Unsolicited advice, Part Deux: Choosing a grad school

Our first installment of unsolicited advice concerned the difficult question of how to get into graduate school; this one presumes that one has successfully leapt the hurdles of GRE’s and ornery admissions committees, and is faced with the perilous decision of which offer to accept. (If one has either one or zero offers, presumably the decision-making process is somewhat easier.) We will not, at the moment, be addressing whether you should be going to graduate school in the first place, or how to succeed once you get there. [Update: see also How to Be a Good Graduate Student.]

This is a much more difficult task than the first installment. Not that it’s more difficult to decide where to go than to get into grad school in the first place; just that it’s much more difficult to give sensible advice about how to do it. When it comes to getting into grad schools, everyone agrees on the basic notions: good grades, test scores, letters, research experience. Choosing where to go, in contrast, is a highly personal decision, and what works for one person might be utterly irrelevant to someone else. Rather than being overly prescriptive, then, I thought it might be useful just to chat about some of the issues that come up. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself how to weigh the various factors.

  • Why do you want to go to grad school in the first place? Sure, maybe you should have already given some thought to this question — but now is the time to get serious. Is your goal to become a professor or other professional researcher (which is typically assumed)? Or is it just to get a Ph.D., and then see what happens? Or is it simply to learn some science?

    As a general principle, the purpose of grad school is very different from that of your undergraduate college education. At least in the U.S., college serves multiple purposes: training in some concentration, to be sure, but also a broadly-based liberal education, as well as more general exposure to critical thinking, and crucially important social and personal aspects. Grad school is much more focused: it serves to train you how to be a working research scientist (or whatever, although I’ll be speaking as if it is science you’ll be studying, as that’s what I know best). In college it’s good to be a broad person and cast your net widely in the oceans of learning and experience. In grad school, however, there is a lot to be said for focusing as much as you can on the specific discipline in which you are specializing. Not that you should stop having broad interests, but it might make sense to sacrifice some of them temporarily to the goal of becoming an expert researcher.

    The reason for this is that, like it or not, you are entering a competition. Not necessarily grad school itself (where grading and suchlike are notoriously relaxed, although there may be competition for advisors and fellowships and such), but the ultimate job market. Most people who go to grad school want to get jobs as scientists, probably in academia. There are far fewer such jobs than there are grad students, so most people who get a Ph.D. will ultimately not succeed in becoming professors. And the other people who want those jobs are also very smart and dedicated. So, if you are serious about choosing this as your life’s path, it makes sense to really devote yourself to your craft during your grad school years, and give it your best shot. I personally think that the rigorous training provided by a Ph.D. is extremely useful and rewarding even if you don’t become a professor, but you should certainly enter the fray with open eyes.

    If becoming a professor is what you want to do, you should choose your school accordingly. At the same time, I’m a firm believer that your life doesn’t completely end just because you’re in grad school, nor that the process itself should be unpleasant. It should be extremely challenging, taking you to the limits of what you are capable of doing — but the days you spend in school are also days that you are alive, and you shouldn’t completely shut yourself away. That’s the difficult balance to strike. (Told you this wouldn’t be very helpful.)

  • How prestigious is the school and the department? Prestige is something that is much more relevant (to the extent is is relevant at all) to your undergraduate school than your grad school. Not that it’s completely irrelevant, but the prestige of your advisor is more relevant than that of your department, which is much more relevant than that of the university as a whole. Of course, there are tight correlations between these different kinds of prestige, but they are not perfect.

    Although we had a debate about this in comments to the previous advice post, I still think that the identity of the school/department from which you get your Ph.D. is essentially irrelevant to ultimately getting hired as a faculty member. This is not some utopian perspective that we live in a perfect meritocracy in which where you come from doesn’t matter; rather, what matters is where you are doing your postdoc(s), not where you went to grad school. Of course, where you do your postdoc might be affected by where you go to grad school! But more important is who your advisor is.

  • What kind of advisors are available? So now we get to the nitty-gritty. The single most important influence on your graduate career will be who your advisor is. Sometimes you might know precisely who you will be working with before you actually get to the school; this is more common in chemistry and biology than in physics, where the “lab” you will be associated with is all-important. But in physics, it’s more common to first arrive at the school, and only once you are there will you try to hook up with some advisor. (I know that MIT accepts people into different research groups, but most schools simply accept you into the department as a whole, without any hard and fast rule about what group you will be in, much less which advisor you will have.)

