What I'm trying to understand is, to what degree does the status/rank of the University (where one completes his/her Ph.D) matter while shaping his/her career after graduation? I would like to know the weight given to one's school in both the following cases:

  • While applying for post-docs/faculty positions in academia
  • While applying to industrial research labs

For instance, I've read on some forums (I can't locate the link now) that while considering prospective applications for tenure-track faculty positions, very few Universities accept a candidate who has completed his/her Ph.D from a lower ranked school having a lesser "brand" value, irrespective of the fact whether he/she has published equally original work as his/her counterpart from an Ivy league college. How much truth is in this statement? It would be really great if someone already in academia, either as a newly-accepted faculty or someone on the Faculty Hiring committee could share their experiences/statistics on this regard. I'm simply interested to know the answer, without commenting at all on whether such a practice is justifiable.

Similarly, what about recruitment to internationally acclaimed research labs (like IBM T.J.Watson lab or Microsoft research lab) - what importance do they place on the pedigree of a candidate's college, before taking into consideration what they published ?

I'm personally interested in answers related to the field of Computer Science (theory), but the question is applicable to any prospective grad student in any discipline in my opinion. Feel free to share your personal experiences post-Ph.D in detail, as that would give me (and future viewers of this question) about what its like to carve a career once you are out of school!

up vote 200 down vote accepted

Let me answer as a theoretical computer scientist with former PhD students in tenure-track academic positions and many years of experience on faculty hiring committees. (However, my understanding is that the selection process at industrial research labs like IBM T.J. Watson, Microsoft Research, Google Research, AT&T Research, etc., is really not that different from academic recruiting.) As always, take my advice with a grain of salt; I'm as guilty of confirmation bias as any other human being.

Nobody in theoretical computer science cares where you got your degree. Really. We. Do. Not. Care. We only care about the quality and visibility of your results. Publish strong papers and give brilliant talks at top conferences. Convince well-known active researchers to write letters raving about your work. Make a good product and get superstars to sell it for you. Do all that, and we'll definitely want to hire you, no matter where you got your degree. On the other hand, without a strong and visible research record, independent from your advisor, you are much less likely to get a good academic job, no matter where you got your degree.

(This is less true in more applied areas of CS, in my experience, mostly because it's significantly harder for PhD students in those areas to work independently from their advisors.)

But. Faculty candidates are necessarily judged by people who are not experts in their field. Without the expertise to judge whether your work is really good, those people must look at secondary data that correlate strongly with successful researchers. One of those secondary characteristics is "pedigree". Did you get your degree at MIT, Berkeley, Stanford, CMU, another top-10 department, or somewhere else? (What's an "Ivy League"?) How good/famous is your advisor? If they're really paying attention: Where did your advisor's other PhD students get jobs, and how well are they doing now?

Fortunately, most good departments do make a serious effort to understand the quality and impact of applicants' results, instead of relying only on secondary data. Also, secondary data matters considerably less once you actually have an interview.

And. In my experience, where you get your degree is strongly correlated with successful research. I got my Master's degree at UC Irvine in 1992 and my PhD at UC Berkeley in 1996. The biggest difference I saw between the two departments was the graduate-student research culture. Every theory student at Berkeley regularly produced good results and published them at top conferences. When the FOCS deadline rolled around each year, the question I heard in the hallways from other students was not "You know the deadline is coming up?" or "Are you submitting anything?" but "What are you submitting?", because "nothing" was the least likely answer. Everyone simply assumed that if you were there, you were ready and able to do publishable research. Publishing a paper wasn't exceptional, it was just what you did. That cloud of free-floating confidence/arrogance had a huge impact on my own development as a researcher. I've seen similar research cultures at a few other top CS departments, especially MIT, Stanford, and CMU. (Caveat: This is an incomplete list, and there are many departments that I've never visited.)

tl;dr: Yes, getting a PhD from a top department definitely helps, but more by helping you become a better researcher than by making you look better on paper.

