Friday, April 11, 2008

Wherever You Go, There You Are

Keeping in mind that anonymous graduate students who don't have jobs might not be the best people to get advice about where to go to grad school, I just wanted to toss something out there. Insofar as you can, it seems better to go to a grad school that is generally strong in your interests rather than one that is more Leiterific.

If you're lucky enough to finish in 5 years, two more gourmet reports are going to come out before you go on the market. If you're not looking at a department in the top 10, you're department may well bounce around the rankings. In the 02-04, 04-06 and the current report some of the school rankings have really fluctuated. For example:

U. of Miami: 46 - Honorable mention for the top 50 - 32

Arizona: 8 - 16 - 13

Boulder: 28 - 38 - 32

U. of Minnesota: 32 - 36 - 44

Given how much the rankings can change over a short period of time, it's better to try to focus on who you will be working with and the general strengths of the department. In part this insulates you from potential changes in the faculty. Also, if someone comes to your department and raises your program's rank, my guess is that hiring committees don't care unless you work with that person. All that is to say, the rankings give you a general sense of how different departments are perceived overall, but each student is (probably) going to be assessed by who she works with rather than the overall perception.

-- Second Suitor


Anonymous said...

i disagree with your interpretation of the numbers.

to my mind, those are actually very *stable* numbers, if you keep in mind the appropriate error-bars on any given number.

bouncing around from 28 to 38 to 32 is really not that much of a difference, given that we should think of a number like 32 as ± 5 anyhow. It means: this is a good school, though maybe not in the top twenty.

bouncing around from 8 to 16 to 13 is also not that much of a difference: it means this is a very good school.

look, i don't speak for leiter, but i believe that he would be the first to say that you *have* to think of these numbers as residing in very broad bands. movement with in a band is meaningless. oh, and the borders of the bands are vague.

so, whether your eventual advice is right or not (i.e. to care more about specialty area than about overall ranking), i think your main premise is wrong: these examples do not show that ratings change a lot, if you have been interpreting the ratings correctly all along.

fond of lunch said...

Yes, but: how many of us end up writing a dissertation in the area that we were most interested in when we applied to grad school? A lot of people change their minds about what excites them most.

And, one reason why Leiter rankings bounce around is that faculty move, and who is to say that the person who attracts you to a program won't move on in a year or two?

I think, for the average philosophy major who is interested in the subject but maybe not yet thoroughly familiar with a lot of it - and who has been thoroughly informed about what a capricious ordeal grad school is - the best advice is to apply widely and go to the most prestigious place that accepts you.

Juan said...

"Given how much the rankings can change over a short period of time, it's better to try to focus on who you will be working with and the general strengths of the department. In part this insulates you from potential changes in the faculty."

Wait, how does focusing on who you will be working with insulate you from potential changes in the faculty? It seems to me it's exactly the other way around.

Anonymous said...

Second Suitor, you have an excellent point. But certain schools (i.e. - NYU, Princeton, Harvard, Michigan, Pittsburgh) are always going to be at least in the top 20. I'd modify your advice in two ways (keeping in mind that, overall, it's excellent):

1. Some schools have a long tradition of excellence, and other departments have recently beefed up (i.e. - USC, Rutgers, Miami, Boulder, Arizona State, etc.). The schools with a long tradition have a much lower chance of sliding back down, ceteris paribus.

2. Be at least *somewhat* wary of going to a lower-ranked school to work with a single rock star (let's say, for example, Colin McGinn at Miami....not to pick on McGinn or Miami, of course). There's a chance that the rock star is either looking to move up, or that part of the rock star's terms are that he doesn't work with students very often (Kripke is notorious for not working with students, for example). Also, if the rock star leaves, you might be stuck at the lower-ranked program with no adviser.

The essence of this advice is: do your homework, and try to apply to, and attend, a grad program that has several respected people doing something similar to what you want to do.

Anonymous said...

How about USC? I don't have it in front of me, but I swear it was something like 48, 24, 16.

ttassprof said...

