1

I will be soon joining a Top-50 school for a PhD in High Energy Theory. They have some very good professors who have published top quality journal articles in their area of expertise (even with some Nobel Laureates as co-authors). They are not as famous as Nathan Seiberg, Leonard Susskind, etc. though. I would like to know, given the job scenario in academia (especially in high energy theory), is it worth transferring to a top school like Harvard or Princeton after performing very well at my current school ? I mean, is their any huge advantage in the academic job market to be at a Top-10 school compared to a Top-50 school ?

I do not really care about going to a brand name school as far as my studies are concerned. I just want to make sure that if I work hard and succeed, I do not face problems in getting an academic job just because I did not attend Harvard or Princeton. Academically, my current school is very good too but it doesn't have that IVY kind of brand. My concern is only about the people in the hiring committees otherwise I am happy going to my current school.

Also, I have earlier worked with Professors who graduated from such top schools and they say that famous advisors are like "King-Makers" who get their students well placed in academia after PhD since they have influence in the field. Personally, I have no issues being at my current school if I get good people to work with. Also, is it ethically good to change schools like this ?

10

Well, better is better, in academia just as anywhere else. Certainly if you got admitted to a Top 10 program and a Top 50 program then all other things being equal you should enroll in the Top 10 program. (In fact, even things being only mildly unequal, you should enroll in the Top 10 program. You should seriously consider the Top 50 program only for serious personal considerations -- e.g. if because you are caring for a family member, you cannot leave your hometown -- or because you have a preternaturally good fit with a particular faculty member.)

But that's not what you're asking; you're asking about transferring later to a top program, which presumably means that you have not yet been admitted to one. That is not a good plan. The competition to get into the very top PhD programs is of a roughly similar level of difficulty as the competition to get a post-PhD academic job. The main difference is that the former competition is more cut-and-dried whereas the latter competition has great amounts of uncertainty and randomness. In other words, it's actually pretty easy to make most admissions decisions at top ten places: there are certain agreed upon metrics that most or all graduate programs take into account, and the top programs pick from the top applicants according to these metrics.

This has the following important implication: if you applied to the top programs in year N and didn't get into any, it is very difficult to transfer into them in year N + 1, N+2,...The idea of "transferring from one graduate program to another" is already not very standard, and when it is done it is often done to deal with a problem rather than by virtue of exceptional success. The one exception is that it is common for one to transfer from a master's program to a PhD program. However, in many STEM fields in the US, the best students just enroll into a PhD program straightaway: their undergraduate preparation is just as good -- or more often, better -- than what American students graduating with master's degrees get. (In other parts of the world, a separate master's program may in fact be mandatory, so things are a bit different.) Most American STEM master's programs that I know of are "PhD lite": they are for students are either not as strong, not as prepared, not as committed, or some combination thereof as the PhD students, so getting a master's degree is -- relative to the desired goal of transferring to a top place -- no great distinction.

To be able to transfer from a top 50 HEP program to a top 10 one, you would have to do some truly excellent research at the beginning of your career. Transferring out of a program in which you've had such sterling success is worth some second thoughts, but if you did this work largely or entirely on your own and the continuation of it would be aided by transferring to a top program: OK, do it. However, this is very rare, and if you do something that great, then you're on your way to success independently of your transfer plans.

I think that if you spend the first few years in your PhD program with the express goal of transferring out as soon as you can, there is a substantial risk of that showing through as a lack of commitment to your current program, which could really work against you.

I mean, is [there] any huge advantage in the academic job market to be at a Top-10 school compared to a Top-50 school ?

It is an advantage, yes. The advantage can be overcome by your own work, and if you want a very distinguished post-PhD academic job, then getting a PhD at an absolutely top program with a world-famous advisor is not a golden ticket. (I know this as well as anyone: feel free to look up my academic past.) If you go to a top program and do "about average" there, then you will probably not get a top academic job because you will not be getting the top drawer recommendation letter from your famous advisor. However, that same advisor could help you out getting placed at a lesser institution, or the pedigree of the institution could help (a lot, in some cases) if you wanted to get a non-academic job. Better is better.

