don’t screw up, choose the right grad school

It’s that time of the year when people have to choose a PhD program. Here’s my original post on how to choose a graduate program. Of course, you should buy a copy of the Grad Skool Rulz, which tells you what you need to know about graduate school.  Bottom line for grad skool selection: rank + placement record. Consider this an open thread on graduate school choices.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 8, 2012 at 12:01 am

Posted in fabio, grad school rulz

14 Responses

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  1. This title perfectly represents my thoughts over the past month – especially when denying offers. Confident in the decision I made though.



    April 8, 2012 at 12:48 am

  2. Depends what you want from your Ph.D. If you want to teach at the University of Chicago, then, of course, the Grad Skool Rulz is your game plan.

    After completing a first doctorate in English literature at a “real” school, criminology professor Karen M. Hess – now joined by her daughter Christine Hess Orthmann – earned a doctorate in criminology at a “distance learning” school that changed its address… but she has two accredited Ph.D.s. Sort of beats two pairs or three of a kind or even a full house… Once you have a Ph.D., only the Sheldon Coopers of the world sniff that yours is not as good as theirs.

    The master’s being the new bachelor’s, I just stayed at Eastern Michigan University. Having taken one grad school class as an undergrad, I just slid in with no GRE and no recommendations. MA in social science 2010: No one questions it. Bazinga.



    April 8, 2012 at 2:03 am

  3. I don’t dispute that rank and placement are important considerations, but what about “fit”?

    I turned down 3 schools ranked in the top 5 to attend one of the 5 programs holding the #20 spot. In my opinion, rank and placement were only the most important factors if my main goal was to obtain a tenure-track position at a top 5 school. As this was not my main goal (I’d be thrilled to land anywhere in the top 20!), I opted to balance these factors with the “it” factor. Fit, that is. For me, the best fit was the program where several folks were tackling what I considered to be super interesting and relevant research questions with cutting-edge methodologies. Of course, I might have screwed up, but I don’t think so!

    My experience makes me think of two points that may be relevant for future decision makers: Forgive me if you cover this in The Rulz, but do differences in rank and placement really matter if you’re choosing between “the best” and “nearly the best”? And doesn’t it depend on where you’d like to end up (I’d assume your answer is yes across the broad range of post-grad job options. I mean even among R1s)? In your opinion, does the rank + placement formula still hold in these cases?



    April 8, 2012 at 2:14 am

  4. @mikemarotta:

    Grad Skool Rulz offers advice for people who want a wide range of careers. I address liberal arts colleges, junior colleges (where I used to teach) and other institutions. The book isn’t just for people who want a research job.


    You can read the Rulz ($2 – cheap!) for details, but I advise students not to fuss over small differences in rank. E.g., #8 vs. #15 doesn’t matter. But in general, you have to have a *really* overwhelming case to make if you turned down top programs for something much lower down the ladder. Academic careers are very prestige dependent, especially early on.

    I’ll use Indiana as an example. Our rank hovers from 12-15 in most rankings. So you have a lot of options is you do your degree here. We also have the best placement record in American sociology, with maybe only one or two other schools in the running. Virtually all our job market candidates get tenure track jobs, ranging from elite (top 5) to small regional schools. Only one or two other programs have replicated that level of success for as long as we have. We do an amazing job training people. Therefore, you better have a really, really good reason to turn us down.

    So when would I tell people to turn down an offer from IU?

    – The fit is extremely wrong. For example, we have no demographers on staff right now. Therefore, a demography student is making an incredibly bad choice coming to our program. Hopefully, that will change in the future.

    – You have an offer from one of the few schools whose placement record is better than ours.

    – You have an extremely strong personal reason for being in a region (e.g., you sick mom in New York needs you).

    In general, it’s safe to turn down highly ranked programs if they are toxic or if they simply don’t offer what you want. But the default position is rank + placement record. You need some very strong reasons to deviate from that rule.



