how to pick a grad skool

How should you pick a graduate school? Well, start by purchasing my book – The Grad Skool Rulz, the best grad school advice book you can get. But if $3 is too much, or you’re just lazy, here’s the way you pick graduate school. If you want a decent academic career, follow these steps in order:

  1. Rank – Don’t fuss over minor differences (#6 vs. #12), but a lot of your early academic career depends on your PhD institution. There are roughly 2.5 zones: the top five (“elite”); the top twenty; and some discipline give credit for the top 4o or so. If you don’t want an academic career, skip this step. In most private industry, PhD program rank doesn’t matter much.
  2. Toxicity – A lot of PhD programs burn out students. This is extremely important to know. I have successfully recruited to Indiana from higher ranked schools with a speech that starts: “What good is a Chicago PhD if you never get it?”*
  3. Intellectual fit – If you get into a decent ranked school and students actually graduate with decent jobs, then you can ask about fit.
  4. Financial support – You aren’t in this business to make money, but be sure you will leave without debt.

Remember, follow these in order!

Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

* I pick on Chicago because it is my beloved alma mater. I love you guys, but you are known as the “PhD graveyard” in some parts – and for good reason!

Written by fabiorojas

March 15, 2013 at 12:16 am

30 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I disagree with the advice about debt. You should go someplace that supports you, but if you need to borrow to make life more livable -on top of your stipend and tuition remission – go ahead. If you’re happy and successful the debt will be small in comparison with your salary.


    Philip N. Cohen

    March 15, 2013 at 4:07 am

  2. I agree with Philip. For some people, and with some stipends, it is impossible to live off the stipend alone. When I got divorced after my first year at Arizona, I could have dropped out, but I am incredibly glad I didn’t – even if it means that I have less resources now than many of my peers. I would never recommend going someplace unfunded, and I might have been naive to be so certain that I would end up with a job at the end – although that was one of Arizona’s strengths at the time, but I know that loans were the right decision for me and my family.

    I would also tell students that things change, for better or for worse. Like you said over at scatterplot the other day, rankings change at a glacial pace. Granted, peer reviews of schools are important because what people think of your school influences how they read your job application, but savvy people also know that program X isn’t the program that it once was and that program Y is on the rise, they know what schools show off their super-star placements while ignoring the large number that remain unemployed. Listen to the buzz and the gossip, rather than just the number next to a program.



    March 15, 2013 at 10:46 am

  3. Is it really worse to end up at #20 or #15 school than to go to a top 5 if the lower ranked one has a much better fit with your interests (including more prestigious faculty in the subfield) and better funding?



    March 15, 2013 at 10:57 pm

  4. Yes, it is much worse, because your #1 goal in graduate school is to learn how to publish, and faculty at the top 10 programs are better at publishing; that’s why they have those jobs. Learning how to publish has to do with mastering the logic of social scientific inquiry, understanding the core debates in our field, and learning to do these things (relatively) quickly. And if you end up publishing little, being at a top 5 program will put you at a significant advantage over someone at a top 30 program; being at a top 20 school will not distinguish you terribly from someone at a top 30 school.

    Also, if your interests change, or those awesome-in-your-subfield faculty leave, you may be stuck with less well-known faculty in other subfields at a top 20 school, whereas at at top 5 school, everyone is famous.


    March 16, 2013 at 1:46 am

  5. Yes, stick with a top 5 if you have the option. Funding and fit certainly matter, but not as much as reputation. All potential employers know that, say, Berkeley, Stanford, or Princeton turn out quality graduates, but may have mixed feeling about, say, Indiana, Cornell, or NYU.



    March 16, 2013 at 6:18 am

  6. I actually disagree a bit with Walken — a published scholar from Indiana, Cornell, or NYU has nearly as good a chance of getting hired as a published scholar from Berkeley, Stanford or Princeton. The problem is that if you go to one of the former schools, you are just much less likely to publish in a top journal because you are less likely to learn how to do so, because the professors are just as good as publishing.

