2021 Rankings for PhD Study - A Guide | FindAPhD.com
Tips on how to manage your PhD stipend FIND OUT MORE
University of Liverpool Featured PhD Programmes
University of Sussex Featured PhD Programmes
Queen’s University Belfast Featured PhD Programmes

2021 Rankings for PhD Study

Do such things as ‘PhD rankings’ exist? The quick answer is ‘no.’ But, as you can tell from the fact that this article continues, it’s not quite so simple as that.

A better question would be: ‘can you use university rankings to help find a good PhD project or programme?’ And the answer to that question is ‘yes.’ (Again, there wouldn’t be much point to this page otherwise).

But getting the most out of this information for a PhD requires a slightly different approach. You’ll usually want to know what the best universities for research are, for example. Simply knowing where a university sits in a global league table isn’t going to be that valuable to you as a PhD student.

That's where our guide comes in, which has plenty of detail on ranking methodologies as well as the university ranking tables themselves.

On this page

The top-ranked universities for PhD study in 2021

This is the only resource that compares all three major rankings, side by side, and properly explains how the things they measure are (or aren't) relevant to PhD study.

By selecting a university you can use our listings to see exactly what kinds of PhD projects and programmes it currently has available.

Top Ranked Universities in 2021
University Country THE 2021 QS 2021 ARWU 2020
University of Oxford UK 1 5 9
Stanford University USA 2 2 2
Harvard University USA 3 3 1
California Institute of Technology USA 4 4 8
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) USA 5 1 4
University of Cambridge UK 6 7 3
University of California, Berkeley USA 7 30 5
Yale University USA 8 17 11
Princeton University USA 9 12 6
University of Chicago USA 10 9 10
Imperial College London UK 11 8 25
Johns Hopkins University USA 12 =25 15
University of Pennsylvania USA 13 16 19
ETH Zurich Switzerland 14 6 29
University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) USA 15 36 13
University College London UK 16 10 16
Columbia University USA 17 19 7
University of Toronto Canada 18 =25 23
Cornell University USA 19 18 12
Duke University USA =20 42 27
Tsinghua University China =20 15 29
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor USA 22 21 22
Peking University China 23 23 49
Northwestern University USA 24 29 30
National University of Singapore Singapore 25 11 80
New York University USA 26 35 27
London School of Economics (LSE) UK 27 49 151-200
Carnegie Mellon University USA 28 51 95
University of Washington USA 29 =72 16
University of Edinburgh UK 30 20 42
University of Melbourne Australia 31 41 35
LMU Munich Germany 32 63 51
University of California, San Diego USA 33 54 18
University of British Columbia Canada 34 45 38
King's College London UK 35 =31 47
Karolinska Institute Sweden =36 - 45
University of Tokyo Japan =36 24 26
Georgia Institute of Technology USA 38 80 101-150
University of Hong Kong Hong Kong 39 22 151-200
McGill University Canada 40 =31 78
Technical University of Munich Germany 41 50 54
University of Heidelberg Germany 42 64 57
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland 43 14 83
University of Texas at Austin USA 44 71 41
KU Leuven Belgium 45 84 97
Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL) France 46 52 36
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU) Singapore 47 13 91
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA 48 82 45
University of Wisconsin-Madison USA 49 65 32
Washington University in St Louis USA 50 105 23
University of Manchester UK =51 =27 36
University of Sydney Australia =51 40 74
University of Southern California USA 53 =121 61
Boston University USA -54 =110 90
Kyoto University Japan =54 38 34
Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong =56 43 101-150
Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Hong Kong =56 =27 301-400
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill USA =56 95 30
Australian National University Australia 59 =31 67
Seoul National University Korea 60 37 101-150
Brown University USA 61 60 101-150
University of Queensland Australia =62 46 54
Wageningen University & Research Netherlands =62 =115 151-200
University of California, Davis USA =64 112 91
Monash University Australia =64 55 85
University of Amsterdam Netherlands 66 =61 101-150
University of New South Wales Australia 67 44 74
University of California, Santa Barbara USA 68 =152 49
McMaster University Canada 69 144 98
Fudan University China =70 34 100
Leiden University Netherlands =70 =128 80

The information in this table is based on the 2021 university rankings published by Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. You can view rankings and additional information on their websites.

Using university rankings as a research student

Now that you’ve had a chance to take a look at the three main university rankings, compared side by side, it’s worth getting a sense of how rankings work as a whole – and what to pay attention to when using them to evaluate universities for PhD study.

Each ranking uses a slightly different methodology, but they all aim to produce a list of the very best universities in the world, according to the quality of their research, teaching and wider reputation.

To do this, they collect a range of data about each institution. They then use their own systems to weight and normalise this data in a way that allows universities to be given a specific place in a global league table.

Turning university rankings into ‘PhD rankings’

An overall league table is great if you’re a higher education anorak, looking to see which university is ‘best’ or who ‘beats’ who in a given year. But it’s not necessarily that useful for PhD students. At least not on its own.

You’ll obviously benefit from the overall quality and reputation of your university, but you’re going to rely much more on the skills and expertise of your supervisor (and other academic staff) as well as the quality of a specific set of facilities and resources.

