On Choosing a Graduate School: A Dialogue

By Sean Carroll | April 15, 2008 9:34 am

A: Hey, what’s up? You’re looking a little anxious these days.

B: I know. We’re getting close to the romance deadline.

A: The romance deadline?

B: Yeah, in a couple of days I have to decide who I’ll be going out with for the next five years or so.

A: Oh, right, I forgot. Have you decided between boyfriend and girlfriend?

B: I’ve thought about it a lot, and I definitely want a girlfriend.

A: That’s cool. But don’t you worry that the standards are higher if you say you want a girlfriend? I’ve heard that boyfriends are much easier.

B: I heard that, too. But girls are what I’m really passionate about.

A: Couldn’t you just get a boyfriend first, and then switch if you don’t like it?

B: Some people try that, but it can be awkward. Better to just be honest about your intentions from the start.

A: Fair enough. So did you get any acceptances?

B: Yeah, two different women have agreed to date me. Cindy and Alyssa. But I have to choose one.

A: Hey, that’s great that you go two offers. Have you made a choice yet?

B: Well, I had coffee with Alyssa, and we really hit it off — she’s beautiful, and charming, and laughed at my jokes. I definitely think we would get along well over the next few years. I met Cindy, too; she’s a knockout, and clearly very talented, but there wasn’t as much of a spark there.

A: That can happen. So are you going to choose Alyssa?

B: I’m tempted, but the thing is — Cindy’s US News ranking is much higher.

A: Her what?

B: Every year, US News puts out rankings of boyfriends and girlfriends. Now, Alyssa is a solid top-20 girlfriend, but Cindy is top five! I’m really worried I’d be making a mistake by passing up the opportunity to go out with Cindy. Everyone has heard of her.

A: That sounds a little weird to me. How do they come up with these rankings?

B: Nobody knows, really. But everyone takes them very seriously. Still, I keep hoping that the NRC will update their boyfriend/girlfriend rankings soon. Those are supposed to be much more scientific.


B: The National Romance Council.

A: But look, you seem to have really hit it off with Alyssa. Who cares that US News ranks Cindy higher? The concept of a “boyfriend/girlfriend ranking” just doesn’t make sense — what matters is how well you personally get along with them, not some pseudo-objective measure of excellence.

B: It’s easy to say that, but this is a big decision. I’m really worried that, ten years from now when I’m ready to get married, my prospective spouse is not going to be nearly as impressed that I went out with Alyssa than if I had gone out with Cindy.

A: Come on, it’s five years of your life that we’re talking about here. Your chances of eventually being happily married would seem to be a lot better if you choose someone you’re likely to be happy with right now.

B: You’re right, I know. Well, I hope Cindy won’t be disappointed. I don’t think she’s used to being turned down.

A: Don’t worry. I’m pretty sure she’ll get over it.

  • mike

    Just wondering if you were planning on an “Incompatible Arrows V” with Merlyn from The Once And Future King. It was the only example I knew of before the series. Thanks!

    Oh, and you are right on with your advice. Out of high school, I turned down a “top 10” school (and all the debt that comes with it) for a free ride at a great public school. Out of college, I turned down a “top 10” grad program for a better fit. I’ve never regretted either decision.

  • http://fliptomato.wordpress.com Flip


  • Zev

    It is also important who Cindy’s friends are. Playing Devil’s Advocate, you might like Alyssa now, but five years is a long time, and by the end if the payoff is not there you might regret not going with Cindy. A good measure of whom you will still like in five years is who their friends are now. Cindy isn’t in the in-crowd for nothing (and even if she is, it’s not like people are going to snap out of their elitist stupor in five years). And yes, people will be your friend because you are Cindy’s friend.

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    How wonderfully similar to the little Socratic dialogs John Wheeler included in his textbooks! Well done, Sean.

