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University prestige: how much of a factor?

  1. Aug 3, 2014 #1
    Suppose one is going for a physics PhD. I know there are some jobs one can do with a physics PhD: research jobs (or even postdocs) are very sensitive to one's research record, while faculty jobs at community colleges/4-years without a graduate program may be more sensitive to physical reputation.

    And there are those jobs where there is little or no physics involved but where the tools of physics are still of use. I know investment/international banking is one such sector, and IT is another one.

    The topic of departmental vs. institutional prestige has come up with some undergrads on summer internships I am mentoring; they accused me of gearing some of my choices towards institutional prestige rather than departmental prestige (even though Tufts, Vanderbilt and Dartmouth are some of the "easier" schools to get into for a PhD on my list, although none really have that great a physical reputation) while I countered with saying that there are jobs that can be gotten with a physics PhD where school-wide prestige is more important than departmental prestige (e.g. an employer who would rather have a physics PhD graduate from Vanderbilt or Dartmouth than a physics PhD graduate from Ohio State or Penn State, irrespective of subfield or research record)

    But which jobs that can be done with a physics PhD are more sensitive to school-wide prestige (other than I-banking, regardless of whether I means investment or international)?

    Likewise, which jobs that can be done with a physics PhD are more sensitive to departmental prestige (other than faculty jobs in any shape or form)?
  2. jcsd
  3. Aug 3, 2014 #2
    This is a very interesting question. I am a having a similar doubt. I guess it depends on what you want to do. If you want to stay in academia, I think, what is important is the department coz if you have a prestigious department it means you a) collaborate with top researchers, b) you get to meet the associated community, c) postdoc might turn out to be easier. On the other hand going to more prestigious schools give you an edge in applying for real world jobs like banking, IT, etc.

    The problem with academia is that it might be tougher than normal job market while salaries remain smaller. It is a hard choice and I guess there will be sometime when your gut will "tell you what to do". Sorry I cannot help further.
  4. Aug 3, 2014 #3
    That said, I tried to balance both concerns while building my PhD list. Of course, my top two choices have both departmental and school-wide prestige at the same time (UPenn and UChicago) and Carnegie Mellon to a somewhat lesser extent.

    For some reason I classified all four publics on my list as belonging to the category of "departmental prestige" (Penn State, Ohio State, Minnesota and UNC to a lesser extent; for some reason, UNC is not a school that I'd mention in the same breath as Vanderbilt or Dartmouth, school-wide prestige-wise), with Tufts, Vanderbilt and Dartmouth for the "school-wide prestige" while knowing that the best of the three, in cosmological terms, is Tufts...
  5. Aug 4, 2014 #4

    Meir Achuz

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    People who hire PhDs know about departmental prestige and your PhD advisor's standing, and count those over the name of the school.
  6. Aug 4, 2014 #5
    Research jobs? Absolutely.

    But does that hold if you wish to transition to a non-research career (say, IT, I-banking, and other non-research jobs that physics PhDs can do)?

    I knew that many physics PhD holders end up working non-research jobs, though.
  7. Aug 4, 2014 #6


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    Catria, even if university prestige was a deciding factor, you still could not easily tell how people assign this prestige. For example, you seem to think that Dartmouth college would rank above Penn State and Ohio State in people's perceptions. I think this is quite odd. I cannot recall ever having seen a research paper with a Dartmouth association, and I did not even know that Dartmouth had a graduate school until I just looked it up---I only knew this as an undergrad institution. On the other hand, everyone hiring PhDs should know that very large universities like Penn State and Ohio State have many excellent groups which are absolutely competitive with top 5 universities (although, of course, not all groups are).
  8. Aug 4, 2014 #7
    Those who hire PhDs specifically do put more weight to departmental prestige (and then Ohio State/Penn State would be held in higher esteem than Vanderbilt/Dartmouth).

    And there are those who do not specifically hire PhDs but that receive job applications from PhD holders. Many jobs like these that I know about are jobs where the tools of physics are well-appreciated but where there is no research involved. Are you saying that those who do not specifically hire PhDs but still end up doing it care more about departmental prestige as well?

    In my mind Vanderbilt and Dartmouth are on the "safer" side as far as my own PhD apps are concerned.
    Last edited: Aug 4, 2014
  9. Aug 4, 2014 #8
    Finance and consulting are places that obviously the school name matters even for tech roles.
  10. Aug 4, 2014 #9
    This is an interesting post. I'd love to hear from a professor or someone that hires PhDs in industry.
  11. Aug 5, 2014 #10
    I got my PhD from a top school in my area, but no institutional prestige to speak of. I don’t talk about my academic background much, but basically I’ve never met anybody outside of physics that seemed to recognize it as a good school. My career is in software development. Side note: you mentioned IT as a field “where there is little or no physics involved but where the tools of physics are still of use”, I guess it depends on exactly what you do in physics, but I’ve found a physics background to be of zero use in software.

