Do graduate school rankings matter?

Graduate School: Do Rankings Really Matter?

Once you decide to go for advanced degrees, the real work begins. First, you need to choose your programs. That’s where the question comes in, “Do graduate school rankings matter?” Grad school rankings can help you make a choice of the schools to apply to. However, you’ve got to know if these rankings matter to the program you’ll be pursuing.

It’s ok to look up grad school rankings to help you understand how programs differ from one another.

However, there’s really no master list in the world that has ranked every single graduate program there is. What’s more, some programs don’t even have any rankings at all.  

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In this article, we will let you in on how graduate school rankings come about and why they may be important for you in your choice of schools.

READ: How Much Does a USA Post-Graduate Degree Cost?

About Graduate School Rankings

You may or may not have checked a college ranking list before you applied to the college you graduated from. In Nigeria, for instance, not many people, pay attention to any list before they apply. In most cases, people go after schools with repute and prestige. Now, this strategy may not work well with everyone. That’s because the real test of whether or not a school is your best bet is if it has a good reputation in your field or in the program you are applying to.

Now, when it comes to grad schools specifically, the game changes entirely. Such that one cannot possibly say “Havard or Stanford Is the best University in the world.” Without including the specifics. Some can say that to potential students because it means something to them. But that’s not all there is to it.

Every field of study often has its own system of ranking. It’s done in a way that only programs that fall within its category are listed and ranked.

One reason why the ranking methods with grad programs vary from the methods used for undergrad programs is that grad programs tend to be a lot more independent than undergrad programs.

Also, the popular idea with undergraduate programs is that the quality of education received is will be consistent throughout different subjects and different schools within a university. Graduate programs, on the other hand, are generally perceived to have varying quality across different fields within the same school.

Two things to know about graduate school rankings are:

They are usually specific to subjects. The rankings for law graduate programs are different from those for engineering or medicine. In fact, you may observe different niche programs within a particular field. An example will be corporate law and public interest.

Not all subjects have rankings. A good example will be rankings for masters in journalism. Some subjects just don’t have rankings.

What Determines Grad School Rankings?

Grad school rankings are often calculated using a combination of objective and subjective criteria. Some of the subjective factors include employer, recruiter, and peer assessments of the quality of the program,  while the objective factors include student information during the program like standardized tests and GPAs and their information after graduation which will also include their starting salaries on their first jobs and the rate of employment after graduation.

However, generally, here are the 4 key factors that determine how graduate schools are ranked:

GPAs, Standardized Tests, and Acceptance Rates

The acceptance rate of a particular graduate program says a lot about its selectivity. The harder it is to get accepted into the program the higher its ranking. You should, however, be careful and not be quick to assume that acceptance rates are the only things that matter. Or that they play as much a big role as other factors in how graduate programs are ranked. You’ll be surprised to learn that some programs are ranked merely because they have less than 10 slots every year and not because it is elite.

The students’ performance (scores) on standardized tests also plays a role in how a program is ranked. And typically, the higher the scores, the better-ranked the program will be.

This rule also holds true for undergraduate GPAs of the students that have been accepted into the program. As you should know already, those who admit students with higher GPAs tend to be high up on the ranking lists than other schools.

GPAs and test scores are usually indicators of the academic quality of the program. That’s because it is likely that your peers will demonstrate a high academic prowess if the program zeros in on those with high GPAs and test scores.

Then again, you can trust that having peers who are equally as committed to academic achievements just like you will make collaborative tasks and activities easy. That’s because you are likely to have go-getters who won’t sleep on a group project. For instance, but will put in their best to get a good job done. You certainly don’t want to have to be in a program where you are the only one in a group of 10 people who seems to be putting inadequate efforts while others sip on their coffee.

The Outcome of the Program

Another factor that determines how programs are ranked is the data gathered from the program on how its graduates turn out at the end of the program. The yardstick, in this case, will be the number of degrees that are awarded each year and at what rate including the graduation rate.

In some cases, the graduation rate may be split into the overall rate and the percentage of those who graduated over a certain period. The idea is to help you avoid programs with low rates of graduation and those that are longer than the average.

Say you are going for a Ph.D. program and you realize that on average it takes the students about 7 years to earn a doctorate degree for a 3-year program. It may be that there are quite a number of students in the program who are studying part-time. On the other hand, it could also be that the program doesn’t support its students and would rather retain them for longer than usual by frustrating the process such that they can get the advantage of cheap labor.

Other factors considered are the rate of employment after graduation and the salaries on first jobs after graduation. It will reflect poorly on a graduate program if the students get out of the program and don’t get jobs quickly or are paid meagre sums as salaries. It could also be an indicator that the program is not recognized by businesses and organizations. Or it doesn’t have a working relationship with them.

The Quality of the Faculty

Relative to the other factors on this list, the faculty’s quality is quite difficult to measure. That’s because it is more subjective than those other factors. So, there are different criteria used to rank programs based on the quality of the faculty. However, there are 2 common ones you may want to take note of. One is the amount of research carried out by members of the faculty while the other is the student-faculty ratio.

Generally, the faculty’s quality is measured based on original research and not based on the teaching quality or ability. So, say you are looking for a PhD program. You want to be sure that the program you are applying to is known to carry out high-quality research programs within your area of interest.

The student-faculty ratio is another way programs are ranked based on faculty quality. So this ratio is a judge of how much attention the faculty gives its students. This will guide you to know if you will literally be on your own and lost in a sea of aspirants like yourself. This ratio will also help you see how likely it is for students to build relationships with their advisors, lecturers, and professors.

In a school where there’s a small student-faculty ratio, there’s a high chance that students will be able to get close enough to their professors. Especially for such things as recommendation letters or referrals for jobs, internships, or any other program.


Last but not least is the reputation card. Typically, everyone except those in your field will regard a degree from an Ivy League school like Harvard as a major feat or a big deal. Most of these people will root for these “big name” schools although these schools are not as technical in that field as other schools.

But when it comes to reputation and prestige, you can rest assured that the overall quality of the program is put into full consideration. So that in making a choice, you can go after programs that are highly regarded within your field. If, for instance, you plan to land job positions within a specific field at the end of the program, you will do well to study in a school that is renowned in your specific field and with a highly-regarded professor.

Major players in the ranking program based on prestige are employers and peers. They will naturally rank a program highly if they have had great personal experiences with graduates from that program. So, if the program is known to graduate poorly educated students, be rest assured the program’s reputation will be burned. Even if the school’s reputation is over the roof.

Do These Rankings Matter For You?

This depends largely on your personal goals and your area of interest.

When it comes to the area of interest, subjects in law, business, and engineering are usually ranked. But with the very specialized programs, graduate school rankings don’t usually matter. A rule of thumb in selecting a program will be to ignore rankings. Especially if it is difficult to get a list of rankings for your particular area of interest on the internet. Not finding a list is an indicator that it really doesn’t matter to the program.

Your personal goals also matter. What do you hope to do with the degree after graduation? If you want to go into academia then your choice of schools must be based on rankings. Employers and businesses will also take note of the top schools and the highly-regarded within their area. They are likely to give more preference to applicants from such schools/programs.

So, you decide if they really matter.

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