    Of course, picking an advisor means picking a specialty. Some people know exactly what they want to do before they arrive; that’s not necessary, but it helps. The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well? Your Ph.D. advisor will very possibly be writing letters about you for decades to come — choose someone with whom you will be proud to be associated with, and who will take some interest in your well-being.

    As far as choosing your field of specialty is concerned, many factors come into play. Of course you should do something in which you are interested. But you also want to get a job, and the job market can be different in different fields. (Most notoriously, it’s somewhat better in experiment than in theory.) The point is, what specialties represent the intersection of “things you think are interesting” and “things that might lead to a rewarding career”? If that intersection is empty, you might want to rethink this entire process.

    Keep in mind also that some advisors are harder to get than others. They might simply be more popular, or have less funding, or about to switch fields or go on a three-year sabbatical. Find out! There is no rule that says that, simply because you’ve been accepted to a department, the faculty member of your choice must take you on as a student. All else being equal, it’s nice to maximize the number of faculty that you might possibly wind up with as an advisor. Much can happen along the way to your Ph.D., and it’s good to have options.

  • What is the scientific environment like? Grad school is a crucially important time of your life, when you make the transition from being a student to being a researcher. You won’t do it alone. Are the other students in your prospective department and group people who you could learn things from? What about the postdocs? Postdocs, who are experts in their fields but were just recently students like yourself, are often the most valuable sources of insight as you are struggling to learn the ropes. What about other professors in the department — could you imagine dropping into their offices to talk about science, or are they overly intimidating (or, much more likely, never around)? Do people have lunch together, and hang out more generally, or does everyone go their own way? A supportive and useful environment goes a long way to molding you as an effective researcher in your own right.
  • What are the departmental requirements? A couple of years ago the University of Chicago held a celebration for the centennial birthday of Enrico Fermi, who was a Chicago faculty member. The department brought back a number of people who were graduate students in the 1950’s when Fermi was there. Put them all in a room fifty years later, and do you know what they talked about? The candidacy exam, that hazing ritual by which a young student proves that they are ready to take on research.

    Different departments put up different hurdles requirements between you and your Ph.D. What are the required classes? Are there many breadth requirements? Are the courses interesting, and are the faculty good teachers? Is there a general exam? An experimental requirement? How long does it take to get a Ph.D.? (This last question is likely to vary significantly from advisor to advisor — some advisors like to keep their students as worker bees in their vast empires, while others consider students a burden and want to get rid of them as soon as possible.)

  • How is life as a student? Probably the single most useful way to learn about different schools is to talk to the students who are already there. Email them, or seek them out during visits. They will usually be willing to give you the inside scoop (and will be much more well-informed and honest than faculty members). Is there competition for the best advisors? What is the departmental atmosphere like? Do you get nice offices? The more students you can talk to, the better — people can have wildly different experiences in exactly the same environment, so it’s good to collect a bunch of data.

    “Life as a student” includes life outside the lab. What is like to live in the location of this particular university? Is it a big city or a college town? (And which do you prefer?) What is the cost of living? Are there dorms, or do students generally live in apartments? Do you need a car? Details, details. Are the necessities of grad student life — movies, coffee, pizza — within easy reach?

  • How would you be supported? Another crucial issue. At some point you may have had the happy realization that most grad students in the natural sciences don’t actually pay those exorbitant tuition bills — in fact, you typically get paid to be a grad student, either through teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships (in roughly ascending order of desirability). So, is there enough support to go around? Is the stipend enough to actually live on? What are the chances of getting RA’s or fellowships, so that you don’t have to teach all the time? Getting some teaching experience is extremely valuable and rewarding, and you shouldn’t avoid it entirely. But it’s not the reason you are in grad school. Research is hard, and takes a lot of time — if you have to teach a huge amount, it can slow down your progress towards a thesis.
  • What should you do about your significant other? Now we’re getting serious. So you want to go to MIT, but your sweetie has the job of his/her dreams in Seattle. Should you suck it up and accept the offer from UW, or try to make a long-distance relationship work? Or forgo the temptations of romance, since your career is more important and love never lasts anyway?