This is excellent advice. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to work with someone (a) well-respected in your field(s) of interest and (b) (perhaps more importantly) well-committed to his/her students, regardless of the overall rank of the department in the PGR. (This assumes you have a fairly good grasp of the field(s) you wish to specialize in. If you aren't at that point yet, consider spending a couple of years at a solid MA program where you can hone your philosophical interests.)

I recently came across this excellent wiki with information for students interested in feminist philosophy - I was actually directed to the site following the profile of one of the contributors ("katenorlock") on a previous thread. Does anyone (Kate?) know how long this site has been operational and what the general feedback has been? Why can't these sorts of resources be available for all philosophy fields? Wouldn't the info be infinitely more valuable for prospective grads than anything the PGR provides? Let the established profs worry about their prestige vis-a-vis others and the rat-race that is the PGR. Most of the crucial issues you should be aware of as a graduate student are ones not even touched upon there.

Anonymous said...

Only the UMiami swings are noteworthy, I think. The rest is within the range of error because the methodology of the survey results in a lot of clustering.

Anonymous said...

I would agree with the first commentator, but add that probably a lot of folks _haven't_ been treating these numbers right all along. So it is worth the warning that all the numbers are likely to move around within a certain range, with the moral being, basically, the report at its best just doesn't give information to distinguish between programs within a handful of spots of each other.

Anon 4:52 is a tad confused about the recent history of the discipline, btw, if they think that the NYU PhD program has a longer history of excellence than the Rutgers one. NYU started "beefing up" a few years after Rutgers did. I'd say both programs are pretty well-entrenched by this point.

senior grad said...

I have to side with 'Fond of Lunch' and 'Juan', here. It probably is true that who writes your letters matters more than where you go to school, but precisely because students' interests change and because faculty move, I think that prospectives should give comparatively little weight to specialty rankings in deciding where to go to grad school. Of course, a department that has little or no presence in a given field would be a poor choice for a prospective student interested in that field. But a department that currently has a strong presence in that field isn't necessarily a good choice. If one is interested in maximizing the probability of getting at least one letter from a 'luminary' in whatever sub-field one eventually ends up working in, then one should go to a school with: (a) broad strengths; (b) many luminaries; and (c) a demonstrated ability and commitment to replace 'luminous' faculty when they do leave.

senior grad said...

I should add some standard caveats to my comment above. (1) There are many other relevant factors in deciding where to go to grad school; and (2) some luminaries make better mentors than others.

Having said that, I think it probably still makes sense for prospectives to give considerable weight to faculty reputation in choosing among graduate departments. If nothing else, a (good) letter from a well-known figure will help you get noticed on the job market.

Anonymous said...

The idea that NYU and Rutgers are well-established is ridiculous. Many of us are young/old enough to remember when neither were the bomb -- hell, when NYU wasn't even offering funded places. (We're talking a dozen years ago here, people!) This isn't a reason to go to either school or not. But it is a call for perspective. Departments can get raided, and it wouldn't take so many losses at a place like NYU (whether to retirement, hiring away, etc) for that department to go downhill fast. (Remember, at one time New York was not the place to be; if 'twas, could be again.) Perhaps that's an argument for focusing on programs whose faculties are not only impressive but large in number (e.g. Toronto, Oxford, Texas). At least if continued prominence is your concern.

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued by the idea of AOS-specific wikis. Surely the popularity of this and Leiter's blog, as well as the job wiki, suggests there are enough people out there willing to give helpful and candid advice to prospective students?

Anonymous said...

I would also note that there are some lower ranked programs (say outside the top 20) that are known throughout the philosophical community as excellent in an area and have been for a long time, for example, UC Riverside and Phil. of Action/Free Will.

If you don't get into a top 10 or may be 15 dept. I think it would be wise to find a dept. that has a history of being excellent in a subfield you are interested in.

