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I am starting my PhD in a few days. One of the faculty told one of his students that me and another incoming PhD student just made it in terms of the initial admission ranking, i.e. we were in the bottom of the pile among those who made the cut. The reason that we got in was because the top candidates they sent offers to didn't come and there were professors asking for us specifically.

I know I could report this professor for his behavior but I'm not gonna do that. However, I am wondering if initial admission ranking means anything in terms of actual PhD performances. My field is statistics.

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    I would be massively surprised if the answer did not entirely depend on institution-specific and other volatile/arbitrary factors (for example: how many strong applications were there in the specific year?) – lighthouse keeper Sep 6 '20 at 17:27
  • @cag51 The "first cut" isn't this the last cut? – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 8 '20 at 17:29
  • My thinking was that we know the "initial ranking" was low, and so they barely got in according to this "first" cut. But yeah, there's probably a cleaner way to write the title.... – cag51 Sep 8 '20 at 19:16
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    Regardless of whether you report the professor, be very careful with confidential information. He may be an outlier, or the department culture may allow inappropriate communication. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 8 '20 at 23:57
  • @PatriciaShanahan Yeah, that's how I feel. It depends on the demographics of the faculty as well. Native faculty don't seem to gossip these kind of things. But non-native ones seem to do this a lot. At least I heard a lot of stories as such. – NamelessGods Sep 9 '20 at 0:06
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we were in the bottom of the pile.

Not really! You were in the very top of the pile. Many departments get more PhD applications than they can accept. Typical acceptance rates are about 10%, although I don't know about statistics specifically.

So if they offered eight spots, you were applicants #9 and #10. That's good. Unfortunately, when it comes down to choosing eight people out of the top 20 or so, it comes down basically chance. There is no objective way of measuring how good a candidate might be. So there is likely no real difference between #9 and #10, or more critically, between #8 -- the cutoff -- and #9. That a professor was asking for you specifically means a lot more than the overall ranking come up with by a committee.

Because "ranking" in the top 10% or so is meaningless, it doesn't really correlate with performance. Likely, you and you cohort study different enough things that it's hard to compare anyway.

It is quite inappropriate for a professor to reveal students' "rankings," especially to other people, though.

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  • Would the downvoter care to make a suggestion for improvement? – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 6 '20 at 18:14
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    I think the meaninglessness comes from the fact that quite a bit of the scoring system is stochastic. A person who scored 89 could just as easily scored 91 and the difference between these people is quite arbitrary. Those two points could move you from reject to accept or from “just barely accept” to “clearly accept.” – Dawn Sep 6 '20 at 18:24
  • @Dawn Well, yes, that was my point. I've never actually heard of a department that assigned explicit points. (But, I'm just a PhD student!) – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 6 '20 at 18:40
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    I could tell where you were going with it but maybe emphasizing the stochastic nature would make your point even more clear. Just because person #8 had a slightly better draw in some sense doesn’t mean that person #8 is any better than person #10. – Dawn Sep 6 '20 at 23:44
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    "Most graduate departments get many more applications than they can accept." Not sure I believe that. Some do. But perhaps not most. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 8 '20 at 4:55
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First, at my R1 math dept in the US, we no longer pretend to linearly rank grad applicants. That's ridiculous and meaningless.

I'd wager that the faculty person who made such remarks has some sort of resentment of grudge about some demographic of students... and tells his/her own students that [some demographic] of students is inferior to them...

(I'll not go into details about my observations of such behaviors... tho' one stereotypical riff is non-US-origin faculty to disparage lazy americans...)

In any case, although some of my colleagues here do definitely like algorithms and numerical rankings, all my (multi-decade) experience indicates that these numbers are not merely not good indicators, but just worthless. They test many things, but not what we want for a PhD program in mathematics, of whatever sort.

So, yes, there are people who have poor enough judgement to say such things, but it's basically disconnected from reality. Still, even deluded people with enough power can make their delusions be operationally real, so be alert... sigh...

EDIT: among other things, in my R1 US math dept, by now we do not pretend to linearly order applicants. It's more like a first-pass that tries to assess whether people would succeed in our program, or not. Obvs don't want to admit people (for their benefit and ours) who are not at all prepared, or maybe don't have the interest or ability. But among those who could meet our expectations ... how to "rank". There's really no sane system. GRE subject test scores have shown their own irrelevance, ... GPA? Whah? Predicting what 22-year olds may accomplish based on the previous few years of their life is ridiculous.

In my 35-year involvement with grad admissions, I find that the only reliable assessment method requires "reading between the lines" in personal statements and letters of recommendation. How in the world could I describe this in algorithmic terms? (Ok, I could make up something, especially if litigated-against, but, c'mon...)

