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Rank and File: What the Rankings Really Mean for Graduate Programs in the Humanities

Posted By Leah Kaminsky in Education



Whether you are in the market for a vacuum cleaner or a graduate department, it pays to do some research. You probably know that U.S. News and World Report has a lot to say about the pros and cons of different vacuum cleaners, but did you know that they also have a lot to say about the pros and cons of different graduate schools?  Check their list out here , but not before you read the few grains of salt about graduate programs we’ve been hording. Because hey, you never know when there’s going to be a massive salt shortage!

(Just a word here:  We have lots to say about graduate admissions for the professional schools elsewhere, but this post is largely aimed at those people interested in applying to humanities and sciences programs.  Sorry, you future doctors, lawyers, and business moguls. You won’t be able to use us an excuse to get out of chart notes and spreadsheets today.)

Reasons why ranking matters:

A.  Let’s face it:  Saying you went to Harvard impresses people.  Sure, you may grind your teeth every time you bear witness to someone tossing a scarf over their shoulder at the local pub and waxing wistful about their Cambridge days, but you’re still going to feel jealous or maybe even inferior.  It should come as no surprise then that Harvard and the rest of the Ivies show up a lot in the top 5 of grad program rankings.  Prospective employers, outside funding sources and your family (especially them, especially during the holidays) may have their heads turned by a high-ranking university on your CV.  If you know that this is important to you, then the rankings may have a lot of bearing on your decisions.

B.  Factored into the ranking system are important metrics that capture things like how many students receive financial aid and assistantships, how long it takes to complete the program, and where students go after they graduate.  These are important things to know about any program; if you are interested in University X, but see that they are unable to give any assistantships, or that no one has ever been gainfully employed after graduating, those factors may color your decision to apply there.

C.  Really well-ranked schools have lots of money and resources, as a rule.  Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean that just because you are accepted, money and great fortune will rain down upon you (unless you are James Franco, who goes to Yale...and went to Columbia...and who knows where he’ll go next), but a great ranking can often mean that University X has a healthy endowment and a vibrant research community for you to be a part of. This is definitely something to think about.    

When you should throw rankings to the wind:

A.  At Just Start, our philosophy is that the best fit should beat out best ranking every time.  The reason for this is simple:  You are going to be at University X for a long time (especially if you are a doctoral student) and you will be more likely to finish if the school feels right to you.  You’ll be happier, too.  What feels right to you may not be a school that is in the Top 10.  So? The Ivies don’t have a monopoly on happiness and career success.

B.  You are probably aware of this, but different departments are known for and have strengths in different areas of expertise.  Let’s take English departments for a second:  Say you are a PhD applicant in English, who wants to study Victorian literature.  Well, the rankings will tell you that Berkeley is #1 for English overall, every year.  But a Victorianist would probably tell you to look at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the University of Wisconsin or Indiana University Bloomington.  Again, this all goes back to good fit.  It’s sort of like jeans, in the end:  A good fit beats out a designer label every time.  Unless those jeans are skinny jeans and they’re colored and a celebrity wears them because ZOMG.

C. In a sort of perverse twist on things, as an undergrad, you probably had fewer restrictions on where you could go to college because you had fewer demands and responsibilities.  You may not have had a partner to consider, a job, credit card debt, a mortgage payment, a dog who hates the rain, etc.  All of these things need to factor into your decision.  If University X seems great and is really highly ranked, but it means moving and trying to sell your house in this crummy market, is it possible that you are overlooking a great school nearer to home? 

I started this post talking about vacuums and I’ll end it on the same note:  Your graduate school decision cannot not be made in a vacuum, so all of these factors should be weighed against and with a given school’s ranking.  Especially if you’re buying a Dyson. Have you seen how expensive they are these days?

Jamie Oldham is a college admissions coach for Just Start Applications, and a pretty great gal, too. While her interests are varied (she does have a higher degree in Liberal Arts, after all), one of her great life's passions is helping students and parents through the admissions process, doling out great college and graduate school admissions tips along the way. Check out her full bio here and contact us today to get her on your team.

Rank and File: What the Rankings Really Mean for Graduate Programs in the Humanities

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Rank and File: What the Rankings Really Mean for Graduate Programs in the Humanities When you're applying to graduate school or a PhD program, what do the rankings really mean? Jamie Oldham breaks it down.

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