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Program Reputation/Rank vs. Advisor Fit: Is there a threshold?

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Program repuation/rank is important. It's a proxy for the productivity of students and faculty, and where you train and who you train with moderately/strongly determine your own productivity and your hireability/post-doc-ability.

 

So does advisor "fit." Advisor fit also makes you happy (that matters, right?)

 

Let's say you're accepted to great programs with advisors you feel fit with. At what range of program ranking would you ignore ranking and go with the the best fit? In other words, under what conditions does ranking stop mattering? Or, should you just go with the best fit, rankings be damned?

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Off the top of my head: within top 10 programs, I wouldn't care about rankings. Below that, say top 20 programs- it's really case specific. If you widen the range more though (choosing between top 5 without good fit and a less than 20th ranked program with good fit)- I'd go with rankings. Having said that, I know I can get quite blinded by rankings so take what I say with a grain of salt. 

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It depends on the type of fit, I think. If it is a really good school but working with that person will make you want to quit grad school, you should reconsider it. I personally considered fit to be more important, but I will be going into an applied discipline, not academia.

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there are circles in every field. professors from the same circle of collaborative work will be sort of congregated at certain places. among these labs there will be lots of exchanges and connections. in this case, the fit matters. but usually, the labs from the same circle are sort of from similar programs with comparable rankings in their field. may not answer your question directly but hope it helps a bit

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Are you talking overall rankings or rankings in your subfield? IMO, that matters a great deal. A school might be top 20 overall but top 5 for your subfield, in which case it might be better than going to a school that's top 10 overall but weaker in your subfield... I'm not in psych but, when deciding between schools in the top 15, I went with advisor fit above else. And I don't just mean fit in terms of research interests and personality because there were several of those (I'd met many of my POIs before I applied for the PhD at conferences) but I went with the best known name, even though this person was at a slightly lower ranked school (so going to #14 instead of #5 or #8).

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For me it's within the top 30 or so.  Research fit is important; you want to be working on things you want to work on.  Also, like rising_star said, sometimes the advisor at a technically lower-ranked school might be better-known in your area.  My psychology department is like top 15-20 but my advisor is one of the biggest names in methodological research, so for someone like me who wanted to concentrate in statistics and methodology it was nice to have that name recognition (plus he's just a great person who was a good mentor, and his research matched my own interests).  I picked a school towards the bottom of the top 25 (Ohio State, tied for #21) and found a famous name in self-esteem research; I think she recently moved there from Michigan.  NYU is #30 but I know there are a couple of famous people on faculty that do research there; some of them aren't even my areas but I still recognize the names.  Penn State is ranked #30 but is top 5 within developmental, for example.  UCSB is ranked #40 but has several big names within my subfields.

 

I wouldn't give the rankings much weight, since they are reorganized from year to year.  It's major groupings that really make the big difference, and I think the top 30ish programs are similar enough in quality and name recognition that what really matters are the subfields, your advisor, and where you think you can get the best training for what you want to do.  Like, if you know the #1 program in your field has a 100% placement rate - in academia - and you want to work in industry but the #20 school has crazy industry connections and the faculty seem much more amenable to students getting non-academic work experiences and training, then that might be the place for you.

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The personality of the adviser matters too, and I'm not just talking about their publishing reputation and relationships with other colleagues. What is their reputation for how they treat their students? Are their former students successful? How many drop out before graduating compared to other faculty you're considering?

 

Prestigious advisers who have little interest in their students beyond pack mules do exist in large enough numbers for this to be a concern. Some may be brilliant, but poor at communicating with and managing their students. Others still can be cruel, manipulative, and potentially career-ruining if you cross them. Most of these personality factors are not even going to be apparent via correspondence or interview. If you can, I think it's extremely wise to contact former students and dig a bit. This is especially true if they are your only good research fit at the university in question.

 

Overall, a productive program with multiple potential advisers > single perfect fit about which many variables are unknown when you accept an admissions offer. Also, I don't know if this is just an anecdote or based on serious empirical study - but I have heard multiple times from different admissions coaches that the single most important factor in the success of a PhD student is the relationship they have with their adviser. And observing some of the grad students at my own university, this does seem to ring very true.

Edited by TXInstrument11

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I would contend that fit is significantly more important than ranking. In addition, I would expand the definition of "fit" to not only include research interests, but also research productivity within the lab you are applying to. If you're working with a researcher who is doing work you are most interested in at a school ranked #20 and they can get you on 5+ publications per year, vs. a researcher at a school in the top 5 with similar research interests though not as strong as the former and they'll likely only get you on 2-3 publications per year, that's pretty significant.

