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I will be starting my Masters degree and intend to be fully committed to working on interesting problems with a lot of impact. I have a few groups in sight which seemingly work on very important problems and publish in major conferences but looking at the 'alumni' section on their website, I haven't noticed MS alumni getting into top PhD programs. Does this say anything about the group's quality or could it be just because of the students?

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It is a valid parameter, but not the only valid parameter. It's absolutely justified to ask, and consider, "Where did people in this group go when they were done?"

I haven't noticed MS alumni getting into top PhD programs. Does this say anything about the group's quality or could it be just because of the students?

You need more information than just "did they get into top PhD programs" - unless a research group is very large, it's likely that any patterns you see in the fates of MS students will be the result of stochasticity. For example:

  • Are they ending up in private industry? For many people, this isn't a failure, but a success. A group I was in sends many of it's graduate students onward to jobs, and this is considered a success by all involved. Masters programs are not just one step in a PhD conveyor belt. The same is true for "R1 Tenure Track Positions" etc. Many people don't end up taking what is conventionally considered the "brass ring" of their track because they don't actually want to.
  • Did they want to go to a top tier program and couldn't, or did they not want to? These are two very different things, and will be easier to assess by talking to members of the group, rather than just browsing their alumni page.
  • Is their alumni page actually accurate? Don't ever assume academic web pages are fully up to date.

It's a valid parameter consider when weighing choices, but I believe it would be a bad idea to eliminate a potential option simply because of their alumni page. You should also look at individuals. Where did the people who presented those important papers end up? Is there someone "like you" who had the trajectory you did? If not, it's worth talking to them about.

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You have two slightly different questions. Some groups/programs may prepare MS students for jobs in industry and other for PhD programs. This tells you little about the quality of the groups. What this means is that asking

Does this say anything about the group's quality or could it be just because of the students?

is not the same as

Is alumni success a valid parameter for selecting a group?

Trying to infer the quality of a program/group from where students go is likely not useful. Choosing a group/program based on what it will prepare you for is very important. That said, just looking at where past students have gone, is not all that informative. Asking the PI how he can help prepare you for a PhD program is going to be much more informative.

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    I disagree. If hardly anyone from this group goes on to do what OP wants to do, then either they've tried and failed--in which case it's not a good group--or they haven't tried--in which case it's likely not a good fit for OP's career goals. Getting educated/prepared for the next step isn't enough. You also have to make it to the next step. – user37208 Feb 1 '16 at 18:13
  • @user37208 consider a group whose research is very in demand by industry such that students get high paying job offers, this doesn't mean the group cannot prepare you for a PhD. – StrongBad Feb 1 '16 at 18:18
  • but it also doesn't mean it CAN get you into a good PhD program. In some fields such "industry pipelines" are considered less prestigious. Which might not be the case here, but OP has no real way of knowing if it is. It's inherently riskier than a program with a good track record of PhD program placement. – user37208 Feb 1 '16 at 18:23
  • @StrongBad if you want to become a general, prefer West Point over Harvard. Harvard is an excellent school, but West Point alumni have a better record at making general. – emory Feb 1 '16 at 18:25
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    @emory which is why I suggest to ask the PI. If a PI at Harvard can explain why his group would prepare you for being a General and help you climb the military ranks (e.g., the PI went to Med school with the Surgeon General of the Army and they have a project that they are interested in collaborating on), then it might make sense over a group at West Point for which the PI's interests are only peripherally related to military interests. – StrongBad Feb 1 '16 at 18:37

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