What's more, the quality and potential of your actual PhD research will matter at least as much as the reputation of your university.

So, when it comes to PhD study, it's important to take rankings with a pinch of salt. That's what the following explanation will provide.

Making sense of metrics – what do rankings actually measure?

To get the most out of university rankings when choosing a PhD, you need to be able to do two things:

Firstly, you need to know how rankings work and what they measure. Secondly, you need to be able to know which of those measurements matter most for PhD-level work.

#1 Research

Research includes all a university’s published scholarship, together with its impact (how often its publications are actually cited by other scholars).

Does it matter for PhD students?

Absolutely. As a PhD student you’ll be a postgraduate researcher, working on an original research project, supervised by an experienced researcher and working within a wider research group or department. It stands to reason that you’ll want to be at one of the best research universities during your PhD.

A university with a track record of successful and impactful research will normally have the systems in place for effective PhD supervision and support. They’ll be training you to do what they do best.

#2 Teaching

This one doesn’t require much explanation. Teaching metrics look at the quality of instruction a university gives its students.

Rankings calculate this using student satisfaction, reputation with employers or outcomes such as graduation rates and future prospects.

Does it matter for PhD students?

A PhD is a research degree, not a taught degree, right? So teaching doesn’t matter? Well, not quite.

It’s true that broad teaching metrics (such as staff-student-ratio) don’t relate well to PhD training. It’s also true that no ranking measures specific factors such as the quality of a university’s PhD supervision (not yet, anyway). But you shouldn’t completely discount teaching metrics. A commitment to providing sufficient staff and support for its students may well translate into its postgraduate training – particularly for more structured PhD programmes.

Some rankings also include metrics that relate specifically to advanced postgraduate teaching – the Times Higher Education, for example, measures the number and ratio of PhDs a university awards.

#3 External engagement

This is a catch-all term for a university’s relationships with businesses, industry and other external partners.

Different rankings measure this in particular ways. Some look at investment as a measure of a university’s success in forging partnerships and carrying out work with wider impact. Others look at the way employers view an institution – and the graduates it produces.

Does it matter to PhD students?

The ability to attract investment can reflect the wider quality and reputation of university research. It may also indicate the potential to work with partners outside the academy and produce PhD work with commercial potential and / or wider benefits for society.

#4 International profile

These metrics measure how focussed a university is on building links with other countries.

This can include measuring how many international students and staff a university recruits, or how much time it spends collaborating on international research projects.

Does it matter to PhD students?

Internationalisation can be a strong indicator of how vibrant a university’s research and teaching is.

Institutions with lots of partnerships will be involved in tackling key questions and solving global problems. There's no reason why that shouldn't be reflected in their PhD opportunities. The presence of lots of international staff and students can also help introduce you to multiple ideas and perspectives – and provide a welcoming environment for PhD study abroad.

Using this information

Understanding what rankings measure is vital if you want to get the most out of them as a PhD student. But it’s also handy to know how specific rankings use these metrics – and how they’re put together.

The following sections will explain that, looking at three of the biggest world university rankings (ones that compare universities from across the globe). The exact details of their methodologies aren't necessarily the most exciting thing you'll ever read (unless your PhD is in statistics, perhaps) but we think it's probably handy to have all of this information in one place. We've also given our take on how useful each ranking is for PhD study.

Search for your perfect PhD

Did you know that we list PhD projects and programmes at universities around the world? Why not take a look?

The Times Higher Education World University Ranking

The Times Higher Education magazine (THE) is a British magazine that regularly produces university league tables.

Its flagship global ranking has been published since 2010 and currently includes over 1,250 universities.

The Times Higher Education World University Rankings is based partly on data provided by universities themselves, partly on indexes of citations and partly on responses to a survey carried out by THE.

Its methodology (and weightings) are quite complex, but the main focus is on teaching, research and internationalisation (similar to ARWU and QS).

Usefully, the THE rankings include an option to sort universities according to their performance in the research metric. As you can see in the table below, there's quite a high correlation between an institution's research output and their overall ranking.

Top Universities for Research – 2021 THE World University Rankings
Research 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.

For more information, see the official THE Ranking website.


Like its peers, the THE doesn’t produce a postgraduate-specific ranking. What it does do, however, is use postgraduate-specific metrics.

8.25% of a university’s score is based on the number of PhDs it awards: specifically, the ratio of doctorates awarded in relation to the number of undergraduate degrees and the number of academic staff at a university.

This means that, in order to rank well in the Times Higher Education table, a university must have an ongoing commitment to postgraduate research training.

A strong focus on research and citations means the THE ranking also reflects the wider research framework that supports and enables a university’s PhD work.


The Times Higher Education ranking uses some metrics related to PhD study, but it definitely isn't a PhD ranking.

Large parts of a university’s score is based on metrics like staff-to-student ratio and overall teaching reputation that won’t be relevant to PhD research.

The ranking also excludes universities that don't teach undergraduates at all or don't produce at least 150 publications a year. This means it can miss small and specialised institutions that might provide excellent PhD opportunities.