 

That said, I am struggling with this as we speak. One school I am interviewing at is very easily top 5, the other is more like top 10, the latter has a closer research match while the former's researcher is maybe the most famous for his research area in the field today. Objectively I know where I should lean towards, but it's definitely hard to get the status side of things out of my head.

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What about when you're talking about ranked versus essentially unranked programs?

Does an excellent fit still make up for not being a school anyone's heard of?

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I would contend that fit is significantly more important than ranking. In addition, I would expand the definition of "fit" to not only include research interests, but also research productivity within the lab you are applying to. If you're working with a researcher who is doing work you are most interested in at a school ranked #20 and they can get you on 5+ publications per year, vs. a researcher at a school in the top 5 with similar research interests though not as strong as the former and they'll likely only get you on 2-3 publications per year, that's pretty significant.

 

That said, I am struggling with this as we speak. One school I am interviewing at is very easily top 5, the other is more like top 10, the latter has a closer research match while the former's researcher is maybe the most famous for his research area in the field today. Objectively I know where I should lean towards, but it's definitely hard to get the status side of things out of my head.

IMO - Status, though you can put a number on it like # of pubs or % students who graduate, is something you should consider if being objective about which program would best benefit you.

Idk, maybe between those, google stalking their former students and seeing how many pubs they co-author with their students would help. I definitely think rank is a relevant factor; they're flawed, yes, but have some basis in reality. 

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Fit is a much more compelling aspect to of the decision than ranking. In terms of ranking, there are no rankings you can really trust for graduate schools. People aren't really going to care about ranking as much as they will about the overall reputation in your field. Reputation overall will matter, for example, for internship matching, etc. if you're in clinical. 

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Reading all th wise replies here, I just thought of another thing- as someone here (I think it was Jullietmercerdi) mentioned, the answer really does depend on what you want to do next. If you want to stay in academia researching and teaching (like I do) than rankings (alongside specific advisor's reputation and prestiege) probably matter a bit more. However, if you want to do field work (as in clinical psych programs) than fit is probably more important since good fit would make graduation more likely. I don't know though- it prestiege of institution being concidered when applying for internships/ jobs as a psychologist?

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In my experience, ranking and fit are not independent of each other. For example, the best research fit for me is access to telescope time. And whether we like it or not, money is what buys the telescope time and what allows me to do the science we want. And in order to attract big donors to get the big money, you need to be ranked highly. Also higher ranked schools are more attractive for interesting visiting scholars (whether they are here for just a seminar or staying a few weeks/months). Higher ranked schools may also have more resources to properly support you, both professionally (funding for experiments, travel, etc., strong alumni network, attract big companies for career fairs) and personally (childcare, health insurance, support for dependents, good policies for health and personal leave etc.). Also, at higher ranked schools, if you end up finding that you don't like your first advisor choice, there is usually plenty of other people you can work with!

 

Therefore, I don't think it's always "fit vs. ranking" but really, you want to maximize the fit+ranking! I would put them on equal footing, personally. I mean, these high ranked schools are actually high ranking for a reason (this reason might simply be money, but see above for how money is helpful), it's not like people just arbitrarily assign reputation to schools/programs! Of course, rankings are subjective (and some schools might have earned a high/low ranking in the past but perception have kept them at these rankings even though current conditions have changed. So, I would say that you should group school rankings in whatever ranges make sense for your field. For example, in mine, I would say that the top 5 schools are pretty much all the same goodness, and then there's the 5th-20th ranking etc. But in bigger fields, perhaps the top 20 schools are all ranked pretty much the same.

 

**Note: When I say ranking, I mean sub-field ranking (i.e. I would be considering "Physics and Astronomy" rankings, not the general US News rankings, but also not the super specific subfields, e.g. "Particle Astrophysics" would be too narrow in my opinion).

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In my experience, ranking and fit are not independent of each other. For example, the best research fit for me is access to telescope time. And whether we like it or not, money is what buys the telescope time and what allows me to do the science we want. And in order to attract big donors to get the big money, you need to be ranked highly. Also higher ranked schools are more attractive for interesting visiting scholars (whether they are here for just a seminar or staying a few weeks/months). Higher ranked schools may also have more resources to properly support you, both professionally (funding for experiments, travel, etc., strong alumni network, attract big companies for career fairs) and personally (childcare, health insurance, support for dependents, good policies for health and personal leave etc.). Also, at higher ranked schools, if you end up finding that you don't like your first advisor choice, there is usually plenty of other people you can work with!