Also one should keep in mind that within academia some universities that are not highly ranked still have a "halo" of national prestige, for example, the University of Penn., Northwestern, Georgetown, Duke, maybe Emory, that can make a difference on the job market.

Anonymous said...

Here's a piece of advice nobody else seems to be giving: when you're looking at grad schools, pay attention to how much teaching you'll have the chance to do, how much of that will be your own classes (as opposed to TA-ing for someone else), and how wide a variety of classes you'll have the chance to teach. One thing you should hope/expect to get out of grad school is a good training in teaching philosophy, as well as good training in doing philosophy.

If you're slated to be the next big thing in your field, you can ignore this advice. But remember that even at (say) top 10 Leter-ranked schools, most students aren't slated to be the next big thing, at least not straight out of grad school. My understanding is that, at least at one super-top-of-the-line dept., you'll only teach six credit-hours, and that will be in the form of six one-hour discussion sections led on someone else's class. Maybe these details are mistaken; but I do know that you don't (or, at least, in the past, didn't) teach very much at this place. This is fine for their top students, who go to R1 places that don't care (as much) about teaching; but it makes job finding more difficult for their non-superstar-graduates, because those graduates are actually less competitive for more teaching-intensive jobs.

The advice is more pressing if you're not looking to go to those schools who often place their candidates at R1, TT-style jobs but schools that tend instead to place candidates at SLACs, etc. Wherever you go, when it comes job-finding time, the less teaching experience you have the harder time you'll have for jobs at anything other than R1 places. Better to get lots of teaching experience as a grad student and have that under the belt when going out for jobs the first time than relying on a string of VAPs to get the teaching experience. (Maybe you'll have the string of VAPs anyway -- nothing wrong with that -- but you improve your chances overall if you don't wait for the VAPs to beef up on teaching experience.)

Anonymous said...

I think Anon 11:00AM's last point cannot be overemphasized. Personally, it would take a lot to convince me to attend a university that utterly lacked this national cache.

Anonymous said...

"I think Anon 11:00AM's last point cannot be overemphasized."

Really? It strikes me that this point could very easily be overemphasized. Overall university reputation is, after all, a fairly weak predictor of professional success, even granting that it's a predictor at all. And it seems easy to see how someone could be overawed by a university brand name in a way that could make this rather minimal effect seem much larger than it is likely to be.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 4:45,

Let me've studied at some lower-ranked or unranked school? Let's look at the % of students who've achieved professional success coming out of, say, Harvard, as opposed to, say, Univ. of Arkansas: no contest.

Name-brand universities, i.e., with programs that are highly ranked, will attract more money from alumni, their community, etc. So there are more resources to invest in the student.

Also, as is well discussed in this blog and other venues, pedigree matters in academic philosophy, rightly or wrongly. So there might be some rock star at Arkansas who's working exactly in some obscure sub-field you might be interested in, but you'd be a fool to turn down Harvard...

tenured philosophy girl said...

4:45 is totally right and I can't imagine a faculty member disagreeing. If you turn down a funded spot at Pitt or Rutgers for one at Duke or Yale because of the broad national prestige of the latter you are off your rocker and not one serious SC in philosophy would think otherwise.

(There may be perfectly good reasons for someone to pick Yale or Duke over Pitt or Rutgers - I am not a Leiter-whore. But the fact that Duke and Yale are 'fancier' schools is not one of them, and it is completely irrelevant to the philosophy job market.)

Anonymous said...

4:45 here-

I must not have made myself clear. Of course you'd go to Harvard over Arkansas; but (depending on your field) you might well go to Pitt or Rutgers or UNC or Arizona over Harvard, too, despite the 'Harvard' brand. In saying 'overall university quality is a poor predictor of professional success'; I meant to indicate only that the kind of efffect the post in question posited- where, say, a Ph.D. from Georgetown, or Emory adds a kind of value you wouldn't get from Pitt, or Rutgers, is insignificant.

So the original point stands, I think: in many if not most cases, you'd be crazy to go to a program at a university with 'national cache' over a program with less of that, but more philosophical mojo.

fond of lunch said...