    This is obviously not true of every faculty member — there are plenty of people at NYU, Cornell, and Indiana who are as good at publishing as the people at Berkeley, Harvard, and Michigan — but again, as in my previous post, the problem is that if you want to work with one of those top publishing people at a lower tier school, and they leave or your interests change, you may have less of a chance of learning how to publish since you’ll be stuck with faculty who aren’t as skilled at it.



    March 16, 2013 at 8:30 am

  7. I agree with Philip and Jessica about debt in graduate school (meaning here academic PhD programs). You shouldn’t need to take on debt to pay tuition, and you should get a stipend/wage that approaches something on which you could live, but going a bit into debt during graduate school to cover unexpected expenses (related to health, family, breakups, etc.) or to smooth consumption a bit (covering an unfunded Summer without having to resort to eating only ramen) is probably worth it.


    Dan Hirschman

    March 16, 2013 at 3:31 pm

  8. @inducedanxiety – It depends, I think. There’s a lot more to be worried about at a school that is near but not at the top. Some things to check: do their graduates publish in good journals in grad school? Do their graduates get the kinds of jobs you want? Specifically, do the students working in your area do those things? Are there multiple potential advisors for you to work with (in case someone leaves, retires, is a bad fit interpersonally, etc.)? Are there good intellectual spaces to get feedback on your work and move it towards publication? Of course, these are important things to check at Top 5/Top 10 programs as well! But the top tends to be top because they do these things well (though with massive lags in reputation, as everyone has noted).


    Dan Hirschman

    March 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm

  9. “Do their graduates get the kinds of jobs you want? Specifically, do the students working in your area do those things?”

    Yes, this is key — and check to see who was on their committees. You can do this by looking up their CVs.


    March 16, 2013 at 5:18 pm

  10. I second Dan Hirschman and jumpinjacks, with some amendments. I just served on a search committee for my department and I am skeptical that graduating from a top 5 department by itself gets you a lot in terms of job placement, as opposed to a department in the top 20. Publications were key; having interesting ideas was key; having a top person in your area write an enthusiastic recommendation was key and could potentially off-set a poor publication record. I don’t think anyone on the search committee was wowed by degree pedigree in and of itself.

    Does attending a top 5 department make you more likely to have pubs, have interesting ideas, have a top person in your area write a letter for you? Perhaps, but it might be harder to get one of the superstars at those programs to take an interest in you. Funding might be more competitive at those places (as inducedanxiety’s example attests to).

    And from what I can observe, programs in the top 20 usually have a strong, large core of super-productive scholars who are reknown in their subfields. I’m skeptical of the argument that it is substantially harder to learn how to publish at Arizona (#20) versus Princeton (#1).



    March 16, 2013 at 9:37 pm

  11. Some programs definitely train their students and teach how to publish better than others. Within the top 20, I doubt that this correlates with rank.

    But some places do care about pedigree. Having sat on SLAC search committees, I can tell you that pedigree can help offset record, and that without pedigree and less extensive publications the candidate has a steep hill to climb.



    March 16, 2013 at 10:53 pm

  12. What about job candidates from non-US or outside top-20 institutions, do they even get considered? What publication strategy would you recommend for these candidates: start at reputable specialty journals and build up or go for that elusive top tier publication? I figure that because I won’t get my PhD from top school & don’t have famous people on committee I have to overcompensate in publications, but my current view is that any publications when I finish is better than none…



    March 17, 2013 at 8:55 am

  13. Malbec: I think fabio and commenters really covered your question from all the angles here:



    March 17, 2013 at 1:25 pm

  14. “All potential employers know that, say, Berkeley, Stanford, or Princeton turn out quality graduates, but may have mixed feeling about, say, Indiana, Cornell, or NYU.”

    Really? I’d guess that if you looked at placement records of all students graduating from these programs, not just a few cherry-picked examples, the proportion going on to TT jobs in top 20 departments wouldn’t correlate highly with USNWR rankings (which are affected by program size).

