how to judge a phd program

When people look at PhD programs, they usually base their judgment on the fame of its scholars or the placement of graduates. Fair enough, but any seasoned social scientist will tell you that is a very imperfect way to judge an institution. Why? Performance is often related to resources. In other words, you should expect the wealthiest universities to hire away the best scholars and provide the best environment for training.

Thus, we have a null model for judging PhD program (nothing correlates with success) and a reasonable baseline model (success correlates with money). According to the baseline, PhD program ranks should roughly follow measures of financial resources, like endowments. Thus, the top Ivy League schools should all have elite (top 5) programs in any field in which they choose to compete, anything less is severe under performance. Similarly, for a research school with a modest endowment to have a top program (say Rutgers in philosophy) is wild over performance.

According to this wiki on university endowments, the top ten wealthiest institutions are Harvard, Texas (whole system), Yale, Stanford, MIT, Texas A&M (whole system), Northwestern, Michigan, and Penn. This matches roughly with what you’d expect, except that Texas and Texas A&M are top flight engineering and medicine but much weaker in arts and sciences (compared to their endowment rank). This is why I remain impressed with my colleagues at Indiana sociology. Our system wide endowment is ranked #46 but our soc programs hovers in that 10-15 range. We’re pulling our weight.

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Written by fabiorojas

March 19, 2015 at 12:34 am

4 Responses

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  1. Credentials are all well and good. Perhaps, they are necessary. The curse of all this is the idolization of money and the program. What truly matters is what is inside. This is where excellence comes from.



    March 19, 2015 at 12:58 am

  2. What do you think of UCSD?



    March 19, 2015 at 1:52 am

  3. I’m at a top program, and I am certain it does not effectively train its students. We end up placing people very well, but that is a tribute to the talent and work ethic of the students, not the quality of the department’s training. Our program is essentially that you learn what you can on your own and go to faculty when you get stuck. Autonomy is great once you get your legs, but students spend years finding their legs, often not even realizing they don’t have them in the first place. Students at programs with even just a little more structure and commitment to ensuring their students are expert methodologists are much better off. Just the other day I spoke with a faculty member at another university – a good, not top program – who said the faculty at her university hired from my department are always frighteningly smart and surprisingly methodologically naive.



    March 19, 2015 at 2:49 am

  4. IU Poli Sci ain’t bad either! We’re top 25 (#25, but still) in a pretty competitive field. I expect to slip a little when a few lions retire, but we’ve hired very well in the past few years so there’s a chance we’ll stay pretty close to that tier while reloading.

    Liked by 1 person

    Kindred Winecoff

    March 19, 2015 at 5:33 am

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