 

Therefore, I don't think it's always "fit vs. ranking" but really, you want to maximize the fit+ranking! I would put them on equal footing, personally. I mean, these high ranked schools are actually high ranking for a reason (this reason might simply be money, but see above for how money is helpful), it's not like people just arbitrarily assign reputation to schools/programs! Of course, rankings are subjective (and some schools might have earned a high/low ranking in the past but perception have kept them at these rankings even though current conditions have changed. So, I would say that you should group school rankings in whatever ranges make sense for your field. For example, in mine, I would say that the top 5 schools are pretty much all the same goodness, and then there's the 5th-20th ranking etc. But in bigger fields, perhaps the top 20 schools are all ranked pretty much the same.

 

**Note: When I say ranking, I mean sub-field ranking (i.e. I would be considering "Physics and Astronomy" rankings, not the general US News rankings, but also not the super specific subfields, e.g. "Particle Astrophysics" would be too narrow in my opinion).

This. That's a great and simple way to explain the importance of rank. Cynical as it may seem, following the money works, even in science.

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Thank you for all the great comments!

 

I'll be more specific just to generate more dicussion, not because you all haven't answered and/or discussed good points about my question.

 

Is any one point on this graph better than another? By 'better' I mean, "obviously go to that school rather than the other."

 

FLhVeZ2.jpg

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Thank you for all the great comments!

 

I'll be more specific just to generate more dicussion, not because you all haven't answered and/or discussed good points about my question.

 

Is any one point on this graph better than another? By 'better' I mean, "obviously go to that school rather than the other."

 

FLhVeZ2.jpg

What rankings are you using? Also, # of potential advisers is a determining factor for me. Those are all highly ranked, especially considering the high number of social programs out there, so you're probably good with any of these. I'm sorry because that's no very helpful, but it doesn't look like you're comparing Podunk U to Harvard where rank would really matter.

Edited by TXInstrument11

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What rankings are you using? Also, # of potential advisers is a determining factor for me. Those are all highly ranked, especially considering the high number of social programs out there, so you're probably good with any of these. I'm sorry because that's no very helpful, but it doesn't look like you're comparing Podunk U to Harvard where rank would really matter.

Thank you, right?

Top 20 is top 20 is top 20.

I'm looking at a school that, IF ranked, hits well past 125th. But 45 in my field. But tons of excellent faculty fit. And sometimes ranked top 3 in my sub sub field. But people in my field sometimes don't even know it exists. Seriously.

Vs. a school ranked at 40 overall, and top 10 in my field, but not even ranked in my sub field. But with tons of faculty I am interested in.

Vs. a school ranked 100ish overall, 80 in my field, but top 10 in sub field. With only two or three faculty.

Now that's a spread!

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Thank you, right?

Top 20 is top 20 is top 20.

I'm looking at a school that, IF ranked, hits well past 125th. But 45 in my field. But tons of excellent faculty fit. And sometimes ranked top 3 in my sub sub field. But people in my field sometimes don't even know it exists. Seriously.

Vs. a school ranked at 40 overall, and top 10 in my field, but not even ranked in my sub field. But with tons of faculty I am interested in.

Vs. a school ranked 100ish overall, 80 in my field, but top 10 in sub field. With only two or three faculty.

Now that's a spread!

Well, to me, it depends on how certain you are of staying in your sub-field. Can you work with professors at school B (rank 10 in field) for your PhD and then work back into your subfield later? It may be hard, but if you have the requisite techniques and knowledge down to make the switch, it's doable. 

 

I am kind of in the same spot myself. Another POI just reached out to me at one of my schools and I think I have a decent chance of being admitted. Her research interests are basically identical to mine, though understandably a bit more specialized. However, she's basically it if I go there and the program isn't ranked very highly. Illinois, on the other hand, has a pretty strong psych department overall and a number of faculty I could see myself working with if push came to shove. 

 

I'm drawing up a list of pointed questions to ask POI # 1 in a skype interview to see if we share the same philosophy about the field, something I've increasingly found to be very contentious. If I'm admitted, I want to make sure the apparent overlap is legit because I'm liable to just throw all the caution I've displayed here and jump immediately at the chance, logic and flexibility be damned. Though I feel pretty strongly about some of my secondary research interests and could make it work, the stuff she's researching was on my mind for years before I even went to college. A part of me actually wants to be rejected outright, so I don't make hasty decisions.

