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. 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.
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.
Before looking at specific university rankings, 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.
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 (metaphorically speaking – please don't use this guide to season your food).
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.
Thankfully, this isn’t that hard to do. Rankings use different measurements, but they tend to measure similar things. For the sake of convenience we can group these into four broad categories:
Research includes all a university’s published scholarship, together with its impact (how often its publications are actually cited by other scholars).
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.
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.
Rankings measure all of a university's research, across a range of subjects. This 'zoomed out' view can favour older universities, with the revenue streams to sustain the high quality research that earns their reputation – and the reputation to attract the best staff, students and funding. It’s a virtuous circle.
Smaller and / or newer universities may not look as good overall. But that doesn't mean they're a bad choice for your PhD. They may actually specialise in exactly the right area for your project and have the best facilities and expertise to make it successful.
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.
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.
Remember that most measurements will be based on undergraduate data – and experiences.
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.
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.
These metrics are potentially very revealing, but they can be difficult to use well.
A university with a strong record of external engagement may offer more opportunities for you to collaborate with business or industry during your PhD. But there’s no guarantee that partnerships will apply to your specific programme.
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.
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.
The metrics used to measure internationalisation can flatter large universities, with bigger student populations and the opportunities to collaborate ‘at scale’.
A lower 'internationalisation' score doesn’t necessarily mean a university isn't international. All universities address global issues and all will be keen to welcome talented students from other parts of the world.
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.
Remember that you can just jump straight to the overall results for 2020, if you prefer.
Did you know that we list PhD projects and programmes at universities around the world? Why not take a look?
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.
|The Academic Ranking of World Universities methodology|
|Quality of Education: Prize-winning alumni||10%||Number of alumni winning Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals|
|Quality of Faculty: Prize-winning staff||20%||Number of staff winning Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals|
|Quality of Faculty: Highly cited researchers||20%||Number of staff featured in the Thomson Reuters Highly Cited Researchers database|
|Research Output: Papers published in Nature or Science||20%||Number of papers by staff published in these top peer-reviewed science journals. Weighting is redistributed for some institutions with non-science specialisms.|
|Research Output: Papers indexed in Science Citation Index-expanded and Social Science Citation Index||20%||Published papers indexed in top science and social science research databases|
|Per Capita Performance||10%||Weighted scores for other indicators, divided by staff numbers|
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 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 1,300 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):
|The Times Higher Education World University Ranking methodology|
|Teaching: reputation||15%||Based on a survey of over 20,000 responses|
|Teaching: staff-to-student ratio||4.5%||Based on institution data|
|Teaching: ratio of PhD to undergraduate degrees awarded||2.25%||Based on institution data|
|Teaching: doctorates awarded||6%||Scaled according to institutional size|
|Teaching: income||2.25%||Income is scaled according to staff numbers & adjusted for purchasing power in different countries|
|Research: reputation||18%||Based on a survey of over 20,000 responses|
|Research: income||6%||Normalised to take account of institutional and international circumstances|
|Research: output||6%||Based on the number of peer-reviewed academic papers scaled by size and subject circumstances|
|Citations||30%||Based on the number of times a university's publications are cited by other scholars around the world|
|Industry||2.5%||Assesses knowledge-transfer with external partners by measuring industrial funding and income|
|International: ratio of international to domestic students||2.5%||Includes both undergraduate and postgraduate students|
|International: ratio of international to domestic staff||2.5%||Based on institution data|
|International: collaboration||2.5%||Measures publications with at least one international co-author, normalised by subject|
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.
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.
|The QS World University Ranking methodology|
|Academic Reputation||40%||Based on a global survey of over 94,000 academic experts, responding according to their knowledge and expertise|
|Employer Reputation||10%||Based on a global survey of pver 45,000 graduate employers, giving the best domestic and international institutes as per their experience|
|Faculty-student-ratio||20%||Measuring student numbers against staff (both full-time-equivalent) and used as QS's main teaching quality metric|
|Citations per faculty||20%||Based on the number of times each full-time faculty member's work is cited over a 5 year sample period|
|International faculty||5%||The proportion of foreign faculty employed by a university|
|International students||5%||The proportion of international students enrolled at a university|
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
Domestic rankings focus on universities within a single country. These are usually produced by national newspapers and media organisations, rather than by global ranking publishers.
