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I'm considering joining an engineering department as a graduate student at a US university which has been rapidly expanding over the last few years. They don't have a lot of name recognition at this point but have a few other things going for them. They are ideally located and have excellent labs and collaborations. Over the last 6-7 years the department has jumped up ~50 spots in rankings and the college of engineering has gone from ~50 - 150+ faculty. Since most of the PhD candidates who joined after this expansion started are still in school, there is very little record to show which careers PhD graduates go into and how they do over a time of few years.

What could be the potential downsides of joining such a department?

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    I think you did a pretty good job of realizing the biggest problem: no idea of where any of this will actually go and how it will pan out. A sufficiently excellent and driven student/researcher can go far on fairly little, but those not at the extreme end of ability tend to need the benefits of the connections their advisor provides and the reputation their university bestows. Another off the top of my head: the department may lack a cohesive identity and may be subject to volatile internal politics a more stabilized department would not. – zibadawa timmy Mar 4 '17 at 13:49
  • The danger of rapid expansion is that the bubble might burst. And it might be a poorly organized bubble. – aparente001 Mar 5 '17 at 4:08
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My impression is that you are looking at the wrong factors here. For PhD training, department-level name recognition, or where in the usual rankings the department is placed, is both fairly irrelevant. The same can also be said about where students of the department usually go afterwards.

During your PhD, you will work first and foremost with exactly one advisor. You need to evaluate whether your advisor is strong and a good fit, and what her or his students usually do afterwards. The rest of the department is not irrelevant, but ultimately not nearly as important as your advisor.

Consequently, look at the professors in your field in the department who would likely end up your advisors. Would you think it would great for you to work with them? If yes, go there and don't mind whether the department is a few places down in some ranking, If no, don't go there even if they are "up and coming".

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