Friday, July 28, 2006

Ask the Administrator: The Princeton Law School

A new correspondent writes:

I'm a senior in college, currently applying for grad school. My problem is that I am interested in a very specific area. However, the few top graduate schools I would love to go to do not specialise in this area and do not in fact have a sizeable faculty for such classes as well as thesis supervision. I could just go to a less-recognised school that specialises in my area of interest, and I do know some, but then I wouldn't be getting my PhD from the best school I am able to enter, given my grades. The dilemma now is, should I go to a less prominent school with less "name recognition" just so I can receive more attention on my pet topic, or should I just go to the "big name" schools, study the more general aspects and then think about focusing much later?

I’m reminded of the famous poll in which college presidents ranked the Princeton Law School as one of the top ten in the country. Princeton doesn’t have a law school. The halo effect of the name trumped objective reality.

I’ll ask my readers to chime in on this one, since I suspect it varies widely from field to field.

In my neck of the social sciences, there’s often a drastic disparity between a university’s overall reputation and its strength in my particular field. Some very well-known places are fairly weak in my area, and vice-versa. For my doctorate, I went for a university with a very strong program in my field, even though its overall brand name falls into the ‘respected but not revered’ category. The upside was that I was able to work with a large number of remarkable people, most of whom disagreed with each other. An environment like that forces you to step up, since there’s no groupthink on which to fall back when you don’t know what else to do. On the downside, people outside my little subfield don’t know which programs are strong and which weak, so it carried relatively little cachet on the job market. Since most colleges don’t carry multiple people in my little subfield, most hiring committees could only look at the general reputation of the university.

Grad school is not a time for free-form intellectual exploration. It’s a time to get a degree to get a job. In certain very well-defined disciplines, of the sort that are only taught at very large universities, it may well be the case that anybody who would hire you would know one program from another; in that case, overall school reputation really doesn’t mean much. If you’re in the kind of discipline that gets taught everywhere, though, you may find yourself eventually applying at small colleges that wouldn’t know one graduate program from another. In that case, the imprimateur of, say, Harvard would trump the fact that Harvard’s program in that area may not be the best.

I’ve written before on the general unadvisability of going to grad school in the first place, and I stand by that. If your field is in one of the crowded disciplines, and you can imagine yourself happy any other way, I’d advise against grad school. But if your mind is already made up to go, I’d make the call based on how widely your subject area is taught.

Wise and disparate readers: what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.