Research potential graduate school programs – what exactly does that mean?

When one is asked to research potential graduate school programs, what exactly does that consist of?  Similar to researching for an undergraduate institution, this process is just a level above as the decision you make could help catapult your career.  The three things people most commonly should look for are:

1. Does the school have the program that you want?  Make sure the school has the department and program that most interest you.  You also want to make sure that the institution you are considering has at least 3 professors (or advisors) you would like to work for, just in case your top choice is unable to take you for any reason (i.e. loss of funding, does not have enough space to accommodate you, denied tenure, etc.).

2.  Location, location, location.  When drafting a list of potential schools, know what states or countries will be compatible with you.  Remember, this program will last anywhere for 4-7 years so make sure you pick a place where you can deal with the weather and cost of living.  A trap that some students get caught up in is the stipend amount; make sure to take into account the cost of living.  For example, if you are offered a place in Indiana with a stipend of $24,000 a year and offered a place in California for $27,000 a year, even though the California position is offering more money, you will get more “bang for you buck” in Indiana due to the cost of living.

3. Know the rank of the institution.  It is important to know how the programs you are interested in ranks nationally.  While you should not limit yourself to only ranked programs, getting your degree from a nationally recognized institution in your field can give you an edge when it is time for you to start applying for jobs.  The ranking of various graduate programs can be found here:

Other concerns such as having a family, medical conditions and job restrictions may also add into your choice for a graduate school.




The worth of a ranking…

I think the emissaries have given some excellent advice on school rankings this past month. I’ve found it a very interesting discussion because I know very little about rankings myself. In fact… I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t look at rankings at all when I applied to graduate school. So I decided to look up the Anthropology program and see what the numbers said. I used which provides data collected by the National Research Council.

IU’s Anthropology graduate program fell a little short of the middle of the 82 programs that were ranked. Like other emissaries have commented, however, this is only one measure of a grad program. By itself, it’s not very useful information. Perhaps if IU was dead last on the list, it might make me reconsider applying. But there are many other factors to weigh in, including the strengths of individual programs, faculty’s research interests, location, funding, and so on.

What I did find useful was all the information which followed the ranking. For example:

The numbers for “time to degree” and “completion rates” can be very telling. On this website you can also find numbers on job placement after graduation, average funding received, debt after graduation, and so on. If you are in the application process, it is definitely worth your time to compare these numbers between schools. If any numbers seem particularly low or high, consider talking to department staff and faculty to find out why. Of course the numbers can’t tell you everything – it’s hard to quantify how “welcoming” a place is – but they do provide some useful data that may influence your final decision.

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.

The Rankings Game

Pursing a graduate degree is not a light undertaking. It requires deep thought; a close examination of personal, professional, and academic goals; and a dose of brutal honesty. If you choose to take this mission, you will sacrifice sleep, time with loved ones, and oh…did I mention sleep? However, once you have finished (and you WILL finish), there are several benefits. If you’re lucky, you get the chance to meet wonderful people along the way.

As you can see, choosing to jump back into the higher education pool is a big decision.  Becoming informed about graduate school options can become overwhelming with numerous articles, books, and blogs that talk about the “best of the best”. Adding to the madness, several ranking lists exist,…so who do you trust? Here’s my advice.  First, get to know the resource you’re using. Here are some questions to ask as you browse:
Which rankings list are you using?
What measures are being used to determine scoring?
How many years has it been in circulation?
Is my field of study represented?
Are factors that I feel are important, represented in the ranking measurements?

Secondly, rankings are helpful, but they don’t tell you everything.  With so much information out there, it is very easy to float in confusion. Being informed is great…being overwhelmed is not. When you feel yourself floating, step away from the computer and use other resources you have at your disposal.  Go for a campus visit.  Go to an academic conference.  Contact a program of interest to see if you can speak with current students.  Speak with current professionals in your field.  Rankings serve as a great tool towards informing future scholars, parents, and curious citizens about what institutions have to offer. However, rankings are not the final say. YOU are! The question should not be, “Which institution is best?” The question to ask is, “Which institution is best for YOU?”

Rankings through the perspective of current IU grads


For this post I chose to interview current IU grads from different backgrounds and disciplines.