    I’d also guess the variation within the top 5 in placement record (adjusting for size of the cohorts) is just as great as the variation within 15-20. E.g., from about 2001-2011, Princeton’s grads did very well as a group, while Stanford’s underperformed abysmally.

    Besides, “potential employers” read files, not transcripts.



    March 17, 2013 at 1:29 pm

  15. This is an area fraught with bad essentialist logic. Within any department (and I’ve spent a lot of time at 3 now: Berkeley, UNC, and Duke) there is huge variation in placement. Much of this is associated consistently with specific advisors. Within each of the three schools, some faculty had students who did very well while others had student after student who floundered. For example, I would put my colleague Ken Land’s placement record (e.g., Princeton, Chicago, Ohio State) up against the median faculty member at any top 5 school.

    For people with little experience (e.g. prospective grad students), programs seem like monolithic entities that “place” people after “training” them. In reality, grad school is an entrepreneurial place where students develop a network of intellectual investment and personal engagement with a few specific faculty members. Make sure you’re going somewhere where you’re likely to get the investment you need for what you want to study.

    And finally, PLEASE stop treating “placements” as treatment effects. As long as students are not randomly assigned to programs, that’s a very naive comparison.


    Steve Vaisey

    March 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm

  16. As someone who is giving serious consideration to Chicago, I just want to say that it’s interesting that that department has become a pariah for the same reasons why it was likely venerated a generation ago; namely its reputation for being a highly life of the mind place that places little emphasis on professionalization or placement and heavy, almost combative emphasis on independence, rigor, and big, weird dissertation projects. Also that people outside of the department have such an exaggeratedly negative reaction to Chicago (not saying that they are exaggerating its problems but that they almost swoon when I bring up that department).



    March 17, 2013 at 6:38 pm

  17. @krippendorg: “Besides, “potential employers” read files, not transcripts.”

    If only this were universally true. Once you get outside of the (small) section of the academy that is active and engaged in the publication and Ph.D. training life of the discipline, school/department reputation starts to be a large marker. Of course, a file can’t be light, but between lots of relatively good options I’ve seen many colleagues in several disciplines fall back on reputation and prestige as a factor to rationalize their choices.



    March 17, 2013 at 7:19 pm

  18. Based on my very circumscribed knowledge coupled with very cursory and crude analysis using the job placement info on the soc jobs wiki my perception is that the size of the “halo coefficient” varies quite substantially from program to program. Put another way, my perception is that for some soc departments PhD-granting program prestige is a major factor in hiring decisions (e.g. “large halo coefficient, p.05”) and more weight is given to other factors like publications, funding, fit with the substantive foci of the department and (shockingly!) the ability to teach.
    Again, I’ve come to this conclusion using some very crude methods and I’m probably biased towards assuming heterogeneity in prestige effects on placement…..


    Silly Wabbit

    March 17, 2013 at 8:38 pm

  19. ah fabio’s blog cannot support less than or greater than signs……


    Silly Wabbit

    March 17, 2013 at 8:39 pm

  20. I <3 this blog.



    March 17, 2013 at 9:26 pm

  21. I find the cynicism of the conversation quite disheartening. Is the thing you learn really ‘how to publish’ and not how to do proper empirical research and how to make more coherent and interesting arguments? Or alternatively might it not be about the level of ambition and work ethic?

    The more we talk of this ‘publishing’ as the main learning point as completely normal issue the more it seems like the journals are some kind of an exclusive club that one needs to know the secret handshake to get in. If reject that this ‘how to publish’ thing is just a shorthand for research skills I think are developing a pretty dark view of this profession and some serious questions of its legitimacy.



    March 17, 2013 at 11:19 pm

  22. “I find the cynicism of the conversation quite disheartening. Is the thing you learn really ‘how to publish’ and not how to do proper empirical research and how to make more coherent and interesting arguments? Or alternatively might it not be about the level of ambition and work ethic?”

    Henri, no one is saying that you can publish without good methods and logical argumentation.