    April 8, 2012 at 2:34 am

  5. Wouldn’t you add funding and location to the equation? I know money isn’t everything, but it’s hard to compete with schools that offer 2 years of fellowship (when I was applying IU didn’t offer ANY fellowships, only TA/RAship)… also location. Having lived in relatively diverse cities most of my life, moving to Bloomington was kind of scary… and considering how long it can take to finish a PhD there, it was even scarier.
    I know these two things are not as important as ranking and placement, but ultimately graduate school is about being productive, which usually means publishing (I learned that from grad school rulz, best $2 I’ve spent in a while)… and I would imagine that well paid, happy graduate students are more productive than underpaid and overworked graduate students.



    April 8, 2012 at 3:45 am

  6. @current… :

    Thanks for the nice words about the Rulz. Glad that it helped.

    I personally don’t put much stock on location, unless you had a very serious family issue to deal with. The reason is that graduate school is temporary, but your PhD is forever. A few years living in an environment that isn’t optimal for a few years is a pretty small price for a degree that will actually launch your career in a direction that you like. Also, academic jobs are hard to get. So you will probably learn, sooner or later, how to live in a place that isn’t your top choice.

    Funding is much more important and subtle. A few thoughts:

    1. Don’t go to any graduate program that requires you to pay tuition. Professors don’t make that much in comparison to other professionals, so it’ll be hard to pay back.

    2. The issue is “funding vs. no-funding,” not “fellowship vs. RA/TA-ship.” That is, the difference between fellowship and TA/RAship is not much in practice. This sounds counter-intuitive, so let me explain.

    Success in academia depends on learning the craft of research. Even if you go into teaching, you still need to produce a dissertation and a few publications to get to tenure. In practice, that means you usually have to team up with or get mentoring from established professors. Being an RA or TA is a real easy way to get know profs. One of my two PhD students is my TA and is now my paid RA. You can also do this through fellowship. Having free time means that you can have more time to connect with professors.

    3. A more subtle point is that the scarce research on PhD completion tends to show that there is not much difference when it comes to fellowship vs. TA/RAs. What matters is the student, department and adviser. Just as a TA can spend too much time grading papers, students on fellowships can drift and sever their contact with the department. I’ve seen it happen a lot. In statistical lingo, there are fixed effects of people, not funding source.

    Of course, there can be extreme cases. Some PhD programs have massive lectures and assign one TA to do all the work. These situations can interfere with degree completion. Summer teaching is another one. But overall, a modest amount of TA’ing and RA’ing isn’t a burden. It’s also what you will be doing upon graduation, so get used to it now.

    4. You mentioned well paid grad students and the IU package. I do wish that IU had the funds to pay like our competitors. Heck, I wish we had the funds to bring my own salary on level with people at peer programs. But we don’t. On the other hand, Bloomington is an insanely cheap place to live. I have never heard students complain that they couldn’t afford housing, or that lived in dire straits. You might think that IU soc students are an angry lot. But they aren’t. They aren’t thrilled about the funding, but we can fund *all* students for four years. We can also fund almost all older students who are in good standing who don’t get fellowships or other forms of support. That’s something that a lot of other wealthier programs can’t honestly say.

    5. Finally, let me give you a sense of my funding for my soc PhD. At the time, Chicago had a funding system where a few admits would get healthy funding and the rest would fend for themselves. I had to find my own funding, thought I got a tuition waiver. So I had to feed myself and come up with extra cash for insurance.

    It was a highly frustrating experience. A lot of fellowships require candidacy. Chicago has few TA’ships because the undergraduate college is small. Luckily, I got some support from my family and I lived cheap (in a basement for a while). Then, later, my adviser got me some $$$. I worked as a research assistant. I learned how to prep regression tables and do data management. I then worked as the managing editor of a journal, which was great experience. What my adviser taught me as an RA I still use today. I am grateful to this day for what he taught me by letting me work for him.

    Later, my advisers wrote me letters so I could compete for fellowships. I was rejected most of the time, but I got a few – just enough to make it through graduate school. Near the end, I actually got to teach and RA a little, which brought in a few extra $$$.

    Still, through time management, I was able to publish and complete my dissertation. In contrast, many of the students who received fellowships failed to graduate. Among those that did, they took a long, long time. I can only speculate as to why students with generous packages failed to complete the milestones required for the degree.

