Using Grad School Rankings as a Tool for decision making

Joe Depczyk – Economist May 2008

Number one for this, best at that, tops in the world for x, highest salary after graduation over next ten years.


School and program rankings are unfortunately a part of the graduate school decision process, often times more difficult to understand than the topics covered in graduate school courses. Like the illustration, you may begin to feel like other forces are at play when deciding what graduate school is best.

But they can be valuable in a few ways from my own experience.

Finding whats out there – I remember the day I picked up my first copy of US News and World Reports’ 2009 Best Graduate Schools issue. Professionally I had been doing a lot of work with software and retail strategy. Whatever I wanted my graduate education to be closely related to technology and information sciences, but also wanted to include elements sociology and organizational behavior. What I did not want was an MBA or MSIS – nothing personal against those programs, but it just wouldn’t meet my professional goals.

Looking through the magazine I learned that IU was Sociology and Information Science programs received very high rankings. I thought my only recourse was to apply to both programs. A few google searches later with mixes of “sociology” “technology” “IU” cause the Human-Computer Interaction and Design program to appear to the top of the results.

This turned out to be exactly what I was looking for and it wasn’t even listed in the US News magazine.

Baselining expectation with Reality – I chose to investigate other HCI programs around the country, again starting with rankings. I created a spreadsheet copying and pasting what was in the magazine as compared to the programs website and later my own observation upon visiting. I recall a trip to a school in the Pacific Northwest that seemed amazing on paper and on the web, but was cold, impersonal, and distracted when I met with them in person.

Uncovering what you do and do not like – Considering the previous two examples, rankings, websites, and personal visits allowed me to construct my own ranking system, giving me a language why I preferred one program over another.

Rankings are just ONE tool to inform decision making – the beautiful thing about tools is that they are only as good as they are useful. I found as it came closer and closer to my applying to graduate school, I never referenced or considered rankings again. At that point I had all the data I needed to feel confident that wherever I was accepted, I would be okay.

To those reading this post, best luck in your search. Keep in mind ranking are only a start to your journey, but far from a finish.