Yes, I am all too well aware that many programs do behave as though some algorithm is sufficient. In fact, our program plays against that by looking at candidates whose "typical algorithmic" status would be not-so-high, but whom we can anticipate would be great students. :)

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  • Thanks for the advice. I have a feeling what you suggested was what the faculty thought. He did his undergraduate from non-US school and the students in the top of the pile that did not come in the end are from schools such as Tsinghua and Peking University. I myself came from China but I did not do undergraduate study in China. So I have a strong feeling that what he had in mind was that the fact that I did not do my undergrad study at a prestigious school so I am somehow inferior. – NamelessGods Sep 8 '20 at 23:39
  • Ah, yes, indeed, anthropologically, evidently, many human beings are sensitive to "status"... even if it is disconnected from function. – paul garrett Sep 8 '20 at 23:46
  • In fact, I have a feeling that within the ranking algorithm, the presitgiousness of the previous schools has a strong weight in the final scoring – NamelessGods Sep 8 '20 at 23:47
  • Sure, if some numerical algorithm is being used, surely the "status" of prior schools will enter. Sure, this is not UN-correlated with quality of available coursework and insight of faculty letter writers, but it's really not predictive... in my experience. – paul garrett Sep 8 '20 at 23:51
  • I totally agree with this. Fom my own experience, I have a classmate from my undergrad who went to PhD to the same school as me but two years ahead of me. He is now actually the top student in my department.. – NamelessGods Sep 9 '20 at 0:00
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Interesting question. My guess is that 'bottom of the pile' matters, and matters more at universities that have diverse scores. It would be hard to answer directly.

Departments do not generally release this information. This is in part because the process may be far more organic than they would like to broadcast, with individual professors raising their hands for students for a variety of factors that are not directly related to scores. This is almost entirely because of the fidelity of these tests to determine success, and the realities of test sensitivity and specificity at relatively high values. Although scores matter (a scholar search for 'admissions statistics to graduate student success' will show you this), for a good program students tend all to be at the top of the pile.

To sort the top of that pile, advisors look for other metrics of likely success, most notably the idea of 'fit' to the professor's teaching style, personality, and areas of interest. The 'bottom of the pile' your friend ended up on may have been related to scores, but also may have been related to the advisor's understanding of 'fit'. Certainly, this advisor seems not to be happy with the match, and is doing themselves and their student no favors in terms of making it work.

The unsavory impetus for your question aside, the very reason that this professor's behavior is improper (and cruel) is also the reason the question may be challenging to directly answer; it is all a bit taboo. But, you know, if you did answer this taboo question empirically, I think it would be a useful contribution, and statistics would not be a poor field to answer it within...

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we were in the bottom of the pile...[does] initial admission ranking means anything in terms of actual PhD performances?

I would clarify this a bit. Let's say there were 100 applicants for 8 spots. What likely happened was that some formula was used to rank applicants from #1 to #100 (the details of how this is done will vary widely). Now this formula is far from perfect, so the program will not just blindly follow it -- there are lots of other factors to consider, including the matching between the advisors and the students. But anyone ranked below, say, #35 with this formula is unlikely to get one of the 8 slots, so those applications will be set aside. This is an easy and objective way to reduce the number of applications that need to be further considered.

It sounds like your rankings according to this initial formula was only just above the cutoff (say, #33 and #34). This puts you in the top 1/3 of applicants, which you should be proud of. Better yet, it got you into the next round, where the professors decided that you would be a good fit for the program.

Now, is the #1 student more qualified than the #35 student? Probably. But between the #25 student and the #30 student, the difference is probably negligible. Students are multidimensional, which is why the final decision was made by humans, not by the formula. Further, the elements in the formula (undergraduate grades, undergraduate research experience, writing skills in the SOP) are only loosely correlated with the skills necessary to be successful in graduate school. So, I suspect the correlation between one's initial formula score and one's graduate school success will be similarly small but positive.

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    Telling you that only barely survived the initial cut was perhaps tactless, but I don't think it could lead to disciplinary action. The faculty member in question told another student the OP's "rank." I doubt it would lead to disciplinary action, but IMO that's ruder than "tactless." – Azor Ahai -him- Sep 8 '20 at 21:58
  • Ah, good catch, I had misread and thought the faculty member had discussed this with the students in question. Yes, I agree that is definitely "ruder than tactless." I'm still skeptical that "reporting" this incident would lead anywhere, but I have edited to remove that whole section. – cag51 Sep 8 '20 at 23:54
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In addition to the already good answers:

The criteria used for PhD admission are only weakly related to what it takes to do a successful PhD.

Doing a PhD is about doing research. (In the US, not in its entirety, since you still take courses, but that's what it is really about.) Admission is based on grades in taking courses and passing the corresponding exams, together with some other criteria. Good performance in exams is only weakly related to being good at research, as are the other criteria. So just because other people did better in their exams, it does not mean that they will be better researchers.

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It depends on the field, for engineering as long as you have a degree you will benefit. For areas of pure science or mathematics I would be worried, mainly because the jobs just aren't there - even generic teaching jobs.

I guess this is independent of the issue of degree completion but on a practical basis I wouldn't suggest theoretical physics or mathematics to anyone who isn't at the top, top of the field because you're going to end up doing something else after graduation.

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