    What I took from this experience is that funding is important, but not nearly as important as many imagine. You definitely want to avoid student debt like the plague. When you are later in your grad school career and you already know how to do research, free time can be crucial. But fellowships are no cure-all and shouldn’t be a big deciding factor, especially if you are given the option of a school like IU, which treats its students well and a remarkable placement record.



    April 8, 2012 at 6:50 am

  7. Fit (at least of some sort; interest often evolve throughout grad school) is important, funding (of some sort) is important, good training is important (though it’s comparable across most of the best programs), and location is frosting.

    But trumping all of those is rank and reputation of the program. I disagree that there isn’t much of a difference between #8 and #15. I think there can be a huge difference in your job market chances, even outside the R1 market. I know where I teach, at a SLAC, we have to make a special case to the Dean if we want to hire outside the top 10 programs.

    However, there are really fewer ranks in perception of search committees: there’s the #1 top program and its competitor, e.g. #2 as one rank. Then there’s the other top 5 schools (and since everyone’s list varies a bit that adds up to the top 10). Once you’re above 15, you’re not compared to the top 10 so much as the rest of the top 30. Beyond the top 30, most programs might as well be considered ‘unranked’ for all purposes, with variable advantages and flaws depending on the eye of the beholder.

    And since status, training, and funding tend to co-vary, status trumps all–presuming there’s at least some marginal fit.



    April 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm

  8. Does anyone know when new US news rankings will be released? I haven’t found anyone that really takes the NRC rankings too seriously. The US news ones are a few years outdated now and I’m wondering if there might be any changes in rankings.



    April 8, 2012 at 7:14 pm

  9. @current (and slightly amending @fabiorojas):

    I’ll be starting at IU this coming semester, and for me it really came down to ranking and fit (placement was important too, but I didn’t look into it too much). As for funding, IU has a great package, tuition, health insurance, and a large enough stipend to live comfortably on (Bloomington is very cheap). And to amend Dr. Rojas, we are actually given funding for five years (and beyond, as noted). I talked to quite a few grad students in the department about the funding package while I was there and none of them indicated that they were ever concerned about where their funding would come from. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even think about fellowships versus assistantships, it just doesn’t seem like that big of a distinction to merit worrying about (especially if it means sacrificing ranking or fit).


  10. Hi 5, Peter!!!!!



    April 9, 2012 at 3:01 am

  11. I had a really long and well developed comment on why I wrote what I wrote but somehow it didn’t get post it, so I’ll be brief.
    I think ranking and placement matters, but that’s not all.
    Location matters: for both well being and for research purposes. Not only did I not see myself living in a place like Bloomington for the avg. 7 years it takes to complete the PhD, but I also realized that it would be hard to do ethnographic research of first and second generation immigrants in a college town… big cities are better for that kind of research.
    Money: I agree… Indiana offers a competitive package, and so I wasn’t being critical of IU.. I was being critical of schools that don’t offer guaranteed funding. I think IUs financial aid was quite good. The only thing I’ll add to this is that when I visited people did complain about being treated like cheap labor by the university… schools with more money don’t have that problem.
    Finally, and perhaps the most important aspect of all, is fit: if you have school A ranked in the top 10 and school B ranked lets say… 20, but school A only has a couple of qualitative people and they’re not tenured, then school B might be a better choice. Same goes for research interests. The problem is, people are so focused on rankings and placement that they forget that this isn’t undergrad…and so they end up applying and getting into schools that not exactly good matches (you’d think admissions committees would stop that from happening, but it doesn’t happen).
    So, I think those three things (fit, money, location) should somehow be a part of the equation.



    April 9, 2012 at 3:36 pm

  12. @current:

    Apologies if you thought I (we, maybe) were chastising you for not going to IU, that certainly wasn’t my point. Not to speak for Dr. Rojas, but I know for me, I only applied to schools where the fit was good and where students are fully funded, and so when it came down to deciding ranking and placement were key (because fit and funding were a given).


  13. Fabio– is there any place I can get a record of the job placement records in American Sociology you mentioned earlier? Or any other similar type of record along those lines? Many thanks.



    April 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

  14. usually, you can pull that data from the ASA directory of departments.



    April 9, 2012 at 9:29 pm

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