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.

I think that the answer depends on your career objectives. If the aim is to earn a doctorate and go the academic route, then you go to the best program you can get into. That may or may not be at an otherwise prestigious uni. If you arent planning a career in academia, the Uni itself may be more important. A degree from Princeton (to use DD's example) means something, whereas a degree from Decent Uni with Best Program In My Field may mean less. Of course there are exceptions, particularly if your field has programs well known to practicioners and academics alike.

[I'm using ac/nonac as an example here, but obviously different jobs in your field will require different training.... Your best chance for success is to decide which program will best prepare you for what you really want to do].
I'm in the Life Sciences and I advise my students to visit schools and choose a graduate school where they can most easily see themselves fitting in - with a research group, with an advisor, with the campus culture. After all, they are going to spend a long time there - so they'd better like the people they're going to be working with a lot. BUT, I also advise them to go to the BEST one of those, if possible. Becuase even though we hate to think like this, in the sciences reputation and pedigree both matter - especially when the field is crowded like it is now. Like AAYOR, the uni itself doesn't necesarily matter, though often it does. I do also point out to studens that since in science you have to do a post doc, being a happy, successful grad student matters a teeny bit less since your job will depend more on your post doc and where you do that. Again, I assume this will depend on your field to some degree. If you have contacts at your uni now (like professors and graduate students) you should talk to them to get an insider's perspective.

I will also point out, just to throw a monkey wrench into things, that for at least half of the graduate students who come into our program - they wind up doing someting completely different than what they thought they wanted to do when they started. So you might want to think about how much you are married to your pet topic. This switch seems to be independent of how strong the conviction to study something was and seems to relate more to the type of personality each student has. It definitely happened to me. Now, in the sciences we do have a choice about where to work and we get one year at the beginning of our PhD program during which we try out differnt research groups to help make that choice. I realize this is not always true in other disciplines, so this caveat may not really apply to you if you have to choose before you go.

Finally I'd say that many students, post-doctoral fellows and faculty place not having an intellectual community very high on their list of complaints about graduate school or academia. Once you get to grad school and start working on something very specific for a LONG LONG time, it can get lonely. Haveing people around that know at least something about what you are doing or talking about is useful. So while it may be tempting to try and plan to go to an awesome school and forge your own project (you'd have to find a supervisor who was ok with that, which usually is hard) - you'd better think hard about whether you could handle being the only one working on that. Sometimes you can get a co-advisor or a collaboration set up that might help some.

I realize that these points don't come together to support one specific point of view, but that's because it's a complicated topic with no easy answer. You'll have to decide for yourself and maybe some of the things we are saying here will give you some good things to think about. Good luck!
Off topic, but related to the title of the post--many years ago Allegheny Airlines commissioned surveys of airline passengers on the quality of service of the various airlines. They wanted to know how they measured up to the competition, and which airlines were doing the best job.

Allegheny did not stack up well in consumers' minds. Interestingly, one of the better-ranked, better-liked brands was a fictitious firm thrown in as a control, US Airways. So Allegheny changed their name to that to acquire the pre-existing good will. At least that's how I heard the story.

How could consumers have good experiences on a fictitious airline? Same way as college presidents could know how good the Princeton Law School is.
I think it's by far best to go to the best program in your field. Others in the field will know that, so if your objective is to both get the best education in your area as possible, and be recognized as having done so, you win on both counts. The folks who don't know that the school in top in your field won't really count for much, right? Plus, for a PhD, I think it's incredibly important for your school or department to have some depth in that area. What if the advisor you start with gets a new job/run over by a bus/turns out to be insane? You need to have another person who is also an expert who you might like better, to whom you can go for another opinion on things, who has funded research you can work on ... In my opinion, you'll be both happier and better off in the long term with the best department, not the best overall institution.

(PS: I went to a Really Big Name Research School. While it was truly the best choice for my topic, I saw colleagues really struggling because they had been seduced by the name, but didn't realize how important their advisor would be. If they didn't have a good person to work with, either because of lack of specific expertise or becuase the advisor was a lunatic, the students were miserable.)
The life sciences are different where your advisor - to a much greater degree - controls your projects, research and experience. I would go with the name, but I would ask a lot of questions about what kinds of jobs people got after school. In bio, if most of your grads are going into biotech after graduation that can mean that a) your faculty have weak reputations in academia but good industry contacts or b) that your faculty are not helpful in getting their own students postdocs after graduation. I saw a depressing lack of investment in recent grads at my Big Research U. Most students spent a year or more after school looking for work. Ask lots of questions about where people end up after graduation because that will help you see what your options might be after the big DR.
A couple points:

1. I would recommend that one go where the discipline is well respected. Whether you go in an academic or government or private sector market following the degree, those that do what you do will know the best programs.

2. There is no "GENERAL" market glut. Please acknowledge that at least two schools (Business, and Engineering) are not only hiring, but at least in the B-School arena suffering a shortage of PhDs, and having the corresponding upward pay-pressures.

