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Which is more important, school or publications?


jacobsch
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Hi I'm about two and a half years into my chemistry PhD program, and I just found out how low my school's ranking is. My adviser told me that given my undergraduate success I could have easily gotten into Berkeley, but I was very naive about graduate school when I was applying. Anyways, after looking online about the importance of going to an ivy-league school in terms of job placement I'm starting to get a little nervous. Some people suggest that the quality of the school is extremely important, while others say that publications are most important. I'm already a co-author of three papers (the highest impact factor of the three is about 4.8) and am currently writing three more papers we hope to have published in similar journals by the end of this summer. My adviser wants me to have 15 publications before I graduate which I don't think is unrealistic given the amount of data we've already taken and analyzed. So I guess my question is: will I be able to get into a good job like at a national lab or a good research oriented university? or are my job options really as limited as some people say because of the name of the school I'm attending? and if the prestige of my university does turn out to be super important, what can I do in my remaining years to be as strong of a candidate as possible?

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Publication quality > Quantity. Focus on not just high impact journals, but publications that will yield you a large amount of citations.  Use hard hitting publications to leverage yourself into a strong postdoc. Use that postdoc to get a TT or Lab position.

 

Prestige is important, but publication quality and connections are more so. Usually, the higher ranked schools place better because they get better students, its a self fulfilling paradigm.

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I think the reason prestige is important is that prestigous schools often have well known professors who are publishing great work. If you are publishing great work then you should be able to compete with the phd students at top schools. I dont think the number of publications is necesarily as important as the quality.

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More important than the prestige of the PhD is the prestige of the Post-Doc. 

 

You don't mention if you're interested in academic or industry jobs, as it will be different either way. 

 

But publish good research, go to national conferences, network, and land yourself a top-5 postdoc if you want to go that route. 

 

My school is relatively unknown, but I've gotten to meet and network well with the absolute top people in my field, and should be well placed for a good post-doc if I go that route. 

 

And it's the last school before you apply for jobs that will carry the most weight (ie, post-doc). 

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Some people go for quality and some people go for quality of publications. As long as your writing skills are sufficient I don't see anything wrong going with either path. Just make sure you polish up your grant writing skills and then apply to strong schools for your postdoc. Make sure that you demonstrate that you have a strong capability to publish, write grants, and coordinate research to increase your value. Name is one of those things that hard to gauge in terms of importance. Some people use school name as a first pass since it tells them a lot about what type of candidate you will be, while others ignore names all together. One thing for sure is that the big names tend to lead to better connections which makes it easier to find people to vouch for you and to find positions but you can get around that by going up to people at conferences and introducing yourself. Having a big name behind you doesn't hurt but the number of people who overcome that barrier is plentiful. 

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Do you all think there could be any disadvantages coming from a top-ranked program? For example, very high expectations? I know we recently had a candidate who looked great on paper but bombed his job talk. It was so bad that even as a new grad student I could tell he was flailing because he couldn't even answer the simple questions. So, I wonder if other people have that impression of graduates from my program, since we are ranked #1 (U.S. News and World Report) in our sub-specialty.

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I would also say, and I'm not sure about social sciences, but that one of the problems with coming from a top lab at a top school isn't necessarily expectations but competition. 

 

If you're in a large lab, with several people going on the market the same year (likely), chances are the PI isn't going to write letters for you all saying you're the best student he's had. 

 

Sometimes, a very strong letter (best student in the last 15 years, etc) from a well respected PI at a slightly lower ranked school is going to be a lot more beneficial in landing jobs and post-docs than a "good" letter from a PI at a top school. 

 

Regardless, at least in my field, the degree and letters are never going to do anything more than get your application considered. They won't get you the job. 

 

The might get you an interview, or a more in depth look at your research proposals, but the hiring decision is going to be based on your portfolio of work and your proposals, as well as your personality and fit with the institution. 

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Do you all think there could be any disadvantages coming from a top-ranked program? For example, very high expectations? I know we recently had a candidate who looked great on paper but bombed his job talk. It was so bad that even as a new grad student I could tell he was flailing because he couldn't even answer the simple questions. So, I wonder if other people have that impression of graduates from my program, since we are ranked #1 (U.S. News and World Report) in our sub-specialty.

 

I think there is a slight disadvantage sometimes. In my field, it's well known that the quality of your output is not just a function of your own skill, but also a function of how much resources you have. At a top school, you have a ton of resources, and sometimes people will wonder if your ability to generate great results is because you are a great scientist, or because you have access to the best equipment in the world, and basically anyone who is competent can get good results from this kind of instrument! So, a school that is lower ranked and has less resources might worry that you might not be able to do as good work as someone who also came from a resource-lacking school and learned to be clever with less than ideal resources!

 

However, I think this is only a disadvantage if you let it be one. If you are at a top school and don't let yourself get complacent with your resources (i.e. always pushing yourself to learn more, and do more) then I think this is not really a problem at all!

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