    Look, I can’t help you here. All I can do is sympathize and recognize that these are real issues, not trivia. Like I said, your years in grad school are years of your lives, and shouldn’t be sacrificed utterly to your work. But sometimes a long-term plan involves temporary steps backwards to achieve a better ultimate goal. You have to decide for yourself, keeping in mind that there are no objectively right answers.

That last little motto applies not only to romantic entanglements, but to choosing a grad school more generally. It’s really hard to know ahead of time what place will be right for you. Different people will have very different ideas from mine, and you should listen to all sorts of perspectives (which will hopefully emerge in the comments). Think about it carefully, but don’t be afraid to trust your instincts as well. Your comfort level is important. If, after making your decision, you feel as if a great burden has been lifted and you’re happy inside, you’ve probably done the right thing. Good luck!

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80 Responses to Unsolicited advice, Part Deux: Choosing a grad school

  1. hack says:

    More realistic advice: Go to the most prestigeous school you can get into. That way your degree will at least enhance your resume when you go looking for a job in a consulting firm or investment bank. Once you leave academia (and odds are you will), nobody will know or care that your advisor at Kansas State was the top guy in his specialty, but they will recognize you can’t be a complete idiot of you got into Stanford.

  2. invcit says:

    “The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well?”

    At least some of these seem pretty difficult to find out before your choose the school, escpecially the last one.

  3. Rob Knop says:

    I guess I would also say that the prestige of the school you attend is actually quite important.

    I know that a good part of the reason I’m in the job I am now is because I have the word “Caltech” at the right spot on my Cur. Vit. Although the name “Tom Soifer” (my advisor) is quite well known in astronomy, and infrared astronomy in particular, not many people in Physics know the name– and I’m one of a very small number of astronomers in a department of Physics & Astronomy. Yet the name “Caltech” means a lot.

    If you look around the nation, you will find that a substantial number of the faculty members on *all* college and university faculties got their PhD from a relatively small number of programs.

    Caltech grad school is a pressure cooker, and I’m not sure I’d advise it generally. However, it is true that I have an unfair advantage over students who are in the graduate program here at Vanderbilt. If somebody graduate who was *just as good* as me (insofar as that is possible to measure), and we were competing for the job, I’d have a leg up becaues the word “Caltech” on the resume means more than the word “Vanderbilt” in Physics and Astronomy. Not fair, but it really is part of the truth.

    Now, if you can’t get an advisor who will work at a prestigious university, then, yeah, that’s not a great place to go. But the prestige of the department does matter. (And it really is the prestige of the department rather than the prestige of the University as a whole.)


  4. weichi says:

    Thanks, Sean.

    Not many comments yet, so I’ll ask more specific questions: why did you (not just Sean, but others too!) choose the grad school that you did? One particular factor (perhaps mentioned by Sean) or was it a bunch of different things? In hindsight, do you consider it a good decision?

  5. Becky Stanek says:

    At least some of these seem pretty difficult to find out before your choose the school, escpecially the last one.

    Many schools pay to have the accepted students visit the department, and meet with the faculty and graduate students. That gives the prospective students a chance to gauge the personalities of the faculty they might want to work with. Also, one can always contact the current and former students of a given professor to find out how serious the professor is about being a mentor, and not just a boss.

    why did you (not just Sean, but others too!) choose the grad school that you did?

    The research interests of the faculty at Michigan lined up with mine, so that was a big part of it. But it was also a gut decision — I thought I would be happiest at Michigan for a variety of reaons. In hindsight, I absolutely made the right decision, but that’s just what the right decision for me was.

  6. Sourav says:

    […] but the days you spend in school are also days that you are alive, and you shouldn’t completely shut yourself away. That’s the difficult balance to strike. (Told you this wouldn’t be very helpful.)

    You should be prepared to live and breathe your work. Yes, you should have hobbies to let you unwind and connect with the world; spend time with friends and family; and eat, exercise and sleep properly. However, if you are not ready for your mind to live largely inside your speciality (or some speciality in your field), you are kidding yourself.