    I think earlier in my career it would’ve helped if my PhD had been from a school that was widely recognized academically, rather than one with just a great department. I just assume it would pop on the resume for more people. After a couple of jobs though, I don’t think it matters much, although in some situations it might have some effect (I just assume some people gravitate towards big names). Obviously I’m speculating somewhat I’ve never gotten any direct feedback one way or another. I can say I’m evaluating resumes it doesn’t make any difference to me (when I care, which is almost never, about what someone did in school, I look up their work).
  12. Aug 6, 2014 #11
    School "prestige" seems to be a much bigger concern for students; out here in industry it is what you do that matters, not where you came from.

    Where I work (a big but not huge engineering company) hiring is based on interviews; the interviewers are looking to see which candidates are "smart" and appear to be able to get along and work with others. The school is entirely irrelevant except maybe as a conversational ice-breaker. This is true for hiring Bachelors, Masters, and PhDs.
  13. Aug 6, 2014 #12
    For winning grants it seems to matter a good bit. This is from experience in grant writing. Every see a summary sheet? They give you scores on institution/facilities/environment.
  14. Aug 6, 2014 #13
    For actually getting a private sector job, this is in direct contradiction to what I have been told by a sibling and his co-workers at a big corp., most of which hire new engineers fresh out of college. For advancing once you're in, what you said is pretty much what I've always heard.

    Though it's a bit of a niche, I've seen a number of big city finance job ads that specifically stated they wanted PhD graduates in physics or math from top 20 institutions. I wonder if this is also the case in other private sectors that are science PhD-friendly.
  15. Aug 6, 2014 #14
    I'm not surprised that academia works that way.

    Well all I know is what I see around me, so maybe it varies from company to company. Seems like a shame though, I've seen a few "duds" with MIT wallpaper as well as real stars from East Cupcake U.

    Alma mater doesnt seem to be a good predictor of results.

    Maybe I'm missing the point of this thread, though.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  16. Aug 6, 2014 #15
    I think in general alma mater does give the correct representation of how capable a person is. As you said above me, there are exceptions. But I think if you took a pool of MIT alma mater vs a pool of Cupcake U alma mater, you will find a vastly higher percentage of MITs are extremely prepared and ready for work and a much smaller fraction of the MIT alma mater will be incapable or a 'dud' as you say than Cupcake U.

    For that reason, I think it is safe to say most HR and employers care about alma mater to at least some extent. A good alma mater can get you an interview. Then the interview will determine if you are one of the few 'duds' or not.
  17. Aug 6, 2014 #16
    I disagree, but you picked a very safe example that has a reputation for having a very tough physics bachelors program. Alma mater may have also been a result of how wealthy your family is and what contacts you have, and things like grade inflation, plagiarism and cheating are still present even at top institutions. I witnessed these at a Russel group university myself (top 20 UK).
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  18. Aug 6, 2014 #17

    This is not a debate I really want to have on here. But since you bring it up, I'll mention my thoughts to your statement.

    Alma mater may in some people's cases have to do with family wealth and contacts. But making that generalization over the whole university system in a nation is unfair. It may be a correlation that wealthier students end up at better universities, but the sole causation for that may not be wealth. Wealth may be a higher order causation, but a lower order causation could include other things like work ethic. In the places I've lived (not speaking for everyone), among a lot of less wealthy people (by no means compared to me, I mean less wealthy compared to the average student), it's not cool to be smart or work hard in school. Not making this generalization of everyone, but it's an observation.

    Grade inflation, plagiarism, and cheating will always be around. That's what interviews are for, as I said above, they weed out these 'dud' people.
    Last edited: Aug 6, 2014
  19. Aug 6, 2014 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    For winning grants it doesn't matter much. This is from experience in both sitting on grant panels and on actually getting grants. Yes, there is a spot there for facilities. That's so the PI can say "I need a widget to do this, and I have access to one." (Or not)

    I can tell you that I have never, ever been in a situation where a committee decided that while it thought proposal X was better than proposal Y that proposal Y should be funded because of its institution.
  20. Aug 6, 2014 #19
  21. Aug 6, 2014 #20
    Interesting example. Wouldn't CS at CMU be an example of departmental prestige taking priority over university prestige? Conversely, are the CS departments at the UK institutions really on par with the other four?

    But surely employers must pay some attention to departmental prestige. If they didn't, they would be at a competitive disadvantage.
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