But, 6.19, the point under discussion is not whether you should prefer a very prestigious philosophy dept, it's whether you should prefer a philosophy dept in a prestigious university. 4.45 was objecting to the idea that you should consider a program based on whether its parent university has cachet. And that is indeed a terrible idea, and appreciation of its terribleness is not limited to people who went to unranked schools.

I went to Rutgers, which has no cachet or halo of prestige at all in the wider culture. Even the football team stank when I was there.

Rutgers has great Leiter capital, but no cultural capital at all: if anon 12.10 is to be believed, I should not have considered going there, but should have gone somewhere less highly-ranked that would have been more impressive-sounding at cocktail parties. I can see passing up Rutgers because you don't like the stuff on offer there, or because you'd rather live in a blocked toilet than move to New Jersey, but giving it a miss because it lacks cachet is just snobbery.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 6:19:

You're not a very charitable reader, are you? I wonder what your philosophical arguments look like.

What Anon 4:45 meant (I take it, based on the comments he was responding to, e.g. Anon 11:00) is that the overall prestige of the university -- as opposed to the prestige of the specific department within that university -- is a factor that should not be overemphasized. Given a choice between Penn and Pittsburgh, you should probably go to the latter even though it doesn't have the former's ivy halo.

With that said, it's true that a university's overall prestige can sometimes help -- especially when a department that wants to hire you has to convince clueless administrators that, yes, Rutgers or Pitt are so much better than Northwestern or Penn. Still, all in all, that factor is utterly negligible next to your dept's prestige.

Anonymous said...

There are really two dilemmas here. One asks us to choose between department prestige and the prestige of potential faculty advisors. The other asks us to choose between department prestige and the well-rounded greatness of a potential faculty advisor.

In the first (prestige vs. prestige) case you should give more weight to department prestige. As previous commentators have said, the potential advisors might end of moving to another program, or you might find yourself gravitating toward another area.

In the second (prestige vs. well-rounded greatness), however, you should go with faculty advisor. An advisor who is great in a well-rounded way is

1) Very well known and admired for her work
2) Loyal enough to her students to bring them along when she changes jobs, or at least to continue supervising the dissertations of her students after she's left
4) Someone who plays a hands-on role in supervising the dissertation
5) An amazing supporter on the job market and beyond.

I've heard of at least a dozen advisors who fulfill all of these criteria, probably because they love having and advising graduate students. If you find such a person, she will be your secret weapon. Go with that person. This has been my experience and I bet there are others readers of this blog who have had similar ones.

Anon 12:10 here said...

Anon 11:00's point -- the one I claimed cannot be overemphasized -- was that "some universities that are not highly ranked still have a 'halo' of national prestige ... that can make a difference on the job market." I persist in my view that this claim is on target.

The claim, note, is not that one *should* attend (e.g.) Penn over Rutgers. This isn't the claim for two reasons:

(1) the decision of which school to attend is complicated, and Anon 11:00 wasn't purporting to offer a single criterion for making this decision (or if he/she was, then I hereby distance myself from that claim and support only the more limited version);

(2) the departments at Penn and Rutgers (again, just to take one example) are not even close to being on a par, so presumably the other relevant factors will trump the issue of national prestige.

The natural extension of Anon 11:00's thought -- or anyway, the extension that I thought merited reinforcing -- was that one shouldn't discount in one's deliberation the significance of national prestige. This prestige *can* make a difference in one's success on the market.

I don't care to do the data analysis, but I would guarantee you that Harvard PhDs have succeeded in securing TT jobs disproportionally to the quality of their department. Of course, I'm not saying that the department has ever been truly terrible, but only that there have been stretches in recent history when it hasn't been nearly as good as departments at less prestigious universities (e.g., Arizona, Texas, some of the UC schools that aren't UCLA or Berkeley.)

Here's Leiter making what I take to be the same point:

"Graduate students sometimes benefit from earning their Ph.D. at a school with a good overall reputation, even though the philosophy program may not be especially strong."