  • &E

    I had to make very similar decisions to “B” when applying for grad school, and my reasoning was also very similar. I was faced with a very good match with a very good offer from a lower tier school, and a not quite as nice offer from a higher tier school. I didn’t want to be the type of person who would make a decision based on rankings, but I also knew I had to fight for myself. So I did a little informal research and found the proof was in the pudding. Basically I scanned the list of faculty members at both schools and where they got their PhDs. What I found was that regardless of the school, if it had a decent research program at all about 50% of the faculty members got their PhDs from top tier American schools (most of those from the top 5) and about 25% from second tier and the remainder from foreign universities and other lesser known PhD granting universities. It would be nice if somebody could post some real statistics, but this is what I found informally. So naturally I felt I had to put probability on my side. It turned out well for me, but I can’t say whether I made the right decision or not. The sad part is that students have no power to change the system because they have to watch out for themselves, and most faculty are too apathetic or indoctrinated to do anything about it. Maybe this can change–suggestions?

  • http://mareserinitatis.livejournal.com Cherish

    OMG, that was so funny!

    I was very tempted to fall into the fog cast by the US News rankings, but then I looked at the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index (http://www.academicanalytics.com/) and got a different picture which made me feel better about my choices. (Personally, I think it’s a better way to look at things because it uses objective criteria.)

  • Mike M

    Interesting choice of names that your subconscious dug up there, Sean. I am pretty sure that Cindy S was before your time, but I will be sure to pass the good news on to our mutual graduate school friend Alyssa G.

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

    There are no names that aren’t being used by somebody out there in the world! (Although I don’t know Cindy S, you’re right.)

    mike (#1)– I wasn’t planning on doing Merlyn, but I am right now reading the book for the first time. There are actually many good examples, an exhaustive list is implausible.

  • Jo

    I really hope that NRC update their ranking
    I do not know what defines “the top 10” top 10 in what sense? seems to me an illdefined category, as far as I understand the top 10 should not be strictly 10, the top 10 should be effectively mean the top 35 places or something
    There are many good places in the states and they can not be restricted in just 10 universities


  • J

    Although rankings are rather arbitrary and artificial at times, I think they do reflect a gross measure of relative quality. You can be pretty sure that you should prefer an institution in the top 10% versus one in the bottom 30%. And they serve the purpose of exposing the ill-informed to schools they may not have considered otherwise.

    The faculty at my undergrad institution didn’t know much about which schools were good, but not the top, in the specialty I wanted to go into for my PhD. So I was rather clueless myself. Without the rankings I wouldn’t even have had a rough idea of which schools to apply to besides Harvard, Princeton, blah blah. That’s rather important since at $70-100 an application, one can’t apply everywhere and then narrow it down after getting a (presumably) smaller list of those who accepted you. You need to have an idea in the beginning that you’ll apply to X top-tier schools, Y second-tier schools and Z last resort safety schools. I doubt I would have even thought to apply to the school I ended up going to if it weren’t for national rankings.

    On the other hand, I think it isn’t worth obsessing over small differences in the rankings. I don’t believe I did go the highest ranked of the schools which accepted me (I don’t really remember now) and I don’t regret it in the least.

  • Michael

    Is this struggle between good fit vs. higher rank really all that common? During my recent tour of grad school open houses, I met very few (if any) people having that struggle. Admittedly, it was rather common for people to judge schools based on the big names in the field they are interested in, but even that is considerably different from directly looking at rank. The vast majority of people I met felt like they had good “fits” at a variety of places for unique reasons at each place, and the real struggle is trying to compare, for instance, a great place in the area of past research and a great place in a less familiar but possibly more exciting area.

    I agree that it’s a problem when people are putting too much value in rank, but I’m just not convinced it’s actually happening.

  • Ewan

    Yeah, I think it’s reasonably common, and not only at grad school level – the entire experience plays out twice (or more!) further, for postdoc and faculty.

    Certainly I just chose ‘Alyssa’ for what I hope will be the next 20 years or so; heck, I even dumped Cindy to do so :). Don’t doubt in the slightest that it will prove to have been the right decision. Cindy is much higher-maintenance, too..

