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Is it always better to go to the higher ranked school?


bobbydd21
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I having a hard time trying to decide which Applied Math PhD Program to attend. Is it typically just best to go to the better ranked school? In other words, if there are cons to the better ranked school, should you kind of just suck it up because you will end up with a better job (hopefully in academia) in the future? 

 

Exact same amount of funding for both (TAship)

Choice #1: Rank #25 for Math

Pros: Better ranked school, faculty are top tier (many ivy-league PhDs)

Cons: Location (Long Island) - more expensive to live, building is pretty old, just didn't feel at home on the campus, intimidating (very large number of grad students)

 

Choice #2: Rank #87 for Math

Pros: Funding guaranteed for 5 years, Location - Cheaper to live/closer to home, smaller and more close knit-department, although professors aren't necessarily ivy league they are doing research in what I want to do, less intimidating faculty, felt more at home

Cons: Lower ranked school, might have to TA longer, not a dedicated Applied Math Department (its within the math department)

 

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I don't think you should *always* go to the higher-ranked program - it depends on funding, advisors, and career goals. But given the information presented here (you want to go into academia, and you have good funding) I think you should go to the higher-ranked program.

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Whichever ones gives you the highest opportunity to network...which would probably be the higheer ranking one. For [me], not only do I want to go to grad school to learn and enhance my knowledge...but I also want to network and have many work-study/research opportunties. Also, the school that I am going to has many graduates within my career field. But, I guess it varies for all of us.Funding isn't the first factor for me, personally. It's the curriculum and opportunties that I will gain as I pursue the program.

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I kind of figured the higher ranked school is probably the better option considering my future career goals. I want to work in academia but I do not have my heart set on necessarily working at a high ranked research university. Consider UCONN is ranked #87 in math, if I did graduate from there with a PhD, what are my options career wise for getting a job at a university? 

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You need to check into the placement record of UCONN's PhD students. This information should be available on the department's website. If not, ask your POI and the DGS for it.

I did try looking for this, but unfortunately I could not find it on UCONN's website. They only have a list of alumni and the year they graduated. I guess I could try cross-referencing that list with google searches.

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I don't think so at all! I think you need to find a balance between quality of research but the size of department. Consider this:

Program A is a tier 1 research institution, not very well known overall but has very good funding and labs for what you want to do, in fact has a few top level people. Consider this program "up and coming" Since this program is not as well known it has less graduate students in this specialty. 

Program B is also a tier 1 institution, is the best in the field for what you want to do, has a few top level people as well along with many mid-level people. This program has many many graduate students in this speciality due to its great reputation, many of these graduate students have great fellowships and win lots of awards.

I think program A is a much better opportunity because you are have the chance to be a big fish in a small pond. In a large program with lots of students the chance that you will be overlooked and provided with less 1-on-1 with top people making for less personal recommendations and less networking. Program B you very well may end up being just another graduate student in a whole slew of extremely talented people, where as with program A you can still work with top people, but on a much closer level and you can distinguish yourself more. 

Rankings are meaningless unless you distinguish yourself. Find where you personally will succeed. 

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I don't think so at all! I think you need to find a balance between quality of research but the size of department. Consider this:

Program A is a tier 1 research institution, not very well known overall but has very good funding and labs for what you want to do, in fact has a few top level people. Consider this program "up and coming" Since this program is not as well known it has less graduate students in this specialty. 

Program B is also a tier 1 institution, is the best in the field for what you want to do, has a few top level people as well along with many mid-level people. This program has many many graduate students in this speciality due to its great reputation, many of these graduate students have great fellowships and win lots of awards.

I think program A is a much better opportunity because you are have the chance to be a big fish in a small pond. In a large program with lots of students the chance that you will be overlooked and provided with less 1-on-1 with top people making for less personal recommendations and less networking. Program B you very well may end up being just another graduate student in a whole slew of extremely talented people, where as with program A you can still work with top people, but on a much closer level and you can distinguish yourself more. 

Rankings are meaningless unless you distinguish yourself. Find where you personally will succeed. 

 

This makes a lot of sense and is actually very helpful. I do feel that I would have a much greater chance of distinguishing myself at UCONN, since it is a much smaller program and there are not as many extremely talented people all competing for the same thing.

 

Really, my only concern is since UCONN is only ranked around 87, am I going to have a hard time finding a job just based on that alone? Or would being distinguished at a mid-level school maybe kind of weight out possibly being just normal at a top school?

Edited by bobbydd21
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This is itself a warning sign.

I don't know about that. I didn't see a placement history for any of the programs I applied to. I think it's different for math/science fields.

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I did try looking for this, but unfortunately I could not find it on UCONN's website. They only have a list of alumni and the year they graduated. I guess I could try cross-referencing that list with google searches.

I would do google searches, check LinkedIn, and ask the department.

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I would do google searches, check LinkedIn, and ask the department.

Yes, that is what I did. I didn't do all alumni, but I did about 15 over the last 5 years. I posted a picture of what I found below. There were also a few others who got post docs that I didn't list. Most finished their PhDs within 4-5 years (as the usual).  Is this a good sign or bad sign? 

10r63h0.png

Edited by bobbydd21
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I don't think "big fish in a small pond" is always good. There are certainly some advantages, as if you are the most promising graduate, the profs will spend extra time in helping you network and succeed. However, if you are middle-of-the-pack in the small pond, then you won't get as many advantages as the biggest fish would. On the other hand, if you are middle-of-the-pack in the big pond, the "brand name" power of the big pond is still an advantage. People are going to take another look at you when they see your school name on top of your CV, in a list of abstracts, and on your name badge at conferences. I've been in both types of schools and I can say that although the work I'm doing at both schools are about the same quality, I'm getting a lot more recognition for it at my "brand name" program. 