  • 2
    Btw, I need to ask for a clarification - what did you mean about having a good research track record "independent from your adviser", when you've just completed your Ph.D and are looking for post-doc/faculty/industry jobs ? I don't think anyone publishes without his/her adviser as a co-author before completing Ph.D, do they? – TCSGrad Feb 16 '12 at 14:16
  • 25
    Actually, lots of theory PhD students do publish without their advisors; I consider it an iron-clad graduation requirement for my own PhD students. Without at least one independent publication, people will generally think of joint work with your advisor as your advisor's results. With even one independent publication, people are suddenly much more willing to give you credit for your work, including joint work with your advisor. (I've seen this effect up close and personal, both as a student and as an advisor.) – JeffE Feb 16 '12 at 17:46
  • 3
    This gets into standards of co-authorship, which vary significantly across fields. The standard assumption in theoretical computer science is that every co-author must make a substantial intellectual contribution to the paper; merely funding the research is not enough. This is not the standard assumption in other research communities. – JeffE Feb 16 '12 at 17:52
  • 7
    @user1547 I don't know, but here are my guesses. (1) A relentless commitment (backed by physical, human, and monetary resources) to finding, cultivating, rewarding, and promoting excellence, at every level of the institution (research group, department, college, and campus). (2) Decades of cultural inertia. – JeffE Aug 31 '12 at 21:09
  • 5
    @posdef Not quite. I think it is easier to publish "good" papers when one is surrounded by other people who are regularly publishing "good" papers, even without any direct collaboration. Intellectual atmosphere is important. Researchers are apes; we do apey things. – JeffE Feb 21 '14 at 12:51

The short answer is that it can matter fairly significantly in where you get your post-doctoral fellowship and eventual professorship, and it will matter very significantly if you choose to follow a career outside of academia.

When looking for a job in academia, potential employers will look at many factors, including publication record, research success, research track, who your advisor was, etc. The school is important but other factors are involved.

When looking for a job outside of academia, they will look at your GPA and the name of the university from which you graduated. In this case, your university could easily be a "make it or break it" part of the deal.

  • 2
    eykanal, your answer sounds sensible. However, (by any chance) could you back it with any references? – Piotr Migdal Feb 15 '12 at 12:06
  • 3
    @PiotrMigdal - I'm not certain what type of references you'd like. While it's possible someone has done research on this topic, it's likely to vary from region to region (e.g., Asians place more weight on the University ranking than do Americans) and from subfield to subfield (e.g., publications may weight more heavily when applying to be an Intel researcher as opposed to a financial analyst). There's no definitive source I'm aware of. – eykanal Feb 15 '12 at 12:51
  • 2
    I suspect that this sort of answer will represent a problem for this SE. This isn't a factual answer, it's an opinion, and more to the point, the opinion may vary wildly from region to region and specialty to specialty. I think that we'll need some way to flag answers and questions as being more opinion based and less fact based than what might otherwise be acceptable. On other SE sites you can flag a question because it's not actually a question, but here the problem is reversed, there is a question, but the answer isn't the answer, it's an answer. – OldTroll Feb 15 '12 at 14:45
  • 2
    @OldTroll - I completely agree with you, and I think that for this SE this will be a real problem. I'm bringing this discussion to Meta... please chime in there! – eykanal Feb 15 '12 at 15:12
  • 1
    @eykanal The answer in the for 'as it is' is IMHO fine and it is very good that you provided it. Just if there is any supporting data (even soft, e.g. a journal article or a blog post by a company owner) it may reinforce it. – Piotr Migdal Feb 15 '12 at 17:49

The larger the workplace, and the more applicants they're responsible for screening, the more important a role the academic pedigree will end up playing. A small business with a handful of applicants—or a professor hiring a single postdoc—probably doesn't need to screen out candidates as efficiently or as ruthlessly as someone that gets dozens or hundreds of applications for an opening.

To point out specific data points, my previous employer had a "preferred" list of schools for its technical hires; if you went to a school that wasn't on the list, it was a lot harder to get hired, and some hiring managers wouldn't even try to go through the work needed to get around this ruling. In some cases, this even applied to people who had been out of school for decades!

So, your pedigree is almost never a disadvantage; and as I have been told by many an academic, it can be of enormous benefit to you, particularly if you make the most of your opportunities at a big-name school.

In my experience, when looking for a job outside of Academia it's only that first job where your school really matters. Even in that case, it's just the most recent school, or post-doc position, or fellowship, or... that makes the difference. As your career progresses after your first job your more recent activities and experience outweigh earlier schooling.

  • That makes sense, though I wasn't sure whether that would apply in academia as well! – TCSGrad Feb 15 '12 at 14:03
  • this is especially true because sometimes people did their PhD in something unrelated. – Herman Toothrot Nov 14 '12 at 13:53

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

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