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TL;DR: does undergrad school's name recognition matter for an international student aiming for top social sciences PhD programs in the US?


Hello. I've been struggling with this decision for quite a while now and thus would totally love to hear some advice.

I'm from Russia and am currently deciding on where to do my undergrad studies. I'm really into the idea of doing a PhD in some social science (economic sociology, or possibly some business-oriented applications of it, like marketing) right after that, aiming for a bunch of good US programs. All the depts that are a perfect fit for my current research interests would be really hard to get into, think 3-5% acceptance rates.

So, I have two options:

A. A well-ranked school. It sends quite a handful of its undergrad alumni to great grad programs all over the world, including some American ones, every year. I'd have lots of research opportunities here, maybe managing to eventually publish something. The problem is, I heavily dislike this school for personal reasons, and the offered courses aren't really my cup of tea. Overall, I'd spend quite miserable 4 years here, but could handle this in case of it having any noticeable impact on the grad admissions.

B. A significantly weaker school in terms of name recognition. The courses offered here align with my academic interests way better. I'd still work on my own, do my best at attempting to get something published, and maybe contact some research centers & labs offering to volunteer, but I'm afraid of the 'no name university' stuff hindering my chances. It's basically the only problem I have here and the only thing stopping me from picking it.

The A school is in top-100 in the world for sociology, my undergrad major, and has lots of experience with sending students to top PhD programs. The B one isn't on any rankings at all. Both are in the same city.

So, the question asked in the title arises.

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I am sure some people will disagree with me, but this is what I can say as a person actually reading application documents and hosting international students (including PhDs).

First, your school name does matter, but to a lesser degree that one might expect. A "well-ranked school" on national level might be virtually unknown to people in another country. As a rule, top national schools plus top schools from international ranking lists ring the bell, but the rest is "large unknown", so it is very possible that school A in your list is not that familiar for the program's committee members as you may believe.

Second, we have to look at school names due to absense of better criteria. Consider this: tons of people send their applications to MSc/PhD programs. They all have reasonably high GPAs, they possibly had work experience, etc. What's the difference? OK, school name is one such factor that can make an application stand out.

However, there is a much better way. If you aim at PhD level, you must make your personal part of the application stand out. In practice it means that you should publish scientific papers, and the higher the rank of the respective journals/conferences, the better. Think how to strengthen your profile as a scientist, and you will greatly increase chances of admission anywhere in the world. Also don't think in terms of "sending students" to a program. It is your personal endeavor, and school's power in pushing you as a candidate for another university PhD program is usually limited.

(Of course, here I have to note that it is probable that a better school can be more effective in supporting your research activities, but this is another issue).

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Emma:

It matters but they have many other ways of differentiating students. GPA and scores and undergrad research.

I advise going to the school you like and just doing a good job there.

Philosophically: Harvard is Harvard because of the students selected, not because of the training they get. And every year there are many people from state schools that get into great grad programs or McKinsey or Goldman or whatever. And many people from Harvard that don't Granted, the numbers are better for people from Harvard. But a lot of that is just the population of the students, not the training (or even the brand name). If you are top-notch, it will shine through fine. If you aren't, don't think the school will cover up for it either.

Plus: don't be miserable.

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