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Grad School 101: How you can use grad school rankings to find the right program

With so many factors to consider while picking grad programs, rankings can be a valuable tool to narrow your decisions- if they are used right. In the second part of Grad School 101 series, learn how and where rankings matter.
BY Mallika Khanna |   02-07-2019

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If you’ve ever considered applying to graduate school, you’ve probably noticed that there isn’t one comprehensive national ranking that can help you determine what’s good and what’s not. Unlike at an undergraduate level, graduate programs are so highly specialized that creating a ranking system through simplistic metrics like alumni giving and standardized test scores is neither wise nor realistic.

Yet it would be naive to say grad school rankings don’t matter at all. Subject-specific rankings offer a way to compensate for the lack of a national ranking system. How effective these rankings are is debatable, yet they can offer a useful way to begin your grad school search, ands serve as a benchmark by which to make your final grad school decision. Here are some factors to consider as you scan grad program rankings.

Ranking v Reputation:

If you can’t compare apples with oranges, you certainly can’t compare English with engineering. Grad school rankings, by their very nature, have to be subject-specific. As a result, many of the best graduate programs are housed within institutions that may not otherwise be highly-ranked. To a layman, it would seem that the Ivies are the best places to go to graduate school across fields. But there are many grad programs at state universities that are ranked higher than their Ivy counterparts: UNC Chapel Hill, for example, is ranked higher than Yale and Columbia for public health and Indiana University beats out Harvard for public affairs according to US News’ 2019 Rankings.

How is this possible? Consider how graduate school rankings work. The US News rankings measure “expert opinions about program excellence and statistical indicators.” These statistical indicators include GRE/ GMAT/ LSAT scores and career prospects of fresh graduates. The Academic Ranking of World Universities uses “six objective indicators to rank world universities, including the number of alumni and staff winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, number of highly cited researchers selected by Clarivate Analytics, number of articles published in journals of Nature and Science, number of articles indexed in Science Citation Index - Expanded and Social Sciences Citation Index, and per capita performance of a university.”

In both these rankings, and most others, subject-specific markers of academic achievement play a huge role. Consequently, it’s inevitable that some of the otherwise more reputed institutions suffer in these highly specialized, department-specific rankings by virtue of not having experts or publications in that field.

Where Do Grad School Rankings Matter Most?

Grad school rankings matter significantly more in certain subjects as compared to others. Professional degrees like law and business are highly competitive and offered by almost all big universities. This means that rankings matter here, because your level of achievement is determined by the level of prestige associated with your degree is associated. On the flipside, in particularly niche areas of study offered by only a few universities, there is little to no place for rankings. In the latter case, reputation matters less than your fit with the department.

The other thing to keep in mind is that some career paths are much more impacted by grad school rankings than others. Academia is an example of a field where rankings, not reputation, can play a big role. In the quest for a tenure-track position, the name on your degree can matter a disproportionate amount. That name should be well-established in the field you want to work in. Again, an Ivy league might not be the best option here if there are departments at other universities which are ranked higher for the subject you plan to research and teach.

In other cases, your best bet might just be to graduate from a well-reputed university for the brand value it’ll add to your resume. Outside specialized fields like academia, the Ivy Leagues, Oxbridge etc. carry a kind of cultural cachet that opens doors no matter where in the world you are. It’s worth considering how important the name on your degree will be outside the field you study just in case you plan to pursue something entirely different after grad school (it happens!).

The “Cash Cow” Paradox: Cost, Reputation and Ranking

If you’ve ventured deep into the underbelly of grad student fora like the GradCafe or College Confidential, you’ve probably seen the term cash cow thrown around a fair amount. It’s a trope for a reason: many master’s programs at elite universities have become vessels for money that is then put towards undergraduate scholarships and PhD funding. These programs usually have little funding available, and, most often, almost none of it is for international students.

What makes these programs different from other, equally expensive ones? Cash cow programs tend to be less specialized, pulling coursework from various disciplines and fields. This lack of specificity allows them to pass off courses from different departments as a part of their program, meaning no additional professors need to be hired. PhD students tend to teach a lot of courses to make up for the gap in faculty, meaning that you’ll find it tougher to be mentored by big-name faculty at the university. Since most of the cohort is paying for the name on the degree, you might find that a lot of the students just don’t care that much about academics in the first place.

Here’s the thing: just because a program has developed a reputation for being a “cash cow” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have value. While the academic offerings may not be particularly impressive, the networking and career advancement opportunities these programs bring to the table alone are often worth the asking price- if you can afford it that is.

Ultimately, name value can only do so much for your career. Cash cow programs do offer great benefits in terms of the doors they can open through their reputation, but there are downsides as well. If you’re going to grad school to really learn, you’d be better served in a less well-known but more specialized department. If you’re going to grad school to find mentorship towards a career in a particular field, you’d probably be more satisfied in a smaller, more faculty-led program.

How do you identify these programs? Rankings can help here: you’ll find that a lot of cash cow programs are situated in otherwise highly ranked universities, but themselves are either ranked fairly low or simply not on ranking lists altogether. Since these programs tend to be broad and more general, it’s tough to put them into subject-specific rankings, meaning that they rely largely on reputation to pull in students. You’ll also find that a lot of students are referred to these programs after being rejected from PhD degrees or from more specialized master’s programs at the same university.

Whether a program looks like a cash cow or is highly ranked in its field, the same rule applies: grad programs are most often not worth investing all your money in, taking out huge loans for, or living beyond your means. There are exceptions to this rule: professional degrees like law and business tend to make back money almost immediately out of grad school. However, for most traditional academic graduate programs, your best bet is to consider rankings only as part of the picture and focus on cost as a way to gauge your future success. Think about it: if a university is offering you a scholarship, isn’t it more likely that it actually wants you there than a university that expects you to shell out chunks of money to fund your education?

A Final Word

Like in other aspects of life, name, ranking, prestige are only going to take you so far. If you’ve found a program where you really feel like you belong, perhaps because the faculty is doing exciting work or because the current students have the right “vibe,” that’s often a good enough reason to go there. Being successful in grad school is enabled in no small part by a healthy academic, social and financial life. If you aren’t happy at a university (or, at least, not constantly unhappy!), you aren’t going to be able to perform your best, network with the right people, or find spaces for your work to shine. If a lesser-ranked university values you more, with the right mentorship and strategic work, that’s the place that will get you to the place you want to be- reputation and ranking be damned.

You can read other parts of the series here.



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