Because tenure-track jobs are scarce, selecting the right PhD program is an extremely important decision that can have a dramatic impact on your future career. When it comes to making this important choice, many students often rely on school rankings to determine which PhD program is best for them, in hopes that banking on a school’s reputation will help them in the future. But is relying on rankings to decide on a PhD program the best way to proceed? Does a PhD from a top 10 institution automatically optimize your chances of securing the position of your dreams, post-graduation? In other words, when it comes to picking a PhD program, does school ranking really matter?
Not as much as you would think.
How PhD rankings help, and how they don’t
While it may be true that top 10 schools might have a great department in your field, it doesn’t necessarily mean that earning a PhD from one of these schools is the best decision for your future. Why? For the simple reason that the department might not have the right faculty to support you in your research goals.
If you’re considering enrolling in a PhD program, it’s important to keep in mind that the research world abides by specific rules. While the name attached to an undergraduate degree or an MBA can have a direct effect on career outcomes, the reality is different for doctorates. A PhD from a highly ranked school doesn’t automatically guarantee a higher starting salary after graduation, or that you will suddenly be put at the top of the pile of interviewees for a tenure-track position. In fact, when hiring committees look at freshly minted PhDs to fill a tenure-track position, they mainly look at the relevance and quality of a candidate’s research and how well this research fits with the needs of their department, rather than focus on the competitive selection process used by the school that issued the diploma.
Unfortunately, many students let rankings influence their decision when they come up with a list of PhD programs to apply to, and they buy into a name, rather than focusing on choosing a research environment where they can thrive. They often first create a list of programs based on a school’s ranking or reputation and then settle for faculty members on staff who “fit the bill” and who list their topic of choice among their areas of interest.
Prioritizing the faculty “fit factor”
If you find yourself at the stage of selecting a program and you want to find a program that will provide you with the best career options, it’s important to understand that your first priority should be to find the best expert in your field. You should be looking to work with someone who is a specialist in your area of interest and whose specialty is in direct alignment with yours.
Don’t settle for a faculty member who lists your topic as a secondary interest. Since your marketability in the job market as a recent PhD graduate will be determined by the people who have guided and supported you throughout your doctoral research, not picking the right research team can have a disastrous impact on your future career. This is why it’s important to take the right approach when selecting a PhD program.
How to proceed in creating your list of best PhD programs for YOU
Instead of conducting research on the top 10 programs in your field according to rankings, start by conducting research to find who the top 10 experts in your area of interest are. You don’t know who they are? Put your research skills to work!
- Start by looking at the most recent articles and books written on your topic or your area of interest and make note of their authors. Don’t forget to look at their bibliographies and keep track of the authors they cite, too.
- Rank them by importance. Which names are the most-often cited? Who seems to be the most important researcher on topics that interest you?
- Once you have 10 to 15 names, find out where they teach. Make a list of these schools. These are the schools where you should be thinking of applying.
Next steps: Department investigation
Once you have your preliminary list of schools, the next step should be to investigate the department where they work. Ask yourself:
- In addition to this potential advisor, are there any other faculty members who could possibly sit on your dissertation committee?
- How many people in the department have expertise that could benefit your potential research projects?
- What does student life look like?
Since your future in research will depend on the quality of the work you produce in graduate school, explore the resources offered by the department to support you throughout your doctoral studies.
Finally, modify your list by giving precedence to schools that give you the best options and eliminate schools that don’t. This should be your final list of schools.
Widen your net beyond the Ivies
Let’s face it: Most recognized experts do not work at an Ivy League school. In fact, they work for different tiers of schools all over the country, and they often work at institutions that might not have a shiny name but are very reputable and produce top research at the international level. By taking a route that puts an emphasis on the tools you need to conduct relevant research and positions you on the cutting-edge of your field, you will have taken the right steps to make sure that you have a list of PhD programs that will make your career options optimal after graduation.
By keeping in mind that the reputation of your advisor and research committee supersedes the importance of the school’s ranking, your final list of schools will guarantee that you make the right choice when the time comes to enroll in a program. You will be choosing the environment where you’ll be able to conduct research that will really make you stand out and put you on the path for a promising career in research!
Do you need help choosing the best PhD programs for you? Do you need guidance with any other element of the PhD application process? We’re here for you every step of the way. Explore our PhD Admission Services and work one-on-one with an expert advisor who will help you get ACCEPTED.Want Dr. Barr to help you get Accepted? Click here to get in touch!