Do Graduate School Rankings Really Matter?


If you’re thinking about applying to grad school, you might be curious about how the programs you’re considering compare to each other. So why not look up graduate school rankings? Unfortunately, there’s no master list that ranks every single graduate program, and in fact, some types of programs don’t have grad school rankings at all.

While Ph.D. and master’s degree rankings can certainly be a useful tool when choosing which schools to apply to, how much they really matter depends on what kind of program you’re pursuing. Read on to learn more about what goes into grad school rankings and why they might be important for you.

Feature image credit: Gianluca Annicchiarico/Flickr


What Are Graduate School Rankings?

When you were applying to colleges for undergrad, you likely used a college rankings list or website to help figure out which colleges to apply to. You may have had to check a couple of different lists (e.g. for liberal arts programs vs large universities), but overall, it was probably pretty easy to compare different schools and get a sense of how they stacked up against each other.

For grad school, rankings work in a completely different way, because there’s no one list that ranks all grad schools across different programs and degrees. While it’s possible to say “the best college is Princeton” and have that be meaningful for potential students, it’s not possible “the best grad school is Princeton” and leave it at that without being more specific. Instead, each different field of study has its own rankings system that accounts for only those programs that fall into that category.

The reason for this difference in ranking methods is that grad programs are much more autonomous within an institution than undergrad programs are. Often there’s the perception that no matter what you study as an undergraduate, the quality will be relatively consistent across different subject areas, even if there are different schools within your university. By contrast, for grad school it’s more generally accepted and understood that programs for different fields of study might vary widely in quality and reputation within a single institution.

Furthermore, while there are graduate school rankings lists created by some of the same groups that publish undergrad rankings, the lists aren’t universal for all fields by any means. Some of the areas of study and degrees not included in these lists are ranked elsewhere, but other programs (like journalism) don’t have any formal grad school rankings at all.

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There are two key characteristics of graduate school rankings:

  • They’re subject-specific. Different lists exist for law schools, med schools, computer science programs, and so on; there may even be lists for the different specialties within a field, like public interest vs. corporate law.
  • They don’t exist for every subject. Some subjects simply don’t have graduate school rankings. For example, there are no journalism master’s degree rankings.




How Are Grad School Rankings Determined?

The main reason graduate school rankings aren’t really comparable is that different metrics are valued differently for different fields. For instance, MBA rankings will likely weight grad outcomes like starting salary more and undergraduate GPAs less than master’s or Ph.D. rankings for academic fields like Psychology.

Grad school rankings are usually calculated using a mix of subjective and objective criteria. Subjective measures that might factor into rankings include peer, employer, and recruiter assessments of program quality. Objective criteria used for ranking include information about students as they enter the program (standardized test scores, undergraduate GPAs) and data from after they’ve graduated (starting salaries, percent of grads employed immediately after graduation).

In general, the following points are considered (with varying weighting) when calculating graduate school rankings:


#1: Acceptance Rates, Standardized Test Scores, and GPAs

Grad school acceptance rates often factor into graduate program rankings as an indication of selectivity: the harder a school is to get into, the more highly ranked it will be. However, acceptance rate doesn’t play as big a role in grad school rankings as other selectivity factors because of its close relation to program size; many grad programs end up being highly competitive simply as a function of only having a couple of slots per year, rather than because the program is particularly elite.

Chief among the other selectivity factors used in grad school ranking are student scores on standardized tests like the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, and GMAT. The higher the relevant test scores of the students accepted to the program, the better ranked it will be.

The same general rule goes for the undergraduate GPAs of a grad program’s accepted students. Schools who accept students with higher undergraduate GPAS will be ranked more highly.

Both high test scores and high undergraduate GPAs are included in grad school rankings because they can be a good indicator of the academic prowess and focus you’d see from peers in the program. Higher test scores and GPAs imply that students in that program value academic achievement and learning and will take their studies seriously.

Having peers who are committed to the same level of academic achievement as you are is particularly important in schools that require regular collaboration between students as part of the degree. You don’t want to end up in a program where you’re the only one who does the work and everyone else coasts on your efforts!




#2: Program Outcomes

The second category of data used to inform graduate program rankings are items that show what students get out of the program. Examples of these program outcome measurements include number of degrees awarded per year and graduation rate.

Grad school rankings usually further break down graduation rate into both the overall rate of graduation for the program and the percentage of students who graduate within a specified number of years. These two ways of looking at grad program graduation data are important because not only do you want to avoid programs with low graduation rates, but you’ll also want to be wary of schools with longer-than-average programs.

Let’s say that you’re looking at applying to Ph.D. programs in artificial intelligence, where the average program length is around five years, and you come across a program where the average student takes eight years to get her doctorate. The unusually long program length could just be a sign that there are a lot of part-time students at the program. However, it could also be a sign that the program isn’t supportive of its students and prefers to keep them on as cheap labor for the department rather than pushing them to achieve their degree goals.

Two other program outcomes captured in grad school rankings are the rate of student employment after graduation and the salaries of the new grads. If students coming out of a program aren’t finding jobs, or are getting relatively low-paying jobs in the field, that reflects poorly on the education and training they received in the program. Low rates of hiring for graduates can also be an indicator that the program doesn’t have a good placement system or lacks connections with businesses, organizations, and other schools that would help students find employment more easily.

There are a few additional measures relating to program outcomes used in grad school rankings for certain fields of study. Law school rankings include information about the rate of recent grads who pass the bar exam. Master’s degree rankings may include information about the number students matriculating into Ph.D. programs and the selectivity of the Ph.D. programs students are accepted into.




