As lockdown eases in many places, Stefan is beginning to think of an academic future away from his sofa. He asks the question:
How much does university ranking matter when choosing a PhD position?
Choosing a PhD program is tough. It’s a bit like getting married: for better or worse, until death us do part, regardless of the toe nail clippings on the table or refusal to ever take the rubbish out. Except that if you make it as far as the graduation altar, your PhD can’t divorce you, even if you start reading flat-Earth blogs in any way other than ironically.
Just like choosing a partner, choosing a PhD is a complex optimisation problem with many parameters and compromises. Will you like the supervisor? What’s the project like? Could you live in that city? Could you live in that city under pandemic-induced lockdown? Is the department coffee drinkable? All of these would merit blog posts on their own (possibly two in the case of department coffee) but your question was specifically about making a choice based on university ranking.
From my experience as a very senior and serious scientist (well, I identify as such), I would say the answer, as with all scientific questions, is ‘it depends’. Besides snob-value, higher ranking universities tend to attract more funding and better known scientists, so they are more likely to have PhD positions available. Depending on the funding situation, there will probably be more resources, visiting speakers and opportunities to attend conferences, thus broadening your horizons, stimulating ideas and making research easier. However, higher ranking universities can sometimes be less nurturing and more stressful, treating students as paper-writing machines. Lower ranking universities, especially those that are teaching rather than research focussed may have fewer resources (e.g. journal subscriptions or lab facilities) which can be frustrating. On the plus side, senior staff tend to have fewer post-graduate students meaning they can spend more time supporting you and you are more likely to be able to develop teaching skills. If you are thinking of moving internationally, better known universities often attract more foreign researchers, reducing the chance that you will be the only foreigner in the department, which can be a lonely situation. However, you’re much more likely to integrate and learn the local language in a lower-tier university if you don’t want to eat lunch alone for three years! So the first criterion is what sort of research environment you think you would prefer.
The second, and arguably more important criterion is how good is the supervisor? A PhD with a poor supervisor at a good university is likely to be survivable because you will have resources and other people for support. A good supervisor at a less good university should be an excellent experience, but a poor supervisor at a poor university is not going to be conducive to a career in academia. Unfortunately it is not alway easy to find out what sort of supervisor a scientist will be, but former students of the supervisor and staff at your current institute may be able to advise you.
Finally, despite extensive research, I have found no correlation between university ranking and coffee quality. I recommend visiting institutes for taste testing before signing any contract. This may prove to be a very old-fashioned criterion in a post-covid world.
The Sassy Scientist.
PS: This post was written from the post-covid seat of world-leading research, The Kitchen Table, Suburbia.