I have earlier worked with Professors who graduated from such top schools and they say that famous advisors are like "King-Makers" who get their students well placed in academia after PhD since they have influence in the field.

The people that the King-Makers make kings were doing pretty well on their own. A truly eminent advisor can probably place some of their students in very good positions. But not all of them. The important thing to remember is that the quality of your own research -- as perceived by the academic community -- is what will get you or not get you an elite academic job. If your work is superior, it is superior no matter where you are, and the community will recognize that. If your work isn't that good but is still strong by the standards of the top institution, then having an eminent advisor really comes in handy. If your work is not as good as many other students of that advisor, then you are not going to get a big career boost. In some situations, having an advisor who is still well known and recognized by the community champion you as they have never championed a student before, could work out better.

Also, is it ethically good to change schools like this ?

I see no ethical problem with changing schools in this way (although as ever there are more and less gracious ways to proceed); leaving a program for a much better one is easy to understand and I think few people will hold it against you. But as I said above, effecting this kind of change is just very unlikely; the real concern is what will happen to you while you are angling for it. If you are just working that much harder to do your best work: great, and great whether you transfer or not. But don't make plans or behave in a way which will only payoff if you transfer. E.g. you might reason that merely doing well in the coursework and qualifying exams is not going to be nearly enough to allow you to transfer to a top program (correct) so that instead you should blow off your coursework while you try to solve the hardest problems in the field (disaster). Learn to grow where you're planted.

  • Thanks for the detailed response. I definitely has no personal ambition to go for Harvard or Princeton just for the brand-name. Even some earlier students of a prospective advisor at my current school have been able to get faculty positions at MIT and other such places....but that was 15 years back. Now, the situation in High Energy Theory seems particularly bleak because of very little funding and super-intense competition....only this thing concerns me. But I guess, as you said, my work in any program will decide if I get a position in academia rather than brand name. Thanks again. – singularity Jun 15 '15 at 5:38
  • Also, I think I would have easily got admission into at least Top-20 programs. The only big flaw in my application was that I come from a completely non-physics background. I do not have any physics degree or a coursework record. I only had multiple high energy theory publications in top journals and good recommendations. So, if I finish coursework at my current school with good grades....wouldn't that increase my chances of getting myself transferred to a top program ? Thanks – singularity Jun 15 '15 at 18:12
  • "Also, I think I would have easily got admission into at least Top-20 programs." Would have if...? "I do not have any physics degree or a coursework record. I only had multiple high energy theory publications in top journals and good recommendations." That is an unusual situation. How did you come to have multiple publications in top journals without any coursework? To advise you specifically is outside of my expertise: I am a mathematician, and in any given year there are probably zero applicants to the top math PhD programs who have "multiple publications in top journals". – Pete L. Clark Jun 15 '15 at 19:17
  • What journals have you published in? If you have multiple publications in top journals, why are your recommendations only "good"? What would be better? Your situation is not quite adding up to me. "So, if I finish coursework at my current school with good grades....wouldn't that increase my chances of getting myself transferred to a top program?" In my experience: not much. Grad coursework provides little opportunity for distinction: in many courses, all who do satisfactorily get the highest grade. And top schools are less hung up on technicalities involving credentials. – Pete L. Clark Jun 15 '15 at 19:29
  • I did not do any coursework but I studied subjects like general relativity on my own and then asked many professors for advising me on some research project. With some good fortune, one professor at the top institute in my country (not US) agreed to keep me on a project after I succeeded in working out a test problem. And, the string theory project he gave me to work on proved to be successful for me and I was able to publish two papers in JHEP as I had done a lot of the tedious calculations. I was able work on another paper with the same professor, which resulted in another publication. – singularity Jun 15 '15 at 19:37
3

First, I want to emphasize that I overwhelmingly agree with what Pete wrote. That said, it has been observed that the "top" universities produce the majority of our corps of professors (when it comes to the justification though I admit a big chunk of that Slate article rests on anecdotes, and we know that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data"). However, you should not read into this necessarily a causal relationship (as opposed to a mere correlation).

