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Throwaway1

Rank Over Fit

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I've applied to a number of PhD programs in hydrogeology. One of the schools I would really like to go to has a pretty low ranking (though the placement reports do indicate people get jobs in research and academia after graduation), but the fit is much better for me than most of the other schools I applied to. The ranking shows quite a bit of difference on US News rankings compared to most of the other schools I applied to (113 ranking versus 42 to 77 rankings for other schools I applied to). 

Ranking aside, it seems like an amazing fit for me. I would be working with two people I really respect who have a good publishing record and a good record of students as first authors. I would get to work on a couple projects that I'm really excited about, and the school is in a city I think I would like to live in (visiting soon). I'm just worried about getting a job at a university or national lab afterwards. Should I go to a school with a better rank even if it seems like a bit less of a good fit?

Edited by Throwaway1

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"Rank" mostly tells you:

  • How productive most graduate students are in terms of publications
  • How well faculty are thought of in a general sense
  • How well people get jobs, and
  • How good the funding is. 

Given that you're considering working with people who have a good record of publishing and seem to have a good reputation.... I wouldn't worry as much about rank as fit. 

Rank is a really.... Broad and frequently argued criteria for graduate programs, especially once you're down past the top 5 or 10 programs in a field. 

Name recognition can, sometimes, help you get your foot in the door for an interview, but what is most important is the reputation you make for yourself through your work. Going somewhere that will give you the opportunities and support to build that reputation is by far the most important, imo. 

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The ranking you discuss here is for the school in general, the program in particular, or even for your particular sub-discipline? In addition, do you have an idea of your post-PhD plans? 

If you hope to go into academia, your advisor and department's reputation are far more important than the school's overall ranking. Excellent programs will sometimes sit in pretty (otherwise) mediocre schools, and no one will care about that because everyone knows the department is good. Your particular advisor's record also matters a great deal -- if s/he has a strong placement record and connections in the field, that should be all that matters. On the other hand, if you're planning to go into industry, the "brand name" may matter more, because employers will be less familiar with the particular standing and research abilities of particular departments and professors. The more the field is specialized, the more the department matters more and the school less. 

Overall, I'd rank fit and advisor above school ranking. Those rankings don't really reflect advanced degrees and research that well anyway. 

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@fuzzylogician Thanks for the reply! The rank is unfortunately for the geology department. The school has a pretty good rank for other science departments (not sure why geology is so low). My advisor has a good track record and connections with both industry and academia, and from what I've read in the graduate placement reports the department has been successful with that (though they haven't put out one of those reports in about 5 years, so I'm going on older information). 

I hope to go into academia after. I really would like to go to this school, but I'm just worried about shooting myself in the foot by choosing a lower ranked school. 

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@Throwaway1 you say that this advisor and department have a strong track record in placing students in jobs like the ones you'd like to have; if so, then it seems like a safe bet, the general ranking of the department notwithstanding. Where did that ranking come from, anyway? 

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I also applied to a hydrogeology program. It's the same school I'm getting my undergrad degree, though. So I'm pretty content with the capability of the professors to thoroughly teach me everything I need to be successful. 

Min my opinion, ranking doesn't matter. What matters is the relationship you have with your advisors (that's the most important thing to me at least), and if your doing research in the things you love and enjoy! Nothing else should matter. You can go to a top school doing research you don't care about along with crappy advisors. So the decision has many factors and it's really all about what you're comfortable with and if you're doing what you love. 

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