Unsolicited advice, Part Deux: Choosing a grad school

By Sean Carroll | March 29, 2006 3:19 pm

Our first installment of unsolicited advice concerned the difficult question of how to get into graduate school; this one presumes that one has successfully leapt the hurdles of GRE’s and ornery admissions committees, and is faced with the perilous decision of which offer to accept. (If one has either one or zero offers, presumably the decision-making process is somewhat easier.) We will not, at the moment, be addressing whether you should be going to graduate school in the first place, or how to succeed once you get there.

This is a much more difficult task than the first installment. Not that it’s more difficult to decide where to go than to get into grad school in the first place; just that it’s much more difficult to give sensible advice about how to do it. When it comes to getting into grad schools, everyone agrees on the basic notions: good grades, test scores, letters, research experience. Choosing where to go, in contrast, is a highly personal decision, and what works for one person might be utterly irrelevant to someone else. Rather than being overly prescriptive, then, I thought it might be useful just to chat about some of the issues that come up. Ultimately, you’ll have to decide for yourself how to weigh the various factors.

  • Why do you want to go to grad school in the first place? Sure, maybe you should have already given some thought to this question — but now is the time to get serious. Is your goal to become a professor or other professional researcher (which is typically assumed)? Or is it just to get a Ph.D., and then see what happens? Or is it simply to learn some science?

    As a general principle, the purpose of grad school is very different from that of your undergraduate college education. At least in the U.S., college serves multiple purposes: training in some concentration, to be sure, but also a broadly-based liberal education, as well as more general exposure to critical thinking, and crucially important social and personal aspects. Grad school is much more focused: it serves to train you how to be a working research scientist (or whatever, although I’ll be speaking as if it is science you’ll be studying, as that’s what I know best). In college it’s good to be a broad person and cast your net widely in the oceans of learning and experience. In grad school, however, there is a lot to be said for focusing as much as you can on the specific discipline in which you are specializing. Not that you should stop having broad interests, but it might make sense to sacrifice some of them temporarily to the goal of becoming an expert researcher.

    The reason for this is that, like it or not, you are entering a competition. Not necessarily grad school itself (where grading and suchlike are notoriously relaxed, although there may be competition for advisors and fellowships and such), but the ultimate job market. Most people who go to grad school want to get jobs as scientists, probably in academia. There are far fewer such jobs than there are grad students, so most people who get a Ph.D. will ultimately not succeed in becoming professors. And the other people who want those jobs are also very smart and dedicated. So, if you are serious about choosing this as your life’s path, it makes sense to really devote yourself to your craft during your grad school years, and give it your best shot. I personally think that the rigorous training provided by a Ph.D. is extremely useful and rewarding even if you don’t become a professor, but you should certainly enter the fray with open eyes.

    If becoming a professor is what you want to do, you should choose your school accordingly. At the same time, I’m a firm believer that your life doesn’t completely end just because you’re in grad school, nor that the process itself should be unpleasant. It should be extremely challenging, taking you to the limits of what you are capable of doing — but the days you spend in school are also days that you are alive, and you shouldn’t completely shut yourself away. That’s the difficult balance to strike. (Told you this wouldn’t be very helpful.)

  • How prestigious is the school and the department? Prestige is something that is much more relevant (to the extent is is relevant at all) to your undergraduate school than your grad school. Not that it’s completely irrelevant, but the prestige of your advisor is more relevant than that of your department, which is much more relevant than that of the university as a whole. Of course, there are tight correlations between these different kinds of prestige, but they are not perfect.

    Although we had a debate about this in comments to the previous advice post, I still think that the identity of the school/department from which you get your Ph.D. is essentially irrelevant to ultimately getting hired as a faculty member. This is not some utopian perspective that we live in a perfect meritocracy in which where you come from doesn’t matter; rather, what matters is where you are doing your postdoc(s), not where you went to grad school. Of course, where you do your postdoc might be affected by where you go to grad school! But more important is who your advisor is.

  • What kind of advisors are available? So now we get to the nitty-gritty. The single most important influence on your graduate career will be who your advisor is. Sometimes you might know precisely who you will be working with before you actually get to the school; this is more common in chemistry and biology than in physics, where the “lab” you will be associated with is all-important. But in physics, it’s more common to first arrive at the school, and only once you are there will you try to hook up with some advisor. (I know that MIT accepts people into different research groups, but most schools simply accept you into the department as a whole, without any hard and fast rule about what group you will be in, much less which advisor you will have.)

    Of course, picking an advisor means picking a specialty. Some people know exactly what they want to do before they arrive; that’s not necessary, but it helps. The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well? Your Ph.D. advisor will very possibly be writing letters about you for decades to come — choose someone with whom you will be proud to be associated with, and who will take some interest in your well-being.

    As far as choosing your field of specialty is concerned, many factors come into play. Of course you should do something in which you are interested. But you also want to get a job, and the job market can be different in different fields. (Most notoriously, it’s somewhat better in experiment than in theory.) The point is, what specialties represent the intersection of “things you think are interesting” and “things that might lead to a rewarding career”? If that intersection is empty, you might want to rethink this entire process.

    Keep in mind also that some advisors are harder to get than others. They might simply be more popular, or have less funding, or about to switch fields or go on a three-year sabbatical. Find out! There is no rule that says that, simply because you’ve been accepted to a department, the faculty member of your choice must take you on as a student. All else being equal, it’s nice to maximize the number of faculty that you might possibly wind up with as an advisor. Much can happen along the way to your Ph.D., and it’s good to have options.

  • What is the scientific environment like? Grad school is a crucially important time of your life, when you make the transition from being a student to being a researcher. You won’t do it alone. Are the other students in your prospective department and group people who you could learn things from? What about the postdocs? Postdocs, who are experts in their fields but were just recently students like yourself, are often the most valuable sources of insight as you are struggling to learn the ropes. What about other professors in the department — could you imagine dropping into their offices to talk about science, or are they overly intimidating (or, much more likely, never around)? Do people have lunch together, and hang out more generally, or does everyone go their own way? A supportive and useful environment goes a long way to molding you as an effective researcher in your own right.
  • What are the departmental requirements? A couple of years ago the University of Chicago held a celebration for the centennial birthday of Enrico Fermi, who was a Chicago faculty member. The department brought back a number of people who were graduate students in the 1950’s when Fermi was there. Put them all in a room fifty years later, and do you know what they talked about? The candidacy exam, that hazing ritual by which a young student proves that they are ready to take on research.

    Different departments put up different hurdles requirements between you and your Ph.D. What are the required classes? Are there many breadth requirements? Are the courses interesting, and are the faculty good teachers? Is there a general exam? An experimental requirement? How long does it take to get a Ph.D.? (This last question is likely to vary significantly from advisor to advisor — some advisors like to keep their students as worker bees in their vast empires, while others consider students a burden and want to get rid of them as soon as possible.)

  • How is life as a student? Probably the single most useful way to learn about different schools is to talk to the students who are already there. Email them, or seek them out during visits. They will usually be willing to give you the inside scoop (and will be much more well-informed and honest than faculty members). Is there competition for the best advisors? What is the departmental atmosphere like? Do you get nice offices? The more students you can talk to, the better — people can have wildly different experiences in exactly the same environment, so it’s good to collect a bunch of data.

    “Life as a student” includes life outside the lab. What is like to live in the location of this particular university? Is it a big city or a college town? (And which do you prefer?) What is the cost of living? Are there dorms, or do students generally live in apartments? Do you need a car? Details, details. Are the necessities of grad student life — movies, coffee, pizza — within easy reach?

  • How would you be supported? Another crucial issue. At some point you may have had the happy realization that most grad students in the natural sciences don’t actually pay those exorbitant tuition bills — in fact, you typically get paid to be a grad student, either through teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships (in roughly ascending order of desirability). So, is there enough support to go around? Is the stipend enough to actually live on? What are the chances of getting RA’s or fellowships, so that you don’t have to teach all the time? Getting some teaching experience is extremely valuable and rewarding, and you shouldn’t avoid it entirely. But it’s not the reason you are in grad school. Research is hard, and takes a lot of time — if you have to teach a huge amount, it can slow down your progress towards a thesis.
  • What should you do about your significant other? Now we’re getting serious. So you want to go to MIT, but your sweetie has the job of his/her dreams in Seattle. Should you suck it up and accept the offer from UW, or try to make a long-distance relationship work? Or forgo the temptations of romance, since your career is more important and love never lasts anyway?

    Look, I can’t help you here. All I can do is sympathize and recognize that these are real issues, not trivia. Like I said, your years in grad school are years of your lives, and shouldn’t be sacrificed utterly to your work. But sometimes a long-term plan involves temporary steps backwards to achieve a better ultimate goal. You have to decide for yourself, keeping in mind that there are no objectively right answers.

