Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Informal survey: How important are departmental rankings?

Coincident with the annual US graduate school admission season, I've had a few conversations in recent days where the topic of departmental rankings has come up.  I've written about this general topic before (here and here, for example).  I want to perform a non-serious (in the sense that it's a self-selected survey population that may well be atypical) survey here of those applying to grad school, currently in grad school, or recently (say within the last 4 years) completing grad school:  How important were official rankings (e.g., US News; NRC) of graduate programs in your grad school application process (where you decided to apply) and in your eventual decision?  


Ted Corcovilos said...

For me I looked at groupings of schools (Top 10, Top 20, etc.) but it seemed silly to say that Number 1 was better than Number 2 or even Number 5.

Another way to put it: I assumed the rankings had very large error bars.

Most of the advice I got about picking schools was that I should go someplace with research that interested me. I think that's more important than rankings.

Tobias said...

I didn't look at ranking at all - rather I applied only to places that I knew by reputation, i.e. I had seen publications in fields I was interested in. Another thing I considered is the make-up of the department. A place like UIUC might be fantastic if you're interested in condensed matter, but may offer very few options in other sub-fields.

I ended up accepting the offer from Rice over CalTech & MIT because of the proximity to my wife & her family. Maybe not the most common desicion-making process, but quite human :)

Funilly enough, my captcha today for nanoscale views is "small".

Michael Swift said...

I picked places to apply based on 1) advice from faculty 2) their ranking within Condensed Matter and 3) their weather. Then after visiting, I decided based on where the students seemed to be happiest and most interested in their work. I also took job prospects after graduation into account.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the first poster; the rankings were a way to group schools into tiers, but when I made my decision I wasn't worried about the fact that one school was ranked 7 and the other 11.

Anonymous said...

from my experience on the grad admissions committee: field rankings matter a great deal

Anzel said...

I was somewhat uncertain of what exactly I wanted to get myself into (beyond some general ideas towards Condensed Matter) so my process was
Step 1: Get an idea of the general ranking of universities' physics programs (I.E. which were considered top tier, tier 1.5, tier 2...).
Step 2: Narrow the list by where I thought living would be interesting (UIUC was a no--I really wanted to be in a big city).
Step 3: Apply to a few universities in each tier. See who let me in.

I agree with Ted that I felt like each ranking had a large error bar.

The final decision I had was between Caltech and Maryland (who was offering me a really nice fellowship). I felt like I'd be more challenged at Caltech (a good thing) and realized that College Park was pretty suboptimal (though I love DC) so I went to CIT. I don't regret the decision at all.

Massimo said...

My sense is that the majority of applicants attempt to identify first a group of departments and/or individuals with whom they can carry out the type of research work in which they are interested -- but then look at rankings to make their final decision. Specifically, while as some commentators have already said, one is not going to pick the best ranked department necessarily, my sense is that most of them would be uncomfortable with the idea of pursuing a degree at a department that is ranked significantly below the others.

Anonymous said...

I went to a large midwestern university and participated in research all throughout my undergrad studies. When I decided to attend graduate school I had several discussions with my research advisor regarding graduate school. He gave me two lists: top schools in condensed matter/surface physics and top people to work for. I chose the latter at a university well regarded in general rankings, but not so high in physics rankings, because of the campus visit/advisor. I got on well with my future phd advisor during the visit and was excited by her research. While my university may not be Ivy League, or even in the 'highest' tier, I think the choice base on advisor has been more important.

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