Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Question about Ph.D Programs

Is it okay to apply to a Ph.D program at a school that isn't exactly well-known for your field to study with a professor who is very well known in your field? When one goes to apply for jobs, will it be, "He studied under...." or, "He went to X school"?


Jason said...


I think that many potential employers, when looking at your c.v. or resume, would likely consider the school at which you completed your PhD more so than just one professor under whom you studied. Most PhD programs that are worth their salt are so because they have a stellar faculty and not just one or two standout profs. Keep in mind, however, that I will only begin PhD work this fall, so I do not speak from experience. Much of what I have read from PhD students' blogs suggest that a school name will likely carry more weight than saying you studied under so-and-so. Just my opinion.

I assume you're considering post-grad work? What schools have you considered?


:mic said...

The advice given to me (from the perspective of employment): 1. the name recognition of your school will get you to the top of the pile of applicants; 2) the name recognition of who you studied with will get you closer to the job once the first has happened.

As always, publication and teaching experience are invaluable, so I would find the PERSON who will get you to where you need to be in this area and then consider the schools after that.

Anonymous said...

I'd say it depends on the school and its program. UCLA isn't well known for it's NT program, but it's a world class research institution and the history department is one of the top ten in the nation. I have a feeling UCLA is placing me in good position even though the NT program is not as well known. (One benefit is that I get to study in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department, which is one of the best programs in the country for Hebrew Bible.)

From another perspective, studying at a school that isn't as well known in a particular field, but with a very well known prof is better than studying at a not so well known institution and under unknown scholars.

It's all relative.

Anonymous said...

I think it matters, but not in the way that you might think.

If anything is going to make your application rise to the top of the pile and make the search committee go "oooh, let's interview this guy!" it's less likely to be the name of your school or supervisor and more likely to be a combination of 1) was your dissertation published, and of what caliber was it? 2) What kind of scholarly reputation do you have from other publications and journals? 3) How much evidence do you have of teaching ability?

In other words, demonstrable excellence in both scholarship and teaching is infinitely more important than the name-dropability of your school or supervisor.

However, it does matter in a different sense. Well known professors are more likely to have better contacts and can therefore obtain better opportunities for you, e.g. co-editing that volume there with that old colleague of theirs, presenting your work at this conference here that they are organizing, etc. It's those types of opportunities that a "big gun" can more easily arrange for you.

Further, the school itself is important because of the other scholars you can meet and collaborate with. Schools known for a certain field will attract high caliber students of that field, and if you are there with them, then your own work will improve as you are able to work things through with them, discussing, debating, making your own contacts, etc.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Since your question is about applying to such a school, I'd say that the worst that can happen is that you waste the application fee and associated expenses. You can only increase your options by applying and I cannot see that a negative beyond the costs.

A tougher question occurs if you get into the latter school (lesser known but with Prof. X) but not the former. Do you take the bird in the hand or hope for the two in the bush by applying the next year?

Anonymous said...

Anonymous has several good points. Ditto, especially on the point regarding teaching.

To qualify Stephen's statement, the fees are not all you waste, but also your time and the time of your references. If you spread yourself too thin with applications, you run the risk of having them not be of as good quality.

My strategy was to apply only to schools that I wouldn't regret going to without waiting one more year and applying again.

Josh McManaway said...

Thanks all to commenting.

Pat: That's something I want to do. I have friends who applied this last go-round to schools that they didn't really want to go to. Then, when they got in there (and only there), they ended up saying they'll wait until next year to see if they can get the "two in the bush" as Stephen put it. That kind of puzzles me. My goal is to only apply to programs in which I'll be happy, even if it's a "second tier" on my list.

Stephen: The scenario I'm running through my head is: I apply to lesser-known school Ph.D, but Duke MTS. I get into both - where do I go? Ultimately, Duke has everything and more that I want in a Ph.D program. I think I'd almost be inclined to take Duke's offer to do the MTS and have two years to try to impress the professors there in order to get into the Ph.D program rather than taking the offer at the lesser-known school. What do you think?

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Okay, if you want Duke, doing an MTS at Duke is a pretty good option.

One problem with the lesser-known school with the great professor is what happens when the professor gets recruited for another school? You might be left with neither a well-known school or your professor. If you're applying straight from undergrad, you might need an extra year of course work at the school, which increases the risk of the prof getting tempted to leave by another year.

John Anderson said...

Just a note about Duke, since I went there. They tend not to take their own from the Masters to Ph.D. programs. This isn't always the case, and their are exceptions, but I have been told that by several people while I was there, and experienced it also. No harm, just making you aware.

In terms of what is looked at, I have always been told it is a matter of not simply who you studied with and where, but is your dissertation something of quality. Who you work with, though, I think is far more important than where you go. There are many seminal names at some lesser known schools.

Stephen C. Carlson said...


I'm in the Ph.D. program now. Three of the last four current NT students in the Ph.D. program have been Dukies.

John Anderson said...


As I said, there are exceptions.

Or, maybe that was just what they told everyone the year I applied? Or maybe just me? ha!

I do know Hans Arneson went from the masters to Ph.D. in NT at Duke. As I said, it is not unprecedented, certainly. Just relaying what I was told (and I wish I could remember by whom).

Stephen C. Carlson said...

Well, John, I guess we just have different information. For me, the "exceptions" seem to swallow your "rule."

My take on the (dis)advantages of being an internal candidate when applying for a Duke Ph.D. program is that the most important consideration is the quality of the applicant. I suppose that, having gotten to know an MTS student, both the positives and the negatives about the applicant--beyond what would be in an outside application will be known to the admissions committee. Depending on the positives and negatives, this could be a good or bad thing.

Given the reduced number of slots in each field, once they've identified the top candidates the next most important consideration is knowing whether the candidate would accept Duke if offered admission. It is here that I think internal students have an advantage. Their enthusiasm for Duke is already well-known, while it would be less clear that a candidate from Yale, say, would chose Duke over Yale.

miranda said...
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