  • Brian Mingus

    A couple of additional tidbits of advice from a psychologist. 1) Keep in mind that, whatever your choice is, you will tend to prefer it after you’ve made it and 2) We are poor at introspection and explaining just what it is that makes us happy. Just because sparks are flying now doesn’t mean that the relationship won’t fizzle out just as quickly after the honeymooning and great sex is over. Generally speaking, I tend to agree with &E. Stick with the p/(1-p), otherwise, you risk fooling yourself. YMMV :)

  • Sam Gralla

    brilliant :)

  • amused

    It’s easy enough for someone with a Harvard Ph.D to recommend others to choose their school based on personal match rather than its perceived prestige level, but as someone with a Ph.D from a “lesser institution” i have to say that, generally, turning down a top-ranked school for a lesser one will make things more difficult for you in future. If you do well and produce some good papers you’ll still be up against people with comparable records from top schools when applying for postdocs, and, with other things being more or less equal, the jobs (or at least the best ones) will generally go to the folks from the illustrious places with their big-name recommendation writers. It gets even tougher when applying for faculty positions. For the top places I don’t think it matters so much — they just want “the best”, regardless of their background — but for the lesser places (more numerous, and hence where most of the jobs are) hiring people who will make them “look good” is a big consideration. The places where you did your Ph.D and postdocs count a lot here. (Amusingly, the only time i ever received an unsolicited invitation to apply for a faculty position it was from MIT, whereas my applications to lesser places have always generated zero interest.) In any case, the best advice when deciding on a school (which was alrealdy mentioned in one of these threads) is to look and see how its previous graduates have fared; whether or not a number of them went on to good postdocs and faculty positions.

    A final warning: there can be a depressing aspect at (some of) the lesser schools — the “if you were any good you wouldn’t be here” syndrome. This typically arises when almost all the faculty are Ph.D’s from illustrious institutions; then there can be a tendency for them to regard their own grad students (and postdocs!) as losers who couldn’t get into the same schools as them. Beware of such places and avoid them if you can — research is hard enough already without having to do it in that kind of depressing environment. A common clue to such places is that the grad students are expected to address faculty as “Prof./Dr. So-and-so” rather than by first name.

  • http://page3.com/ Ian Paul Freeley

    Amused beat me to it–this post seems to be a “do as I say, not as I do”. It’s easy for someone who banged Harvard for several years (and is now shacking up with Cal Tech) to tell everyone else it’s fine to go date North Dakota State. Sean, you would make a lousy wingman.

  • Hildaur

    If someone can provide the reference for the study I am thinking of, I would appreciate it; I just don’t remember where I saw this.

    The study I am thinking of looked at the academic career success (based on tenure, research funding, and awards, I think) as a function of where academics went to school, the research success of their graduate advisers, and the academic career success of other students with the same adviser. The conclusion was that the last was not only the most important, but that (because of the correlation between the three), the last is the only factor that need be considered; once you consider the success of common advisees, school choice and personal research success of the adviser offer no additional information.

    This suggests an approach: look for people doing the sort of things you want to be doing after grad school, and find out who there advisers where. Consider a school simply as a means to the end of getting the specific adviser you want.

    This seems fairly intuitive. A good school is good only because they have good faculty. If someone is skilled at research but a poor adviser, their advisees will not be helped much.

  • Richard E.

    With regard to #15 — there is more to this than simply prejudice in favor of top 5 schools. Firstly, most students who go to schools outside of the top tier do not have the CHOICE of going to a top-5 school.

    Your performance at grad school is not entirely uncorrelated with your performance as an undergrad, so the likely outcome for a student who had an offer from Harvard AND TURNED IT DOWN to go to Decent U. for their PhD will not necessarily be same as that of a student from Decent U. who did not also have an offer from Harvard.

    The second issue is that if you do go to (say) Harvard, your advisor is most likely (but not always, of course) having more impact than the person you would work with at Decent U — this is unfair to some extent but it makes the Harvard student look better when s/he applies for a post-doc since their papers are more exciting; it is not just the fact you have a PhD from a famous place.

