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I am a student looking to pursue an academic career in computer science. I enjoy doing research and understand that is a big part of getting tenure and jobs. Importantly, I also very much enjoy teaching (I've been a TA frequently and taught full units of courses before).

I would be okay if my academic job search after my PhD did not work out, but because I genuinely enjoy teaching in addition to research, I think academia is a preferable environment for me. Specifically, I think I would enjoy working at a small college that values teaching equally with research (think Reed, Grinnell, Davidson--a sample to demonstrate location is not important to me).

I am trying to decide if I should accept a PhD position at a public school in the US that is generally prestigious but not particularly known for computer science (i.e. not in Washington or California)--rankings are fickle and subjective, but this school would probably be considered a top 30-40 school for CS in my estimation. I love the advisor who I would be working with personally and believe them to have a strong record of publications and capability for mentorship. This prospective advisor is very young and publishing very frequently, if that matters.

I was pleased to be accepted to this program because I am a late convert to computer science and do not have a strong publication record, although I do come from a very prestigious undergraduate institution and have strong (top 1% of class) grades. I say this because only because the alternative to accepting this offer is to wait and apply during next year's cycle, but I am not sure I am the ideal candidate for super fancy programs--I think my best work is yet to come.

I understanding the competitiveness of the academic job market. I am not an idiot and know that an MIT PhD is probably more helpful when applying for jobs, all else equal. However, if I think this environment will allow me to publish a lot and be a good fit personally, does it give me a decent shot at getting a job at a small teaching college, or does going to a non-top n school drastically lower my chances, even if I think I would publish more somewhere else. Please be honest.

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    Have you looked up the PhD institutions of the faculty at the places you're targeting? They're often listed on a department webpage. I'll guarantee that a substantial proportion of them have degrees that are not from whatever short list of places you're think of when you say "top".
    – user176372
    Apr 4 at 0:09
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    I think the comment above is the advice you want/need. Check out the most recent hires at the places you are targeting for. What are their profiles? That will tell you what you need to know about how much these schools value “pedigree”.
    – Dawn
    Apr 4 at 0:41
  • @user176372 I only say "top" because otherwise I have noticed people tend to dismiss me as not being ambitious. I believe the list of "top" schools is highly personal and depends on one's fit with individual faculty memebrs, hence why I intend to attend one that I think other students may not consider "top." I actually asked this question after being alarmed at the lack of diversity in the graduate educations of Professors when I browsed pages of some targets. E.g. Davidson and Williams College. Apr 4 at 0:46
  • @Dawn Thank you! This is great advice that I received from an advisor and it has been helpful to see. Generally there are a few alma maters that appear a lot (maybe students interested in academia self-select into those schools as well). I think what I am looking for is insight from someone who has been on a hiring committee and can speak to how much the schooling of a candidate is discussed relative to research output. I am sure I will need to publish a lot to have a chance at a job, so I am taking it as given that without doing that, the institution does not matter. Apr 4 at 0:59
  • @zack-overflow Just glancing from the link to Davidson you posted, several if not most of their tenure-track profs have their PhD from strong R1 state schools (in contrast to one of the California privates or an Ivy)! Same with Williams. As Buffy says in his answer, any R1 is likely to be more or less good for you. Sure, if you're choosing between two comparable places and one has a boatload more funding, you should probably go there. Otherwise, it's unlikely to change your trajectory a lot.
    – user176372
    Apr 4 at 1:34

2 Answers 2

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I would think that any R1 school in the US will be fine for your needs. And a 30-40 ranking is quite high, actually. Public Universities normally have good faculty advisors in almost all core fields, especially STEM fields. There are a few states that underfund their State Universities, but those won't rank anywhere near 40.

The future of your career depends more on what you do than on the ranking of the university you attend. And not every expert in every field can teach at MIT just because of the numbers. And not everyone wants to live in or near Boston in any case. Expertise is spread around.

Yes, the academic marketplace is tight now. Find a good and supportive advisor. Do good work. Live long and prosper.

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  • Thank you, genuinely! This is a fantastic answer because it faithfully engages with the circumstances. I think my difficulty in grappling with this has been that most advice online simply assumes PhD students entering the job market intend to work at a "top" R1 university, hate teaching because it distracts from research, and view anything else as "settling." This is unfortunately true even of advice from those I speak to personally who should know better because I explain my unique situation. Apr 3 at 23:44
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From the viewpoint of a Hiring Committee at a small college, you application will look much stronger if it contains a record of your collaboration with undergraduate students, undergraduate interns, or even high-school interns.

So, while in grad school, and later, while working as a postdoc, try to involve undergraduates in your research, if your supervisor approves your doing this.

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    From my personal experience (not in CS), this is true. But honestly I think the thing that has worked for our candidates is to have research that feels interesting to undergrads vs. stuff that is very much “inside baseball” in a super niche subfield. Would undergrads be excited when they hear about this new professor?
    – Dawn
    Apr 4 at 2:59
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    Thank you for this tip--I actually an undergraduate RA working with me on my master's thesis! I genuinely appreciate working with younger students and serving as a mentor. I have had great mentorship and enjoy paying it back. This is why I want to work at a small college, not because I am lazy or hope to get by with being worse at research (this is often the assumption made when I say I would like to teach at small schools). I plan to be great at research! But I also want to help others learn to be great at my field, too. Is that too much to ask? Apr 4 at 4:07
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    @Dawn I generally don't work in the abstract symbol manipulation/math areas of computer science and instead prefer work that can have near-term and real-world impact. I hope this is generally interesting to undergrads! Apr 4 at 4:10

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