Top Physics Schools
Many students in leading PhD programs went to prestigious private universities as undergraduates. But that does not mean that the undergraduate institution is the reason why they are in the competitive PhD programs. So I disagree with Inna Vishik’s plea for parents to sink vast amounts of their money into expensive colleges. The most successful PhD students are talented people who have spent as much time as possible in environments where they thrive, i.e., that help them to develop their talents to the fullest. Many different factors go into creating those environments, and most of them are not measured by US News & World Report rankings.
PhD admissions processes work differently in different fields and different institutions. So it’s important to avoid broad generalizations and to understand how things work in the field and the institution that you’re most interested in.
In some fields the same wealthy schools that appear at the top of the US News undergraduate rankings also dominate in research. But in other fields there’s little or no relation. My field is like that. I work at an institution that few Quora-ites drool over, but we run a highly selective PhD program, and in my sub-field over the past 10 years our PhD placement has arguably been better than any other institution. I was graduate admissions director for a dozen years, so I’ve seen the PhD admissions process up close. Our program typically has a 6-8% admission rate.
A little over 25% of my PhD students attended elite undergraduate schools in the US or abroad (e.g., Princeton, Oxford, Beijing U). The same number attended a mix of selective but less prestigious institutions in the US or abroad (e.g., U of Washington, U of Minnesota, Brandeis, Sophia U (Japan)). Almost half attended undergraduate institutions that don’t crack the top lists nationally or internationally (e.g., Buffalo, Toledo, Michigan State, Buenos Aires). One started in community college before transferring to Big State U.
I can discern no correlation at all between the prestige of the undergraduate institution and the success as a PhD student, or the ability to land a desirable job. Nor do students from famous schools have an advantage in the admissions process.
In our PhD admissions process, all serious application files are ready carefully by multiple people. Those who look interesting get a Skype interview, often more than one. And most of the finalists come for a 2-day campus visit. A degree from a famous undergraduate institution might draw attention in the initial sorting of applications, and the same goes for a glowing letter from somebody who is well known in the field. But once it gets to interviews and in-person visits it’s all about the student, and the label on the degree has zero impact.
Almost all of our PhD admits have strong prior research experience, and a large number have strong post-BA research background. All show evidence of initiative, ability to work in a team, ability to think on their feet (and preferably speak and write too). In some cases, a key indicator of potential comes from what the student has been able to achieve despite going to an under-resourced school.
We’ve had a number of students with a degree from Yale. But we’ve also had a number who attended Michigan State. They have something in common. In our field, both offer excellent research experiences to undergraduates, perhaps helped by not being distracted by an elite PhD program. Their undergraduate researchers are unusually well prepared. So the institution helped, but not the institution’s ranking. We’ve certainly also turned away plenty of students with strong credentials from elite schools.
There are sure to be differences in other fields and other institutions. Many do not (or cannot) look as carefully as our program does. But in programs where PhD admission requires a commitment from a specific mentor, the process is likely close to what I describe here. If you’re running a busy and successful research group, you know that few things are more important than carefully selecting the members of your team.
So why do elite schools account for a sizable chunk of the students in top PhD programs? Because those schools attract a lot of talented students. Not because the institution gives the student an edge in PhD admissions.