That last little motto applies not only to romantic entanglements, but to choosing a grad school more generally. It’s really hard to know ahead of time what place will be right for you. Different people will have very different ideas from mine, and you should listen to all sorts of perspectives (which will hopefully emerge in the comments). Think about it carefully, but don’t be afraid to trust your instincts as well. Your comfort level is important. If, after making your decision, you feel as if a great burden has been lifted and you’re happy inside, you’ve probably done the right thing. Good luck!

  • hack

    More realistic advice: Go to the most prestigeous school you can get into. That way your degree will at least enhance your resume when you go looking for a job in a consulting firm or investment bank. Once you leave academia (and odds are you will), nobody will know or care that your advisor at Kansas State was the top guy in his specialty, but they will recognize you can’t be a complete idiot of you got into Stanford.

  • invcit

    “The point is, get some feeling for the faculty members who might realistically become your advisor. Are they active in research? Do they have personalities you could get along with? Do they have sufficient funding? Are they looking for new students, or over-subscribed? Do they let their students freelance, or guide them closely? Do they actively support their students in their later careers, or simply wish them well?”

    At least some of these seem pretty difficult to find out before your choose the school, escpecially the last one.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    I guess I would also say that the prestige of the school you attend is actually quite important.

    I know that a good part of the reason I’m in the job I am now is because I have the word “Caltech” at the right spot on my Cur. Vit. Although the name “Tom Soifer” (my advisor) is quite well known in astronomy, and infrared astronomy in particular, not many people in Physics know the name– and I’m one of a very small number of astronomers in a department of Physics & Astronomy. Yet the name “Caltech” means a lot.

    If you look around the nation, you will find that a substantial number of the faculty members on *all* college and university faculties got their PhD from a relatively small number of programs.

    Caltech grad school is a pressure cooker, and I’m not sure I’d advise it generally. However, it is true that I have an unfair advantage over students who are in the graduate program here at Vanderbilt. If somebody graduate who was *just as good* as me (insofar as that is possible to measure), and we were competing for the job, I’d have a leg up becaues the word “Caltech” on the resume means more than the word “Vanderbilt” in Physics and Astronomy. Not fair, but it really is part of the truth.

    Now, if you can’t get an advisor who will work at a prestigious university, then, yeah, that’s not a great place to go. But the prestige of the department does matter. (And it really is the prestige of the department rather than the prestige of the University as a whole.)


  • weichi

    Thanks, Sean.

    Not many comments yet, so I’ll ask more specific questions: why did you (not just Sean, but others too!) choose the grad school that you did? One particular factor (perhaps mentioned by Sean) or was it a bunch of different things? In hindsight, do you consider it a good decision?

  • http://www.angrystanek.com Becky Stanek

    At least some of these seem pretty difficult to find out before your choose the school, escpecially the last one.

    Many schools pay to have the accepted students visit the department, and meet with the faculty and graduate students. That gives the prospective students a chance to gauge the personalities of the faculty they might want to work with. Also, one can always contact the current and former students of a given professor to find out how serious the professor is about being a mentor, and not just a boss.

    why did you (not just Sean, but others too!) choose the grad school that you did?

    The research interests of the faculty at Michigan lined up with mine, so that was a big part of it. But it was also a gut decision — I thought I would be happiest at Michigan for a variety of reaons. In hindsight, I absolutely made the right decision, but that’s just what the right decision for me was.

  • http://sourav.net/ Sourav

    […] but the days you spend in school are also days that you are alive, and you shouldn’t completely shut yourself away. That’s the difficult balance to strike. (Told you this wouldn’t be very helpful.)

    You should be prepared to live and breathe your work. Yes, you should have hobbies to let you unwind and connect with the world; spend time with friends and family; and eat, exercise and sleep properly. However, if you are not ready for your mind to live largely inside your speciality (or some speciality in your field), you are kidding yourself.

  • Ben L

    I have to say, I picked the “Go to the most prestigious school I got into” method. It seems to have worked out pretty well for me, at least so far :). That had a lot to do with the fact that I went to a teaching school for undergrad, and so had very little idea about the strengths of different schools.

    I did spend a lot of time talking to Students and Faculty, and decided that I couldn’t tell much from that… everywhere I went people claimed things were good, and the students were (relatively) happy, so prestige was about the only discriminating factor I had.

    One reason I think this was a good choice is that there does tend to be a strong correlation between the reputation of a school and the abilities of the other students. For me, at least, having lots of other good students around trying to learn the same things was a very beneficial thing.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    There is a lot of correlation/causation confusion involved in the question of whether the prestige of your grad school helps you later in life. Of course the people who are later successful are primarily those who went to famous schools. I would argue that the reasons for this include (1) the top students went to those schools, where (2) they found other good students, like Ben says, and (3) the most active advisors were also to be found, which helped them (4) become good scientists and (5) do good research and (6) get good postdocs. Not because faculty search committees are heavily influenced by your grad school.

    Imagine that you were on a faculty search committee, trying to make a choice between two candidates. Both had postdocs at Berkeley and Princeton. You have heard them give talks and spoken with them personally. You have some feeling for what it would be like to have them as colleagues. You have looked at their publication records, maybe even read some of their papers. You have certainly read letters of recommendation from experts in their fields. Now, are you going to tell me that, of all these things, you will be significantly influenced by the overall prestige of the place they went to grad school? If not, why do you think other people would be? And if so, why in the world would you be?

  • http://biocurious.com Andre


    I actually think many of those things aren’t too hard to find out if you’ve already narrowed down your choices and aren’t trying to screen a large number of potential advisors. You can get an idea of research activity by searching an article database or even Google Scholar for their name and looking at their most recent papers and how many times those papers have been cited by others and in my experience potential advisors will be very upfront about their desire (or lack thereof) for new students and about their ability to support them financially. As far as their supervising style and the support they give to students after the PhD are concerned, you can’t beat talking to current and former students about their experiences.

    So a couple of searches, a few e-mails, and some agonizing waiting and hmm-ing and ha-ing can go a long way.

  • Anonymous

    1. Hack’s comments are crucial — that picking the “prestige” school is critical for post-academic life.

    2. Sean, though I GREATLY appreciate this blog and even this advice, in many ways exacerbates or at least typifies the problems with physics grad school and the grad school selection problem with statements like “Is your goal to become a professor or other professional researcher (which is typically assumed)?”. Grad schools in physics (and undergrad too in many ways) function to churn out academic professors, both technically and most importantly, mentally. It’s held up as the be-all, end-all of the research career, even though it’s a rarity for nearly all students. Hence, since you’ll probably leave academia anyway, follow advice #1, and get the CV with the better schools’ name on it.

    3. I tried to follow some of the more “idealistic” or “precise” advice found here and elsewhere when I chose my grad school a few years ago. I turned down a Tier 1 school to go to a Tier 2 school because I thought it was better to choose a specialty that I was most interested in, where Tier 2 was pretty dang good at that specialty. Turns out, Advisor at Teir 2 was a complete jerk overall, did next to nothing to mentor or teach me about how to grow as a physicist, nearly never spoke to me as a real human being — and I ended up switching advisors and leaving with a Masters with a very sour taste. (I’ve done fine since then but future advisors/bosses have just gone to show me waht a kind, insightful mentor SHOULD be, rather than one that’s focused only on churning out his papers).

    Now, that is my PERSONAL experience. But the point I’d like to make is:
    — choosing a “lesser” school for a subspecialty/advisor you are interested in is quite a gamble. I’d recommend going with as school that offers more breadth just in case.

    — getting to know who your advisor is is sooo critical, but not so easy to find out on a weekend visit. I even spent a summer at the university doing undergrad research and knew of Advisor somewhat through that. But the smile-and-couple of kind words to an undergrad in passing does not make a good potential future advisor. i did NOT interview his students enough, but even there, it’s misleading. it depends on how YOU connect with that advisor.

    4. As Sean addressed, real-life issues like love/marriage and the general two-body problem are serious. But they don’t “end” when you get your PhD. Are you willing to then be apart again for a few more years when you get that postdoc on the other coast? Will he quit his great job to follow you when you get a professorship at Teir 2 school in podunk town? It’s not like you make a couple of years of sacrifice in grad school and can make some easier choice down the road. It’s a lifelong choice of career vs. the-rest-of-non-career-life. (speaking of which REQUEST for a future blog on the two-body-problem!)

  • Stan Seibert

    The importance of a good personality match between you and your advisor can’t be stressed enough. I was very lucky to find an advisor that I get along with, but a friend of mine was not so fortunate. She had real problems dealing with the eccentricities of her advisor, and it really took a toll on her well-being and mental health. Thankfully, she was able to find a graceful way out and switch schools to continue her work.

