Choosing a PhD

It’s PhD admissions time, and Greg Mankiw gives advice to students on choosing a PhD program:

1. Start with the rankings.  For recent rankings of economics departments, click here and here and here.  All ranking systems are imperfect, but other things equal, higher is probably better.

2. Talk with the graduate students who are now in the programs you are considering.  Are they happy?

3. Don’t make a decision based on a single faculty member.  He or she may leave or turn out to be not quite as wonderful as you now presume.  Look for a department that is strong overall.

4. Don’t presume you know your specific research interests and focus just on faculty in that narrow area.  Many students change their mind over their first few years of grad school.

5. Is the location of the school a fun place to live?  Grad school is a long haul, typically 4 to 6 years, which is a significant fraction of your life.  Being a PhD student is hard work, but it should not be a miserable existence.

6. Is the university overall a good place?  It is always more fun being part of a great institution.  Even if the economics department is perfect, if it is an island in a sea of mediocrity, being there will be less satisfying.

7. Are the undergraduates there good students?  At some point as a graduate student, you will (and should) do some teaching, perhaps as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course.  If the undergraduates are an academically strong group, they will be more intellectually engaged and more rewarding to teach.

8. Don’t be distressed if you did not get into your top choice.  What you do in graduate school (or college) is far more important than where you go.  Your personal drive matters more than the ranking of the school you attend.

9. Look at the record of recent PhD students.  What fraction who start the program complete a PhD?  What kinds of jobs do they get upon completion?  Are they the kinds of jobs you aspire to?  The placement record will give you an indication of the caliber of students who enter the program, the value-added of the program itself, and how well the department sells its students on the job market.

This is great advice–especially 1, 3, 4 and 8–though one suspects they encourage students to choose Harvard. (Well… maybe not number 5).

I would only add a few thoughts:

10. Look for programs with strengths in your area of interest. Clusters of senior and junior faculty are a good sign.

11. Senior faculty are more likely to stay around than juniors.

12. Ask about research and summer support for independent projects and travel.

13. Ask current grad students about relationships with faculty. Do they mingle outside class and mentor their students, and invite them to the dinners with visiting speakers, or do they forget their names and avoid their glances in the elevator?

10 thoughts on “Choosing a PhD

  1. #9 on finding where graduates go is one of the most important points, but good luck getting that information. Due to intentional or unintentional lousy record keeping, departments just don’t tend to have these numbers sitting around. I’d love to know if a single potential grad student has ever gotten any program to give out hard numbers on where their graduates go upon degree completion.

    Even as a graduate, could you say the proportion of PhDs from your program that are in academia vs governemtn vs industry even with a 20% margin of error? Getting more specific on how many graduates end up in tier 1 vs tier 2 colleges is hopeless.

  2. I agree with Ryan – just finishing my PhD – I chose an excellent school with very solid funding over a even higher ranked school with shaky funding and have never regretted that – I don’t think getting, say, 25k instead of 20k/year matters – but stuff like 5 years of guaranteed funding, low teaching load etc. will allow you to become a better graduate student. That’s not trivial stuff. Otherwise I wholeheartedly agree with every single one of the suggestions (that’s for polisci and not for econ).

  3. Talking about econ here, I disagree with most of Mankiw’s advice. I think the problem might be that Mankiw is thinking about this from the standpoint of someone who is trying to choose between fully funded offers at Harvard, MIT, etc. For the rest of us, Mankiw’s #1 and #9 (Dan, you can find at least job placement info on most econ dept.’s websites), Chris’ #10 and #13 and the funding issue as Sebastian describes nicely should dominate all other concerns. All of Mankiw’s other criteria are trivial by comparison and really shouldn’t enter into the decision at all (unless you are comparing offers from schools that are nearly identical otherwise).

    #8 in particular is very misleading I think. If you are at the low end of your class in a top 5 program, you will still do much better on the job market than if you are at the high end in a 25-50 ranked program. It would be a huge mistake to choose a lower ranked program over a higher one based on the assumption that if you are good enough it won’t matter that much where you got your PhD.

  4. All the advice seems specifically set up to encourage people not to go to the University of Chicago. Except perhaps 1,6, and 9

  5. I’m sure Dr Mankiw’s house is gorgeous. This, one would assume, is generally the case when you specialize in concocting elaborate excuses designed specifically to serve the interests of the elite. This appears to be Dr Mankiw’s stock-in-trade.

  6. What about fully funded with a fellowship and low teaching load at a 25-50 ranked program or a top ten school with funding highly unlikely? How important is debt?

  7. @ Dan H:

    I had little problems getting this information about graduates from the last 3-5 years for a given program. Farther back than that was difficult but I didn’t see it as adding much anyway. This was for PhDs in public health, though, not econ or polisci