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Due to a combination of factors, I ended up going for my undergraduate studies to a relatively unknown university that was close to me geographically.

Let's say that I have a relatively standard background for someone trying to apply to top tier schools for graduate studies (some research experience, some low to medium quality publications, very strong grades, good recommendation letters). Then how much does the alma mater have an impact for someone like me? I obviously know that it is still possible to be accepted, but how much of a disadvantage am I looking at exactly?

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You don't mention what field you're in. At least in the social sciences at my R1, we look at various factors. The admissions committee knows that people have to choose the college that they went to for various reasons other than just academic excellence.

One of the factors that I look at is trajectory. Someone who went to a public high school, then a community college, and then transferred to a public university, with perhaps middling grades the first year but then quickly ramps up to stellar grades by the time they graduate is very interesting to me -- much more than someone who got all As at a good school but doesn't seem like they pushed themselves very hard.

With the portfolio that you describe for yourself, I'd say you wouldn't be eliminated in the first round, but you'd struggle in the second and third rounds to stand out. How you stand out is up to you. I'd work on a stellar statement of purpose -- one that strongly articulates why you want to go to graduate school to study what you want to study.

Again, this is in the social sciences at my school (a large private R1), your mileage may vary.

Part of this is because brilliance by itself isn't enough for grad school in the social sciences. Perseverance and autonomy and the ability to get knocked down and get back up are also critical.

8

My impression after being accepted and discussing this with senior faculty was the following:

A large, top tier graduate program receives applications. Some fraction of these (say a quarter) are entirely unqualified and will be discarded.

Another, very small group are fantastically qualified, with great research experience and superb academic credentials from the very best schools. These few will almost definitely get in, but may not accept.

Finally, the largest group consists of people with credentials that are no better or worse than yours (maybe they attended a better school, but their record is slightly worse, or their recommenders are more prestigious, but the letters are less personal). If you are in this group, you should do everything you possibly can to improve your application, but ultimately you're playing the odds.

The biggest obstacle you will face at the top tier schools is that they receive so many more applications that the acceptance rate might only be a few percent. This means the odds are very unfavorable that any particular top tier school will accept you as a solid, but not extraordinary applicant.

This is how it was explained to me anyway. So, I don't think your school is a serious handicap, but it probably does exclude you from the "Oh my gosh, must accept and give all the money!" pile. You might consider applying to more programs to compensate.

EDIT: As Ben Webster pointed out, "Apply to more programs" is incomplete. You might consider applying to more high quality programs.

  • 5
    I would disagree on the "apply to more programs" advice. Currently, more PhDs are being produced than can be consumed by academia and industry -- this is definitely true in the social sciences and humanities, and quickly growing to be a problem in STEM fields. At this point, you should be thinking of either getting into one of the top ten universities in your field for a PhD -- or thinking of alternatives such as going straight into industry. – RoboKaren Aug 4 '14 at 18:35
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    @RoboKaren I agree that there are too many PhDs being granted and the status quo needs to change, but do you think the burden of such action should really be on applicants, given that they typically know little about academia or the trends? Also, wouldn't it be more equitable to expect all PhD granting institutions to contribute to a solution, rather than allowing the top 10 to continue to churn out as many PhDs as they like? – Tim Aug 4 '14 at 19:50
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    @Tim: It's not clear that an equitable solution is in the research community's interests if one school does a better job of PhD education than another does. – Anonymous Mathematician Aug 5 '14 at 14:49
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    @Tim I feel like may have misunderstood RoboKaren. I don't think her point was that it was somehow the student's responsibility to fight the overproduction of PhDs. Rather, given the intense competition for positions after graduating, getting a PhD from a lower tier could not actually give you much of a chance of continuing in academia, and unfortunately schools don't respond to this by closing their programs. I think in math, there are many more than 10 programs that will allow you to launch a good career, but it varies from field to field. – Ben Webster Aug 5 '14 at 16:31
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    @RoboKaren Though actually I would just say that "apply to more programs" is incomplete as advice. That doesn't mean you should apply a lot of places at random, but that applying to a lot of higher quality programs might be necessary to get into any of them. – Ben Webster Aug 5 '14 at 16:58
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I recommend reading the following article:

Why You Can’t Catch Up, by Nancy Hass; The New York Times, (August 1, 2014)

The takeaway is that anything is possible, but you're much less likely to get into top tier grad schools with a low-tier undergraduate.

  • This is much worse than I thought. :( – user8001 Aug 5 '14 at 14:44
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    I would like to note that the New York Times article is called "why you can't catch up", while the author of the paper that is being reported on titles their paper "catching up is hard to do" - which I think nicely highlights the sensationalist bent of reporting. It's supposed to be provocative and upsetting, rather than being designed to properly inform you of the reality in-context. As @Tim nicely points out, it shows nothing of acceptance and only of attendance. While it can be hard to believe, some people do actually get into Tier 1 schools...and choose not to attend. – BrianH Aug 5 '14 at 21:04
  • Just to pile on: it's also very difficult to tease out from the article how much this is just that top undergraduate institutions cherry pick the best students (big surprise). – Ben Webster Aug 6 '14 at 9:07

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