I'm highly considering attending smaller, lesser known private university to pursue a PhD in cognitive psychology. The university gives full funding, I really mesh the with the professor I'd be working with, and the area is beautiful. The advisor I'd be working with came highly recommended to me by a professor I work with at my current university.

Compared to a lot of the other universities I've visited, the program is much smaller - with about 20 graduate students in total in the whole psychology department. This greatly appeals to me, as I just came from a tier 1 research university with over 60,000 students, and I've been really wanting a more close knit atmosphere.

Ultimately, I think I want to pursue academia, although I'm open to the possibility of industry. My concern is that while the university itself is touted as a "hidden ivy", it's not well renown for its psychology department. The university is not a tier 1 research facility, and the department isn't highly ranked. I'm worried I'm shooting myself in the foot in terms of job prospects later on. How important is the prestige of the program in the grand scheme of things?

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    The best indication of what the possibilities would be is the track record. You should ask detailed questions about where the past PhD students are now employed. – Dawn Nov 15 at 17:00
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    University prestige doesn't matter at all. Department prestige definitely matters, but not as much as advisor prestige or your prestige. – JeffE Nov 15 at 19:08
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  • The key factor is that 'prestige' translates to resources -- be it dollar or brain power or connections. You are more likely to encounter very competent people, high performing or a talented people at these places. All of these resources place you at a much higher operating platform or become more efficient, meaning you will achieve more than someone who goes to an institution with less resource or prestige. – Prof. Santa Claus Nov 16 at 0:17

I guess that if you want to teach at Princeton (or Oxford) then go to a place just like Princeton (or Oxford). Otherwise, I think that what you do and the work you complete will have a much bigger impact on your future than the prestige of your institution, which may be overrated. There are a number of R1/Ivy graduates in the news that I consider to have the intelligence of rocks.

Having an advisor with lots of ideas, wherever they are, is a big advantage. Being able to work closely with your advisor is a big advantage in doing good work, provided the advisor does good work.

And, your future may be determined as much by economic conditions as anything. You get no guarantees. In fact, even if you go to Princeton, expecting to teach there later, there is no guarantee that any suitable job will be available there (or at a similar place) at the time you need it.

Choose your institution on a more sophisticated set of criteria than it's perceived reputation.

I went to a big place with a lot of faculty and grad students. But the number of people doing anything that I was seriously interested in was very small. Three or four faculty and half a dozen students.


Actually, I should note that many universities (not all) have a policy of not hiring their own graduates. This is to make it more possible to bring in new ideas from the outside, as well as spread their own reputation more widely. Some will make exceptions, but only for the most exceptional candidate. As an aside, I recommended that my own BS and MS students go elsewhere for their next degree, just to be able to bump up against fresh ways of thinking.

  • I guess that if you want to teach at Princeton...then go to Princeton... — Careful. At least in my field, many departments actively resist or even forbid hiring their own PhDs as faculty. (With good reason. It's much harder to evaluate your own former students objectively, both for hiring and for tenure, especially when you have to keep working with their advisor.) If you want to teach at Princeton, you might be better off going to Harvard. – JeffE Nov 15 at 19:14
  • @JeffE, I noted this in my update, but I picked on Princeton specifically, since I don't think they have such a restriction. – Buffy Nov 15 at 19:18
  • I think they do. There are two assistant profs in the CS department at Princeton with PhDs from Princeton, but they both spent several years as faculty elsewhere (Michigan, USC) before they were hired back. – JeffE Nov 15 at 19:24
  • @JeffE, then I'm misremembering (a hazard these days). I softened the opening a bit. Better now? – Buffy Nov 15 at 19:28
  • Yes, much better. – JeffE Nov 15 at 20:37

Prestige does matter to a certain degree, especially for schools that are rich in tradition and prestige. (E.g. Harvard is not likely to hire someone with a PhD from North Dakota State). We fool ourselves if we believe that prestige has no impact on the hiring process in academia.

I will even admit, when I receive faculty applications to make reviews and suggestions on, I look at the university the applicant went to and make a judgement on a candidate based on how prestigious the institution they received their PhD from is. I do not use this as my only basis for making a decision on fitness for hiring of course.

However, all this being said, there are broad bands which universities fit into. A program ranked 105th in the nation is likely not going to be able to place their graduates at a program ranked 5th. But if you went to the 35th ranked school and have a good publication record and potential, getting a tenure-track position at the 20th best school is certainly within the realm of possibility.

Overall, someone who went to a smaller school, yet has published widely and influentially in the field, is much more likely to obtain a quality faculty position than someone who went to a top tier school and has no publications.

As for your personal situation, I feel that it is always better to go to a program that balances education and employment opportunities with program "likability" (if there is such a thing). You do not want to end up in a program you hate just because it is at a better known school.

  • Harvard is not likely to hire someone with a PhD from North Dakota State In my experience, the best departments are actually the ones who are least swayed by the prestige of someone's alma mater in hiring. And incidentally, a quick glance through the CVs of Harvard's psychology faculty finds graduates of Ohio State, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Illinois at Chicago. All excellent schools, but not generally described as "prestigious". (Though I must admit complete ignorance about the reputations of their psychology departments specifically.) – Mark Meckes Nov 15 at 19:49
  • OSU, UCSB, UIC are all decently well regarded. They are not "elite" programs perhaps, but they are certainly quality programs. – Vladhagen Nov 15 at 20:19
  • @MarkMeckes Look at the Harvard math (my field) faculty as an example though. CalTech, MIT, U of Chicago, UC San Diego, Carnegie Mellon, University of Cambridge, NYU, ETH Zurich, Cornell, Michigan, Princeton all come up in just a fast linear search of math faculty. These are all highly regarded mathematics programs. Many of them would even be considered "elite." Moreover, these schools are not cherry-picked. The lowest ranked school I could find was CMU (#32 by US News). But this person specialized in logic, for which CMU is #6 in the US. – Vladhagen Nov 15 at 20:33

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