    Don’t just assume you can just “suck it up” and get through it. Grad school is hard enough without the extra load of dealing with someone you can’t work with. You should definitely be able to deal with your advisor on a social/personal level (just like any other group of people, some profesors are jerks), but also on an intellectual level.

    Professors “mentor” students in different ways. You might prefer some independence to figure things out on your own, and just check back in periodically. Other people like more direction and a more interactive advisor. Either way, if you pick the wrong one, you will either be hopelessly adrift without enough guidance or frustratingly micromanged. You will need some critical self-assessment here. (When in doubt, err on the side of more direction. You need more help than you think.)

    The problem here is that finding a good advisor IS impossible during the recruitment visits. You will be able to quickly identify the bad ones, and come up with a few “possibly good” ones. But only once you enrolled at the university, and can gather information in a more normal environment, will you be able to sift the “actually good” ones from the “possibly good” ones.

    My advice is just make sure you have a pool of several possible people at whatever university you pick. Once you get there, take classes from the people you are interested in, and after being trapped with them in a classroom for 40 hours, you will have a pretty good idea whether this is someone you would want to work with for 3+ years.

    (Oh, and no matter what, always have a backup plan. Different speciality, different field, different career, whatever. Don’t force yourself through Plan A just because you feel like you have no other options. That is a fast track to misery. Plan B for me turned out much better than Plan A.)

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  • Tim M

    The money question: do you let the stipend help make your decision? What if you’re choosing between two places and one offers 30% more? The true academic says ignore it, but it will be considered on some level. Others will argue that a grad student gets paid little there’s no difference, but I think that argument is really flawed – every little bit counts MORE when you’re talking about small numbers, not less.

  • Sascha

    I had an excruciatingly difficult time choosing a grad school, and in the end turned down Caltech to attend a state school in a location I liked much better. (It was pointed out to me by a regretful grad student that grad school would be the last time in my life I’d have quite so much control over choosing where to live.)

    One piece of advice from one of my professors that I found overwhelmingly helpful: If you find you’ve made the wrong decision, you can always get a master’s degree and move to another school. As long as you do reasonably well at a master’s degree, you only become more attractive to admissions committees because you have most of the training already, but they still get to pay you at a grad student salary and not a post doc salary.

    Additionally, I wasn’t (and still am not) sure whether I really wanted a Ph.D., and while a master’s degree from my current institution looks good on my CV, a master’s degree from a place like Caltech or MIT would merely suggest that I’d probably failed my quals.

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  • Ponderer of Things

    I also disagree with Sean that prestige of the school doesn’t count. In my personal experience it counts a LOT. Check out who gets invited to give job interview talks at various schools. I am involved in hiring process now and see that there are a lot of “assumptions” made based on where a person went to school – like it or not. People are willing to overlook lack of high-profile publications for a person if he went to, say, MIT, but will automatically decide that someone with a lot of publications from, say, Lousiana State, was doing something very technical and boring.

    Moreover, when I was looking for a postdoc (I have a PhD from top 5 physics, ivy league school), I had received a lot more interest than a friend who was looking for his second postdoc from our group – but he got his PhD from a less known institution. He was still good enough to get hired in our group for his first postdoc, but sometimes you can send someone a call even without sending along your detailed CV, just describing what you did in a few sentences – but getting a PhD from top place immediately grabs their attention.

    After the last discussion on these topics a few months back I have reached to the conclusion that there may be nothing terribly bad with such stereotyping – getting into top program in physics is rather tough, and by being more interested in someone with top school PhD people are looking for additional “recommendation” that comes from the fact that someone was good enough for an admission committee to be selected as one out of 20 or 50 who applied for the same spot. We don’t feel bad when applying similar logic to other areas of our lives – and getting into a good grad program has a lot more to do with you (rather than your parents, or money) than undergrad school, which is all about parents and money in my opinion.

    So just like I would want to hire someone with a lot of publications, preferably in PRL (or Nature/Science) – even if I am accused of being elitist with regards to Journal of Minor Advances in Nuclear Methods and Instrumentations. Similarly, I would want someone with good letters of recommendation, and PhD from top institution is an equivalent of a collective letter from an admission committee from that place.

    The name of your advisor is not everything either. There’s a limit to how powerful any professor is – and I find a network of “old pals” hiring people based on personal requests from each other much more troubling than judging a person based on the institution of his PhD. But chances are – your postdoc advisor or members of faculty search committee will not know much about your PhD advisor. Even if they may remember a talk he or she gave, or perhaps even if one or two are specialists in narrow field or know them well personally, the majority will judge you and your advisors work based on publications – they numbers, quality of journals, and then specifics of what you have actually done – in that order. My postdoc advisor is in the same relatively narrow specialty as my PhD advisor, but I can assure you if I were to quiz him on what I actually did for my PhD, I would get a rather broad three-sentence description, but no details.

    Everyone is busy worrying about their science, their grants and their students – too much so to go into details of who you are and what you did. Go for “prestige” university – this will at least get you a foot through the door, rather than spending the rest of your life explaining to people how you were really smart but made a concious choice to go for Podunk State degree instead of Harvard (reminds me of “Meet the Parents” movie).

  • anonymous

    Everyone who says that the prestige of the school matters is entirely correct. Sean is wearing rose-colored classes so tinted he can’t see straight on this. In contrast, where you went to undergraduate school has absolutely no bearing, provided it doesn’t stop you from getting into a good graduate school. If you’re an academic physicist, try the following thought experiment: list the PhD schools of your fellow faculty members. I bet you know quite a few of them, don’t you? Now list where they did their undergraduate degree. How many did you get?

    Some other advice:

    1) Don’t allow yourself to be bribed. That big stipend from school X will be financially insignificant over the course of your career. On the other hand, never go to a physics graduate school that doesn’t offer financial support—it’s very rare these days that students are even admitted without financial aid.
    2) Be flexible. The odds are greater than 50% that you will NOT wind up in the subfield you thought you would. Never go a school just because you want to work with Advisor Y, since it probably won’t happen. Pick a school that is strong in at least two areas you find interesting, and preferably more.
    3) Don’t go to any school you haven’t visited in person.
    4) The school with easier requirements (eg. no candidacy exam) will attract students who don’t want to work as hard, and who will learn less. Do you really want to be one of them?

  • Savya

    I don’t know how much of what hack says is relevant, but I think it is very important that the department and your advisor treat you as a HUMAN BEING, and not just a statistic. Personally, I don’t think it matters too much which school you go to, as long as the school is not completely unrecognized.

    I think there are many things that are very relevant for international grad students, but never get mentioned. Considering that there is a significant number of grad students from half the way across the world, here are my thoughts:

    It is IMPOSSIBLE for international grad students to visit before they can join, for the simple reason that universities will just not pay, and for almost all other countries, the exchange rate is too unfavourable for a visit to be financially viable if the student has to pay for it her/himself. In that case, one MUST visit other schools if one feels dissatisfied with one’s present schools, and not stick on and be miserable in a school that is clearly nout suited to one’s needs.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Now, are you going to tell me that, of all these things, you will be significantly influenced by the overall prestige of the place they went to grad school? If not, why do you think other people would be? And if so, why in the world would you be?

    If the two candidates were otherwise equal– let’s even assume they’re the same race/gender, so that we don’t have to think about that– then, yes, I think that a lot of people will choose the one from the more pretigious graduate school.

    Sean, probably you are right that the primary correlations are what you say– the most prestigious departments are also the most competetive to get into, so they tend to get the “best” people and have the best environment for producing competetive graduates who are going to be best at playing the game and doing what you do to get ahead in science. But I don’t think that the “ooo, shiny” factor of going to a prestigious school can be discounted.

    Too many people are rankings conscious. It drives me nuts at faculty meetings at my place how often we mention what our rankings are, and how obsessed we are with the fact that they aren’t where we want them to be. I don’t know if it helps your rankings are affected at all by the graduate schools of your faculty — probably not — but it does make you feel like you look more pretigious if you’ve got more people who were educated in very prestigious graduate schools.

    At the other end, if you’ve got two people who are on the border of making the cut to get on your short list, the prestigious graduate school can be the edge that pushes you over and gets you a chance to show your stuff.


  • fh

    How about outside the US? I looked around and got advice where to go for my field of interesst and none of the places I ended up applying to happens to be in the states. Some in Europe, one in Canada.

    Furthermore from what people describe to me a PhD at, say, a German institution sounds like a much better experience then a US grad school. More freedom to explore and think on your own.
    Maybe somebody here who actually knows the different systems can give some opinion on that?