    (And there is a reason why Harvard professors are, on average, better than those from Decent State U — the Harvards of the world cherry-pick the good ones from everywhere else. Think of a senior hire as a Steel Cage Match between the Harvard endowment and the finances of Decent U — a process which is typically short and messy)

    That said, if you can identify a specific professor or group at Decent U which is clearly doing world class work and they are enthusiastic about having you work with them, then go there — since the people reading your post-doc applications will know their quality, since they are in the same field.

    #15 is right that having a PhD from a famous school can never hurt, but some of the bias here is rational, rather than simply a consequence of hiring committees being blinded by prestige. (And I work at a place considerably better known than the institution at which I gained my PhD — so YMMV)

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

    Thanks to Richard for gently pointing out something that I tend to lose patience while explaining, as this topic more than any other tends to make otherwise intelligent people forget everything they should know about correlation and causation. I don’t have anything against top-five schools — I’ve spent much of my life in them. There is a reason they are in the top five — they’re pretty good! They probably have good potential advisors there, and they certainly attract more than their share of good students. If you are a good fit to one of them, then by all means go.

    But even if the only difference between school #5 and school #50 were reputation, and not real scholarly achievement or ability at training students, we would obviously expect that school #5 would churn out more future faculty members, because talented prospective students will very often default to the school with a better reputation. The point is, it’s also possible to be a great success coming from a school with a lesser reputation, if it is a good fit to what you want to do and you make the most of it while you are there. If you truly feel that you would be better trained and write more interesting papers and become a better scientist by going to school X than school Y, and yet you choose to go to Y because it’s ranked higher by US News, you’re making a terrible mistake. But if you feel that you would get better training at the higher-ranked school (which is statistically more likely), then by all means go.

  • Alex Young

    I received a lot of advice along these lines when I was applying for undergraduate study. I had received a very good offer from Oxford for Chemistry, yet I was unsure about whether I’d enjoy the experience. I ended up turning it down and going to a lesser University. It resulted in ruination of my academic aspirations, due to the infectious apathy of fellow pupils and teachers, along with an uninspiring course – a case of the “if you were any good you wouldn’t be here” syndrome, as Amused explicated above.

    If you have ambition, take the hard option, or you’ll live to regret it.

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  • iao

    Oh come on. What do you mean by choosing a graduate school is like choosing a woman you’d like to date? And what’s this about whether our prospective student would like a boyfriend of girlfriend better? What exactly would be the difference?

    I think you really could have been more sensitive to avoid gender stereotypes. You actually explained your point better in comment #19. And some commenters went ahead and stretched the analogy even further to include sexual intercourse. This really isn’t helping.

  • Aaron Bergman

    I think there’s an important point which hasn’t been made here: your fellow students. It’s a cliche, but it is true that you learn at least as much from them as you do from the faculty, and, while one risks the oft-experienced grad school inferiority complex, the better the people around you, the better you will often be. Just another thing to consider.

  • amused

    I agree with a lot of what Richard E (#18) wrote, and don’t see much contradiction with my #15. Of course it is not simply the name of the top-5 institution that makes the difference, but rather the default assumption that those with PhDs from there are better than those from Decent U. Which they generally are. So if you choose Decent U. over Top-5 U., people in the future are going to assume that, other things being equal, you are less good than the other guy with the Top-5 PhD. Of course, if you can ensure that other things *aren’t* equal — by doing great work and outcompeting the Top-5 folks — then all will be well. But that’s kind of tough, and not something you can count on doing from the beginning. Or if Decent U. has a group at the forefront of a hot topic and you join it and do very well then that can also set you up nicely. The problem with this though is what happens if you end up being good but not stellar. Like i said before, the “best” people won’t have trouble finding faculty jobs regardless of their background. But if you end up not being one of them, then the places where you did PhD and postdocs will really count for a lot as far as your opportunities go.

