19

What is more valuable broadly speaking (assuming all else equal):

  • A PhD from a decent school (top ~100) with a very well respected (but not famous) professor; say for example the head of department

  • A PhD from a top school (top ~5) with a young academic or substantially less reputable professor compared to the other school

In my case both are funded, both projects are good, and I can see myself working with either academic. Is there a broad brush-stroke "rule" as to which degree is more valuable for my career?

closed as off-topic by Bryan Krause, user68958, Enthusiastic Engineer, user3209815, Scott Seidman Jun 5 at 17:51

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  • 33
    There are a lot of other factors that can be more important. But, all other things being equal: if you stay in academia, your advisor's reputation is probably more important to your career. If you go to industry, your school's reputation may be more important to your career. – David Ketcheson Jun 3 at 14:36
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    It may depend on what type of career you will have. I know that recruiters and managers from organizations that are not related to research are not interested in the name of your advisor. Sometimes, they are not even interested in the topic of your research. However, the name of a top school in your CV will probably be the difference between going straight to the next level of the selection process or having your CV ignored. Here, I am just stating what I have seen, and not discussing the value of this approach. – toliveira Jun 3 at 16:24
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    And of course, it's pretty unlikely that all other things will be equal. – Barmar Jun 3 at 19:48
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    Keeping in mind that "top", "famous", "reputable" are very subjective. Whats "famous" for some might not even make the cut for others. – tallharish Jun 4 at 0:03
40

I can't see how either would be preferable to the other. What matters more to your career is what you do with the opportunities you have.

And note that disasters can happen even at the most prestigious levels.

Do good work. Make lots of professional contacts.

  • 1
    +1 to this, although on 'make lots of professional contacts' a well-known professor is more likely to have more contacts to put you in contact with, making networking somewhat easier. Whether 'easier' is 'better' is subjective, as there is definitely something to be said for making your own contacts rather than building off existing relationships of your professor – E. Rei Jun 3 at 12:19
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    @E.Rei, and a school with lots of faculty can also be a help. You will likely interact with more people than just your advisor. But you have to work at it rather than just assume it will happen. Go to conferences, write to people, ... – Buffy Jun 3 at 12:24
  • @Buffy This is the answer that "we want to hear"...but is it the actual answer? As much as we want to think we are responsible for our own career, especially in Academia this is rarely the case. – gented Jun 4 at 8:56
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In my case both are funded, both projects are good, and I can see myself working with either academic. Is there a broad brush-stroke "rule" as to which degree is more valuable for my career?

It depends...

  • Which advisor would be a better mentor for you? Does their style of mentoring match you?
  • Do the alumni of the programs your considering go to places you want to be? e.g., do their alumni go to academic, industry, or government? Likewise, if you want to go to academia, what type of school do the program and advisors' students get positions at (e.g., ivy league schools, public R1 schools, small liberal arts schools, etc)?
  • Your field. Some fields penalize students for going to lower ranked programs, others do not care. For example, I was co-advised by an environmental scientist and a math professor. My math advisor noted it was harder for his students to get academic jobs (some sometimes even publish!) because of the quality of the school whereas the environmental studies students did not face this hurdle because of the school's rankings. My math professor speculated this was because the life sciences publish more than math so it's easier to look at individual productivity.
6

Name recognition can be a powerful thing, both for your PI and your school.

Within the narrow field in which your PI is well known, being associated with them will be more important than which school you're at.

If you branch out after grad school into a new field, your former PI becomes less important (unless they're super famous/a Nobel prize winner).

In both cases, your personal contributions (ie: papers published) and your recommendation letter will have the most weight by far.

But...how much weight? That depends on what you do. If you leave academia, your PI's name recognition will probably take a back seat to your school's name. If you leave your field entirely (and go into IP law or technical writing or policy), then your school's name might ultimately become more important than even your publication record.

But the most important thing is the fit

Seriously, it sounds trite, but if you want any of the work to mean anything, you must be successful in grad school. That means publishing and graduating. So, a new PI will need you to publish so they can get grants/tenure. This could mean a lot of pressure on you! They also might not have a ton of resources/collaborators yet, so that could be more work for you to find what you need (but great training!). With an established PI there will likely be less pressure to publish but more resources available with which to do it.

Finally, there's the personality fit. This is not trivial. You'll need to work with this person for the next ~5+ years. You must be able to work with them!

5

The other answers so far have more or less assumed that you're aiming for an academic career. That's well and good, but if you're aiming for a career in industry I'll go ahead and say that the second option is preferable. People in industry are unlikely to recognize the names of professors (unless they are truly famous). They will, however, recognize names such as the University of California Los Angeles or University College London. They will conclude by association that any faculty at these prestigious institutions must be good, and anyone who graduated from these institutions must also be capable (until proven otherwise).

There're various secondary factors that apply even if you go for an academic career as well: the more prestigious institution is more likely to have comprehensive facilities, better journal access, more distinguished visiting academics, etc., and most importantly, better students. Graduate study isn't a solo activity; the presence of other good students can have a huge impact on your development.

All things being equal I'd hedge towards the second option. See also: University rank/stature - How much does it affect one's career post-Ph.D?

1

Well I guess it depends on a variety of unknowns. You might get a lot more "supervision" from the young academic compared to the head of department (which in my case, had a ton arrangements, teaching etc.). So are you the person who relish the independence, little supervision is needed, but it might also be the other way around.

In general I would firstly prioritize the needs I would have in terms of self-development during the PhD and then secondly what value a certain professor name or school on a diploma would impose.

Best of luck in your studies!

1

The key thing is not the professor or the school: it’s the student. A average student with a good supervisor remains a average student, even at a good school, and especially if the student is given proper chances to display suitable creativity in solving a problem.

Outstanding students will shine wherever they go; even a reasonable supervisor will recognize the quality of the work and can arrange to make sure this work is well read.

The advantage of a top supervisor is that she/he is likely to have interesting projects for eager students. The advantage of a top school is the possibility of standing out in a select group of peers, and finding larger numbers of good supervisors, balanced by the competition with other students to work with these supervisors.

I personally think the mentorship aspect that comes with interacting with an outstanding and caring supervisor at a reasonable school is ultimately more formative than just being in a good environment and left alone by a unengaged supervisor, even if the supervisor is a superstar.

But again: it really comes back to the student. If the student cannot stand out the reputation of the school or the supervisor doesn’t matter much.

  • Explaining down vote, as you definitely have some good points in your later paragraphs, but I have to disagree with the first two paragraphs. I think that this is not what actually obtains in job searches regarding "average students", whatever that means. Of course the student matters, but at least in the academic job market the advisor makes a big difference. (Which doesn't necessarily answer the OP question, so this is only a comment, not an answer.) And that difference can go the 'opposite direction' of the 'ability' of the student, at least in my observations. – kcrisman Jun 5 at 14:08
1

All things equal, I think I would go for the reputable school. The reason behind my decision is simple: People in general will be more familiarized with the institution than with the person. Unless the person is a mega star on the field like a Steve Jobs or a Bill Gates, not many people would know who these professors are.

For example, when I visit the doctor, I look at the diplomas on the wall. Not once I have been able to recognize any names. However, I have been able to recognize the schools.

That said, if your goal is to make your decision solely to impress a potential employer, you need to make sure that the employer would be in a position to know who this professor is. For example, if you are getting a PhD in something related to semiconductors and your goal is to be hired by Texas Instruments, you have to make sure that professor has done extensive work with the company. Otherwise, go with the institution.

That is my humble opinion.

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