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  • Ponderer of Things

    a few other (somewhat depressing) things that grad students should be informed up front (instead of waiting 5-10 to find out the hard way):

    Academic market for permanent (tenure faculty) position is very tough and oversaturated with huge overproduction of PhDs. In 80ies there were 20 to 50 applications per position, nowadays it’s 200 or even more in some cases.
    So chances are – you are not going to get it.

    In pursuit of the crazy idea of becoming a professor you should expect to change your location at least a couple of times until your early to mid 30ies (sometimes late 30ies) – is your significant other willing to accept this nomadic lifestyle of going through second postdoc in hopes of landing that faculty position? Can you expect to ask him or her to quit the job every couple of years and try to find it again in new, and often rather obscure location?

    You will not be able to start a family or buy a house because of lack of money and time – and if you try to do it anyways, chances are – that job will go to someone more successful who is single-focused on their careers. See the overproduction of PhD bit. Even if you get assistant professor position, the first 5-6 years (before getting tenure) are not very productive to any kind of family or personal life.

    If you are not considering academic science as your primary career goals, there’s still industry and government, as well as consulting and other completely unscientific positions. Industry requires different type of skills and your PhD education is very likely to be highly overspecialized. In other words, for someone who will spend 6-8 years earning PhD (plus multiple postdocs), your pay and hierarchial position within the company will be significantly lower than one would expect compared with someone who decided to get a masters or even bachelor in engineering or other more applied field and go to the industry right away.
    Your publications won’t bring you as much respect as in academic world, and you may feel that you are wasting some of your skills and education on relatively mundane problems.

    Consulting, banking and other similar fields are even more so – the skills you use will not be related to your education, they could have hired smart people with bachelors to do the same type analysis, but they won’t because they can afford to hire fancy and hungry PhDs for just a little more money – and get a lot more “prestige” this way. Prestige of the school matters in those fields even more than in science.

    Government labs seems the safest way to keep doing science without going for super-competitive tenured positions, and most government labs have nearly tenure-like setup anyways. But you won’t have students, so you need to do more work yourself, and in a lot of fields getting a gov’t lab position is almost impossible – I don’t think they employ a lot of string theorists, for example.

  • hugechavz

    Anonymous, I agree with most of your advice. UCSB breaks number 4, though.

    I’m choosing my grad school based on prestige (and sense of funding), as well as excellence in my field. There are a couple notoriously troubled professors, and I may be kidding myself if I think I can get out unscathed. But if I can’t do what I want, then I might as well not be doing physics at all.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    All I can really say about the prestige thing is that I’ve been in on five faculty searches in the last five years (one department chair, two permanent lecturer positions, and two visiting jobs), with two more to come in the next few weeks, and not once has the prestige of a candidate’s PhD institution come into play.

    Now, granted, small liberal arts college jobs are not the same as top research institution jobs, and the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but when I say that the prestige of the candidate’s grad school doesn’t matter, I mean it.

  • ksh95

    Chad Orzel says:

    and not once has the prestige of a candidate’s PhD institution come into play.

    And I’d bet that every person you hired came from a top university.

  • citrine

    An issue that is not addressed by a lot of articles etc. on grad school is the role of good mental and physical health. I know that this is not a “politically correct” topic, but I’m going to bring it up anyways. Ask yourself the following questions:

    * Can you survive on 4-5 hrs of sleep a night for the better part of a week?

    * The other side of the above question – do you have the stamina to be on your feet for 12 hrs at a stretch?

    * Can your eyesight withstand 12 hrs of reading a day?

    * Can you write and type for extended periods of time?

    * Do you have very specialized dietary requirements, or can you subsist (if necessary) on vending machine food and beverages until you can get to the store?

    * Do you fall sick often?

    * Can you withstand uncomfortable climates? (Even if your campus is in a comfy locale, you may be required to spend extended periods of time in a very different type of place where your advisor has collaborators.)

    * Are you emotionally resilient enough to withstand a lot of frustration (best case scenario) and unsupportive or possibly malevolent colleagues (worst case scenario)?

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Citrine — I don’t think that what all of you write is strictly necessary for grad school.

    Yes, as an astronomer, I have lived on that schedule sometimes– but not much during grad school. It certainly wasn’t routine. Yes, in the crunch state of writing my thesis, I was easily working 12 hours a day… but I was still sleeping 8 hours a night. I just wasn’t doing much else. That was for perhaps 6-8 months of grad school. Most of the rest of the time: yeah, I almost always worked more than 40 hours a week, but probably it was rare to work a lot more than 50 hours a week. I managed to play in a school orchestra the whole way through, and to do a number of community theatre productions.

    Some grad students do really work nearly that much, but not as many as the myth would have it, and it’s a myth that it’s necessary. The ability to get things done is more important than the ability to keep the nose to the grindstone at all times.

    That being said, you *do* need to be dedicated; if you are only going to work 30 hours a week, you’re going to find it tough to finish or keep up. If you can’t focus through a lot of frusturation and a lot of tedious stuff, you’re hosed. And the last point you make is absolutely true– you have to be able to withstand frusturation and setbacks in the best-case scenario.

    You can’t be a slacker, but you don’t have to be an utterly nutty workaholic. You can have a life, and you can get a healthy amount of sleep.


  • Annie

    As a student who just completed the application/selection process this time last year, I think it’s worth pointing out that there is one thing that helps you get into schools *and* helps you select a school — research experiences (especially over the summer, and especially in an REU-style program, and especially at schools other than your undergraduate institution). My experience with my undergrad professors could probably not even be compared to the experiences their grad students were having, and as an undergrad I didn’t have a lot of opportunity to come into contact with the grad students in my department or to really understand what their lives were like . But in summer REUs, you get randomly assigned an advisor, and then have to sink or swim with that advisor, while watching their other students struggle or succeed to get along. And you get a much better look at how grad school — not only a specific school, but the process in general — functions. Often the arrival of the “summer students” is a major event, and you get included in activities and get to see how stressed grad students are, how happy or unhappy they are, how balanced their lives are, and you get to hear all the department gossip. Without this experience, I don’t know that I would have known what to look for or ask about on my grad visits. I also don’t know that I would have “allowed” myself to prioritize the things that are personally important to me but may seem trivial to others — I realized that geography was really a major dealbreaker for my situation. And having experience with several different professors can help you out a lot when it comes to choosing an advisor, especially if you end up staying in the sub-field you were interested in as a young’un. I heard time and time again — from faculty and scientists, not just grad students — about really supportive, fantastic advisors in my field, and about really awful scientists that “nobody” liked, or horror stories about theses that never ended because of committees that could never make up their minds — all long before grad visits.

  • weichi


    A quick check of the facts reveals the following PhD schools for professors at Union college:

    SUNY Albany
    UNC Chapel Hill
    Florida State University
    George Washington University
    Iowa State University
    Case Institute of Technology
    Rutgers University

    (note the last 4 are emeritus faculty, so they presumably were hired many years ago)

    Note that the current department chair got his PhD from Florida State, and the two current “lecturers” are from Berkeley and SUNY Albany. Berkeley I’ll give you, but do you consider Florida State and SUNY Albany to be “top universities”?

    To try to keep things on topic: any other people want to share reasons why they choose the school they did?

  • Belizean

    Excellent post, Sean.

    I would add that prospective grad students should ask themselves this question, “Do I have a burning desire to be a physics professor, or merely a deep interest in physics?”

    If the latter, I would recommend skipping graduate school, investing your time and energy in becoming financially independent, and studying physics as a leisure pursuit.

  • S. McHugh

    One other benefit of going to a less prestigious school: the added motivation it gives to succeed and spite the ivy leaguers who turn you down. (You just wait, Columbia!)

  • Ponderer of Things

    Is Union College really such a good example?

    Here’s # of faculty PhD alumni at Harvard (out of 63 faculty):
    Harvard 22
    Berkeley 7
    MIT 6
    Princeton 4
    Cornell 3
    Stanford 3
    Leiden 2
    Caltech 1
    Oxford 1
    Chicago 1
    Columbia 1
    Other 12

    and also faculty at Caltech (total of 51 faculty):
    Berkeley 9
    Harvard 5
    Chicago 5
    Princeton 5
    Cornell 4
    MIT 4
    Caltech 3
    Cambridge 2
    Stanford 2
    Columbia 2
    Other 10

    Seems like at least in these two schools only 15-20% of faculty are not from top 10 schools (and some of those “other” are places like Tokyo University, Landau institute, Oxford – not too shabby either in terms of prestige).
    Someone else could easily compute the same statistics for other departments that list PhD institutions of its faculty members. Not sure what it’s for U Chicago…

  • Anonymous Beaver

    It’s worth examining the 10 ‘other’ at Caltech, and see how their origins play into this game.