    Question to Richard E and Sean: If two good but not stellar people with comparable research records are competing for a job at a 2nd/3rd tier uni or at a Wall Street firm, and one has phd/postdocs from Decent U. and the other from Top-5 U., do you dispute that the latter will have a big edge? (assuming they are more or less similar in other regards)

    Also, what Aaron (#23) said is so true. Before switching to physics i started off doing a maths phd in one of the best math depts in Europe, and the inspiration value of being in such a place cannot be overstated.
    Not just the people but the atmosphere as well — it’s like “great things get done here, and you could end up doing some”. In fact I’m sure it was only by internalizing some of that that i managed to keep going with research at the subsequent places.

  • Mike M

    Question to Richard E and Sean: If two good but not stellar people with comparable research records are competing for a job at a 2nd/3rd tier uni or at a Wall Street firm, and one has phd/postdocs from Decent U. and the other from Top-5 U., do you dispute that the latter will have a big edge? (assuming they are more or less similar in other regards)

    Having been in a position to offer positions at both postdoctoral and faculty level at a couple of “second tier universities,” I can say with some confidence that where the applicants obtained their PhDs is not something I really even consider. Apart from making sure that their research area is a good match and that they are capable of delivering a lecture with some degree of competence, my main criterion for offering the job is their publication record. That is not to say that there isn’t a strong correlation between the quality of PhD institution and who gets the job offer, but, as I am sure you are aware, correlation does not imply causation. In this case, as argued above, it simply shows that top schools do quite a good job of selecting good candidates and training them reasonably well.

    When it comes to Wall Street, however, I suspect that the story could well be different. They are really not in a position to judge an astronomer’s job application on its scientific merits, so could well use the fact that top schools are quite good at picking and training top people as an indicator of merit, albeit a rather crude proxy.

  • Richard E.

    If you posit two otherwise equal candidates, one of whom has a “Top 5” PhD, and the other being from a second tier school, I don’t believe the Top 5 person has a big advantage. In fact, it might even go preferentially to the second tier person, as someone with a bigshot advisor (which is more likely for the Top 5 person) always raises the question of whether they are truly intellectually independent.

    On Wall Street, I am guessing they would tend to go for the prestige value of the school — and that is probably the prestige of the school as a whole, and not the department or subfield.

    The bottom line is that is not an inherently foolish move to accept an offer from a somewhat less prestigious place — but you should have a good reason for doing so. (And this is what happens in practice — most students with an offer from Harvard and a second tier school DO go to Harvard).

    The one complicating factor here (at least in my post), is that we have cast the decision in terms of your fit to the PhD program. However, if you are thinking of declining Harvard not because your specific interests are better met at some lower-ranked school, but because other factors in your life (your actual girlfriend or boyfriend, children, family, a fondness for sunbathing, etc) then you possibly ARE trading off more explicitly, I think. And that is indeed a tough problem, since you are not asking “What is the best school for me?” but “How do I balance these two competing desires?”

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  • Garbage

    Sean, honestly, didn’t you decide to go to caltech on a *soft* position rather than going for tenure (or track) to a lower ranked institution?

    Top places are good for a simple reason, they are good. Tons of smart people around to talk to, students are good, postdocs are good, etc. Research wise there is no comparison, lots of seminars, visitors to talk to and learn from.

    That being said, having a fun advisor and a good research project counts as much as hanging around with the Ivy league. If you do well, you’ll be fine and get a postdoc and faculty job in a good place you’ll enjoy your life and do good job at. Smart people are recognized no matter where they are, but there are a lot of smart guys out there, and not that much to share, so sometimes it boils down to the fine print…


