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How to know a graduate program's strength?

  • #1
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Main Question or Discussion Point

So, I've heard that rankings do matter if you want to go to academia; however, I've also heard that a PhD from the University of Hawaii in observational astronomy will be more valuable than one from MIT. So, where can I find universities' rankings by program (for example, cosmology or computational astrophysics)?
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Depends on what you are looking for. Think about how many PhDs they graduate and where they go after? Post-docs, Industry, etc.

You will have to spend time looking into these schools and the faculty to truly know if it's a good program. Even better would be to go there in person and talk to people since not all Profs update their CVs. Or email someone, either a prof or a grad student!
 
  • #3
DrSteve
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So, where can I find universities' rankings by program (for example, cosmology or computational astrophysics)?
You can't. But by following the dialogue on this and other sites, plus departments' websites, you eventually get a better feel (like you just did with your example). Going to conferences and asking questions is a tremendous resource.
 
  • #4
boneh3ad
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Probably the only way to try to ascertain this information without already being involved in said field is to look at a few of the following data points (arranged in increasing order of usefulness):
  1. Browse the websites of departments of interest and see which areas they have a focus.
  2. Ask a professor at your current institution (if you are attending a school already) and they ought to be able to give you a pretty good picture.
  3. Look through the top journals in that particular field and see who is publishing a lot of high-impact work in the area.
Ultimately, specific research areas are too opaque for general publications like US News to be able to accurately rank such subfields (to say nothing about the drawbacks to such ranking systems in the first place). You will have to rely on sources that are closer to the subfield, and that is a more tedious process than just buying a magazine and looking at someone's rankings in a table.
 
  • #5
radium
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You can kind of figure out about program strengths from hearsay, taking with faculty, etc.

I would say the best places for the subfields you mentioned are Berkeley, Caltech, Chicago, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, and Princeton
 
  • #6
eri
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UH's degree is better because they have far more observational astronomers than MIT does. Look for how many people the grad school has working in the field you're interested in, how much they publish, how many students they have, whether or not they earn grant money on a regular basis, and so on. Smaller schools often have one or two great programs in particular fields, so just because it's not famous overall doesn't mean it's not a top school for something in particular.
 
  • #7
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So, I've heard that rankings do matter if you want to go to academia; however, I've also heard that a PhD from the University of Hawaii in observational astronomy will be more valuable than one from MIT. So, where can I find universities' rankings by program (for example, cosmology or computational astrophysics)?
Spoke to my advisor about U Hawaii Astronomy program as I like the idea doing an observational Phd. She really tried to talk me out of the idea. Said almost no good quality research had been done there since the early 1990s. She also said the instutitute had a famously bad history of mistreating students and that failure rates were very high particularly amongst female students. I also spoke to several other faculty about hawaii astronomy. The faculty that knew about the astronomy program at hawaii were all pretty negative about it and basically said similar things to my advisor. So I am going to cross hawaii off my list of schools, I don't want to take the risk. Sorry if it seems a bit negative, but I thought it might be helpful to pass on my faculties views. You should investigate further if you can, I would be definitely interested to know what others think of astronomy at hawaii.
 
  • #9
Rankings do not matter. Your adviser's reputation does, however. Science is generally much smaller than engineering so the set of schools with strong programs is much smaller. Look far down the list of programs and many of the physics departments below 30 or so are really just applied physics departments (which is fine, but don't expect a top Noodle--er, String theorist to be at Louisiana Bog Swamp university for instance).

Definitely talk to faculty though and shop around; because the rankings are meaningless, a good computational astrophysicist or cosmologist may appear somewhere unexpected, but you will miss such an opportunity if you do not speak with faculty. For instance, if a good adviser has just graduated a student who has just taken a job as assistant professor at a mid-sized school, that might be an opportunity worth taking. Early in their careers faculty do not usually start at the top places; they have to work their way up. If you are a big fish in a small pond, it can be easy to acquire grants, fellowships, and other opportunities, which happened to a few of my peers in the physics department.
 
  • #10
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This is seven years old but does compare various university astronomy programs:

https://www.chronicle.com/article/NRC-Rankings-Overview-/124705

One thing about Astronomy and related field is that 1 out of every 10 graduate ever gets a job in the field. Its very tough and you have to be really outstanding to succeed. At least that's the way it was when I considered it more the 40 years ago and I don't think much has changed.

Some caveats on NRC rankings which are done every 10 years or so:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_National_Research_Council_rankings
 
  • #11
mathwonk
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Ask your professors. As an undergraduate student I was aware of the famous schools like Columbia, Princeton,.... but my advisor (Andrew Gleason) suggested Brandeis, and that's where I went. The program was much better than I realized, and smaller, so that I got in more easily and then got more attention than I might have at other places.
 
  • #12
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Yes, it always pays to listen to your advisors. They know the ropes better than you do.
 
  • #13
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That all sounds good, thank you so much! Although, what if I want to go to grad school in a sub-field that my adviser is not involved in? So if I am working on supernova remnants with him but want to study the early universe, how will find out good advisers then?
 
  • #14
mathwonk
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your professors will also know where that topic is well represented. or they will know whom to ask.
 
  • #15
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your professors will also know where that topic is well represented. or they will know whom to ask.
All right, thank you!
 

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