    #Drever (Glasgow); 1958.
    #Goodstein (Washington); 1965.
    #Phillips (Oxford); 1965, Astronomy.
    #Tombrello (Rice); 1961.
    These four are from a previous era, to whom the discussion does not apply.

    #Kitaev (Landau); USSR.
    #Ooguri (Tokyo); Japan.
    #Sari (Hebrew University); Israel.
    These three come from arguably the best places in their countries of origin.

    #Scherer (NM Institute of Mining & Tech); joint w/ EE and Applied Phys.
    #Zewail (Penn); joint with Chemistry.
    Joint professors don’t count, as we don’t know what other fields are like. Although I must say the Scherer story (NMIT^3) is possibly a genuine exception.

    #Kimble (Rochester)

    *shrug*. Kimble’s a special case- he worked for Mandl, a founder of a subfield, before that subfield was sexy, and I’m guessing had the vision even then to know that it was awesome stuff. A cynic might speculate that the top-10 places in 1972 wouldn’t deign to accept someone from Abilene Christian University, too.

    Also note that Kimble worked at Bell Labs before becoming faculty, too, and only got to be at a first-tier school after proving his awesomeness at a top-second-tier school. Someone of his caliber, though, needs little help in carving their own path.

    So, the answer would appear to be: in the modern era, pure physics faculty at a top-tier place all come from top-tier places. Anyone want to do this same examination of Harvard’s faculty?

  • A Serious Question

    I am seriously considering this possibility: After a strong undergraduate physics education, why not forgo graduate school and become a high school teacher; spend 6-7 hours a day on high school teaching duties, have the entire summer off, and spend all of one’s free time absorbed in research of one’s choosing with 0 distractions?

    It seems much more likely to me for a bright person who goes down this path to come up with truly creative and groundbreaking physics, then it is for somebody who enters the modern “publish-or-publish” world of modern grad students and postdocs.

    Why am I wrong? (i.e., Why shouldn’t I do this?)

  • Anonymous Beaver

    The horror.

    You shouldn’t do it because you’ll become a crackpot and nobody will pay any attention to you. Even if you follow a grad curriculum ‘on your own’ the first couple years to get caught up with the tools you need, you’ll have nobody to ask questions of, nobody to bounce ideas off of, and (critically) nobody to tell you that you’ve become a crackpot recluse.

    It should be obvious that you’ll have no access to experimentalists to collaborate with and keep yourself grounded as a physicist.

    In the unlikely event you do discover some great insight, you’ll have incredible difficulty communicating it to people besides your long-suffering colleagues. You’ll become bitter and angry, and will end up taking it out on your students, who will thus carry a lifelong image of the Physicist as Bitter Crank, setting back the cause ever so much more.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    6-7 hours a day on high school teaching duties is a fantasy disconnected from reality.

    I’ve known a number of high school teachers, and my mother is one. Here’s the truth of high school teaching: you *do* in fact do 12 months of work, but you have 9 months to do it in.

    Yes, over the summer, you can do other things, but for the reason Anonymous Bear says, you’re also kidding yourself if you think you’re going to make real contributions to modern science this way. If you want to do that, it’s possible — if you get the PhD first, and you have a research group at a real lab or University that will bring you in to work with them over summers. Even then, you aren’t going to lead groups, but will contribute to the work.


  • AM

    Interesting post from you as usual. Btw I came across this quacky website where you are being misrepresented :-> :


    Hope you enjoy it.

  • Supernova

    #33-34: Well, obviously faculty at top-tier universities tend to come from top-tier universities. I think what tends to get overlooked in these discussions is that there are lots of universities out there in need of physics professors. Just as we shouldn’t forget that being a professor is not the only way to be a physicist, we should also not forget that being at Harvard/Yale/Caltech is not the only way to be a professor. Sure, you get less time for research at non-Research 1 universities, but if a tenure-track position is what you’re after, there are lots of places to get it. This isn’t to say that the job market isn’t tight. I just want to make sure we all remember that there are lots of (to quote comment #60 from the first thread) “Joe Averages” out there doing good research and good teaching at good schools that just don’t happen to be “Top Tier.” And maybe they have a better chance of having a life while they’re at it. :)

  • Paul Orwin

    Now I think we see the real issue (from Anonymous Beaver, among others). When Chad and Sean (and me) say “tenure track faculty” we mean that fairly literally. Maybe we count community colleges, maybe not, but we definitely count any accredited 4-year and up school (I teach at a master’s granting school, Chad at an undergrad school?). Anonymous Beaver, and some other commenters, mean Harvard or Caltech (presumably a few other places will do as well). Surely this argues for both sides being correct. To be successful in academia, you do not need to be a faculty member at either of those two institutions (although certainly the faculty there should be counted as successes). However, if that is your measure of success, then going to a less-than top tier university is probably a terrible idea.

    But, you better get used to something. There are many more people who want to be that than there are spaces at that table. You will spend the next 6-10 years of your life fighting a cutthroat battle against your peers in your grad program for the 1 or 2 faculty spots that might open up at those schools when you are ready to go there. If you broaden your horizons slightly, you could find a great job at a nice place, where academic freedom actually means doing research that interests you, and getting to educate fine young men and women at the same time. However, I will agree with all that the pay sucks!

  • Anonymous Beaver

    Oh, I’m totally aware (believe me) of the wide range of possibilities for tenure-track facultyin’. I just found the issue of where faculty came from at one particular high-end research place to be good procrastination fodder…

  • Supernova

    Thanks, Paul, you said it better than I did.

  • weichi

    Is Union College really such a good example?

    For the narrow reason I posted, it is the *only* example :-)

    Chad said that in the faculty searches he’s been involved in, the PhD school wasn’t part of the hiring decision. ksh95 accuses him of hypocrisy. I just wanted to point out that the charge of hypocrisy was unfair.

    But even in general I think Union is a good example. There are a lot more Union Colleges out there than there are Harvards.

  • http://www.davidmcmahonbooks.com/ David

    Sorry Hack, I’ve been working in the “real” world and I disagree with your assessment-at least partially. While “prestigious” institutions get a lot of air play in the media, working in the national labs I haven’t seen one iota of evidence that where a person went to school made the slightest difference. In fact I have met plenty of people from Stanford who didn’t know their stuff all that well or demonstrate any intelligence, while plenty of people from universities like Kansas State have done very well in the labs. I’ve met plenty of people from places like Kansas State that know their math and physics better than people from Stanford or MIT, and they have no problems moving up the career ladder. The bottom line of the world outside of academia is what matters is what you can do. So I would say I basically agree with Sean’s advice.

  • Belizean

    A Serious Question,

    As Rob Knop pointed out, your plan to obtain leisure enough to do physics by becoming a high school teacher will fail. Teaching’s a far more demanding job than it might appear. Leisure would more likely be had by becoming motel night clerk, a self-storage warehouse custodian, or a night security guard. Of course, if you don’t want to spend your entire life in poverty, you might consider and initial period of entrepreneurial activity or investing with the aim of financial independence.

    With all due respect to Anonymous Beaver, the self-made physicist route won’t necessarily turn you into a crackpot. If you train yourself sufficiently well to understand physics papers and to write some of your own, you won’t be too far gone. While I’m not certain how physics journals handle submissions from an unaffiliated author (nor do I know arXiv’s policy), I’m fairly sure than they don’t discard submissions that aren’t obviously absurd. So it’s likely that you could have your work criticized and disseminated. [But if your work is perennially unpublishable, then, yes, you have become a crackpot.]

    I wouldn’t worry about not getting to interact with experimentalists. That really doesn’t happen much in most departments anyway. The way you usually obtain info from experimentalists is by reading their papers.

    And while you won’t have to anyone to bounce ideas off of or free slave labor, you also won’t have pressure to publish, grant applications to write, symposia to organize, conferences to fly to, colloquia to attend, students to support, papers to referee, departmental politics to contend with, classes to teach, and faculty to hire.

  • lambda T

    With regards to the self-made physicist route, let’s not forget that Albert Einstein was a patent clerk while doing physics “on the side”.

    And, we can’t forget that Michael Faraday was a bookbinder and had no formal education, yet he still did MANY great things for physics. In fact, it was by almost pure chance that a satisfied customer of De La Roche, which was the bookbinding company for which Faraday worked, gave him tickets to see the last four lectures given by Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution. At each lecture, he took A LOT of detailed notes, which he later wrote up, bound and gave them to Davy while he was applying for a job at, I believe, the Royal Institution (I apologise if this is incorrect). And, we have all come to know and love Faraday’s Law, among other things.