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Well, to me, it depends on how certain you are of staying in your sub-field. Can you work with professors at school B (rank 10 in field) for your PhD and then work back into your subfield later? It may be hard, but if you have the requisite techniques and knowledge down to make the switch, it's doable. 

 

I am kind of in the same spot myself. Another POI just reached out to me at one of my schools and I think I have a decent chance of being admitted. Her research interests are basically identical to mine, though understandably a bit more specialized. However, she's basically it if I go there and the program isn't ranked very highly. Illinois, on the other hand, has a pretty strong psych department overall and a number of faculty I could see myself working with if push came to shove. 

 

I'm drawing up a list of pointed questions to ask POI # 1 in a skype interview to see if we share the same philosophy about the field, something I've increasingly found to be very contentious. If I'm admitted, I want to make sure the apparent overlap is legit because I'm liable to just throw all the caution I've displayed here and jump immediately at the chance, logic and flexibility be damned. Though I feel pretty strongly about some of my secondary research interests and could make it work, the stuff she's researching was on my mind for years before I even went to college. A part of me actually wants to be rejected outright, so I don't make hasty decisions.

 

Hmm, you make a good point.

I definitely could work my way back into my subfield. I never thought of it like that. Whereas if I go to a school with no reputation (not a bad rep, just no-little rep), despite its subfield ranking, if I wanted to branch out or go into different areas of the field... It might be harder, because my general program name is not recognized. However... this program has been described as "up and coming," and one of my main POI's there was just given the annual outstanding research award by our national association.

 

To contrast, the beauty of the top-10 in-my-field school, too, is that they not only have lots of faculty I'm interested in, but even other areas and departments, and they encourage interdisciplinary work (my love!). This school, however, has been flagged as possibly going the way of 'old' Chico State - i.e. becoming a party school, and being known more for its undergrads party life than for its academics. 

 

The in-between school is "recognized" by people in my field, though not ranked particularly high. I am going to re-visit that school to hopefully make a better determination of faculty fit. Right now, I say two or three fitbut it's really only one or two that I can see myself working with... But even with those two I feel like my research will get swayed heavily by their own interests, rather than my own.

 

Gah! There is too much to think about! So many factors to weigh.

I am trying to make a pros and cons spreadsheet, ranking the programs against one another, but also giving a stand-alone "score" 0-10 based on about 30 different factors and counting right now. Although I read somewhere else on the forum that doing this type of sheet is a waste of time because we subconsciously score/rank things how we ultimately want them to come out. ...Though I guess that gives you insight (if you lack it) on which school you really do prefer...

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IMO - Status, though you can put a number on it like # of pubs or % students who graduate, is something you should consider if being objective about which program would best benefit you.

Idk, maybe between those, google stalking their former students and seeing how many pubs they co-author with their students would help. I definitely think rank is a relevant factor; they're flawed, yes, but have some basis in reality. 

 

It just depends on which ranking system. US News? All they did was ask people about their opinions, I believe. I don't think they used any objective indices. I'd give it about 5% of the "meaningful" outcome variance of what matters, if we're putting statistics to it. If that.

 

I'd be more interested in things like number of publications, impact factors of the publications typically pursued by the department, collaborative relationships among other institutions/departments, how active professors are in influential organizations (e.g. presidents of certain groups), grants, certification/dual degree opportunities, etc. These are more objective and, in my opinion, far more relevant than US News rankings.

 

For the record: I am interviewing at UNC Chapel Hill, which is ranked #2 by US News. My "less rational" side of me is clearly very influenced by that, but objectively I know it shouldn't really matter since they earned that #2 spot based on opinions.

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Also I think it is important to acknowledge and re-emphasize the tradeoff aspect of this. It's 100% a cost-benefit analysis and there are thresholds for both rank and fit, where one can outweigh the other depending on what "level" each one is at. Perfect research fit at an institution ranked 100 vs. a decent/mediocre research fit at an institution in the top 5? I'd go more towards the latter, of course. But once we're within the top 25, I really don't think rank matters that much at all.

 

Clinical example: Boston University (26) vs. UNC (2) - if someone has a 10/10 fit with BU an a 6/10 fit at UNC, I'd probably urge them to consider BU more deeply. As fit for UNC increases, however, then it gets trickier.

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regarding the graph- If everything else is exactly the same, I'd go with one of the extremes. I'd rather know that I went with the best (either fit or ranking) rather than feel like I've compromised on both for the whole 5+ years... It might be just me though. But of course as people said here- there's a lot more that goes into such a decision, such as a "feel" for the place, location, company/ cohort etc. that might heavily influence the final decision.

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