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).
Chances are you’ve used university rankings before. You might even have considered a higher-ranked institution for your undergraduate degree, perhaps hoping that employers might appreciate the difference.
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.
Instead you need to know more about the elements of a university’s performance that relate more directly to its research – and its training of future researchers.
That’s why this guide examines how different rankings work and explains which metrics are most valuable when choosing a PhD. We’ve also looked beyond rankings and picked out a few other ways to evaluate universities for postgraduate research.
Or, if you prefer, you can just jump straight to a lost of the top ranked universities for PhD study in 2017.
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 reputation of your university is never going to be as important as the quality of your own PhD work.
An average undergraduate degree from a ‘top’ university will still enhance your CV and may well impress employers.
But for PhD graduates – particularly those seeking academic work – the quality and potential of a candidate’s own research will matter more than the reputation of their university.
This doesn’t mean that rankings don’t matter. It just means that they matter in a different way. You’re not looking to ‘acquire’ the reflected quality of a top university. You’re looking to benefit from the factors responsible for that quality: ensuring that your PhD is as successful as it can be.
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.
This will allow you to understand what a university’s league table position actually means to you – and what it does (or doesn’t) say about the PhD opportunities it offers.
Knowing how individual metrics work will also let you ‘drill down’ into a university’s scores, gaining insight into the kinds of performance criteria that are most relevant to you.
Thankfully, this isn’t that hard to do. Rankings use different measurements, but they tend to measure the same things.
You can examine the methodologies for individual rankings below. First though, we’ll explain the four ‘core’ factors each ranking assess.
Research includes all a university’s published scholarship, together with its impact: the number of journal articles, books and papers an institution’s academics publish and the extent to which this work is used and respected 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.
So, the quality of a university’s research definitely matters.
Rankings measure this by looking at the amount of research a university publishes as well as how often that research is used by other scholars – and how highly regarded it is.
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.
Successful research at a global level depends on a lot of factors that tend to favour older universities. These have 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.
Unfortunately, this can mean that smaller, newer, universities don’t look as good in comparison – particularly not in global league tables (more targeted rankings can tell a different story).
But don’t make the mistake of assuming that lower-ranked institutions don’t carry out good research – or that they’re a bad choice for your PhD.
It may be the case that they 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.
The answer may seem simple here: 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-ration) 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 university’s 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 table, for example, measures the number and ratio of PhDs a university awards.
As above, teaching metrics need to be understood in order to be used correctly for a ‘PhD-level ranking’. Remember that many 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.
A university’s ability to attract investment can reflect the wider quality and reputation of its 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.
Employer surveys may also be less relevant to postgraduate research. The data they gather may focus on taught courses at undergraduate level.
These metrics measure how focussed a university is on building links with institutions or individuals in 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. This has an obvious impact on the range of opportunities for exciting and ground-breaking PhD work.
The presence of lots of international staff and students can also help introduce you to multiple ideas and perspectives – vital when producing original and valuable PhD research.
Needless to say, internationalisation also matters very specifically to students considering a doctorate abroad. A university with a strong track record of recruiting overseas staff and students will have the facilities and experience to welcome and support new international researchers.
The metrics used to measure internationalisation in global rankings can benefit larger universities, with bigger student populations and the opportunities to collaborate ‘at scale’.
A ‘low’ score for internationalisation doesn’t necessarily mean a university is insular – or that it will be unfriendly to foreign students. 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 important to know how specific rankings use these metrics – and how they’re put together.
There are a wide range of university rankings available, measuring universities in different countries and regions or assessing specific types of institution.
For simplicity (and usability) this guide focusses on the three biggest tables, the ‘global’ rankings published each year by Times Higher Education, QS, and the Academic Ranking of World Universities.
These are the most detailed and comprehensive, aiming at providing a complete picture of a university’s overall performance.
Ironically, that kind of ‘zoomed out’ perspective isn’t actually what makes them valuable to PhD students. What really matters is the depth and breadth of the metrics that produce it. If you know what to look for you can ‘zoom in’ to take a much closer look at a university – including factors that directly concern its PhD research.
Originally known as the ‘Shanghai ranking, the ARWU has been published every year since 2003. This makes it the longest running of the three main rankings. It’s also the most distinctive.
Whereas the Times Higher Education and QS rankings include some qualitative measurements (based on surveys of reputation and other subjective factors) the ARWU only uses quantitative data.
It also sets a high standard for measurements, recognising research in top journals and exceptional staff or student performance.
The following table provides the key details for the current ARWU ranking:
|The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)|
|Top Universities in 2016-17||University||Ranking||Country|
|3||University of California, Berkeley||USA|
|4||The University of Cambridge||UK|
|5||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||USA|
|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.
Above all else, the ARWU identifies a stable tradition of academic excellence.
A university that does well in its table 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.
A university’s academic excellence arguably matters more to PhD work than it does to any other level of study. You’ll want to work with the best supervisors available. And 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 measurement of alumni prizes may seem a little odd, but it’s another interesting indicator for PhDs. The focus here is very academic: showing how many students went on to become prize-winning scholars. Your PhD could (hopefully) see you follow in their footsteps.