    So, if one decides to pursue another occupation (ie: one that doesn’t require a Ph.D.) this doesn’t mean that one cannot remain up-to-date on current research and do research on one’s own, though I will admit that gaining access to research facilities at a larger university may be more difficult if one is a high school physics teacher, rather than a Ph.D. recipient.

  • Ponderer of Things

    sorry, didn’t read chad’s post carefully enough.

    Maybe it was slightly off-topic, but the analysis of some top schools shows (to me at least) that prestige IS indeed important in hiring – contradicting what some here claimed. Of course one could argue as Sean has in the past, that top university PhDs just happen to be good through self-selection, and while there’s some truth to that, I think there must be more than a couple of good scientists from second tier PhD schools – yet they will struggle to make it into a top school.

    It’s also a good point that second and third tier research universities (however you define them), liberal arts community colleges, are probably less elitist, but they also often cannot afford to be very picky and have to place more emphasis on teaching, which is let’s be frank – is often overlooked in favor of research at top schools.

    To David – I agree that there may be PhD’s from Kansas State who know their physics better than MIT PhDs. But in my opinion, such person from KSU will still be at disadvantage against MIT person simply because proving that you are smart takes more time than is usually allotted for job interview. And because it may be difficult to even get an interview with KSU degree, while MIT graduate is much more likely to get it.

    The advice for incoming graduate students NOT to pick their school based on prestige is a recipee for post-PhD career suicide, in my opinion. Like it or not, but a lot of people will make their first opinion of you (or your CV) based on the prestige of the school you went to. Going to a lesser known school means picking yet another uphill battle for yourself, when odds are against you to begin with – due to overproduction of PhDs described earlier.

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    Paul Orwin — the competition for jobs at almost any tenure track position is huge, not just the tier-1 universities. I’ve looked for jobs at small liberal arts colleges, and there too there is a tremendous amount of competition, and many more really good, qualified people than there are jobs.


  • chuko

    Scherer at Caltech is the exception that proves the rule. New Mexico Tech (aka the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology) is an excellent school for physics and electrical engineering. Astronomers might know about it because the control center for the VLA radio telescope is on the campus. Its undergrad physics program ranks high in the Peterson Guide. But the school is essentially unknown to most working physicists, so the relatively demanding program there is overlooked.

    I’m sure there are other places like this, but who knows about them? I’d never recommend New Mexico Tech to someone who wanted to go on to grad school or postdoc in physics because it would make it that much more difficult, despite a good physics education.

  • Supernova

    “post-PhD career suicide” — my @$$.

    Surely a census of the broad field of physics/astronomy would reveal neither that all today’s physicists have degrees from “Top Tier” schools, nor that those who do not are dissatisfied with their careers and feel themselves unfulfilled and unsuccessful.

    I’ll say it again: THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO BE SUCCESSFUL IN PHYSICS WITHOUT BEING A PROFESSOR AT HARVARD OR CALTECH. Or without being a professor, period. And it doesn’t require a degree from Harvard of Caltech to get there. Given this, I would never advise a student to pick a school based on “prestige” to the exclusion of all else. Grad schools differ widely in their environments, areas of focus, diversity of faculty and student populations, requirements for the degree, attitude toward graduate labor, mental health of the students, emphasis on teaching, etc. — and not every school (even every “Top Tier” school) is right for every student (even every “Top Student” — and I use these terms in quotation marks because I think they are heavily subjective, even though we use them in a way that suggests we all agree on what they mean). A student should pick the school where he or she will be most successful, as far as it’s possible to determine that. What’s the point of going to Harvard or Caltech if you’re going to flunk out, have a nervous breakdown, or emerge so disillusioned that you leave the field entirely? Better to find an environment where you will learn, be challenged, thrive, and produce your own best work.

    I think we are hampered in this discussion by very narrow definitions of “career success” and the assumption that anyone who wants to go to grad school MUST have his/her eye on a professorial position at Harvard or Caltech. If that were all there were to life in physics, why would anyone stay? Frankly, I think such restrictive viewpoints are closely tied to the issues of women’s and minorities’ underrepresentation in physics. They suggest that there is only one RIGHT way to be a physicist — the TRADITIONAL way — and anyone who doesn’t fit that mold just isn’t a True Physicist.

    Yes: we should inform students of the realities of the academic job market. And yes: we should also tell them that the perceived prestige of their PhD institution may be important to some potential employers, especially those at “Top Tier” schools. But we should also impress upon them that neither of these statements is the last word on the subject, and that there are many other factors that may (and rightfully should) influence their grad school decision. And then we should stand the hell back and let them make their own (informed) choices.

  • lambda T

    I agree that the prestige of one’s grad school may be very important in some research circles, but one has to pick a grad school with which one can imagine spending the better part of 6 years. It is important that the student is happy with the chosen grad school; prestigious doesn’t always mean that the student will be happy and, as “Ponderer of Things” said, it could be a recipe for post-Ph.D. suicide.

    There are many wonderful grad programs out there that, though they’re not ranked as highly as Caltech or MIT, are just as hard-core as them. And, no matter what grad school a students decides to attend, grad school is what the student makes of it, no matter the prestige of the school itself.

  • Paul Orwin

    To Rob (and others);
    Yes the job market is (can be) tough. I don’t know physics situations, I’m in Biology. Like Chad, I’ve been on search committees (2 of them), and what I’ve found is that institutional prestige was more relevant at the post-doc level than at the grad school level. As someone who went to a very good R-1 level school for grad school, and a top of the line post doc, I can vouch for the efficacy of this route in my field, but it’s not the only way. As a member of the committee, we looked at 1) Teaching experience, 2) Pubs, 3) Post-doc, 4) Recommendations. Other things played roles as well. As Chad and Sean have said, we didn’t care at all about the grad school. Although the plural of anecdote can never be data, we are certainly piling up the anecdotes.

    As Chad said, and I think Sean as well, grad school is a significant portion of your life ( 6 yrs plus in the sciences at most places), so it calls for some serious thought.
    A point not touched on by most, and that I mentioned, is the cutthroat atmosphere of grad programs at Stanford, MIT, Harvard, etc. I recall as an aspiring grad student that several of these programs admit students, and then weed out 1/3 of them in competitive ways. This is NOT typical of R-1 level institutions (I think of the Big 10 schools) as a whole. In Microbiology at least, you can have wonderful mentors and institutional environments at large state universities, with research groups publishing in top journals, without the level of animus that may develop at the Ivies.
    Of course, everyone who reads this and sees the above will think “Yes, but I’m not going to be in the failure 1/3”. Just like all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.

  • JC

    In the real world, in the end most people will not care about what degrees you have nor where you went for school, whether undergraduate or graduate school. In practice, the “education” almost everybody will learn (whether they like it or not) is better known as “The School Of Hard Knocks”. If you go into areas like business and/or politics, you’ll learn very quickly what “The School Of Hard Knocks” really means in practice. In other areas such as the life of being a spoiled rich kid or the idle rich, the lessons of “The School Of Hard Knocks” may come a lot slower.

    Apparently what counts for most people in the real world is how much money is being made for them. For people who already have a lot of money, what counts for them will be other things such as how much “power” they have. Even in the academic world, people eventually figure out that money and power ends up running everything in the system.

    It is human to want to blame other people, places, and things for one’s own shortcomings and failures. The harsh reality is that nobody else will care about your problems and personal issues. Most people will eventually figure out that whining and complaining will get them nowhere, for the most part. In the real world, people will be judged by their actions. Talk is cheap.

  • Ambitwistor

    lambda T:

    With regards to the self-made physicist route, let’s not forget that Albert Einstein earned a Ph.D. from a reputable institution while becoming a patent clerk. There are few examples of physicists making notable contributions without at least earning a Ph.D. (Dyson is a famous exception), and even fewer examples of them without earning a Ph.D. or working in an academic research environment (I can’t think of any off the top of my head). I’m sorry, I have to agree that forgoing an advanced degree and going into academic seclusion without regular contact with one’s peers is a route to crankdom.

  • Anonymous Beaver

    Another interesting anecdote is from the an unnamed FFRDC on the East Coast. Watching the careers and hires of PhD-level people, what was notable was that there was little or no correlation between top people and school of origin. What *was* well known around the water cooler, howevver, was a ‘competitiveness’ factor in the initial salary offer- it was pretty clear that new hires with a better school-of-origin got significantly better offers.

    On a separate note, there is also very little correlation between ‘top-school’ness, and rigor of the first 1-2 years of grad school. Caltech requires (at minimum) 6 quarter-length courses, that can be taken P/F, and 2 written qualifying exams at the end of the first year that, while difficult, have a very high pass rate (and you can take them up to three times.) Princeton, frex, is insane, and I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with a bar set that high. An odd example I’ve seen is UC Irvine- they have a quite draconian and extensive qual policy, more so than several top-tier schools.

