How important are (chemistry) graduate school rankings?
January 30, 2010 1:45 PM   Subscribe

I am planning to go get my PhD in chemistry and I am waiting to hear back from schools. I have already been accepted to 3 schools (one in the top 10), however, I really like some of the faculty at one located in the 30s in the rankings. How important are the rankings and will they have a big affect on my career?
posted by stevechemist to Education (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The school rankings are not important at all- from now on, you will be evaluated based upon your publication record (and eventually your ability to acquire funding), not on grades or school. An important thing to look at is faculty and their lab's publication track record- does the group publish often in good journals? Are Ph.D. students first authors? That's a good thing. You may want to touch base with a few faculty members that you're most interested in to see if they plan on taking on more Ph.D. students in the near future. In my field, prospective students are invited out for a recruitment weekend to visit the department- these visits can give you a good sense of the program and the chance to meet with faculty and students to find out more about their research. Look for labs who publish good papers frequently and who have solid funding, and faculty members who don't have nasty reputations.
posted by emd3737 at 1:57 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You are far better off working with a famous-in-their-field faculty member than you are choosing based on school ranking. Of course, the better the university, often times you have more famous faculty to choose from.

If you can, make contact with some faculty members right now whose work you admire. See if they would be interested in having you do a rotation in their lab. If you find a rising star at a lower tier university, go ahead and work with that person. Their career will continue to take off. You may even find yourself moving along with them to a higher ranked university. That's right, they take their students with them.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:14 PM on January 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I went to grad school for a Ph.D in math, and chose a school because it was close to me and higher in the rankings than most of the other schools I got into. I wound up taking the Master's because no one here was studying anything I cared about enough to do for my career. Go where you know there will be people you'll want to work and study with.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:28 PM on January 30, 2010

Nthing that it is better to work with someone who is a) interested in working in your specific sub-field and b) likely to get you published than someone at a top school. A name school is worth something, but not as much as publishing credits and a good working relationship with your faculty.

You may be able to answer some of these questions by using the affiliation fields in periodicals indexes (SciFinder is your most likely friend, but Web of Knowledge might help as well, as could Compendex for certain areas of study). It's a fairly effective way of seeing what is getting published at which schools. A little sleuthing on department web sites should tell you what the status of coauthors is. It's also g a good way to make sure that someone who was working in your sub-field is still publishing there.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:30 PM on January 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Right now publication record is everything. Pick a school with faculty members you believe you could work with who are top in their fields. This will help with getting funding as a student, learning how to get funding after you finish, and with finding a position.

All that being said, pedigree does matter and being from a top 10 school may open some doors also the pool of good advisers is much deeper at a top 10 school. But this should be secondary in your decision.

One other warning, don't pick a school with only one person you want to work for, make sure you have more than one group in mind. Even if your choice takes you as a student, one never knows what will happen over the course of your degree. I know people who needed to make a choice late in their PhD to follow or not an adviser moving to another school.

A final note, I hesitate to share this link, since tries to reduce a very complicated question to a single number - which never provides the whole picture. It's also dated, but all that being said it does provide another nugget of information on publications for a wide variety of chemists which might useful:

It gives the h-number for living chemists - a ranking of the impact of their publications. As I said, this is dangerous since it might steer you away from a very promising up in coming star - but if you want to compare a couple of chemists who have been at the game for a while it might be somewhat useful...a check on google scholar for the number of recent highly cited papers might also be useful - but remember different fields might have very different expectations on publication and citation rates.
posted by NoDef at 2:37 PM on January 30, 2010

School rankings are all bullshit, and everybody worth learning from or working for knows it. There is simply no way that any educational institution's defining attributes can be reduced to a single sortable figure, and anybody who claims otherwise is selling you something. Go where it suits you to go.
posted by flabdablet at 2:52 PM on January 30, 2010

School ranking isn't important - other than maybe that higher ranked schools may have better internal funding (for equipment, space) and may spot a better stable of researchers.