  7. Ben L says:

    I have to say, I picked the “Go to the most prestigious school I got into” method. It seems to have worked out pretty well for me, at least so far :). That had a lot to do with the fact that I went to a teaching school for undergrad, and so had very little idea about the strengths of different schools.

    I did spend a lot of time talking to Students and Faculty, and decided that I couldn’t tell much from that… everywhere I went people claimed things were good, and the students were (relatively) happy, so prestige was about the only discriminating factor I had.

    One reason I think this was a good choice is that there does tend to be a strong correlation between the reputation of a school and the abilities of the other students. For me, at least, having lots of other good students around trying to learn the same things was a very beneficial thing.

  8. Sean says:

    There is a lot of correlation/causation confusion involved in the question of whether the prestige of your grad school helps you later in life. Of course the people who are later successful are primarily those who went to famous schools. I would argue that the reasons for this include (1) the top students went to those schools, where (2) they found other good students, like Ben says, and (3) the most active advisors were also to be found, which helped them (4) become good scientists and (5) do good research and (6) get good postdocs. Not because faculty search committees are heavily influenced by your grad school.

    Imagine that you were on a faculty search committee, trying to make a choice between two candidates. Both had postdocs at Berkeley and Princeton. You have heard them give talks and spoken with them personally. You have some feeling for what it would be like to have them as colleagues. You have looked at their publication records, maybe even read some of their papers. You have certainly read letters of recommendation from experts in their fields. Now, are you going to tell me that, of all these things, you will be significantly influenced by the overall prestige of the place they went to grad school? If not, why do you think other people would be? And if so, why in the world would you be?

  9. Andre says:


    I actually think many of those things aren’t too hard to find out if you’ve already narrowed down your choices and aren’t trying to screen a large number of potential advisors. You can get an idea of research activity by searching an article database or even Google Scholar for their name and looking at their most recent papers and how many times those papers have been cited by others and in my experience potential advisors will be very upfront about their desire (or lack thereof) for new students and about their ability to support them financially. As far as their supervising style and the support they give to students after the PhD are concerned, you can’t beat talking to current and former students about their experiences.

    So a couple of searches, a few e-mails, and some agonizing waiting and hmm-ing and ha-ing can go a long way.

  10. Anonymous says:

    1. Hack’s comments are crucial — that picking the “prestige” school is critical for post-academic life.

    2. Sean, though I GREATLY appreciate this blog and even this advice, in many ways exacerbates or at least typifies the problems with physics grad school and the grad school selection problem with statements like “Is your goal to become a professor or other professional researcher (which is typically assumed)?”. Grad schools in physics (and undergrad too in many ways) function to churn out academic professors, both technically and most importantly, mentally. It’s held up as the be-all, end-all of the research career, even though it’s a rarity for nearly all students. Hence, since you’ll probably leave academia anyway, follow advice #1, and get the CV with the better schools’ name on it.

    3. I tried to follow some of the more “idealistic” or “precise” advice found here and elsewhere when I chose my grad school a few years ago. I turned down a Tier 1 school to go to a Tier 2 school because I thought it was better to choose a specialty that I was most interested in, where Tier 2 was pretty dang good at that specialty. Turns out, Advisor at Teir 2 was a complete jerk overall, did next to nothing to mentor or teach me about how to grow as a physicist, nearly never spoke to me as a real human being — and I ended up switching advisors and leaving with a Masters with a very sour taste. (I’ve done fine since then but future advisors/bosses have just gone to show me waht a kind, insightful mentor SHOULD be, rather than one that’s focused only on churning out his papers).

    Now, that is my PERSONAL experience. But the point I’d like to make is:
    — choosing a “lesser” school for a subspecialty/advisor you are interested in is quite a gamble. I’d recommend going with as school that offers more breadth just in case.

    — getting to know who your advisor is is sooo critical, but not so easy to find out on a weekend visit. I even spent a summer at the university doing undergrad research and knew of Advisor somewhat through that. But the smile-and-couple of kind words to an undergrad in passing does not make a good potential future advisor. i did NOT interview his students enough, but even there, it’s misleading. it depends on how YOU connect with that advisor.

