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I'm currently a senior who wants to get a PhD in physics. However, I may only have the chance to go to a school which has a strong professor in a certain area, but the school itself is not highly ranked.

My other option is, one of the professors I'm working with at my current institution is favorably disposed towards me, and could support me for another year while I do more research. If I did this, I will push out publications (including at least one first author) before I apply.

Another professor I know has told me that he thinks I should not waste my time, and get started on the PhD, especially since I might be able to hit the ground running there. However, I am aware that getting a degree from a non-top 10 school will hurt my prospects for future positions. I'm also keeping in mind that I could also head to this school next year as well if everything goes sour again.

What do the members of the community think? I would really appreciate more viewpoints on this matter. Thanks for your time!

Edit: I understand that questions asked here should be of a general nature, and not just apply to an individual's unique situation. However, I don't think this situation is all too uncommon, and this question may be useful to those who are looking for information in the future.

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    See my answer to a related question. My answer is specifically about theoretical computer science, but I suspect the issues are similar in other fields. – JeffE Apr 11 '13 at 20:50
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I don't entirely disagree with the two previous answers: taking the offer you have now may be a fine choice. However, I'd give serious consideration to strengthening your application and trying again.

One of the biggest differences between departments is the strength of the peer group. You will ultimately spend much more time talking and working with your fellow students than with faculty, and being part of an amazing cohort is incredibly beneficial. You'll spend countless hours in detailed discussions, going into far more depth than any faculty member is likely to have time for, and you'll organize student seminars and study groups. Depending on your field, you may write papers with your fellow students with no faculty involvement. In the end, you'll learn far more from them than from courses or meetings with faculty, and these relationships will last for the rest of your career.

If you don't have this opportunity, you can certainly still become an excellent researcher, but you are less likely to reach your full potential, and even if you do it will be harder. To maximize the benefit, you need to be surrounded by lots of wonderful students, many of whom are just as talented, hard working, and ambitious as you are, and some of whom are destined for even greater things.

As a rule of thumb, as you move down the prestige scale the average level of the students drops off much faster than the level of the faculty, because there are many more students than faculty. There can be exceptions, such as a department that attracts much stronger students in one subfield than overall, but you shouldn't count on it without concrete evidence.

Here are a few ways you can gauge the students in a department:

  1. When you visit, do you have really interesting discussions with current students, which leave you feeling excited about further interactions? (Don't take this too seriously, since if you're shy it may be difficult to connect quickly, but it's worth thinking about.)

  2. Does the department regularly produce graduates whose careers you would be happy with? (Take this one very seriously. If you are aiming for a job at a major research university but few people from your Ph.D. program get such jobs, then either your goals are unrealistic or you'll really stand out compared with your peers.)

If the answer to both questions is yes, then that's a good sign, but otherwise you should be cautious.

Returning to the original question, this might help you judge the offer you have already. For the option of spending another year where you are, I'd ask three questions:

  1. How likely are you to get better offers next year? Of course there's no way to be sure, but perhaps a mentor could help you make an informed guess.

  2. Will you enjoy the next year? It's not worth doing if you're going to be stressed out and miserable. Besides, unhappy people rarely do their best work.

  3. Will you look back on it as a valuable intellectual experience, regardless of its effects on your grad school applications?

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    Excellent answer. I am in this situation as of now and can confirm that my peers at my fairly little-known institute are mostly underwhelming and less than inspiring. One or two stick out and I enjoy engaging in conversations with them. However my overall feeling is that I am missing out on the engaging, creative discussions I know I had back in university (a top 5 uni in Europe) with detrimental effects in many areas. – Name Apr 12 '13 at 9:09
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    Accepted for the level of detail; the other answers are also very good. This answer in particular seemed to feel applicable and got me thinking. Thank you for your response. – student Apr 12 '13 at 13:38
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Doing outstanding research is what ultimately matters, not the rank of the university. High quality research is not exclusive to top tier universities alone. If you find an advisor with whom you can publish top quality research in your topic of interest, then go for it. The rank of the university is less important than your advisor's ability to help you carry out and publish good quality research.

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I was in almost the exact same situation you describe. My scenario was choosing between a top 20 (but not top 10 school) vs. delaying a year and doing research and then re-applying. Like you, I would've been able to raise my pGRE score and put out a couple of first-author publications.

I decided instead to just go to the PhD program at the slightly lower ranked institution (but this school had two world-famous professors working in an area that I was interested in). Why? Well, it's because people only care about your advisor, not the quality of the school (usually; there are always exceptions). Generally, the statement

However, I am aware that getting a degree from a non-top 10 school will hurt my prospects for future positions.

is false. There are of course exceptions, but I've received much more recognition at conferences for being Prof. X's student rather than being a student at Y institution. In the end, I realized it was more important that I learn from a good and well respected advisor than worrying about attending a top 10 school. I'm just a grad student finishing up his final year (received some very nice postdoc offers), but just my 2 cents.

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