Anonymous said...

Anon. 11:00 pm here.

I guess I thought the context of my post made it clear that I was imagining a situation in which one hasn't been admitted to a Leiter top 15ish dept. I completely agree that one should not choose Duke or Penn over Pitt or Rutgers simply because of national prestige. That would be silly indeed!

However, especially when one gets into the bottom half of the rankings, I think national prestige is an important factor to consider.

Although, if you have a really good sense of the area you want to study, going to a school with less national prestige but widely regarded to be excellent in your area of interest (e.g.,UCR and Phil. of Action or Temple and Aesthetics) is probably the better choice.

Anonymous said...

I don't care to do the data analysis, but I would guarantee you that Harvard PhDs have succeeded in securing TT jobs disproportionally to the quality of their department. Of course, I'm not saying that the department has ever been truly terrible, but only that there have been stretches in recent history when it hasn't been nearly as good as departments at less prestigious universities (e.g., Arizona, Texas, some of the UC schools that aren't UCLA or Berkeley.)

See, I think this is just where faculty quality as rated by the Leiter report comes apart from "good graduate program." Harvard has always had one of the very top programs in terms of training students, even in the years where "faculty quality" hasn't been as good as at those other universities.

anon 12:10 here said...

Anon 1:01, I think that's a fair point -- though, you'd agree, I think, that it doesn't undermine the gist of the case that Anon 11:00 and I have been making. If the Harvard example is distracting, consider others whose record would, I suspect, bear out my claim equally well: Univ. of Chicago, Yale, Georgetown, Univ. of Virginia, Johns Hopkins, etc.

Anonymous said...

Harvard has always had one of the very top programs in terms of training students, even in the years where "faculty quality" hasn't been as good as at those other universities.

Interesting. My impression has been exactly the opposite. Even when Harvard was ranked its highest, I thought it had much worse trained students. (I'm not counting Rawls' students, who were astoundingly good as a group.)

Anonymous said...

"the best advice is to apply widely and go to the most prestigious place that accepts you."

Absolutely not--unless you intend to work with someone who gives that place its prestige. As one person pointed out--ideally go for the place where there is more than one very good person you'd like to work with.

Do NOT make the overall prestige of the department your main deciding factor. If you end up in a department with high prestige, working with a faculty member who has none, there's absolutely no point to going to a top ranking department. Pick for faculty first, department second.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend picking for department, then faculty. In my incoming class, out of 9 of us, 7 were hell bent on doing mind/cog sci. Guess what!? Only one person did a dissertation in mind. No worries though, since we were all in a great overall department. Trust me, your interests will change, and the best bet is to select a department that both maximally cover those changing interests while still maximizing job prospects.

the scarlet knight said...

listen, one thing that should not be overlooked here is the significance of mascot quality in shaping perceptions of grad program quality. one probably cannot overemphasize this point. the nyu mascot is a bobcat, for example, which is just fucking stupid. i have overheard several senior faculty mention this as a problem when weighing the merits of nyu grads. so - pace several previous commentators - i would recommend picking for faculty, THEN mascot, then perhaps department. though if we're talking more than a leiter 10-15 point range difference, you might discount the mascot issue slightly.

Anonymous said...

i second the scarlet don't go to stanford. yeh, yeh, i know - "the cardinal" sounds soooo cool. but really: their mascot is a goddamned dancing tree. and ohio state? a poisonous nut? gimme a break.

in order of badass mascots, i'll give my top three:

(1) Purdue Boilermakers - i mean, how often does a school's mascot trade on an alcoholic beverage?

(2) South Carolina Gamecocks - that's. right. in line with current trends, hot southern chicks walking around with "cocks" emblazoned on their ass's is pretty cool.

(3) USC Trojans - yeh. that's just cool. (Though, in the grand scheme of things, I reckon they lotted themselves with the losers from the Iliad...Homer'd be disappointed, I think.)