  • Ponderer of Things

    while I agree that students can be equally successful or unsuccessful regardless of school prestige, and maybe in idealistic world we all want people to be judged based on the work they did, rather than prestige of their schools or advisors, the reality is different.

    If someone I knew well personally came to me asking if they should pick a top place, say, Berkeley, or Podunk State, I would have to hear some really compelling evidence in order to recommend Podunk State.

    Yes, you could thrive in Podunk, but then the same person could thrive at Berkeley too. Grad School is tough no matter what – and chances of having bad advisor are about the same at any school, and couldn’t be predicted so far ahead.

    Yes, there are many other careers in physics that are still possible with low-ranked PhD or no PhD at all, but why limit yourself so early, especially if there are other options that may lead to broader choice of employment?

    The question of whether to go into Physics PhD at all is a good one – with current overproduction of PhDs and oversaturation of job market, perhaps degrees in engineering or business are better option. However, if you decide to roll the dice and go for physics PhD, my advice is to go for the well-respected school, rather than the school nobody heard of, and thus keep your options wide open.

  • Anonymous Beaver

    A classic article by David Goodstein that everyone should read, especially when thinking of a career in science (particularly physics). It’s a little cynical, and makes assumptions that might piss some people off…


  • http://arunsmusings.blogspot.com Arun

    Off-topic, and unsolicited advice – the responsible member of the group blog sepiamutiny.com was not responsible, and forgot to pay the domain name registration fees on time. Some cyber-squatter has taken the name and wants a exorbitant fee to give the name back.

    I’d hate to see this happen to cosmicvariance.com, so please please please be careful!

  • http://scienceblogs.com/principles/ Chad Orzel

    Why do interesting comment threads always crop up when I’m really busy at work?

    As I said, I can only speak to the searches I’ve been involved in. I’m a little surprised that anybody went to the trouble of tracking down the PhD institutions of my colleagues and I, but that list was fairly accurate as far as it goes. Two of the visitors I was involved in hiring have since left (getting tenure-track jobs elsewhere), and for the life of me, I can’t remember where one of them got his Ph.D.– the fact that I can’t think of it tells you everything you need to know about how important I think that is.

    I would also agree with Paul Orwin’s comment that academia is much broader than some people in this thread are making out. Defining “faculty job” as “faculty job at a top-ranked research university” is about as accurate as subdividing physics into “string theory” and “stamp collecting,” and every bit as insulting to those of us who have deliberately chosen a different path.

  • Jeff

    One distinction that was mentioned and deserves repeating is that you are often only as good as your last job/institution. So those that say the grad school doesn’t matter, the post-doc institution does are correct to a large extent. BUT — the great post doc often is dependent upon the top-tier grad school. Which often depends upon the undergrad…. No one is saying that the choice of grad school should depend ONLY upon “prestige” — but that it is an important factor in the future, along with many othr things (like finding humane advisors and opportunity for development).

    p.s. I can attest to the draconian UC Irvine qual policy.

  • Supernova

    Yes, you could thrive in Podunk, but then the same person could thrive at Berkeley too.

    This isn’t a given — each student is different. Some will thrive on cutthroat competition, some will flourish only in a more supportive environment. I maintain that the former students are not inherently more deserving than the latter, nor better at physics, nor even necessarily more likely to produce worthy research. (Let’s remember that research comes in all flavors too, and what’s flashy and sexy now may not hold up five or ten years down the line.) Sure, some students will do well anywhere, and in those cases I agree: if you can handle Berkeley, you might as well go there. But in most cases, I think more of an effort is warranted to make a good match between student and program.

  • http://www.wm.edu/physics/~sher Marc Sher

    One aspect of choosing a graduate school that has not been mentioned is extremely important for female physicists. At some institutions, the climate for women is atrocious (google “louts in the lab” for a 3 year old example), and at some it is very supportive. As a member of the Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, I set up (with APS assistance) a website in which institutions can discuss the climate for women in the graduate programs. The site is at “http://cswp.catlla.com/results.php”. With only two emails to department chairs, we got over 115 institutions to respond. Some of you may find it useful.

  • lambda T


    Good point; the cases in which a physicist makes a significant contribution ARE quite rare and I agree that one shouldn’t forego an advanced degree and go into seclusion. Our knowledge of physics has become much more advanced than in “the good ‘ol days”, so I also feel that physicists need more education (ie: a Ph.D.) in order to make any significant contributions to the physics community.

    Marc Sher:

    You bring up a VERY important point for all female physicists out there (myself included)!!! As much as there is a movement to make academic climates more welcoming to women, there are still many places out there that are not woman-friendly and it would only add to the stress and challenge of grad school.

    I got to meet Dr. Katherine Gebbie (the director of the physics laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology) this past summer and she is an amazing person. She was the only woman in her graduate program at MIT and I believe that she was one of the first women to receive her Ph.D. from MIT (but don’t quote me on that…I can’t recall…). It was quite difficult for her to break into the realm of physics graduate school, since it is historically male-dominated. And now, she’s the director of a lab in a huge research facility.

    The website that you gave is a wonderful resource and I encourage anyone, male or female, to take a look.

  • Ponderer of Things

    the cut-throat climate at top schools is very hard to define properly. First, it really depends on the group you are working on. Perhaps the advisor is more likely to be a jerk in top institution where stakes are high, or maybe it’s just another stereotype. Very often funding is tighter at second tier and lower, so stress on advisor to produce results may be even higher than in top places. Of course top places often don’t give out tenure, while it’s more or less done deal at tier 2 places (provided you do good science). So perhaps that puts some stress on people.

    In my experience however, the stress is more often than not is self-imposed. In other words, your advisor may not care if you are in the lab on Sunday, but students themselves think that this is neccessary for getting the results they want. Students at top places tend to be over-achievers, to the point of being overly ambitious, almost OCD-like. This is where a lot of impression of cut-throatness comes from, in my opinion.

    I wonder if someone could comment on what qualities make the department “female friendly” or “unfriendly”. My feelings is that once you join a research group, the friendliness or lack thereof is a function of the group members and advisor.

  • Ponderer of Things

    also – ditto on qualifiers. Some places have tough qualifiers – like MIT, Berkeley (where I hear some students are expected to be weeded out). But there are other top places where qualifiers are almost not an issue. At Harvard for example, there’s no written qualifier – just a rather informal oral presentation on topic of your choosing. Everyone accepted into PhD program is expected to graduate – at least that’s what I told the unwritten policy of the department is.

  • Ivy Poison

    Chad – your comparison of string theory/stamp collecting to faculty job at top tier university vs. say liberal arts college is not very good one.
    Not all universities are made the same, and in our PC craziness we shouldn’t forget it.
    Top universities offer much more than just a letterhead on resume – it’s easier
    to get top notch students and postdocs, easier to get funding, establish collaborations.
    If you are experimentalist, you will get access to top shared facilities
    and better equipment and lab space. Theorists get to interact with other top theorists and attend colloquims.
    A lot of these “perks” are not available at lower ranked universities, and it gets increasingly
    more difficult to do top, cutting edge science as you go down the list.
    Once you get low enough, the emphasis shifts away from research and towards teaching.
    Nothing wrong with that, but opportunity to develop a solid research program are getting rather slim.

  • Paul Orwin

    Ivy Poison,
    No kidding. The point of Chad’s statement (and mine, though not as succinctly) is that there are advantages and disadvantages to both environments.

    I will use myself as an example. I teach at an MS granting institution, that no one would say is in the top tier of research schools (probably not even in the second or third tier). The school is undoubtedly teaching oriented, and I teach much more than my peers at research schools (however, I teach less than my peers at some undergraduate teaching colleges).
    So, as you say, the disadvantages are 1) no Ph.D. students, 2) uncompetitive admissions (so I have to teach to many unqualified as well as many great students) 3) poor funding internally as well as a tough climate for extramural funding. Crappy pay, too, but that’s pretty true for all of us.

