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Patrick Bigsby is an alumnus, former employee, and lifelong wrestling fan of the University of Iowa. Sometimes, he tweets.




Higher education is replete with rankings of every form, metric, and method - and graduate school is no exception. The ubiquity of ranking stems, at least in part, from its utility. Rankings can be monetized by the rankers, boost schools’ promotional efforts, and seized upon by individual students eager to stand out. Plus, they’re good for our egos: students and universities alike hype favorable rankings in their own chest-thumping displays, both good-natured and craven. Enrolling at a highly ranked university or program might be emotionally validating but shouldn’t we graduate students, a data-driven and coldly rational sort, be immune to such things?


Well, maybe. Most rankings are unscientific - even frivolous - but they do contribute to the public’s perception of our work, both individually and collectively, whether we like it or not. I’ve written before about how some other inadvertent public relations influence how people outside of academia (including our own friends and families) think about graduate students and I believe rankings have a similar effect. Even people who have never set foot in a seminar or lab are familiar with top-ranked programs like the Scripps Institution at UC-San Diego, the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Harvard Law, or the Wildcats (yes, athletic rankings count - they’re highly visible) on the basis of strength of reputation. Name-dropping the fact that you are a graduate of a top-ranked school or program has value, particularly as applied to professional advancement, and even more particularly in the résumé stage, when you are merely a name on a page. Listing University of the Perennial Top Ten on your CV will inspire a different reaction from search committees, even at the subconscious level, than listing Also-Ran University No. 75. Our fellow academics might share our skepticism toward rankings but are still subject to the influence of the availability heuristic; if they’ve repeatedly heard your school is the best, then their own perception is altered.


To that extent, rankings are of some value to graduate students (particularly prospective students) and might be worth at least a quick review. Beyond bragging to your Uncle Jerry that “We’re number one!” over your winter break, your school’s rank can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Top-ranked schools attract top students and faculty, who enhance the school’s reputation in the eyes of the rankers, who rank the school favorably the following year, and so on (this is particularly applicable to law school). There are, of course, reasoned and valid arguments as to why higher education rankings are pointless but these are dwarfed by the public relations benefits of a favorable ranking.


The value of your degree might even be influenced by rankings you have nothing to do with, if a rising tide really can lift all boats. Even if your particular graduate program of study isn’t widely acclaimed by rankers, the good will and aura of legitimacy conferred by other highly-ranked programs. To use an example dear to my heart, consider the University of Iowa School of Journalism & Mass Communication; a fine place to be a graduate student but not quite at the prestige levels of better-known programs. No one conflates Iowa’s j-school with Columbia or Columbia, Missouri and this is reflected in the rankings. However, Iowa Journalism can at least trade on the university’s brand, which is bolstered by top-ranked graduate programs in fields like speech-language pathology, printmaking, and physical therapy.


Of course, our experience as researchers makes it clear rankings don’t tell the whole story. A specific track within a program, a famed lab, or even a single scholar are all cited as draws for enrolling at a given university, among zillions of other factors too esoteric to rank, much less on a uniform scale. This is further complicated by the fact that different evaluators using different criteria create rankings at odds with each other. Is it possible to compare a program that has the top job placement rate with another located on the nation’s most beautiful campus? Individual students looking for a graduate program overwhelmed by rankers’ data are probably better off relying on their own values and motivations rather than any published rankings. In the search for a perfect graduate program, fit is king. If you choose a graduate program that doesn’t match your needs and wants, you’ll be more prone to burnout from the stress and anxiety of the mismatch no matter how highly ranked the program is.


Furthermore, rankings are inherently reactive - this year’s rankings are based on last year’s data. For this reason, rankings have trouble capturing graduate programs’ change over time: when an upstart graduate program appears in the top ten in 2016 and has three key faculty members poached by an annual contender for the top spot in 2017, how reliable is that upstart program’s top ten ranking? Similarly, it might be easy to discount a graduate program on the rise that wasn’t historically strong if it hasn’t benefitted from generations of top rankings.


All things considered, rankings, like any published result, are best viewed with the skepticism and keen eye for logic cultivated by graduate study. Graduate students should feel free to benefit from commercial rankings as a tool for self-promotion or means of surveying public perception of a particular field, but shouldn’t rely too heavily on a system that can’t necessarily reflect the breadth of a graduate education.


How do commercial rankings rate in your eyes? Did any rankings factor into your graduate school decisions? Have a beef with a ranking system overlooking your program? Let us know in the comments!

[Image by Flickr user Robbie Sproule and used under Creative Commons licensing.]

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