    4. As Sean addressed, real-life issues like love/marriage and the general two-body problem are serious. But they don’t “end” when you get your PhD. Are you willing to then be apart again for a few more years when you get that postdoc on the other coast? Will he quit his great job to follow you when you get a professorship at Teir 2 school in podunk town? It’s not like you make a couple of years of sacrifice in grad school and can make some easier choice down the road. It’s a lifelong choice of career vs. the-rest-of-non-career-life. (speaking of which REQUEST for a future blog on the two-body-problem!)

  11. Stan Seibert says:

    The importance of a good personality match between you and your advisor can’t be stressed enough. I was very lucky to find an advisor that I get along with, but a friend of mine was not so fortunate. She had real problems dealing with the eccentricities of her advisor, and it really took a toll on her well-being and mental health. Thankfully, she was able to find a graceful way out and switch schools to continue her work.

    Don’t just assume you can just “suck it up” and get through it. Grad school is hard enough without the extra load of dealing with someone you can’t work with. You should definitely be able to deal with your advisor on a social/personal level (just like any other group of people, some profesors are jerks), but also on an intellectual level.

    Professors “mentor” students in different ways. You might prefer some independence to figure things out on your own, and just check back in periodically. Other people like more direction and a more interactive advisor. Either way, if you pick the wrong one, you will either be hopelessly adrift without enough guidance or frustratingly micromanged. You will need some critical self-assessment here. (When in doubt, err on the side of more direction. You need more help than you think.)

    The problem here is that finding a good advisor IS impossible during the recruitment visits. You will be able to quickly identify the bad ones, and come up with a few “possibly good” ones. But only once you enrolled at the university, and can gather information in a more normal environment, will you be able to sift the “actually good” ones from the “possibly good” ones.

    My advice is just make sure you have a pool of several possible people at whatever university you pick. Once you get there, take classes from the people you are interested in, and after being trapped with them in a classroom for 40 hours, you will have a pretty good idea whether this is someone you would want to work with for 3+ years.

    (Oh, and no matter what, always have a backup plan. Different speciality, different field, different career, whatever. Don’t force yourself through Plan A just because you feel like you have no other options. That is a fast track to misery. Plan B for me turned out much better than Plan A.)

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  13. Tim M says:

    The money question: do you let the stipend help make your decision? What if you’re choosing between two places and one offers 30% more? The true academic says ignore it, but it will be considered on some level. Others will argue that a grad student gets paid little there’s no difference, but I think that argument is really flawed – every little bit counts MORE when you’re talking about small numbers, not less.

  14. Sascha says:

    I had an excruciatingly difficult time choosing a grad school, and in the end turned down Caltech to attend a state school in a location I liked much better. (It was pointed out to me by a regretful grad student that grad school would be the last time in my life I’d have quite so much control over choosing where to live.)

    One piece of advice from one of my professors that I found overwhelmingly helpful: If you find you’ve made the wrong decision, you can always get a master’s degree and move to another school. As long as you do reasonably well at a master’s degree, you only become more attractive to admissions committees because you have most of the training already, but they still get to pay you at a grad student salary and not a post doc salary.

    Additionally, I wasn’t (and still am not) sure whether I really wanted a Ph.D., and while a master’s degree from my current institution looks good on my CV, a master’s degree from a place like Caltech or MIT would merely suggest that I’d probably failed my quals.

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  17. Ponderer of Things says:

    I also disagree with Sean that prestige of the school doesn’t count. In my personal experience it counts a LOT. Check out who gets invited to give job interview talks at various schools. I am involved in hiring process now and see that there are a lot of “assumptions” made based on where a person went to school – like it or not. People are willing to overlook lack of high-profile publications for a person if he went to, say, MIT, but will automatically decide that someone with a lot of publications from, say, Lousiana State, was doing something very technical and boring.

    Moreover, when I was looking for a postdoc (I have a PhD from top 5 physics, ivy league school), I had received a lot more interest than a friend who was looking for his second postdoc from our group – but he got his PhD from a less known institution. He was still good enough to get hired in our group for his first postdoc, but sometimes you can send someone a call even without sending along your detailed CV, just describing what you did in a few sentences – but getting a PhD from top place immediately grabs their attention.