    However, there are advantages too.
    1) I have a lot of freedom to pursue my own research agenda; if I was at a top tier school, I’d be more constrained in what sorts of research activities to pursue, by my ability to get large scale funding. However, it is possible to get some pretty nice funding, and be able to pursue aggressive research at many different types of schools. You can look me up in the NIH CRISP database for an example of this.
    2) the faculty; at many top-level schools, the faculty are either doing their own thing, or competing against one another for funding and seniority; I work with a great group of men and women who are interested in science and science education for it’s own sake. We have a good collegial atmosphere and cooperative community attitude. This is not a result of the institution type, but it is a point in favor of this particular department at this school. Given that I may well spend 20-40 years working here, I should probably like the people I work with.
    3) the students. This one will surprise you, but I promise it is not an April Fool’s joke! There are naturally some awful students at our school. Anyone with a high school diploma in California is virtually assured an undergraduate spot. However, there are some terrifically smart kids who come here for other reasons. For example, perhaps their parents don’t believe in college, so they were resistant to the idea, and are only allowing them to go if it is geographically close. Or perhaps they support their family by working at the family business, or by financially supporting spouses/children/parents while going to school at the same time. Or maybe they spent twenty years as firefighters and now want to go back to school for a second career. Or maybe, they are poor. Etc, etc, etc. For various reasons, students who maybe could have gotten into a school in the Ivy league end up elsewhere. When we are fortunate enough to get them, we can 1) prepare them for a bright future at a great graduate or professional school, 2) extract some excellent research from them, and 3) lift someone up who might not have gotten it otherwise.

    Those kids at Caltech, Harvard, MIT, etc are going to do great with or without my help and advice. These kids don’t know how capable they are. Last year, we had a student from the CSUSB master’s program go to Harvard, another to Oregon State, and we had undergrads go to Yale and Vanderbilt, all entering Biology Ph.D. programs.

    There’s more to life than publishing journal articles. (although doing great science is cool too)

  • pjds


    I want to recommend the following book

    My Life as a Quant : Reflections on Physics and Finance , by Emanuel Derman.

    It is the best description of life as a graduate student and post doc that I know. This
    is a biography of a guy who does not end up becoming a professor, making it a far less biased description of life as a graduate student than what one finds in
    biographies of famous physicists

  • D. Rad

    I would drop in to add — when you get to grad school, you will probably at some point get depressed. Don’t be afraid to seek help from the school’s counselors; seek it early. More than 75% of the students I was in grad school with did the same.

  • Sam

    Does anyone know how UCLA, in general, ranks in physics? Also, what field of physics is UCLA strong at?


  • Supernova

    I wonder if someone could comment on what qualities make the department “female friendly” or “unfriendly”.

    Here are some things that can help a place friendly for women in science. Note that not all are required for friendliness, that these tend to be tangible characteristics and not intangibles like colleagues’ attitudes and behaviors toward women, and that there are certainly others I haven’t listed. Also, when I use the term “critical mass,” I’m not talking about a specific number, but only “enough so that women aren’t unusual or rare, and don’t stand out simply by virtue of being female” at a particular rank. Oh, and you may also notice that many of these things also make a place friendly for men. What a coincidence!

    For undergraduates:
    a critical mass of women in their major courses
    female professors who teach courses and advise students
    opportunities for interaction with female grad students, postdocs, professors, and visitors
    support from the department such as advising, a student lounge, peer study groups, and information or workshops on things like research internships, grad school, and potential career paths
    clearly defined campus policies regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, including a well-publicized office where occurrences can be anonymously reported
    active mentoring by older students, grad students, postdocs, and/or faculty
    a campus group focusing on issues related to women in science

    For grad students and postdocs:
    a critical mass of women among their peers
    female professors who teach courses and advise students
    clearly defined guidelines for success in the graduate program, including course grades, prelim/qual exams, and expectations for the dissertation/thesis
    departmental willingness to help make arrangements for a trailing spouse or partner
    institutional policies for maternity/family leave
    affordable campus housing and child care
    reasonable salaries and family health insurance for teaching and research assistants and postdocs
    clearly defined campus policies regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, including a well-publicized office where occurrences can be anonymously reported
    colleagues and admissions committees who are aware of the issues surrounding women’s representation in the sciences and behave accordingly
    access to current information regarding the academic job market and non-academic career paths
    active mentoring by older students, postdocs, and/or faculty
    a campus group focusing on issues related to women in science

    For faculty members:

    a critical mass of women in their department and among their administrators
    clearly defined guidelines for promotion and tenure
    clearly defined salary structures
    departmental willingness to help make arrangements for a trailing spouse or partner (including spousal-hire or position-sharing policies)
    institutional policies for maternity/family leave, part-time work, and temporary stopping or slowing of the tenure clock
    home-buying assistance and affordable child care
    clearly defined campus policies regarding discrimination and sexual harassment, including a well-publicized office where occurrences can be anonymously reported
    colleagues and hiring committees who are aware of the issues surrounding women’s representation in the sciences and behave accordingly
    departmental and university officials who conduct periodic assessments of the status and satisfaction of women within their ranks, taking into account salaries, progress toward tenure, lab space, students, and other forms of official support or reward
    active mentoring by older colleagues
    a university committee or office focusing on issues related to women in science

  • Pingback: Radioactive Banana » Blog Archive » My own unsolicited advice regarding physics graduate school…and life()

  • Ponderer of Things

    Supernova – thanks.
    I would like to add that a lot if not most of the things on that list is something that not only makes sense but also that would benefit male scientists as well! Health insurance, good pay, housing, affordable child care. I think we should start ranking departments in terms of human-friendliness! :)
    I also think that male scientists could benefit from having critical mass of female faculty and students! (As someone who had 73 male and 4 female classmates in narrowly specialized physics/math/engineering college, trust me on this one!).

    One thing that I wish departments did more often is to keep an updated registry of their PhD alumni. This would tell a lot of prospective students about how successful (or unsuccessful) former students from the department or particular advisor are, or how many years it took them to complete their PhD’s for example. There’s a lot of wishful thinking that needs to be disillusioned early, even if some dreams (like graduating in 5 years) need to be broken.

    Other things – like getting critical mass of faculty, is something that will happen over time, but cannot unfortunately occur overnight. Even if departments stop hiring men altogether, it would take most departments several decades to reach equal ratio. I hope most people realize this simple math…

  • Supernova

    Ponderer — yes, I commented on the “human-friendly” thing at the top of the post…

    And I never claimed that “critical mass” meant a 1:1 ratio. Again, as I noted in my last post, it just means enough women so that being a woman doesn’t seem so strange. :)

  • Supernova

    Oh, and I like your idea of keeping track of the graduates. This could help with educating students about potential career paths other than the traditional academic route.

  • jsym

    So if you had to choose between a more prestigious school/group and a school that you liked more (in a very impressionistic, unscientific way, except that it is warmer)… where would you go? how much does extracurricular play against your career (especially if both are good choices… and either way you’ll most likely end up in the same place FNAL or CERN, etc…) and how important is your advisor’s connections in deciding your career?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    jsym, there is no right answer to these questions; different people are obviously just different. The important thing is to know which factors should be taken into account, but then weigh them against each other to see where you personally are comfortable.

  • Say Lee

    I agree that choosing a grad school is a very personal decision, having first gone through the process more than 20 years ago.

    However, I did regret not applying to those at the upper end of Tier 1 schools to see where I would have stood. But to the two I’ve gone, one on the east and the other on the west, there were memorable sojourns, more so because my wife and kids were with me who provided unrestrained moral support through it all.

    For SOTAs (students over the traditional age) like me, emotional support is a critical element. Many a time when all seemed lost, and those times are by no means rare (lab material not forthcoming, fumbling in the qualifying, reseach going no where, etc.), what sustained me were the very thought of my family and their unreserved trust on my capability.

  • Say Lee

    Going to grad school is serious stuff, and is usually driven by the quest for knowledge advancement and acquisition (the latter perhaps to a lesser extent at the doctoral level).

    Especially at the doctoral level, the candidate is judged on the originality of research that would add to the existing corpus of knowledge, albeit incrementally.

    The emphasis is on depth, drilling deep into the subject matter, and one is expected to know more than the advisor.

    Independence of thought and ability to critique the works of others are necessary traits that a candidate should cultivate.

    The first one-two years are spent on taking the core and allied courses (typical of the US system), the latter forming the minority areas that are relevant to the research.

    The candidate will need to organize and synchronize the different work elements (the lab, the field, the computer programing, the reading, etc.) in a time-controlled environment so as to bear on the identified research.

    That said, graduate study is by no means working in a vacuum; there is always a healthy support system comprising lab technicians, library stuff, fellow graduate students, Ph.D. holders (both old and recently minted), and advisors and other faculty members. It’s an art for the candidate to be able to optimize the access to and gleaning relevant information from this disparate group of people who are governed and driven by individual goals and exhibit different character traits, or flaws for that matter.

    The last but not the least, it was instilled into me earlier in the doctoral pursuit that one’s supervisory commitee, whose individual members hold sway on whether one would earn that haloed appellation “Ph.D.” at the end of a seemingly endless journey, is set to find out what you know, and NOT what you don’t know.

  • Pingback: Unsolicited Advice, Part Three: Choosing an Undergraduate School | Cosmic Variance()

  • Kelly Janus

    I like this


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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