There is not (and can never be) an experiment showing that the same individual would receive a necessarily a better education at a top 10 school; similarly, no one can prove conclusively that students admitted to a top 10 program are necessarily "better" (aside from "on the metrics used to determine admission"). Certainly while one can observe the hiring disparities, no one can really explain "why" (at the very least, it is not possible to tell how much it is down to the quality of the program and how much it is down to the quality of the individual students). With academic hiring the nebulous process it is, there's no way we can just tell you whether moving from your current institution to a different one is, in general, a good idea or not, because statistics, in this case, is a lot less useful an indicator than knowing your personal circumstances. Yes, all else being equal it is probably a good idea to choose a Top 10 school over a Top 50 one; but all else is never equal, except on Econ 101 final exams.


One remark, however: if you are just starting your PhD program and you are already concerned about the academic job prospect because "the situation in High Energy Theory seems particularly bleak because of very little funding and super-intense competition", I must ask "are you sure you want to enter into high energy theory?"

(I confess when I started graduate school the notion of "job prospect" is quite far from being on my radar. And while I am quite happy where I am in my academic career now, and quite happy with how everything turned out so far, I am not 100% certain that, had I known 10 years ago what I know now about the academic hiring process, I would have set a career in academia as my goal.)

  • Thanks for your response. I definitely would like to work in academia as I love research as well as teaching. And I do not really care about going to a brand name school as far as my studies are concerned. I just want to make sure that if I work hard I will not have any issues getting a job just because I did not attend Harvard or Princeton. Academically, my current school is very good too but it doesn't have that IVY kind of brand. My concern is only about the people in the hiring committees otherwise I am happy going to my current school. – singularity Jun 15 '15 at 17:53
  • Not going to Harvard or Princeton will not box you out of a job. Which is not to say there's any guarantee of a job, no matter where you go. - - - Glad to hear you're happy in your current school. – aparente001 Jun 17 '15 at 3:18
1

It would be far worse to get a lukewarm letter of recommendation from a relatively bigger name than for the letter to be written by a not-so-big name.

Try to choose an institution that is strong in research in your field and has a real commitment to good undergraduate pedagogy; then get some experience teaching. That will help your job applications down the road.

  • It is even worse if nobody reads your job application because you are not from a big name institution or research group. The current reality is that faculty searches get more applications than they can possibly read. I say transfer if you are able; I never heard of anyone achieving that. – Anonymous Physicist Jun 14 '15 at 22:47
  • 3
    @Anonymous: In my field (mathematics), an application from a Top 50 program would certainly be opened and at least briefly scanned by everyone. If the candidate has superior results, as described in glowing letters from top people in the field, then the review process continues irrespective of the ranking of their institution. Conversely, a PhD from a very top program does not guarantee anything. I would be surprised if things were very different in physics: not reading applications is a very poor strategy for getting the best people you can. – Pete L. Clark Jun 14 '15 at 22:57
0

I recommend you beware of the theoretical HEP job market. You may want to read http://www.reddit.com/r/Physics/comments/271apx/a_view_from_an_exstring_theorist/

and

http://backreaction.blogspot.com/2015/06/the-plight-of-postdocs-academia-and.html

I really don't want to discourage you learning these stuff. But there are reasons why people keep warning beginning grads to stay away from theoretical HEP these days...

  • these two articles seem quite depressing but also realistic as I know many theoretical HEP colleagues in the same unfortunate situation. Btw, don't know why -1 here. – John Jun 16 '15 at 21:41

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.