    After the last discussion on these topics a few months back I have reached to the conclusion that there may be nothing terribly bad with such stereotyping – getting into top program in physics is rather tough, and by being more interested in someone with top school PhD people are looking for additional “recommendation” that comes from the fact that someone was good enough for an admission committee to be selected as one out of 20 or 50 who applied for the same spot. We don’t feel bad when applying similar logic to other areas of our lives – and getting into a good grad program has a lot more to do with you (rather than your parents, or money) than undergrad school, which is all about parents and money in my opinion.

    So just like I would want to hire someone with a lot of publications, preferably in PRL (or Nature/Science) – even if I am accused of being elitist with regards to Journal of Minor Advances in Nuclear Methods and Instrumentations. Similarly, I would want someone with good letters of recommendation, and PhD from top institution is an equivalent of a collective letter from an admission committee from that place.

    The name of your advisor is not everything either. There’s a limit to how powerful any professor is – and I find a network of “old pals” hiring people based on personal requests from each other much more troubling than judging a person based on the institution of his PhD. But chances are – your postdoc advisor or members of faculty search committee will not know much about your PhD advisor. Even if they may remember a talk he or she gave, or perhaps even if one or two are specialists in narrow field or know them well personally, the majority will judge you and your advisors work based on publications – they numbers, quality of journals, and then specifics of what you have actually done – in that order. My postdoc advisor is in the same relatively narrow specialty as my PhD advisor, but I can assure you if I were to quiz him on what I actually did for my PhD, I would get a rather broad three-sentence description, but no details.

    Everyone is busy worrying about their science, their grants and their students – too much so to go into details of who you are and what you did. Go for “prestige” university – this will at least get you a foot through the door, rather than spending the rest of your life explaining to people how you were really smart but made a concious choice to go for Podunk State degree instead of Harvard (reminds me of “Meet the Parents” movie).

  18. anonymous says:

    Everyone who says that the prestige of the school matters is entirely correct. Sean is wearing rose-colored classes so tinted he can’t see straight on this. In contrast, where you went to undergraduate school has absolutely no bearing, provided it doesn’t stop you from getting into a good graduate school. If you’re an academic physicist, try the following thought experiment: list the PhD schools of your fellow faculty members. I bet you know quite a few of them, don’t you? Now list where they did their undergraduate degree. How many did you get?

    Some other advice:

    1) Don’t allow yourself to be bribed. That big stipend from school X will be financially insignificant over the course of your career. On the other hand, never go to a physics graduate school that doesn’t offer financial support—it’s very rare these days that students are even admitted without financial aid.
    2) Be flexible. The odds are greater than 50% that you will NOT wind up in the subfield you thought you would. Never go a school just because you want to work with Advisor Y, since it probably won’t happen. Pick a school that is strong in at least two areas you find interesting, and preferably more.
    3) Don’t go to any school you haven’t visited in person.
    4) The school with easier requirements (eg. no candidacy exam) will attract students who don’t want to work as hard, and who will learn less. Do you really want to be one of them?

  19. Savya says:

    I don’t know how much of what hack says is relevant, but I think it is very important that the department and your advisor treat you as a HUMAN BEING, and not just a statistic. Personally, I don’t think it matters too much which school you go to, as long as the school is not completely unrecognized.

    I think there are many things that are very relevant for international grad students, but never get mentioned. Considering that there is a significant number of grad students from half the way across the world, here are my thoughts:

    It is IMPOSSIBLE for international grad students to visit before they can join, for the simple reason that universities will just not pay, and for almost all other countries, the exchange rate is too unfavourable for a visit to be financially viable if the student has to pay for it her/himself. In that case, one MUST visit other schools if one feels dissatisfied with one’s present schools, and not stick on and be miserable in a school that is clearly nout suited to one’s needs.

  20. Rob Knop says:

    Now, are you going to tell me that, of all these things, you will be significantly influenced by the overall prestige of the place they went to grad school? If not, why do you think other people would be? And if so, why in the world would you be?

    If the two candidates were otherwise equal– let’s even assume they’re the same race/gender, so that we don’t have to think about that– then, yes, I think that a lot of people will choose the one from the more pretigious graduate school.