  • amused

    It’s good to know that there are people out there who don’t let their judgements be influenced by the school someone attended, but i have to say that that is quite unusual from what i’ve seen. To give an example: Someone i know who is a temporary faculty at Faraway U. was involved in assessing postdoc applications for a position in the group he belongs to. (And if the “someone” is me i sure as hell won’t admit it since shouldn’t be talking about this kind of stuff on blogs, even under pseudonym.) In the group of candidates that were seriously considered there wasn’t a whole lot to distinguish between them as far as research goes — they had comparable productivity and comparably nice recommendation letters. (I expect this is quite common. The discussion above in this thread gives the impression that one can clearly differentiate between peoples research records, but in practice this is often not the case.) Two candidates stood out however. One, X, because his area of expertese was a good match for the group. The other, Y, worked on stuff not directly related to what the group does, but stood out on “pedigree” grounds — he had been a postoc at Top-5 U. and worked with big-name people. The prof of the group, himself a phd holder from a Top-5 U., was in no doubt about who he wanted: “Wow, look at Y, he was at Top-5 U, worked with famous dude A and then famous dude B…” At this point the person (P) that i know tried to point out that Y’s actual research record wasn’t any better than the others, and that X’s expertese was a better match for the group. But the prof just didn’t hear it. Literally — he continued as if P had not spoken “Hmmm, to get Y we might have to offer him a tenure-track faculty postion…could be complicated…but I expect he will get other faculty offers from elsewhere…”
    The outcome was that Y withdrew from the shortlist because he did indeed get a faculty offer elsewhere. None of the other people, whose research records were comparable to Y’s, received any faculty offers themselves as far as i can tell.

  • Mike M

    I frankly find such a view surprising, as I would have thought that most people who had risen far enough to lead a research group would be smart enough to realize that getting in good postdocs whose research complements the skills of the group is far more worthwhile than any arbitrary measure of “pedigree.” As I said, I have been on such search committees, both as a junior and the senior member, at two different institutions, and have never encountered such a star-struck near-sighted attitude.

  • http://okham.livejournal.com Massimo

    Funny, but the analogy is completely off the mark. Tell the kid that, no matter how great his romance and how much fun he has with Alyssa, in five years she’ll tell him “buh-bye” … thereafter, his chances of dating anyone else are much better if he dates Cindy…

  • ts

    A decision on whom to date here should really depend on what you want to be doing several years after you leave behind that girlfriend.

    I do agree that the match is definitely very important for your sanity and happiness while dating, but, as many have mentioned, a hot (i.e., ranked higher, better reputation, etc.) girl tends to hang around with a lot of other hot girls and friends. In academia, hot, high-maintenance girls do have more substance, in general.

    If your goal is to become a professor at a kind of college you attended as an undergrad, you can just see whom your former professors have dated — mostly smoking hot girls or very pretty girl-next-door types. Who’s better to date for your goal? No brainer there.

    Once you leave academia, your potential employers in industry, without any appreciation of your work, often measure your coolness by whom you dated in the past. And they only look at how good-looking they were, and none of substance, unless you develop good skills relevant to the employer while dating your girl.

    I feel that some well-meaning people are not very honest in undervaluing the great advantage that students with the hottest girlfriends enjoy. These people ignore the fact that most beginning graduate students do not have sufficient experience and expertise in the field to know what their great matches really are to begin with! They figure that out after they score, at which point they might learn better matches are elsewhere — reason why abstinence can be bad.

    In general, hotter girls give you more opportunities or values for your future success one way or another, especially at an early stage of career when you need help most. I do strongly agree with Julianne’s recent post that in the end your can always control your own destiny to a great extent, by working even harder and being goal-oriented than your peers with hotter girlfriends. However, beginning students often need to figure that out themselves or be well-informed by those already in the know when deciding on which girl to date. Most average, matching girlfriends wouldn’t frankly tell you that you might end up needing to crawling up so hard in struggle, once your good days together are in the past. And who knows some might even transmit you an STD without telling you about it…

    Good thing students now have Google to gather a lot of information these days.

    Also, I disagree that playing around with boyfriends in between undergrad and grad schools can be awkward. Experimenting with boys helped me tremendously in figuring out that I do prefer girls, hot or not. And I’m a guy.

  • http://google.com rasharasha

    i agree with you(“b”) 100%, ALL THE WAY… Cindy wasn’t ready for you anyway!!!


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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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