#3: Faculty Quality

Compared to the previous two factors, the quality of a grad program’s faculty is somewhat harder to assess. Because faculty quality is relatively subjective (as compared to test scores and graduation rates), different grad school ranking lists rate faculty quality using different criteria. Here we’ll discuss the two most commonly cited ways to assess grad schools’ faculty quality, which are the amount of research done by faculty members and student-faculty ratios.

As a general rule, faculty quality is most often judged in terms of original research carried out and not in terms of teaching ability. For research-intensive Ph.D. programs, this measure of faculty quality is an extremely important factor because you’ll want to choose a school with faculty doing high-quality research in areas you’re interested in.

The student-faculty ratio is the other main way grad school rankings rate faculty quality. Meant to assess how much attention and time students at a particular school are likely to receive from faculty members, student-faculty ratios can also indirectly serve as an indicator of how likely it is students will be able to build personal relationships with their professors that may benefit them both during and after grad school. For instance, schools with smaller student-to-faculty ratios give students more of a chance to get to know professors well enough to get stellar letters of recommendation for internships and jobs.


I don't care how adorable you are in glasses, Mr. Binklesworth, that does not
I’m sorry, Mr. Binklesworth. I just didn’t have a chance to get to know you well enough as a student to write you a good letter of recommendation.


#4: Prestige

The final factor accounted for in graduate school rankings is the perceived reputation of a graduate program in the eyes of others.

In the eyes of the world and those not in your particular field, a degree from Yale will be impressive no matter what the subject, even if there are other schools that are technically better in that area. Prestige and reputation assessments, however, take into account the overall quality of the program and the capabilities of its graduates as rated by others in the field, rather than brand-recognition by the world at large. If you’re planning on pursuing positions in your field after graduation, then studying at a school with a good reputation in your specific field (and with a professor who is highly regarded) is essential.

For instance, a Ph.D. from the University of Washington in focus in artificial intelligence would be more impressive to potential schools than a Ph.D. in the same area from Yale, even though UWash is a state school and Yale is an Ivy League school.

Prestige assessments used in grad school rankings are done by peers at other schools or employers in the field (e.g. lawyers at top firms and judges for law school grads, or school superintendents for education grads). The reason peers and employers rank schools highly is based on their personal experience with graduates of the programs; if the programs graduate incompetent or uneducated students, then the reputation of the program will suffer, no matter how prestigious the larger university it is part of.




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Do Graduate School Rankings Matter For You?

Whether or not graduate program rankings matter for you depends on two important factors: your field of study and what you want to do with your degree.


Factor 1: Field of Study

For areas like law and business, grad program rankings matter quite a bit. Law school grads who attended top-tier schools are much more likely to be hired at top firms or for competitive public interest positions. Business school grads from top b-schools are more likely to get the internships and jobs that they want. In these cases, attending a highly ranked school can make up for a lower GPA or class rank.

Graduate school rankings don’t matter as much in other fields, especially ones that are extremely specialized. For instance, if you’re applying for a degree in a highly specific subject like the psychology of human sexuality, the ranking of the school is less important than choosing a school with a department or professor doing research or other work you’re interested in.

A good rule of thumb: if it’s difficult to find a list of rankings for your particular subject area online, then rankings probably don’t matter as much.


Factor 2: Personal Goals

What you want to do with your degree also affects how much program rankings matter. If you’re planning to use your master’s degree to further your career as a middle school music teacher, for instance, then graduate school rankings can play less of a role in your decision-making process. Potential employers will be more concerned with whether or not you have a master’s degree and what you have to show for it than with what the rank of the school you got it from is.

For those with a post-graduate trajectory to academia (tenure track professor, post-doc, or other research positions), however, grad school and Ph.D. rankings will be integral to your decision of which schools to apply to. Hiring committees will assuredly be very aware of what the top programs in the field are and prioritize candidates who attended competitive graduate programs.




How to Use Grad School Rankings

Now that you have a better understanding what graduate school rankings measure and why they might matter, you need to figure out how heavily rankings should inform which programs you apply to.

Think about what you really want to get out of grad school and choose schools that are ranked highly along that dimension. For example, if you’re thinking about applying to law school but are highly concerned with how soon after you graduate you’ll be able to get a job to start paying off law school loans, then you’ll want to research which schools have the best employment outcome for graduates and highest prestige (which increases likelihood of swift employment) and figure out the best way to meet their standards for admission.

You can also use the information from rankings to help you figure out which schools are going to suit your needs best while you’re a student there. When I was applying to grad schools for music, I was way more concerned with the quality of composition and computer music faculty than I was with standardized test scores and GPAs of enrolled students, particularly since several of the programs did not even require GRE scores. As a result, I eliminated any schools that didn’t have strong composition and computer music programs from my list of schools to apply to.

When you form your list of grad schools to apply to, there will be many factors to consider, from your degree’s value to the school’s location to which professors you want to work with for the next five-plus years. Use grad school rankings as another source of information to help you decide which schools are the best fit for you.




What’s Next?

Graduate degrees can enhance your earning potential and boost your career in many (but not all) fields. Find out if grad school is worth it for you with this guide.

Decided on grad school, but worried about getting in? Read these articles to find more about grad school acceptance rates and how to get into grad school.

Need help figuring out how to wow grad schools with what you’ve already accomplished? Learn how to write a grad school CV and how to get grad school recommendation letters.

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Author: Laura Staffaroni

Laura graduated magna cum laude from Wellesley College with a BA in Music and Psychology, and earned a Master's degree in Composition from the Longy School of Music of Bard College. She scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and GRE and loves advising students on how to excel and fulfill their college and grad school dreams.