT jobs, and programs ranked in the 70s are not among them. Granted, certain lower ranked departments may have a particular subfield that's exceptionally strong with a good placement record and discipline-wide prestige (MSU's African history comes to mind), but that's few and far between. You need to think about what you want to do after you get the degree--if you don't want to stay in academia, then going with school B is fine (as long as they're fully funding you). If you want to stay in academia, rank should be more of a factor, even if it isn't the primary one in your calculation. 

If I was you, I would contact your POIs at both programs and ask about their past students' placement. If School A's placement record is unclear, you can also contact the DGS for more info about it. This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask programs...they know your future is on the line.

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The US News and World Report's rankings are worthless. You should go to School A. Your advisor's reputation will follow you long after s/he dies. Think about Prof. B's time constraints. Running academic institutes is time consuming. My advisor is on multiple committees and it can be a chore to meet with her at all.

You should also look at placement. Having a "star" advisor is worthless if s/he can't place students.

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Posted (edited)

Unless either of these institutions is truly renowned in your field (e.g., MSU for African history or Georgetown for Mideast history, which are really rare examples), look at your prospective advisors' placement records. If neither have placed many students, compare funding and research resources.

Edited by AfricanusCrowther

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School A.  Definitely look at the placement records of your adviser's previous students and the program as a whole. Where do people tend to end up? Are you okay with going wherever they went up?

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To me, the key question is this. Is being in an environment that puts you in the best situation to get you what you need (a positive relationship with an advisor) less or more important than being in an environment that gets you what you want? (To be clear, I'm defining OP's need within a specific context, I'm not making any generalizations about others' needs or wants.)

MOO, you haven't presented enough information to indicate that you've done your due diligence on your most important criterion: the need for an advisor with whom you can establish meaningful rapport.

I recommend that, in addition to the guidance you've received so far, you reach out to former graduate students of professors you would work with at School A. Pie in the sky, you'd find a mix of former students that have secured the kinds of jobs you want and some who have not.

I emphasize former graduate students because, as you may have learned from your unfortunate experience, it can be exceptionally difficult to say to others that a bad situation is actually horrible when one is in the middle of it.

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Posted (edited)

I second Sigaba's comment. I know of a couple of star scholars who can place students well but are borderline emotionally abusive in different ways and make their advisees' grad school experience a living hell. It's important to know if that's the situation you're walking into so you can make an informed decision about the environment you'll be in for the next several years of your life.

That's one thing you need to know. The other is, as others have said, your potential advisor's placement record. I would include their dropout record here as well and ask for the reasons their former students who didn't graduate left the program. Often that happens because the student didn't feel grad school was for them, which is fine, but sometimes the advisor or department could play a role in pushing someone out of academia.

You want to know if your advisor has a track record of turning administrative formalities like renewal forms or evaluations that no one else in the department takes seriously into massive trials, if they refuse to let students defend for years on end, if they frequently clash with students over conceptual questions pertaining to their dissertations, if they are inaccessible or indifferent, if they are liable to forget who you are in between meetings, if they have ever messed up handling a student's medical/mental health/pregnancy/parenthood/family/academic issues, etc.

Frankly, it sounds like School B is a better fit, has more money for you and would make you happier, plus the warning that having a second advisor would be a good idea is a massive red flag re. School A. So I will give you different advice from some others and tell you that it's reasonable to lean toward School B at this point. If you were choosing between a mediocre advisor at a top-10 department and a great advisor at a top-30 department, assuming they were ranked by placement and not just by the USNWR's weird criteria, the latter would be harder to justify because of the massive placement advantage the former would be likely to have. But, frankly, both of your choices probably have a hard time competing for plum jobs/postdocs with top departments, so the difference in ranking is less significant.

Again, as everyone else has said, do look at your advisors' placement record first, in particular in recent years.

Edited by L13

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It possibly would. Given that your potential adviser at A seems to be more well known in academia as well. I would lean toward A.  

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