how to choose a graduate program

See Grad Skool Rulz #3 as well.

April 15 is tough in academia. The professors file their taxes, the undergrads must make a final choice for graduate school. On Friday, I started an open thread on the topic of choosing a graduate school. Here, I’d like to offer some more concrete views.

The idea is called “backwards induction.” This is an idea from game theory. If you want to win, you then ask what you have to do to win. If you want to achieve X, then work backwards and figure out what leads to X.

So, the “final stage” of the grad school choice is the type of job you want. Here, you have to be honest. What do you want out of life?

  1. Private industry/consulting or policy
  2. Junior college teaching
  3. Liberal arts/teaching intensive
  4. Research

If you want a private sector or policy job, it *usually* doesn’t matter where you go as long as you go to a legitimate program. There are exceptions, of course. But non-academic employers are a lot less interested in status.

If you want a junior college job, you may not even need much graduate education. It’s changing, surely, but many j.c. teachers have BA or MA. Many also have professional degrees or work experience.

If you want an academic job, then rank is important because employers are super-sensitive to prestige. What it comes down is that universities sell/rent prestige. Intro physics is the same no matter where you go, but people pay $$$ for the prestige of taking the course from a leading scientist.

Prestige can be had in two ways. The first is research excellence. Publish a famous paper and you can probably get a decent job. But most fresh PhD don’t have great papers. If they are lucky, they may have a paper or two in good journals, many which will be forgotten. So the main signal is PhD program prestige. To get into the right pile of applications, you need to be in a highly ranked program to start with.

The other countervailing factor is department culture. Departments that undermine students cancel out the benefits of prestige. The big indicator of a functional culture is placement record. That’s why the way you should judge a program is “prestige + placement.” One can compensate for the other. But it’s not a good idea to go to a place that that’s bad on both counts.

Finally, there are teaching intensive institutions. Here, prestige is also important. While they aren’t so focused on publishing in the right journal, these schools still need prestige. The private liberal arts schools charge a lot of money and it’s harder to do that if you are staffed with people from PhD programs no one has heard of.

Bottom line: Prestige is the great driver in academia, but you also need competence in graduate training. That’s the default in the business. Outside academia, prestige is much less importance.

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Written by fabiorojas

April 10, 2012 at 12:01 am

14 Responses

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  1. This assumes a *much* more informed potential grad student than I was. I basically had a handful of questions I thought could be answered sociologically, and I wanted to learn how to go about answering them. There weren’t many instrumental or “final stage” goals in that formulation (I actually don’t even think I could have identified those as the potential options at least until the end of our “Pro-seminar” if not later. Much less, I definitely wasn’t thinking about sorting between those options for *my* goals until about the time I was finishing up courses, maybe even writing my dissertation proposal. I’m (mostly) pleased with how everything sorted out for me, but I find that in discussions such as this one there is often a LOT more information/intention assumed on the part of the decision maker than was the case for me. I suspect I’m not alone in this. This doesn’t really do a lot to the model you propose, other than to perhaps introduce an additional category of “no clue.”



    April 10, 2012 at 12:30 am

  2. Wow…that’s a really old handle, no idea how it’s the one that got linked to my profile. That comment was me.



    April 10, 2012 at 12:31 am

  3. “That’s why the way you should judge a program is “prestige + placement.”

    Another (related) thing that worked for me was recent record of publications by members of the department. The Chair of a top-20 program that admitted me was kind enough to provide such a list. I would suggest potential applicants to ask if such a list is available for your department of choice.



    April 10, 2012 at 12:41 am

  4. I would also like to ask the following: considering how Sociology seems to be changing to resemble the social sciences, don’t you think where you do your post-doc may be more important today than where you did your PhD?



    April 10, 2012 at 12:58 am

  5. @ Guillermo: Post-doc positions still read as ‘also ran’ the time I was out on the job market and had no choice but to finish my PhD. Can a good postdoc overcome a prestige-less in a graduate program? Except for maybe Robert Wood Johnson and Society of Fellows, probably not. But it can be a force multiplier for decent programs.



    April 10, 2012 at 1:59 am

  6. “…how Sociology seems to be changing to resemble the social sciences…”

    I meant “the hard sciences”, fuck it!



    April 10, 2012 at 2:05 am

  7. Can you speak a little more to non-academic employment? (I’m interested in policy, in particular, but talking broadly about policy/private-sector work is fine.) What are the exceptions to the “usually doesn’t matter where you go”? Do employers tend to have strong preferences on MA vs. PhD?

    (Sorry to bombard you with questions, but I’ve been surprised and dismayed by how poorly equipped people in policy are to give advice about grad school. There’s a general consensus that Something Is Necessary, and absolutely no useful indicators as to what that is. I suppose this is a decent allegory for policy work, generally.)



    April 10, 2012 at 3:44 pm

  8. “Do employers tend to have strong preferences on MA vs. PhD?”

    Some doctoral degrees are more geared towards forming policy designers than academic researchers. See for example



    April 10, 2012 at 4:14 pm

  9. The one piece of advice policy wonks *do* manage to give consistently is that MPP (Master’s in Public Policy) programs are basically useless. I wonder if that militates against an MPP-like PhD–or, alternatively, against master’s programs in general.



    April 10, 2012 at 4:18 pm

  10. A few comments:

    – Private work/policy work: A lot of MA programs are head hunting programs in disguise. So it’s less about the skills, and more about getting credentials. Another word of advice: keep a close eye on costs. Make sure your estimated pay increase will compensate for the costs of study.

    – Post-docs: Alwatys, tricky. I wouldn’t say sociology now has an extensive post-doc system. Currently, soc grad students typically spend 6-8 years in grad school and publish near the end, which is like an internal post-doc.

    Post-docs are neither plus or minuses, from my experiences on hiring committees.Though, as the commenters wrote, there are a handful of high prestige post-docs.Usually, the real question is: in the two years since PhD, what has the person accomplished? If you actually have articles that are accepted, then that;s good. If you don’t have anything, that’s even worse than being an ABD with no pubs because people see you as a person who can’t use their resources.



    April 10, 2012 at 5:50 pm

  11. At the middle/bottom tier, Fabio had a great discussion recently about deliberately choosing MA programs to “move up.” Some students may be in a situation where they may go to a lower tier PhD program—-which is fine if it is a good one with strong placement rates—and that would assure them a solid secure job at a teaching oriented state supported or low tier private college (4-4 or more teaching, and about $10k lower starting salary than the lowest PhD granting programs). Or, they could choose an MA program which more readily offers a “reset button” for people with bad GPA’s but strong test scores. Basically, for the small cost of two years of your life you can erase your bad GPA and wind up at a top tier program and a shot at the big time….



    April 10, 2012 at 8:39 pm

  12. Indeed, MA as reset button is a tried and true strategy. Having done grad admissions this year, I saw a lot of good people who effectively used the reset button.



    April 10, 2012 at 8:41 pm

  13. […] how to choose a graduate program ( […]


  14. This is really helpful to think about. I’m currently preparing to apply for a PhD program, and am taking the GRE tomorrow!

    Also check out another perspective into getting a PhD-“From College Drop-Out to PhD: Interview with Professor Marc Coronado”:

    Thanks for the article.



    April 18, 2012 at 9:02 pm

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