As you’d expect, criteria for domestic rankings vary widely. Some may focus on specific postgraduate issues, but others may rely on metrics that matter more to prospective undergraduates.
It isn’t possible to list them all here, but you can find out more about different international higher education systems in our guides to PhD study abroad.
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 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).
You can read all about the Research Excellence Framework and view results using our interactive guide to the REF.
If you're planning on studying a PhD in the UK, one of the best tools for evaluating universities may not actually be a ranking at all. The government's Research Excellence Framework rates research in specific subjects at all UK universities.
So, you know how rankings work, you know who publishes them and you know about some of the alternatives.
That just leaves one obvious question: which are the best universities in the world right now? And which is the best option for your PhD?
Answering the first question is easy enough. The following table lists the top universities according to the latest version of each ranking.
As for the second question, well, if you’ve read the rest of this guide you’ll know that picking the best university for a PhD isn’t quite so simple as checking its ranking. But that’s where we come in.
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 2020|
|University||Country||THE 2020||QS 2020||ARWU 2019|
|University of Oxford||UK||1||4||7|
|California Institute of Technology||USA||2||5||9|
|University of Cambridge||UK||3||7||3|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||USA||5||1||4|
|University of Chicago||USA||9||10||10|
|Imperial College London||UK||10||9||23|
|University of Pennsylvania||USA||11||15||17|
|Johns Hopkins University||USA||12||24||16|
|University of California, Berkeley||USA||=13||28||5|
|University College London (UCL)||UK||15||8||15|
|University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)||USA||17||=35||11|
|University of Toronto||Canada||18||=29||24|
|University of Michigan – Ann Arbor||USA||21||21||20|
|National University of Singapore (NUS)||Singapore||25||=11||67|
|University of Washington||USA||26||68||14|
|Carnegie Mellon University||USA||=27||48||95|
|London School of Economics (LSE)||UK||=27||44||151-200|
|New York University||USA||29||39||30|
|University of Edinburgh||UK||30||20||31|
|University of California, San Diego||USA||31||45||18|
|University of Melbourne||Australia||=32||38||41|
|University of British Columbia||Canada||34||51||35|
|University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong||35||=25||101-150|
|King's College London (KCL)||UK||=36||=33||51|
|University of Tokyo||Japan||=36||=22||25|
|École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne||Switzerland||=38||=18||78|
|Georgia Institute of Technology||USA||=38||=72||101-150|
|University of Texas at Austin||USA||=38||65||45|
|Technical University of Munich||Germany||43||55||57|
|University of Heidelberg||Germany||44||66||47|
|Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL)||France||=45||53||79|
|Hong Kong University of Science and Technology||Hong Kong||47||32||201-300|
|University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign||USA||=48||75||38|
|Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU)||Singapore||=48||=11||73|
|Australian National University||Australia||50||=29||76|
|University of Manchester||UK||=55||27||33|
|Seoul National University||Korea||64||37||101-150|
|Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST)||Korea||=110||41||201-300|
|University of Sydney||Australia||60||42||80|
|University of New South Wales||Australia||71||43||94|
|Chinese University of Hong Kong||Hong Kong||=57||46||101-150|
|University of Queensland||Australia||66||47||54|
|University of Bristol||UK||87||49||64|
|Delft University of Technology||Netherlands||=67||50||151-200|
|Washington University in St Louis||USA||52||=108||22|
|University of Copenhagen||Denmark||101||=81||26|
|University of Wisconsin-Madison||USA||51||56||27|
|University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill||USA||54||90||33|
|University Paris-Sud (Paris 11)||France||201-250||=262||37|
|University of Colorado at Boulder||USA||124||206||38|
|University of Minnesota||USA||79||=156||41|
|University of Maryland, College Park||USA||=91||136||46|
|University of California, Santa Barbara||USA||=57||135||48|
|University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas||USA||-||-||49|
Last updated - 23/09/2019