2b. These two areas have strong markets outside Academia. The only schools at major universities to pay better than B-Schools are Law and Medical, large part because of the shortage of qualified faculty, and the need to compete with other job markets for the same highly educated resource.
I would choose the school with the best program, and best advisor for what you are interested in. In my subfield, my advisor was one of the top three researchers in the country. That trumped any worries about the specific school.

Also, yes, grad school is a long time to study something specific. On the other hand, it is a long time and studying that specific thing that interests you the most might help you get through it.

Yes, there are name snobs out there. My own small liberal arts college is one of them. I think I was lucky that one faculty member knew my school was excellent in my subfield. If you are applying to bigger universities, though, there is more of a chance of other faculty knowing why your program is good.

Life is too short to get a degree from a name, without it supporting the specific kind of research you want to do. My dissertation provided three published articles, the basis for my postdoc (funded by a competitive grant), and my current work. It would suck if it was on something I didn't really like all that much.
certain admissions departments made this choice for me recently. i applied to three schools: two top-name schools in general without any particular depth in my specialization, and one not-well-known school that is just about the only place in my country to study my subfield in any depth. i had a top-name BA, grad with honors, great gres, etc. and i got rejected from the two big-name schools, and accepted with full funding to the small-name (only person in my dept cohort to get it).

i know what happened. the people in the big name rooms looked at my essay and my focus, and said, who could advise her? and the answer really was no one. (actually, there was someone whose answer would have been 'me,' but she was on leave, and thought she was going to be leaving the university soon. sometimes it matters who is actually in the room.) with what i wanted to do and how i wanted to do it, and the sort of teaching and mentoring i needed, it just wasn't possible. (it also doesn't help that my politics are way out there for the discipline, and that my topics and methods show that.)

but at my current school, they weren't frightened by my leanings, and were actually intrigued by my specific interests. (and the department, division, and school as a whole shares my politics.) i even have a choice of decent advisors, if only they could stop going on leave.

so, apply where you think you could be happy...and those admissions meetings may make the choices for you. i'm overjoyed where i am, and couldn't imagine being at either of the other schools.
Ok--I'm a graduate of various professional schools: Music & Education.

In the music world, you need the graduate degrees AS well as the real world experience (so you should be endlessly gigging and going to school). The MM is generally a young person's game. The sheer physicality of the training and constant gigging favors the kids. It's analogous to being an athlete. So, I did this in my early 20s, with the realization if I didn't pursue it at that age, I'd never do it.

In the Ed World, you need relevant job experience before entering the various graduate programs. So, when I jumped fieds, I was in my late 20s, with oodles of revelent experience (I had worked as an adjunct prof of education, since I held music certification).

In my current position as a faculty member in an Ed graduate program, I've had numerous anxious so-to-be BA grads who thought they would be WONDERFUL candidates for the principalship. I continually point out they need TEACHING experience BEFORE they can be ELIGIBLE for admission.

The A&S model for graduate school causes endless headaches for ed schools.
I chose the "go to the program that matches your interests rather than the best program" route. I would do it over again in a heartbeat. I had the GREs and grades to go to a top 20 program in my area (Econ), but chose instead to go to a school that, at the time, was third tier. I went because they had the people and program I wanted. I also saw that it had the potential for growth.

In my second year, one of the faculty won a Nobel Prize, putting the school on the map (though not as much as the basketball team did this year - is that enough clues? :) ). By the time I finished after four years, the school had a better reputation, though still hardly first tier. Even today, almost 20 years later, it's still not quite first tier.

In any case, I loved every minute of my grad school experience. I had great faculty who saw grad students as comrades not annoyances. I had a great peer group, with most of whom I am still close friends today. Plus, I actually got a job. Having sat on the other end of the job market now, I would offer this advice to those who go my route:

1. While in grad school, accumulate a great teaching portfolio. Teach as much as you can and as varied courses as you can. Get something published while you're in grad school. Doesn't have to be a top journal, just get it out there. BOTTOM LINE: be the best student in your program. I'd much rather hire the top student from a mediocre program than the lower half of the distribution at Harvard.

2. Think about a career in a liberal arts college. If you already, like me, have preferences that are unorthodox in your discipline and thus push you to a specific program, it might be very challenging to get a job and esp. tenure at a research-one type school. At LACs, however, we tend to care a lot more about *whether* you publish than what. You'll have a lot more freedom to pursue what you love, both in the classroom and in writing. Yes, there's more teaching and service, but the tenure process is much less likely to cause ulcers.
I am outside the USA, so maybe things work differently here. But in my university (among staff who themselves graduated from MIT, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge), the first thing they seem to be interested in when they meet a new potential employee or student is not which university they have been to, but WHO they have worked with.

If your field is not well-represented at the best universities, then this means most probably the top people in your field are also at smaller, less prestigious schools. This is the case in my area.

So as long as you find a school with faculty who are highly regarded in your area, that will carry as much prestige as anything else.

Of course, the fact that all the tenured staff at my area are from the universities mentioned above suggests that my department hasn't always thought this way (but they also haven't tenured (or even employed) anyone new for the last 30 years).
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