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When asked which are the best (or proper) universities to study, we are usually tempted to repeat the mantra: "if you are not able to say whether the university X is a top 5/10/20, it means it is not". 

Nonetheless, for some of us, especially foreigners, it is quite hard to identify the best 5/10/20 universities in the U.S.. Things get even harder if we are supposed to assess the quality (in terms of employability) or compare less known universities. Let's say, to decide whether to do a PhD at UC Irvine or UC Santa Barbara, or between UC Riverside and UC Merced.

There are some rankings available out there: US News, Times, QS, etc. Still, in many cases, especially after the top 20, the ranking disparities are so large that it gets quite hard to make a decision.

In this sense, what's the proper ranking to use? Or, what's the best way to choose the university when you have more than one letter of acceptance?

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US news is the authoritative ranking of graduate programs in political science. Overall rankings of universities are meaningless when deciding on grad programs.

You decide between acceptances by their ranking, who you want to work with the most, funding and scholarly support, and placement.

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6 minutes ago, Comparativist said:

US news is the authoritative ranking of graduate programs in political science. Overall rankings of universities are meaningless when deciding on grad programs.

You decide between acceptances by their ranking, who you want to work with the most, funding and scholarly support, and placement.

What's the weight of a good supervisor in such a choice? I mean, is a renowned professor in a low-ranked university better than a not-so-famous one in a higher-ranked one?

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A pretty big factor...but not just necessarily how famous they are. It matters how well they are placing students, how supportive they are, and what current/past grad students speak of their advising.

In my opinion, program usually trumps advisor...people usually get placed based on the training they received from their program and the brand name (and of course their record of pubs/research). When comparing similarily ranked programs, you take the advisor...if there is a huge gap, probably should take program. That being said, it is relatively rare that many super famous advisors are at low ranking programs.

Also, you have to think about forming a whole committee, it's rarely just one person that should be swaying your opinion.

Edited by Comparativist

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52 minutes ago, Comparativist said:

US news is the authoritative ranking of graduate programs in political science. Overall rankings of universities are meaningless when deciding on grad programs.

You decide between acceptances by their ranking, who you want to work with the most, funding and scholarly support, and placement.

 

Placement and support are huge factors for me. You can have the biggest names in the field in a department, but if they do not place what good are they to you? And by placement, I do not mean that one random student they placed at an R1. Not everyone wants to work at an R1, so that may skew placements a bit. However, if you can't place the students who want LACs in LACs, that is a problem. IMO. Consistency in placement is key.

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6 minutes ago, resDQ said:

 

Placement and support are huge factors for me. You can have the biggest names in the field in a department, but if they do not place what good are they to you? And by placement, I do not mean that one random student they placed at an R1. Not everyone wants to work at an R1, so that may skew placements a bit. However, if you can't place the students who want LACs in LACs, that is a problem. IMO. Consistency in placement is key.

In this sense, choosing a program based on placement would mean going through the alumni profiles and check where they are (hoping the university provides a database on that) or expecting a correlation between ranking position (i.e. US News) and placement?

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There is a lot of noise in the US News rankings (which, as Comparativist pointed out, are the authoritative ones for PS), but they can generally be used to understand where a school falls on the scale of Harvard to Kent State. The rule that you should generally attend the highest-ranked program to which you are accepted typically only applies when you are deciding between tiers - for example, it's best to choose Stanford over UNC, Columbia over OSU, NYU over UC-Davis, et cetera. I really don't think the ratings are too useful when comparing closely-ranked programs, and if you are deciding between (to use your example) Riverside and Merced then you should focus on their placement in your subfield. Most schools have this information available on their website, and it's really not a good sign if they don't. After all, most people pursue a PhD with the intention to use it, so it's very important to know how graduates of each prospective program are using theirs.

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7 minutes ago, dagnabbit said:

(...) After all, most people pursue a PhD with the intention to use it, so it's very important to know how graduates of each prospective program are using theirs.

It totally makes sense, @dagnabbit.

Now, @Comparativist and @dagnabbit, in regards of US News, what about the schools whose ranked was not published (i.e. Kent State, to follow dagnabbit)? Is it possibly because they are too bad to be ranked, or just because they were not evaluated?

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@torschlusspanik I think it's less about "too bad to be ranked" than it about the fact that those that do care about rankings and use them when applying to graduate school... are not likely to apply to anything outside of T-50. Ranking anything beyond T-50 would then be spent time that may not have needed to be spent. As for them maybe just not being evaluated... possibly? I haven't actually read through the methodology of ranking the schools by USWNR.

EDIT: Because technically you could continue the rankings beyond 50... but I guess, yes, in a way, "too bad to be ranked" works but the language seems a bit misleading. I don't think it means they're necessarily bad programs.

Edited by tkid86

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45 minutes ago, torschlusspanik said:

In this sense, choosing a program based on placement would mean going through the alumni profiles and check where they are (hoping the university provides a database on that) or expecting a correlation between ranking position (i.e. US News) and placement?

here are placement rankings http://www.brandeis.edu/departments/politics/graduate/docs/S1049096507070771a.pdf

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For what it's worth, US News graduate program rankings are decided through surveying academics at "peer institutions." Programs are ranked by averaging the ratings assigned to them in the surveys (on a scale of 1 to 5), and then placing them in order from 5 to 1. The thing is that this relies on the surveyed academics having some idea of what goes on at the programs that they're rating, so maybe there is simply a lack of knowledge about unranked programs such as Wayne State and Western Michigan. Of course, this usually corresponds with lower program quality.

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