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

The ARWU, or 'Shanghai ranking' includes 1,000 universities and has been published every year since 2003 (making it the oldest of the three main rankings).

It uses only quantitative data (rather than reputation surveys) and sets a high standard for measurements, recognising research in top journals and exceptional staff or student performance.

For more information see the official ARWU website.


A university that does well in the ARWU is likely to have an established track record of producing high quality work. Its staff will be recognised leaders in their fields and much of their research will be published in the most prestigious journals.

As a PhD student you’ll want to work with the best supervisors available. You’ll also want your research project to take place within an institution with a tradition of carrying out (and publishing!) great academic work.


The ARWU results are quite biased towards older universities with a track record of prizes and towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in general. Historically, its measurement of work in the Arts and Humanities has been less extensive.

The QS World University Ranking

QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) are a higher education publisher, with a similar focus to the Times Higher Education magazine.

The two organisations previously collaborated to produce a joint global ranking. QS has been publishing its own ‘World University Ranking’ since 2010 and currently covers 1,000 universities.

Of the three major rankings, QS places the most emphasis on academic reputation.

For more information, see the official QS Ranking website.


The QS ranking is designed to be a student resource as much as an industry benchmark. As such it gives a lot of weight to metrics such as staff-student-ratio and employer perspectives.

Internationalisation metrics also make up 10% of a university’s QS score (higher than for the ARWU or THE tables). This makes its results well-worth consulting if you’re considering a PhD abroad.


Though the QS ranking arguably offers the most information to students, this isn’t as relevant to postgraduate research (and it doesn't included any postgraduate-specific metrics, like the THE).

Staff-student-ratio in particular has little bearing on the quality of PhD training, which involves one-to-one supervision, rather than ‘teaching’. Employer perspectives may also be of less value to researchers – though this varies across academic subjects.

Other rankings for PhD study

The THE, ARWU and QS tables are the most well-known and ‘visible’ rankings. But they aren’t the only rankings available. And they certainly aren’t the only rankings to consider for your PhD.

Here we’ve quickly summarised some of the other options available to you and explained how to get the most use out of them.

Subject rankings

Global rankings are great if you want to know about a university’s overall and standing. They also allow you to drill-down to discover more about its performance in specific areas such as research and teaching.

But global rankings do have an obvious limitation for PhD students: they don’t tell you much about how well a university does in your specific subject (let alone the specialist area you’ll be working on for your doctorate).

One way to get around this is to use subject rankings. As their name suggests, these focus on specific academic disciplines. They’re often based on ‘parent’ global rankings, with results re-evaluated and re-ordered.

Of course, subject rankings are still quite broad. You won’t find a list of the top universities for eighteenth-century lyric poetry or migratory avian ecology. But you will find lists of the top universities for Arts and Humanities or Life Sciences. And that’s a start.

The following subject rankings are available:

  • The THE World University Rankings by Subject – adjusted from the Times Higher Education World University Ranking and published shortly after it each year.
  • The QS World University Rankings by Subject – based on the main QS World University Rankings. QS offers the widest range of rankings for different academic specialisms, with 42 specific disciplines and subjects covered.
  • The Shanghai Subject Rankings – published along with the ARWU, these focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) areas. ARWU also publishes broader rankings by academic field.

Targeted rankings

It’s no secret or surprise that the top global rankings spots are held by historic universities with international reputations and significant resources.

Unfortunately, this tends to mask the performance of newer universities and makes it harder to see where new, innovative work is being done outside the ‘top’ universities. And new, innovative work is what you should be seeking to do for your PhD.

This is where more targeted rankings come in. There are two main types:

  • Regional rankings focus on universities in specific parts of the world. They can be useful if you want to narrow down your opportunities in an area with lots of universities (such as North America) or if you want to find the best universities in emerging study abroad regions. Both THE and QS publish a range of regional rankings.
  • Rankings of newer universities do exactly what you’d expect. By leaving out the historic universities that dominate global rankings these tables can reveal the achievements of smaller, innovative institutions. They usually do this by setting a strict ‘age cap’ for inclusion. THE publishes a list of the best universities under 50 years old as the Young University Rankings. QS publishes its own Top 50 Under 50.

The best universities in different countries

Want to quickly find the highest ranked universities for a particular study destination? Our guides to PhD study abroad include details for the top institutions in different countries.

Research assessments

Finally, there are rankings that aren’t really rankings at all.

Many countries (including the UK) award public funding to higher education institutions based on their research performance.

Unsurprisingly, these don’t tend to rely on league tables to do this (though that doesn’t mean they won’t celebrate their universities’ performance). Instead they tend to carry out their own assessment exercises.

These aren’t really designed for use by students, but they can be very relevant to PhD work. One good example of this is the UK’s Research Excellence Framework (REF). This assesses the quality of research a university produces, its wider impact and how well it supports researchers (including postgraduates).

The next REF exercise will take place in 2021 (the previous one was back in 2014).

Last updated - 10/02/2021

This article is the property of FindAPhD.com and may not be reproduced without permission.

Click here to search our database of PhDs

FindAPhD. Copyright 2005-2021
All rights reserved.