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 by Mark Bennett
, posted on 16 Sep '20

Do University Rankings Matter for PhD Study? – Tips and Tricks

The problem with PhD rankings is simple: they don't exist.

You can use overall university rankings to inform your PhD search, of course (that's why we update our guide to each year's tables). But the overall results won't be specific to a university's postgraduate research opportunities - or focus on the things you might care about as a prospective PhD student.

What this means is that, if we want a PhD ranking, we're going to need to make one. Or maybe a few.

Creating PhD rankings

To put together our rankings, we're going to need some good data. Thankfully, that's no problem. The Times Higher Education World University Ranking in particular measures a lot of interesting things about universities.

We just need a methodology for selecting the information that might matter most to PhD students:

Individual metrics like research performance and the number of doctorates a university awards are clearly of interest to us. We can also take a look at how different countries compare as study abroad destinations and how much individual universities focus on internationalisation.

From there, it's just a case of analysing the results.

Data, methodology and analysis? It'll be just like doing a (very short) PhD. Let's get started.

#1 Research performance

A PhD is a research degree, so it stands to reason that the quality of a university's research is one of the things we should look at. And it just so happens that research is one of the key aspects of the Times Higher Education methodology*.

The metrics used are measurements of a university's research income and output, together with a reputational survey of over 22,000 academics.

If we just focus on research performance for 2021, we get a ranking that looks like this:

Top Universities for Research – 2021 THE World University Rankings
Rank University Overall rank
1 University of Oxford 1
2 University of Cambridge 6
3 Harvard University 3
4 University of California, Berkeley 7
5 California Institute of Technology 4
6 Stanford University 2
7 Tsinghua University =20
8 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 5
9 Yale University 8
10 Princeton University 9
This table ranks universities from 2021 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, based solely on their 'research' score.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these universities are also highly ranked in the overall tables (research is an important part of what a university does, after all!). But it's interesting to see some institutions – such as Tsinghua, in China – rising up the table once we focus in on this one metric.

*Other rankings like the QS and ARWU tables also measure research quality in slightly different ways, but we're going to keep things simple for this blog.

#2 Teaching performance

Ranking universities for PhD study using their teaching performance may seem strange. A PhD is a research degree, after all, right?

Well, yes. But some of the methodology the Times Higher Education ranking uses for teaching is actually very relevant to postgraduate researchers. In fact, some of them measure the presence (and achievements) of postgraduate research students.

As well as general metrics such as staff/student ratios, income and academic reputation, THE also looks at the ratio of PhDs to undergraduate degrees awarded and the total number of doctorates awarded.

Somewhat counterintuitively, this means that the measurement of 'teaching' in the Times Higher Education ranking includes information that's very relevant to research degrees.

Ranking universities in this way gives the following top 10:

Top Universities for Teaching (Including PhDs) – 2021 THE World University Rankings
Rank University Overall rank
1 Harvard University 3
2 California Institute of Technology 4
3 Stanford University 2
4 Yale University 8
5 University of Oxford 1
6 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 5
7 University of Cambridge 6
8 Peking University 23
9 University of Chicago 10
10 Princeton University 9
This table ranks universities from 2021 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, based solely on their 'teaching' score.

Again, these are all well-ranked institutions overall (with only one outside the top 10). It's no surprise that they're also likely to offer strong PhD research opportunities.

Do remember though that this table doesn't just focus on PhD training. It also reflects broader statistics (such as staff/student rations) that will be more relevant to undergraduate teaching.

#3 Study abroad opportunities

Moving away from specific metrics for a moment, let's 'zoom out' and look beyond individual universities.

As global comparisons, the league tables can also tell us how different countries compare, based on the number of their universities that rank (and how highly).

For simplicity's sake, we'll just look at the most prolific countries in the world top 150:

Top Countries - 2021 THE World University Rankings
Country Universities in top 150 Top university
USA 50 Stanford University (2)
UK 18 University of Oxford (1)
Germany 17 LMU Munich (32)
Netherlands 10 Wageningen University & Research (=62)
Australia 8 University of Melbourne (31)
Canada 7 University of Toronto (18)
China 7 Tsinghua University (=20)
Switzerland 6 ETH Zurich (14)
Hong Kong 5 University of Hong Kong (39)
France 4 Paris Sciences et Lettres (46)
This table ranks countries based on the number of their universities in the top 150 of the 2021 Times Higher Education World University Ranking. Where two countries have the same number of institutions, they are ordered by highest individual ranking.

It may not surprise you to see the USA and UK at the top of this list, but would you have expected Germany and the Netherlands to be so close in third and fourth place? Or for Asia to have three destinations in the top ten?

#4 International education

Next, let's look at PhD study abroad from a different angle: which universities are the most invested in international education?

Again, the Times Higher Education ranking includes a handy metric for this. Its 'international outlook' score measures universities on the number of international staff and students they recruit, as well as their involvement in international projects.

Ranked in this way the top ten universities are:

Top International Universities – 2021 THE World University Rankings
Rank University Overall rank
1 City University of Hong Kong 126
2 University of Hong Kong 39
3 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne 43
4 Chinese University of Hong Kong =56
5 ETH Zurich 14
6 Maastricht University =121
7 The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology =56
8 Imperial College London 11
9 University of Basel =92
10 Queen Mary University of London 110
This table ranks universities from 2021 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, based solely on their 'international outlook' score. Only universities in the overall top 150 are included.

It's no surprise that cosmopolitan study destinations like Hong Kong and Switzerland dominate this ranking. Still, it's interesting to see universities from further down the rankings rising into the top ten when judged solely on international metrics.

Institutions like these are likely to foster especially vibrant research environments, offering opportunities for knowledge exchange and alternative perspectives that can inform and develop your PhD. In addition, they're probably welcoming (and well-established) destinations for international study

Conclusion – a PhD ranking?

So, we've worked with some great data and done a bit of analysis: have we come up with a definitive PhD ranking? Not as such. What we have done is come up with a set of 'sub-rankings' that might indirectly measure some of the factors that matter for PhD students.

In particular, we've been able to see where countries have especially renowned higher education systems. We've also identified some of the universities that excel at internationalisation. Both of these are going to be useful if you're planning on studying abroad (or simply casting a wide net for your PhD search).

Perhaps just as importantly, we've also witnessed a strong correlation between overall rankings and our specific top tens for research and teaching metrics.

Does this mean that a top-ranked university is the best choice for your PhD? No, no more than it means that great programmes and great research opportunities aren't available at a whole range of universities.

But it does suggest that rankings are worth including as one resource in your PhD search. You can find out more about them - and read more advice - here on FindAPhD.

Where's our data from? - All the ranking information on this page is drawn from the 2020 Times Higher Education World University Rankings. We'll let you know if they ever produce a full PhD ranking. For now, the analysis (and any mistakes) here are ours.

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