The Problem With Graduate School and Rankings

With the economy still floundering, more Americans are considering attending graduate school. But how do you shop for the best  graduate school programs?

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Thomas A. Benton, an English professor at Hope College made a stab at answering that question. He observed that the  universities receiving the highest graduate school rankings aren’t always the best places to earn a graduate degree – at least in the humanities. That makes sense to me since the colleges that “earn” the highest rankings for undergraduates aren’t always the best either.

The graduate schools and programs that receive the top rankings don’t always deliver when graduates are looking for jobs. The elite research universities prepare their graduates to teach at other research universities, but most teaching jobs are at non-elite colleges.

Hiring committees at the schools lower on the food chain, however, can be suspicious of candidates from top-ranked graduate school programs. They suspect that these graduates will leave as soon as possible.

So how do you evaluate a graduate degree program without looking at the dubious rankings? Here are some of the questions that Benton says future graduate students should ask:

  1. What kind of financial support can a student expect to receive during the entire course of the program?
  2. How much educational debt do graduates leave with?
  3. How many discussion sections and courses are graduate students required to teach in order to receive a stipend each year?
  4. What is the average annual teaching load for graduate students?
  5. How many years does it typically take to graduate?
  6. How long are graduates on the academic job market?
  7. Where is every graduate employed in academe and in what positions: tenure track, visiting, adjunct?
  8. Where are graduates working, if not in academe?
  9. Does the program lead to appealing career paths outside of academe?
  10. What percentage of students earn doctorates?
  11. How many earn master’s degrees?
  12. What reason do students drop out?

If you’re considering graduate school, this is a great list of questions to start off your search. And whatever you do, don’t believe the rankings hype.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.com. Follow me on Twitter.

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