The ARWU’s limitations are also a product of its focus on objective data.
With so many metrics based on the achievements of individuals, it can be harder to gain an overall picture of an institution. An association with high-flying academics and alumni reflects well on a university, but it doesn’t do as much to assess an institution ‘holistically’, as more or less than the sum of its parts.
The ARWU is also slightly biased towards STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and related subjects. Historically, its measurement of work in the Arts and Humanities has been less extensive.
The Times Higher Education magazine (THE) is a professional trade publication for higher education. It focusses primarily on the UK, but has a global coverage (and audience).
Its flagship global ranking is published each Autumn. Originally produced in partnership with QS, both organisations now publish their own ‘World University Rankings’ using different methodologies.
The following table provides a detailed breakdown of the current Times Higher Education World University Ranking:
|The Times Higher Education World University Ranking|
|Top Universities in 2017||University||Ranking||Country|
|1||The University of Oxford||UK|
|2||California Institute of Technology||USA|
|4||The University of Cambridge||UK|
|5||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||USA|
|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.
Of the three main rankings, THE has the broadest academic focus. Research performance and citations account for 60% of a university’s score.
A qualitative survey is also used, exploring the wider reputation of a university across the global higher education landscape.
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 rankings are probably the most relevant to PhD students, but don’t forget that they aren’t a postgraduate-specific ranking.
Large parts of a university’s score is based on metrics like staff-to-student ration and overall teaching reputation that won’t be directly relevant to your PhD work. The emphasis on citations can also put some international universities at a disadvantage if their academics don’t publish in English.
QS (Quacquarelli Symonds) are a higher education publisher, with a similar focus to the Times Higher Education magazine.
Until 2010, the two organisations collaborated to produce a joint global ranking. Now QS, like THE, produces its own ‘World University Ranking’.
The following table provides an overview of the current QS ranking:
|The QS World University Ranking|
|Top Universities in 2017||University||Ranking||Country|
|1||Massachusetts Institute of Technology||USA|
|4||The University of Cambridge||UK|
|5||California Institute of Technology||USA|
|Academic Reputation||40%||Based on a global survey of over 74,000 academic experts, responding according to their knowledge and expertise|
|Employer Reputation||10%||Based on a global survey of pver 37,000 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|
In some ways, the QS ranking takes an alternative path to its Times Higher Education counterpart. More emphasis is placed on surveys of university reputation and broader teaching metrics account for a great part of an institution’s score.
The QS ranking is designed to be useful to prospective students in addition to being an industry benchmark. As such it accords 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. Institutions with a large number of foreign staff and students may be better placed to welcome and support international postgraduates.
Though the QS ranking arguably offers the most information to students, this isn’t as relevant to postgraduate research.
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 produced. Their annual publication is a significant benchmark for university performance and individual institutions often take their position very seriously.
But they aren’t the only rankings available. And they certainly aren’t the only rankings to consider for your PhD.
In this final section 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.
This allows them to recruit the best staff and students, conduct excellent research and training and achieve consistently high rankings. It’s a virtuous circle.
Unfortunately, this tends to mask the performance of newer universities, or institutions that simply aren’t as well known around the world. It also makes it harder to see where new, innovative work is being done outside the ‘top’ universities.
This is a problem for PhD students. After all, you want to find the best possible university for your research, not just the ‘best’ university overall. That might actually mean working at a smaller or newer university with the right specialism and research agenda for your project.
This is where more targeted rankings come in. There are two main types:
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 REF 2014.
REF 2014: the best 'ranking' for PhD study in the UK? 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 2016-17|
|University||THE 2016-17||QS 2016-17||ARWU 2016|
|University of Oxford||1||6||7|
|California Institute of Technology||2||5||8|
|University of Cambridge||4||4||4|
|Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)||5||1||5|
|Imperial College London||8||9||22|
|University of California, Berkeley||=10||28||3|
|University of Chicago||=10||10||10|
|University of Pennsylvania||13||18||18|
|University of California, Los Angeles||14||31||12|
|University College London||15||7||17|
|Johns Hopkins University||17||17||16|
|University of Michigan||21||23||23|
|University of Toronto||22||32||27|
|Carnegie Mellon University||23||58||68|
|National University of Singapore||24||12||83|
|London School of Economics||=25||37||151-200|
|Nanying Technological University, Singapore (NTU)||54||13||101-150|
|École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne||=30||14||92|
|University of Edinburgh||27||19||41|
|King's College London||=36||21||50|
|Australian National University||47||22||77|
|University of California, San Diego||41||40||14|
|University of Washington||=25||59||15|
|University of Tokyo||39||34||20|
|University of California, San Francisco||-||-||21|
|Washington University in St Louis||=57||-||23|
The information in this table is based on the top 25 universities in current rankings published by Times Higher Education, QS and the Academic Ranking of World Universities. You can view rankings and additional information on their websites.
Last updated - 09/02/2017