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I have the following situation in mind: consider two people A and B, who are roughly "equally good" in their field and do their bachelors in the same university - a small, not widely known insitution. Then student A stays there for his/her Master's, while student B chooses to do his Master's in a more prestigious place.

At the end, they both apply to a PhD at some competitive place. Coming from a "modest" university, where he easily stands high above the average, student A is highly regarded by his/her professors and so manages to get very good recommendation letters. On the other hand, student B studied in a place where students of his level are more common, and so he doesn't impress his professors as much, and they don't speak so highly about him in recommendation letters.

Do you think that scenarios like this could actually make student A seem a better candidate than student B in practice? In this sense, could studying at a good university hurt your career in the long run? Or would the prestige of the university where student B studied (as well as possibly the prestige of the professors who wrote recommendation letters about him) make up for the more modest recommendation letters?

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    Everything can happen. For example this, yes. – user115896 Nov 24 '19 at 15:03
  • Does the PhD program ask you to submit GRE scores? – lalala Nov 25 '19 at 9:24
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As others have pointed out, anything can happen. Of course if you are at the weaker M.S. school, emphasize your class rank, etc. But my Bayesian estimate is that you (one) are better off at the STRONGER school. It will challenge you more, move you more etc.

Don't try to be a big fish in a small pond. Go out in the ocean and compete with the Great Whites. Consider Arnold Schwarzenegger. He didn't stay in the cowtowns of the Steiermark. He went to Muscle Beach in California. "New York, New York...if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere." Be a playah.

Note: if there are other reasons, family, weather, economics, pedagogy, etc. that you (one) prefers the easier school, fine. Of course what matters most is the student, not the school. If you have the goods, you can prevail anywhere. But all else equal...go to the harder school.

Just a point of view, but hopefully explaining what is behind the pick.

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There is far too little information here to make any prediction. However, letters of recommendation are probably very important most of the time. Grades mean something. Research experience means something. Courses taken mean something.

But all of the details are only there to paint a picture of the candidate that more or less enables an admissions committee to make a prediction about the likelihood of success. The institution you attend probably means less than you think it does. An old, frequently heard, saying is "There is nothing more dangerous than a C student from Yale".

If you are either A or B or trying to guess which you should be, think about your own education and where you think you would get the better experience. A smaller place will give you more contact and a more personal experience. A big place will give you somewhat less intimate contact, but perhaps with some superstars in your field. Either can be a benefit. But you have to make the most of whatever situation you are in. If you do that then you have a better chance of success in academia.

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This completely depends on where you intend to go after your education and what kind of environment you enjoy.

On one hand, if you intend to go in to an academic position with lots of competition and a lot of ties between academics, institutions etc. then having one with a lot of status, important letters and people that you work with is very relevant.

On the other hand, if you intend to go in to a more commercial setting, and specifically one with perhaps less (prestige-based) competition and more of a focus on merit or experience, then the institute, letters, references etc. are less relevant and any research, work or other relevant experience you might have is more important.

In both cases, the way your 'status'is probably not weighed relative to the place you were before (university, research lab etc), but relative to other candidates that apply, or a in internal baseline.

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  • "In both cases, the way your 'status'is probably not weighed relative to the place you were before (university, research lab etc), but relative to other candidates that apply". But that doesn't really answer the question. After all the question on how to weigh other candidates is still around: Would a mediocre candidate from MIT be higher valued than the first place student from a 3rd tier university? – Voo Nov 25 '19 at 10:30
  • That is because there is no universal answer – John Keates Nov 25 '19 at 11:27
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In my opinion B has better chances -

If you have to select one of 2 - do you take student A who came with grade A from a wood'n grass college behind the 7 hills that nobody has ever heart off in the big city - or do you prefer B who comes with grade B - but from one of the top 5 universities in the field ...

Think the decision is rather obvious who will get invited for an interview by the friendly HR manager.

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