When you're interviewing potential supervisors, ask them how stable their grants and funding are as well as how available student funding from the school and local/state/provincial is, and what percentage of their students and post-docs have outside funding from national organisations. Other important questions are what proportion of their past students successfully graduated, and in general how long it took for them to do that. Also, ask what their previous PhD students are now doing, or how many of them managed to get post-docs or industry jobs right after graduation. A little less important is whether the school subsidizes PhD tuition and whether the supervisor gives "top ups" if students get full-salary-covering outside grants. Also, are there dedicated support staff, or whether students take turns doing general duties - labs with (competent) lab managers are also much easier to work in. The amount of teaching duties the potential supervisor has may also be a factor; if they're busy teaching (or grant writing), they may have less time for you (which can go either way).

As a junior graduate student, your supervisor's publishing record and how well equipped their lab is plays an important part in whether you'll be able to get grants for yourself.

When interviewing, it's useful to talk with the current students - ask them how much they work, what kinds of hours, how busy shared equipment/facilities are, how has the funding been for the lab and the individuals in it, how quickly people tend to graduate, and whether being included as an author on papers that they've contributed to is pretty relaxed (easy to get on papers) or more stringent (do a bunch of stuff that went into the paper, but only get an acknowledgement, not actual co-authorship). Another good question is whether the lab personnel are currently or in the past collaborated with other labs - it's good to have access to resources and expertise that your lab currently doesn't have. Getting along with the younger grad students is a plus, but a good relationship with the more senior students and the post-docs will make learning new techniques much easier.

Probably not directly related to you, but there's a thing called "trickle down" - try to determine whether the post-docs compete with each other or collaborate.

This, of course, is assuming that you're interviewing with a medium/larger lab. Unless you have a masters, be wary of joining labs with very few personnel or as a potential supervisor's first grad student.
posted by porpoise at 4:17 PM on January 30, 2010

If you want an academic job, and you haven't been admitted to Harvard, MIT, Caltech or Berkeley, try to work for a member of the National Academy of Sciences at another school.
posted by WyoWhy at 6:15 PM on January 30, 2010

Part of this question depends on your own professional aspirations. Do you want an academic career? A job at a big-time university? Then the brand name of your credential may count quite a lot. Try looking at the faculty biographies on the department pages of those top-10 programs: Where were those folks trained? I can't speak about the field of chemistry, but over here in the humanities, birds of a feather from big-name grad programs tend to flock together at other big-name programs for jobs, with some notable exceptions.

On the other hand, if you're interested in academic jobs with a balance between teaching and research, etc., then pedigree probably matters less. Ditto with non-academic careers. As a data point, supportive mentors and a strong curriculum outside the top 10 have done right by me career-wise thus far. Best of luck with your decision.
posted by 5Q7 at 7:57 PM on January 30, 2010

The only thing that matters is that you graduate with a record of publishing lots of interesting work. Of course, more people will have noticed this if you work for a famous professor. A few caveats, though:

1. You will never survive if you are not deeply interested in your project. Just because you can get into Evans' or Nicolau's lab doesn't mean you should, if you're not ready to work 80 hours a week on their research.

2. Choose a school where there are at least two professors who you'd want to work for. There's no guarantee you'll get into the lab of your first choice, and you don't want to be stuck in a situation of having to join a lab you don't want to be in, or trying to transfer in a year.

3. You will almost certainly end up needing to do a postdoc somewhere. As long as you graduate with lots of interesting publications, you should be able to move up a rung on the "famous professors" ladder at that point.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 4:18 AM on January 31, 2010

You are far better off working with a famous-in-their-field faculty member than you are choosing based on school ranking

I can't favorite this enough. Find the place with the best people for what you are interested in. That will increase your chances of getting a job (well, that and working your ass off -- or being naturally brilliant :) ). Also, if you aren't completely sure what you want to do, make sure there a few people there doing work in different areas that you like, so that you have good choices when it comes time to decide. If you're fairly sure of your sub-field, it's nice if there are a lot of people in the department working in that area. It gives you a lot of people to talk to when you're doing your research (not only faculty, but especially other graduate students), and that kind of support is invaluable. Also, it's more fun! (And hopefully you're going to grad school because you find chemistry fun!).

Good Luck!
posted by bluefly at 5:52 AM on January 31, 2010

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