 

I think the best way to find placement records is to find the names of all graduated students in the last 4-5 years. Then, do a search on them to see where they are now and also search for their papers to see how good their work is / how widely cited they are.

 

In order to find the names of recent graduates, here are some options (somewhat ordered from easiest to hardest)

 

1. LinkedIn and other networking sites

2. Department website often shows this, listed by year of entry or graduation

3. Go on each of your POI's research websites and look for their published list of graduated students (sometimes it is directly on the website, sometimes they are listed in the CV)

4. Look up all the papers published by your POIs in the last 5-10 years, and note who their coauthors are. In my field, the author list usually goes Student, Supervisor, Collaborators, so I'd look for all papers where the professor is the 2nd or 3rd author and check if the 1st author is also from the same university. Note down all such names and then find these people's research websites to find their CV to see if they were indeed a graduate student there and to see where they are now. 

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Note: I'm not directly contradicting Cosmojo's advice--if both programs are indeed "Tier 1 research" places, then I don't think ranking differences between such schools are very important. However, from your example, I do think that the two schools are on two separate tiers. But I'm not intimately familiar with rankings in your field--I can only say that in my field, there is a huge difference between rank 20-something and rank 80-something.

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I don't think "big fish in a small pond" is always good. There are certainly some advantages, as if you are the most promising graduate, the profs will spend extra time in helping you network and succeed. However, if you are middle-of-the-pack in the small pond, then you won't get as many advantages as the biggest fish would. On the other hand, if you are middle-of-the-pack in the big pond, the "brand name" power of the big pond is still an advantage. People are going to take another look at you when they see your school name on top of your CV, in a list of abstracts, and on your name badge at conferences. I've been in both types of schools and I can say that although the work I'm doing at both schools are about the same quality, I'm getting a lot more recognition for it at my "brand name" program. 

 

I think the best way to find placement records is to find the names of all graduated students in the last 4-5 years. Then, do a search on them to see where they are now and also search for their papers to see how good their work is / how widely cited they are.

 

In order to find the names of recent graduates, here are some options (somewhat ordered from easiest to hardest)

 

1. LinkedIn and other networking sites

2. Department website often shows this, listed by year of entry or graduation

3. Go on each of your POI's research websites and look for their published list of graduated students (sometimes it is directly on the website, sometimes they are listed in the CV)

4. Look up all the papers published by your POIs in the last 5-10 years, and note who their coauthors are. In my field, the author list usually goes Student, Supervisor, Collaborators, so I'd look for all papers where the professor is the 2nd or 3rd author and check if the 1st author is also from the same university. Note down all such names and then find these people's research websites to find their CV to see if they were indeed a graduate student there and to see where they are now. 

I definitely see both sides. This is definitely one of the hardest decisions I've had to make. No, both schools are not at the same tier as far as I'm aware of. But on the other hand, even though Stony Brook is a much higher rank, it is not Ivy League so I don't really know how many people know of the name as far as a "brand name" goes (like Columbia or MIT for example). 

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I don't know about that. I didn't see a placement history for any of the programs I applied to. I think it's different for math/science fields.

 

I'm not entirely sure how this constitutes a contradiction of my statement.

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One factor that is important is will you be happy in either program? I ask this because you will be spending the next 4 to 5 years constantly around your peers, faculty, and staff. You did mention how one felt more homey than the other or intimidating the professors were. Some other things to consider are: How much time do students have typically outside of research and departmental duties? How do their advisors treat them? Are the secretaries happy? (good indication on the health of the department) 

 

 While this shouldn't be the only factor in your decision, it is an important one. 

 

Good luck.

 

Edit: added another question to think about.

Edited by littlemoondragon
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It's not a warning sign because many STEM disciplines don't actively publish their placement records, whether the placements/program are good or not.

 

It might depend on the field though--in Astronomy, it's pretty common for programs to have a page that list their alumni by name, year, thesis title and usually, their current position. For example:

 

Harvard: http://astronomy.fas.harvard.edu/astronomy-alumni

Maryland: https://www.astro.umd.edu/people/allphds_pub.html

Caltech: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/people/grad_alumni.html

Ohio State: https://astronomy.osu.edu/grad/phd-alumni

 

But it is a little tricky -- some schools only report alumni that tell them where they are now, and those that don't go on into academia generally don't keep in touch. So, if your departments of interest do this, it is important to look at the number of current graduate students to get an estimate of how many incoming graduate students there are per year and then you can estimate what fraction of alumni actually appear on this page!

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One factor that is important is will you be happy in either program? I ask this because you will be spending the next 4 to 5 years constantly around your peers, faculty, and staff. You did mention how one felt more homey than the other or intimidating the professors were. Some other things to consider are: How much time do students have typically outside of research and departmental duties? How do their advisors treat them? Are the secretaries happy? (good indication on the health of the department) 

 

 While this shouldn't be the only factor in your decision, it is an important one. 

 

Good luck.

 

Edit: added another question to think about.

This is kind of one of my concerns. Basically what I've been asking myself is, is it worth sticking it out at maybe not as comfortable of a place in order to graduate from a "better" school? 

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My only advice is to think of the long term - financially, in terms of happiness, in terms of location, and in terms of the school's reputation. Make your decision based taking everything into account, and don't just follow the momentary impulse but think of where you want to be in 5-10 years.

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