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There were several discussions on this website about the importance of academic rankings. Opinions seem to range from "very important" to "completely meaningless". My question, however, is a bit different: Out of the different available rankings, which one is the best to consult when considering post-doc opportunities?

Of course, ranking is not an exact science. If one ranking claims university X is 23rd in the world, and the second ranking claims it's 27th in the world, there is little point in debating which one is "more reliable". However, the differences between the different rankings are sometimes huge.

Since I am a mathematician, let us consider for example the QS ranking and the Shanghai ranking in mathematics. The "glitch" of King Abdulaziz University, which ranks 5th on the Shanghai's ranking, is well known (apparently they employ some very dubious practices). But Pierre and Marie Curie University for example is ranked 5th in the world by Shanghai, and is not even in the top 50 in the QS ranking. So as far as an academic career is concerned, is a post-doc position in this university amazing or terrible?

The situation seems to be similar for american universities. The University of Minnesota ranks 11th in world according to Shanghai, Texas A&M is 14th and the University of Washington is 18th, but none of these universities are in the top 50 according to the QS ranking. So, for a future academic employer (say in the US), is a post-doc position in Minnesota roughly comparable to such a position in MIT, or not even in the same ballpark? Is the University of Chicago much better than the University of Warwick (as indicated by QS), or is it the other way around?

I know that the different rankings use very different methodology and are based on different criteria. But I think this is exactly what makes the question meaningful - out of these criteria, which are the most relevant to post-docs?

  • At the very least, you should look at the quality of the department, not the university. – user37208 Dec 17 '15 at 19:06
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    Since when "post-docs" are students? – electrique Dec 17 '15 at 19:38
  • Post-docs are not students. – Benjamin Dec 18 '15 at 5:46
  • It seems to me that despite the excellent answers arguing that none of these rankings should be trusted, there is still a valid question about their relative merits. For example, as a mathematician, I can take a 30-second glance at the linked QS and Shanghai rankings and say that the latter is significantly more misleading than the former. But how could someone who is not already an expert find this out? – Tom Church Dec 20 '15 at 21:46
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None of them. At the postdoc level, you should already be familiar with the people and research groups in your field, at least at a basic level. Go where there is someone you want to work with, and maybe a good active research group, irrespective of the ranking of their university. That ranking could have been achieved because the university is great in a completely different research area, or because it has good conditions for students (as a postdoc, you don't care about this). And, as you state yourself, at high detail level many rankings are bullsinaccurate anyway.

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    I admit that this sounds a bit simplistic to me. Of course, one shouldn't blindly apply to "good universities" where he doesn't know anyone. But suppose you know well two research groups. Group A works in Princeton and group B works in the University of Oklahoma. Suppose further that you like the work of group B a bit better. Given how tremendously difficult it is to find a tenured position nowadays, do you really believe going with group B is the right choice? – CuriousGeorge Dec 16 '15 at 22:39
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    @CuriousGeorge But you don't need a ranking to tell that Princeton is a more prestigious-sounding name than Oklahoma in your CV. If you need a ranking to tell them apart, and the rankings do not unanimously reveal a huge difference, then probably you are already looking at a detail level at which they are not reliable. – Federico Poloni Dec 16 '15 at 22:50
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    @CuriousGeorge what's important is what other academics in your field think of the relative strengths of group A and group B. They'll be the ones evaluate your post doc as you seek your next position, and they're familiar enough with the field that they won't be base their comparison on relative rankings of the two universities. – Brian Borchers Dec 16 '15 at 23:26
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    @CuriousGeorge Yes, in my field if (boundary layer meteorology), I would choose Oklahoma and the group of E. Fyodorovich. As a post doc you want to join a world renowned group, not the ranking of the whole uni). – Vladimir F Dec 17 '15 at 9:14
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    If you publish a groundbreaking paper in a reputable journal from Oklahoma, it will be just as meaningful and just as good for your reputation as if you had done it from Princeton. Your question should be how likely you are to do great work and have great ideas in each environment. – mightypile Dec 17 '15 at 15:16
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It's more important to work with a well-known advisor (in your area) than at a well-known university. Ultimately, your supervisor, not your university, will write your recommendation letters and talk you up to colleagues. There are multiple criteria more important than university ranking when choosing a post-doc. Do you want to live in the city/country? Do you think you'll be a good fit with the research group? Does the advisor support his/her students and postdocs? How much funding does your prospective advisor have? What facilities and support are available to you? Can you apply for grants where you are named as an investigator? Will you have to write grants for your advisor (where you are not named as an investigator)? Will you have to spend a lot of time in admin/maintenance duties or be free to focus on your research?

On the other hand, 'highly-ranked' universities are more likely to have faculty with significant grant income and better facilities and support than 'lowly-ranked' universities. For example, if you are an applied mathematician, engineer, or bioinformatician, then having access to a High Performance Computing cluster might be advantageous (or even necessary).

Ultimately, having FancyPants University on your CV will mean nothing if you don't back it up with quality output. Thus, your main concern should be finding an environment that will enable you to produce quality work, regardless of whether that is at a 'highly-ranked' or 'lowly-ranked' university.

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    On the other hand, if the people doing the best work in your field are at a "low ranked" university, it's a pretty clear signal that the group does have the resources necessary for that kind of work. Using the ranking of a university to infer something about whether it's a good environment for the kind of research you do, is like using an estimator to approximate some value when you can actually observe that value directly. – ff524 Dec 18 '15 at 4:29
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The importance of a university ranking is next to meaningless. For example, the quality of undergraduate teaching is not relevant for postdocs, and even the research ranking might not be relevant to you as it is likely averaged across all fields. The most important outcome of your postdoc, at least in biological fields, is how productive you are in terms of publishing quality articles. This is strongly associated with the productivity of the supervisor (and his/her lab) whom you work with. This also relates to your ability to collaborate successfully, which is why the research group is so important. There are so many other factors to consider, such as location, funding, facilities/equipment, that you will rarely have a choice where these are mostly equal and it comes down to university ranking.

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    In some academic fields, some postdocs teach undergraduate and graduate courses. So the quality of undergraduate teaching need not be (completely) irrelevant. – Pete L. Clark Dec 17 '15 at 20:34
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    That's true. If part of your academic job application/interview is about your teaching and you can cite that you come from a university with highly ranked teaching, I suppose that would help. Though they might be more interested in the specific teaching feedback/evaluation that you've received, which should be in your personal teaching portfolio. – Cam Dec 17 '15 at 20:47
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Choose an institution based on academic and personal fit. A post-doc is primarily an opportunity to build up your publications list. Focus on that.

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