“The most important thing about rankings is to understand the methods and measures that organizations like US News and World Report use to make sure they align with your own values. They can be useful if thoughtfully analyzed.”
Doctoral Candidate
M.S 2010

Schools are ranked and individual programs are ranked. I was aware of university rankings and coming from a big ten school I knew I wanted to pursue my graduate degree at a large state school. Funding, program accreditation, and proximity to family were primary factors in my school application search. Although I did not look specifically at rankings others may benefit from applying to a range of high and medium ranked schools to increase their chance of receiving offer letters to attend. This may work with someone that is concerned about their standardized scores and academic performance. Also different programs are typically ranked by national professional organizations, so if you’re looking for a competitive program with a range of training experiences their accreditation will be a good indicator of the quality of available opportunities.
Becky, PhD 2011

“My advice to prospective graduate students; learn as much as you can about possible advisors and get to know them before applying (this will make the application process more or less stress free), talk to current students and alumni about the connectedness of the school in terms of faculty/student collaboration and job placement, and weigh the costs and benefits of attending each institution.
In my personal experience, I don’t attend a top 10 school but I also don’t think I could be in a better place. The faculty are THE leaders in their field and are well connected to other leaders. It’s very easy for me to walk into a faculty member’s office and ask for help, advice, and discuss opportunities for projects and publications. Additionally, because my field is Health Law and IU is now not only a university but also a health system, I don’t think I could find the types of resources I have at my fingertips anywhere else…especially at the relatively inexpensive rate for in-state tuition.”
J.D. candidate
MPH 2011




I think rankings are about as useful as a compass. They can point you in the general direction but thats it. I can only speak for the hard sciences here but in my program your success is greatly affected by your research advisor. Now there is probably a good correlation of how “good” the PIs are in relation to the school’s ranking but Im pretty sure that if you were at a high ranked school but your PI was sub par for one reason or another you wouldnt gain all the benefits you may have if you went a slightly lower ranked school with a better PI. I have no first hand experience but I would also think the general environment of the school may be different at different ranking tiers. I am thinking that the higher ranked schools are more likely to have a competitive environment but that is something that a student would have to learn from visits or talking to grad students who are currently there. In short look for research that interests you with a PI that you feel suits your needs in a department that has enough resources. Rankings will not tell you anything specific but they are based off something so dont throw them away just take them with a grain of salt.


Rankings, Only One Criterion

During the last two years I was in undergrad, I remember scowering through websites, books, mentors’ brains…anything that would help me to select the BEST graduate schools for me to apply to. It did not take long for me to figure out which schools were appropriate for me: they were listed among the top schools in the rankings, they were the alma maters for my mentors, and/or they were the institutions where well-published research was generated. During those last two years of undergrad, I made a list of potential graduate schools almost every week. Then, I took a year off. I am smiling right now as I reflect over that year. All of the research that I conducted during those last two years still relied heavily on published rankings from several sources. In retrospect, the rankings were not a horrible resource; rather they limited my thought process.

During the summer and fall after undergrad, I hopped in my car and drove to some of the campuses I had considered for graduate school. I am grateful for those trips. I remember pulling into a parking lot of one institution, after being lost for two hours in traffic, exhausted, frazzled, and irritable. I missed my campus tour, got a parking ticket, and suddenly, my number one lost its appeal. Yes, that was a wretched experience, but I learned that I wanted to go to an institution that was not located in a large metropolitan area, that had plenty of grass, and had a lesser number of one way streets. These were the aspects of my future “home” that the rankings were not able to illustrate.

The point I am trying to make is this: rankings help you to figure out what a majority of people may consider is best in a graduate school, but it will not make the decision about what you consider is best in a graduate school. I still applied to some of the top (and currently attend one) institutions in the rankings, but half of them never made my list until I started visiting campuses. Rankings are a great way to start the graduate school application process, but campus visits, discussions with alumni and current students, and a grasp on where the best research/researchers are will solidify your decision.

Rankings… what are they good for?

*Photo taken from Google

What’s good my faithful bloggers. I’m back with your FTOD. Today’s tip is about college rankings. But first a little lesson on college ranking systems.

College ranking systems became popular about 30 years ago, as higher education was becoming more of a mature industry. Prospective college students took on a more consumer in the marketplace orientation. In response US News and World Report saw an opportunity to provide a meaningful service at a modesty fee. Today millions of prospective college and graduate students consult it as the holy grail of college rankings.

However YOU grasshopper must remember one thing… and that is rankings are subjective. No matter how prestigious or objective the ranking system may appear it is subjective. It is subjective. Even the much venerated US News [which I think does a fair job of ranking graduate programs] has a flaw in the methodology.

