What’s in a Rank: How important are grad school rankings?

ranksHow important are rankings when it comes to choosing a graduate school? While most would agree that rankings are an important factor for graduate schools, it’s no exact science. There’s also no clear answer to many of the difficult questions that come up over rank.

So I didn’t get into a top-20 program, but I got into a graduate program that I like and is offering me funding. Will my degree be worth it?

I got into a program that is highly ranked and another that is not ranked as high, but that I feel will be a better fit. Should I pick the higher ranked program regardless?

The answer to these questions will depend on which program you are applying to and how great the disparity in rank actually is between the schools you are considering. The graduate program rankings should be an indication of the resources available to students, the strength of the faculty, and the credentials of the currently attending students at a particular school. That being said, just because a school has multiple noble prize winning alums and adds a little badge of prestige to your degree that doesn’t mean that it will be your best chance for success.

When it comes to graduate school, department rankings trump overall rankings. Even if a school has a well-respected undergraduate program, that doesn’t mean that is has the particular graduate program you are looking for. Industrial Organizational Psychology, for example, is a smaller but rising field and the top-ranked graduate schools aren’t the usual assortment of Ivy Leagues and big public research institutions. Be especially careful to look at specialties within programs as well. While a school might rank highly in English Literature, that doesn’t necessarily help you if they have an strong department for American Literature and you are looking to study Medieval Lit. So, yes, rankings are important – but you also need to do your research. The US News website‘s graduate school rankings are a good place to start.

grad_rankAnother controversial issue is your “fit” for a particular school. Part of this process will arbitrarily be decided for you by the admissions committee. If they don’t see a place for you in their program, you won’t have the option of deciding whether that school is a good fit for you. However, because the process is highly subjective – and honestly often a crap shoot – you may find yourself with acceptances to multiple schools that have very different program atmospheres. Now is the time to ask yourself:

What time of support does this program offer its students from faculty and advisors? Does the program encourage a collaborative or competitive atmosphere? Is the location of this school somewhere I am willing to live?

If you can determine that a particular school just isn’t the right fit, it doesn’t matter how highly their program is ranked. Sometimes, waiting another year for another round of applications is the better choice than going to a school that you have a gut feeling you won’t be happy at.

In today’s academic job market, it’s important to keep rankings in mind, within reason. Where you earned your degree can make all the difference in getting an academic job. The answer won’t always be easy. However, if you research your programs, contact faculty of interest, and reach out to current students at the school, chances are you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of how successful the program is and whether or not you could see yourself as a graduate student there.

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