    Hence the comment above by Munchibad… ” Learning how to publish has to do with mastering the logic of social scientific inquiry, understanding the core debates in our field, and learning to do these things (relatively) quickly.”

    There are many, many faculty who can teach you how to do the first two. But to do so regularly and quickly is more difficult, and that is the forte of an increasingly large proportion of the faculty the higher up the rankings you go.


    March 18, 2013 at 1:53 am

  23. And also, I think there is something of a secret handshake to get into top journals, much of which has to do with learning how to frame your study and understand your own interests in the context of larger debates in the field — this is one of the most difficult things to learn in grad school. AJS, ASR, Social Forces, etc, all have certain feels to them (not 1 for AJS, 1 for ASR, etc — probably 2-3 for AJS, 2-3 for ASR, with some overlap), and if you can’t learn to frame your arguments in ways that match those tones, you’re not in good shape, sadly.


    March 18, 2013 at 2:22 am

  24. @prospect: You are wrong. The negative reaction to Chicago is that many students are left to twist in the wind. This is not about intellectual rigor. It’s about basic training that any PhD program should provide. I was lucky in that I got my Chicago PhD but I am a very aggressive person. Lots of other people never made it through.



    March 18, 2013 at 2:29 am

  25. “… that is the forte of an increasingly large proportion of the faculty the higher up the rankings you go…”

    Not really true, at least if your talking about variation within the top 20 schools. Many older faculty actually got their “top 5” jobs when the standards were very different. They published little, if anything, in grad school and got jobs based on the strength of their dissertation and their advisor’s reputation. We live in a different world now and I’ve observed that many of these full professors actually give advice that’s ill-suited to today’s job market. Don’t get taken in by hype.


    Steve Vaisey

    March 18, 2013 at 12:40 pm

  26. @Steve

    Thanks for making that distinction. I was thinking mostly of faculty who are <15 years out of the gate, not senior faculty.


    March 18, 2013 at 7:26 pm

  27. @seniorstupido

    Then the ranking you need to look at is the ranking based on people who are that age. (Sadly, that ranking does not exist.) Some departments are extremely demographically top heavy and derive their high ranking largely from famous senior professors with PhD’s from the 1970s (and inertia). This is why prospective grad students need to think of fit and of actual people to work with. Within the top 10-20 departments, ordinal rank provides very, very little valuable information.


    Steve Vaisey

    March 18, 2013 at 7:58 pm

  28. That makes sense. In that case, in response inducedanxiety’s original post, I’d amend my advice to say that you should go to a place with a good fit, but not one where you fit well with only famous senior faculty — make sure there are some well-known people there who aren’t so far removed from today’s game.


    March 19, 2013 at 2:14 am

  29. Clearly Kieran’s next poll needs to have an age cutoff.


    Big Z

    March 19, 2013 at 2:32 am

  30. fitflops sale Yuki Mazuda set up through the Usa trainer manufacturer Yuketen introduction in the fresh Maine Information Tie Oxford sneakers. Maine Tutorial was constantly pushing Yuketen very hot boot product, one of simply just started a short while ago through the Maine Guidebook Vibram outsole, typically the Oxford last part of the Maine Lead can also be promptly releasedfitflops um through the New Year underneath the birth of a brand new era, Nba boots and shoes struggle unveiled your full incorporates a exclusive develop by way of permit divots Jordans Spizike, all of the sudden misplaced within a large number of running shoes, that will caused a great upheaval, many of us praise each side crying , topiramate yet another large amount of people towards smell, dismissefitflops online If you should nonetheless are unable to come to a decision whether or not to select or maybe even really worth an effort, after that, the second awesome product seriously isn’t defined from this deliberation is a wonderful alternative

    on,fitflops sale Probably the most severe ankle joint injury that’s not effortless to go through as a result of sporting men not easy to treat is undoubtedly feet Achilles tendinitis, therefore there is certainly inflammatory reaction connected with tendons sheath powering ankles



    April 4, 2013 at 4:23 pm

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: