There are some websites like topuniversities and times higher education that rank universities based on several criteria.

I don't know if the ranking of a university is directly proportional to its actual reputation.

It is obvious that top universities such as MIT, Harvard and Stanford in US or ETH, Uppsala, KTH in Europe should be considered apart from the rest, but at what point is having a PhD from one university no different than having another? Is it after 100? Between 300-400? Or is it due to another criteria than the ranking?


2 Answers 2


It's worth keeping in mind that the overall university ranking is not synonymous with how they are regarded in the field. Even the breakdowns by discipline are not always going to reflect how the university is perceived in a specific field.

For example, a university may not be in the top 10 in these overall rankings or even in a discipline (e.g., Computer Science), but they may be considered in the top 10 or even the top 5 for specific research fields (e.g., Database research).

For a PhD, the ranking in the field will probably carry more weight than the general ranking of the university (depending on the field), as will the overall quality of the research.

  • 4
    @ff524 I disagree; this does answer the question. Specifically, it gives the answer "You're asking the wrong question."
    – JeffE
    Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 18:18
  • @JeffE It's an answer to a different question—not the one that was asked. I'd call it a helpful response. :-)
    – jvriesem
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 8:40
  • To illustrate this with a few examples, the University of Chicago is one of the top 10 universities in the world, but doesn't have nearly as well-regarded of a computer science program. However, if you're interested in Theoretical Computer Science it's regarded much better. Rutgers University doesn't make the top 50 list of US Universities, but is a top 5 Philosophy university. Commented Sep 14, 2017 at 17:40

For many purposes, it isn't so much about the school that gave you the degree as it is your reputation in the field, which is a function of many things (including your alma mater). This can include your advisor, your graduate work, the number and quality of peer-reviewed publications, patents or copyrights you've generated, your research area, scholarships or grants you've been awarded, and so on--basically all of the things you'd include in your CV. The ranking of your PhD program influences your reputation, but it is still one of many factors. Many successful grad students who were accepted to a more highly-regarded program choose to attend a "lesser" program because they believe they can do better research with a particular advisor, for example.

Rankings are an average of many things and may not reflect the research you performed or the education you received. Different programs are known for different things. Some physics programs, for example, are better at mathematical or theoretical astrophysics. Others are known for their work in quantum mechanics or optics. Still others have an excellent reputation in biophysics—or condensed matter physics, or plasma physics, or a particular type of engineering, etc. If your program you got your degree from excels in your area of research, that can often look better to those who are familiar with your field than if you got a degree from a higher-ranked program that did not specialize in your area of research.

I suspect most of the rankings have quite a bit of variation and unreliability. Aside from the annual changes, most rankings probably vary by 20%: a program ranked 30th could vary by 6 rankings (between 24 and 36). The programs in the top 10 likely only vary by 1-2 rankings. This estimate likely varies with field, the entity publishing the rankings, and sample size.

I doubt there's really a cutoff point, however. Imagine if there are 100 biology programs in your country. Differences between the programs ranked 45th and 48th probably aren't particularly significant, but you should expect differences between a program ranked 45th and another ranked 80th! Or suppose your country has 500 programs in biology. You should expect a difference between one ranked 350th and another ranked 500th! However, I would expect little difference between one ranked 450th and one ranked 490th.

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    I agree with this. Where you get your PhD degree is of secondary importance. Yes, a PhD from a high ranking university will draw attention -- just like any products with a good marketed brand name. However, 'the proof of the pudding is in the eating', meaning I'll look at the quality of the thesis and publications. E.g., poorly written, little work, or many second/third/etc authored papers, then I would rank an applicant poorly. I know of PhD students who graduated from top unis with bugger all publications. Message: let your work speaks for itself, as opposed the 'brand' of your PhD. Commented Mar 24, 2016 at 20:41
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    @LittleMouse I think it is a bit naive to offer this optimistic view that anyone can do high quality/high impact/groundbreaking research at a low ranked institution. Sure, it can theoretically happen, but there are external factors to consider here, and thus advising someone to disregard rankings completely is a bit misleading in my opinion. Taking a given student, I would still expect him/her to generally do much better at the better ranked place.
    – user8001
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 5:03
  • @user8001 It is not naive and definitely not 'theoretical'. My students regularly outperform those at higher ranked universities. It is ABSOLUTELY naive to think that only students who go to 'top unis' can do proper research. This is pure arrogance. Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 6:07
  • I think @LittleMouse is correct in that student ability and productivity play a major role in shaping a student's reputation. I also agree with user8001 in that better programs often offer more opportunities. I have the honor and privilege of being in arguably the top program in my (small but growing) field. I was previously in a different program that was ranked somewhere between 30-40th in its field, just in the USA. My new program has significantly more funding. There are far more opportunities to travel, network, do outreach, etc. than there were in my old program. It really helps!!!
    – jvriesem
    Commented Mar 25, 2016 at 8:37

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