    Sean, probably you are right that the primary correlations are what you say– the most prestigious departments are also the most competetive to get into, so they tend to get the “best” people and have the best environment for producing competetive graduates who are going to be best at playing the game and doing what you do to get ahead in science. But I don’t think that the “ooo, shiny” factor of going to a prestigious school can be discounted.

    Too many people are rankings conscious. It drives me nuts at faculty meetings at my place how often we mention what our rankings are, and how obsessed we are with the fact that they aren’t where we want them to be. I don’t know if it helps your rankings are affected at all by the graduate schools of your faculty — probably not — but it does make you feel like you look more pretigious if you’ve got more people who were educated in very prestigious graduate schools.

    At the other end, if you’ve got two people who are on the border of making the cut to get on your short list, the prestigious graduate school can be the edge that pushes you over and gets you a chance to show your stuff.


  21. fh says:

    How about outside the US? I looked around and got advice where to go for my field of interesst and none of the places I ended up applying to happens to be in the states. Some in Europe, one in Canada.

    Furthermore from what people describe to me a PhD at, say, a German institution sounds like a much better experience then a US grad school. More freedom to explore and think on your own.
    Maybe somebody here who actually knows the different systems can give some opinion on that?

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  23. Ponderer of Things says:

    a few other (somewhat depressing) things that grad students should be informed up front (instead of waiting 5-10 to find out the hard way):

    Academic market for permanent (tenure faculty) position is very tough and oversaturated with huge overproduction of PhDs. In 80ies there were 20 to 50 applications per position, nowadays it’s 200 or even more in some cases.
    So chances are – you are not going to get it.

    In pursuit of the crazy idea of becoming a professor you should expect to change your location at least a couple of times until your early to mid 30ies (sometimes late 30ies) – is your significant other willing to accept this nomadic lifestyle of going through second postdoc in hopes of landing that faculty position? Can you expect to ask him or her to quit the job every couple of years and try to find it again in new, and often rather obscure location?

    You will not be able to start a family or buy a house because of lack of money and time – and if you try to do it anyways, chances are – that job will go to someone more successful who is single-focused on their careers. See the overproduction of PhD bit. Even if you get assistant professor position, the first 5-6 years (before getting tenure) are not very productive to any kind of family or personal life.

    If you are not considering academic science as your primary career goals, there’s still industry and government, as well as consulting and other completely unscientific positions. Industry requires different type of skills and your PhD education is very likely to be highly overspecialized. In other words, for someone who will spend 6-8 years earning PhD (plus multiple postdocs), your pay and hierarchial position within the company will be significantly lower than one would expect compared with someone who decided to get a masters or even bachelor in engineering or other more applied field and go to the industry right away.
    Your publications won’t bring you as much respect as in academic world, and you may feel that you are wasting some of your skills and education on relatively mundane problems.

    Consulting, banking and other similar fields are even more so – the skills you use will not be related to your education, they could have hired smart people with bachelors to do the same type analysis, but they won’t because they can afford to hire fancy and hungry PhDs for just a little more money – and get a lot more “prestige” this way. Prestige of the school matters in those fields even more than in science.

    Government labs seems the safest way to keep doing science without going for super-competitive tenured positions, and most government labs have nearly tenure-like setup anyways. But you won’t have students, so you need to do more work yourself, and in a lot of fields getting a gov’t lab position is almost impossible – I don’t think they employ a lot of string theorists, for example.

  24. hugechavz says:

    Anonymous, I agree with most of your advice. UCSB breaks number 4, though.

    I’m choosing my grad school based on prestige (and sense of funding), as well as excellence in my field. There are a couple notoriously troubled professors, and I may be kidding myself if I think I can get out unscathed. But if I can’t do what I want, then I might as well not be doing physics at all.

  25. Chad Orzel says:

    All I can really say about the prestige thing is that I’ve been in on five faculty searches in the last five years (one department chair, two permanent lecturer positions, and two visiting jobs), with two more to come in the next few weeks, and not once has the prestige of a candidate’s PhD institution come into play.

    Now, granted, small liberal arts college jobs are not the same as top research institution jobs, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but when I say that the prestige of the candidate’s grad school doesn’t matter, I mean it.