I went to a relatively unknown state college for my Bachelor's degree. I've been working in the field for about 5 years now, but I'm interested in going back for a PhD.

Would it be nearly impossible to get into say, MIT or Carnegie Mellon given where my Bachelor's degree is from?

Also, how much does work experience account for in the selection process? For example work related patents or product development work.


Some of this question is duplicated see How handicapped am I in graduate admissions if I graduated from a lower tier university?

I would like to focus more on how relevant work experience can aid in the selection process.

marked as duplicate by ff524 Nov 5 '14 at 21:14

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.


The answers to these questions are very dependent on the field of study. My perspective is mostly from economics and some statistics, so things might be different in other fields.

From an unknown school, it will be very difficult, but not impossible, to get into a really top program. Top programs tend to be risk-adverse, and you're facing pretty stiff competition in the applicant pool.

The biggest issue is that they are going to have a difficult time evaluating the difficulty of your coursework. Assuming you get that far, you're often going to be compared to a second-tier candidate from a top university. They know exactly how to evaluate the latter's grades and can even compare him/her to past students from that school. You will be much more of an unknown, which is not a good thing.

To make up for this, you're going to need exemplary letters. But that's the second issue, your access to great recommenders is more limited than someone at a top program. Letters of recommendation are often put in context by comparing them to previous letters from the same person, and here you might run into the same issue as evaluating your grades. Personal and professional relationships can also come into play, and your recommenders are less likely to be well-known in the field. Letters from people who aren't active researchers are much less valuable as well, and depending on the college you might not even have good access to active researchers.

At minimum, you'll need near-perfect grades in the most difficult courses offered. This probably means being one of the "superstar" students at your school, easily the best in your class. You'll also need fantastic letters from the top researchers that you have access to, and, for econ at least, significant research experience.

For your second question, general work experience is worth almost nothing in economics. All that matters is research experience. If the work you're doing isn't contributing to something that will eventually be published in a peer-reviewed journal, then it's extremely unlikely that it will be helpful.

I should also mention an option that is often available in economics, though I don't know if other fields have analogues. And that is to take a job as a research assistant for a professor or research group. These are often 2-3 year jobs that offer a chance to do real research with just a BA. Ideally, you could apply to graduate schools in two years with a coauthored paper on the way and a fantastic letter of rec from an active researcher.

Classic examples in econ are working for the Federal Reserve or for a professor's research group (example).

  • very good points. So getting published seems to be the most promising avenue. My field of interest is computer vision and automation, but your response seems general enough to fit even though your background is in economics. – Felix Castor Nov 5 '14 at 20:51
  • @FelixCastor +1 for significant research experience (publication). Of course this can be difficult to achieve. This is really the only way for the committee to evaluate you relative to others, since other factors will not be comparable. – Bitwise Nov 5 '14 at 20:54
  • @FelixCastor I don't think getting published on your own is a feasible option. You'll have a better chance at second- or third-tier schools. If you really want to go to a top program, another option is to work for a research group for a couple years. Ideally, you could spend two years doing some real research, maybe coauthor a paper, and get a fantastic rec from a known researcher. These kinds of jobs are common in econ, though I don't know if other fields have analogues. – Roger Fan Nov 5 '14 at 20:54
  • I don't think it is feasible either. I'm a part time master's degree student (paid by my employer) right now. I wasn't going to go for a thesis option but I might consider that moving forward. – Felix Castor Nov 5 '14 at 21:01
  • @FelixCastor Yes! Take the thesis option if you really want to get a PhD. Also, while MIT might be a stretch, there are 50 schools that meet the "top 50" criterion. The competition at the 1-10 range much more intense than the 40-50 range. Especially if your "unknown" university happens to be known by one of them. You'll never know this until you start interacting with the faculty. – David Hill Nov 5 '14 at 21:11

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