What is the flaw? I’m glad you asked, ¼ of an institutions ranking is based on peer review. Essentially what they do is ask college presidents, provosts and deans to rank the top 100 programs and schools. What this means is that rankings are at base a beauty contest. So this brings me to my FTOD. And the tip is trust your intuition. Visit a school, talk to professors that teach there, grab coffee with current students and alumni of the program if possible. You will get a feeling about which program is right for you. Trust your instincts. In the end, you’ll be glad you did.

PS – Here’s some interesting information about your gut and intuition. Happy hunting!

A Physicists Perspective: School Rankings

There are just a dizzying collective of listings ranking colleges and universities nationwide: the U.S. News and World Reports, the Princeton Review, and the Huffington Post just to name a few. And when confronted as a prospective graduate student preparing to apply to these colleges and universities, which one of these, sometimes wildly varying, catalogs of rankings should be deemed valid in determining the course of one’s future. Now I cannot speak with any authority on how these ranking systems affect the determination of prospective graduate programs in other fields, especially in the social sciences and humanities, but I can only give you an honest critique from the point-of-view of an aspiring physicist.

Yay, college! Photo by U.S. News and World Reports.

I would like to just get this immediately out on the table and out of my system. It is in my most honest and humble opinion that every one these ranking systems harbor, to varying degrees, a sense of elitism and educational exclusivity that hardly congruent with the goals of promoting the betterment of society through the education of its citizens. Year after year only the most exclusive private institutions, whose population and alumnus comprise of a very narrow segment of our country’s socioeconomic makeup, are allowed to grace the top ten positions on their list. Aside from that one year where they ranked U. C. Berkeley 2nd after Harvard. That sure pissed off a lot of people. Opps, never again. Perhaps they are on to something though, maybe only selected few of the wealthiest and politically elite are bestowed from on high the ability to contribute to the vast pond that is human knowledge. Or perhaps hot smoke is being directed to orifices unknown, but I digress.

As a young scientist in the final year of my graduate studies looking back, I see the ranking systems as a humorous and utter waste of time for someone who is looking to pursue an advance degree in physics. Each ranking system impose their own arbitrary metrics to formulate a sequence of school they deem worthy of holding a position on their prestigious list. Some even include scientific funding information and academic productivity measured by scholarly articles published into their metric. Interesting as they are, they still fall short of a reliable source of academic guidance for the future. Here are a few points and recommendation I would like to share from my experiences as a researcher in the physical sciences:

- In the current stages of your graduate school application process you should have at least three individuals who are familiar with your intended field of study. Be it a mentor, a laboratory principle investigator, or the people who are writing your letter of recommendations. Take them out for coffee and tap into their pool of knowledge. They know A LOT!

- Whether one is a theorist or experimentalist, physics is still a research focused discipline and should be what you look for in a graduate institution. A simple internet search will enlighten you on the current research happening at the institution and whether or not it interest you. Unsure of your interest? Talk to the professors and researchers at your undergraduate institution. You’ll be surprised by how willing they are to share their experiences with you.

- The number of facility in the department exploring similar questions gives you a sense of the institution’s specialty. Make sure this is congruent with your own goals as these will be the people you’ll work with in the future. The larger the group, the more selective you can be on who you work with.

- Some schools have dedicated research facilities. For example, Indiana University has the Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter (formerly the IUCF) which is home to scientists working in the fields of nuclear physics, material sciences, physical chemistry, accelerator physics, and neutrino physics. These facility provide a vast amount of resources and support for young researchers. It is one of the key reasons why I came to Indiana University.

An aerial photo, circa 1980s, of the Indiana University Center for Exploration of Energy and Matter (IU CEEM) and formerly known as the Indiana University Cyclotron Facility (IUCF). Photo by IUCF Staff.

The front desk upon entering ISAT Hall. Photo by Maggie Ochoada.

- Lastly, look for big projects that are going on at the institution as well funded project are the best place for a graduate student to get hands-on experience working in the field. For example, Indiana University has a joint project with the Crane Navel Surface Warfare Center called ALPHA which is a low energy electron storage ring used in radiation effects testing. I came to Indiana knowing that this specific project will offer me great opportunities to learn and grow.

The ALPHA 50 MeV Electron Storage Ring at IU CEEM. Image by Jak Doskow.

Before I depart, I would like to share with you an inscription that is on the main auditorium walls of my alma mater, “Education is learning to use the tools which the human race has found indispensable.” May we go forth to learn and grow so that one day we may humbly contribute to the betterment of our communities, societies, and beyond.