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PhD university ranking or supervisor fit?


User: PoliticsphdUK - 20 April 2021 11:56

Hi,

I am currently trying to decide between two PhD offers.

The first one is from a higher ranked university (60-65 worldwide and 5-10 in the UK, approximately). The university also has a great reputation in my field, which is one of their strongest research areas. However, my research fits much better with the supervisor from the other university. Also, the supervisor in this university is an early stage academic and thus has not published a lot yet.

The second university has a lower ranking (200-205 worldwide, 60-70 in the UK) and is not particularly well known for my field. But the supervisors’ (first and second supervisors) expertise fits very well with my research and their publications are well received in the field.

Obviously these university rankings are all relative and they are not everything. But I also understand that prestige does matter especially for an academic career and that higher ranked universities tend to have more fundings and resources. On the other hand, the research fit with the second university is excellent that it is difficult to disregard that.

Please give me some advice on this! Should I go for the university with better reputation or better supervisor?

Thank you!

User: bewildered - 22 April 2021 16:47

Assuming the subject is Politics like your user name, I'd suggest prioritising funding above all else. If the lower ranked university is offering full funding and the other not, then take the full funding. Doing a partially funded or unfunded Politics PhD is not a good idea unless you're retired or wealthy...
If both are offering full funding, then I'd suggest investigating what recent PhDs from the lower ranked department are doing career wise and look to see whether there's a reasonably sized PhD community there, decent research methods training and whether most staff are publishing. It's hard to do a PhD in a department where the only thing valued is teaching, not least because you can get pushed into too much teaching yourself to the detriment of the PhD. Supervisory fit is important but you also need access to the research infrastructure to help you. If the lower ranked uni has all that and that's what your gut is telling you is right, then go for it.

User: PoliticsphdUK - 23 April 2021 02:03

Thank you so much for your detailed response!

With regards to PhD community and academic network in general, how much does that stretch beyond your supervisor? My understanding is that if your supervisor is well respected and connected in their field, they could offer you better chances at networking in academia. Would you say this is actually the case? Or is it more important to join the PhD community comprising graduates who are doing well in their career?

It seems like the lower ranked university has the advantage of having supervisors with great connection in the field whereas the higher ranked one would offer PhD community with graduates performing well in academia. Also it seems like recent PhDs from the former are doing quite well in the industry and the latter more in academia/research field.

User: eng77 - 23 April 2021 07:31

Quote From PoliticsphdUK:

It seems like the lower ranked university has the advantage of having supervisors with great connection in the field whereas the higher ranked one would offer PhD community with graduates performing well in academia. Also it seems like recent PhDs from the former are doing quite well in the industry and the latter more in academia/research field.
I think this is over generalisation. All PhD graduates I know got their jobs without any support from supervisors. Only if they were offered a Postdoc at the same institution.
The importance of academic connections is exaggerated. Getting a job in academia after PhD graduation is more difficult than getting a funded PhD. The most important criteria in academia is publications. Outside academia other factors come into play such as how the PhD work is presented and how it is related to the job.

User: rewt - 23 April 2021 10:10

Are both PhDs on the same topic? As if not, I would choose the project you are more passionate about. I think enjoying your PhD project is far more important than university/supervisor fit.

You mention that your supervisors at the lower ranked uni are more established but does that also mean more responsibilities? Do they have multiple PhD students, admin roles in the uni, teach several classes or have an editor position? Some "superstar" supervisors barely interact with their PhD students and offer less day-to-day support than less established academics. There are many pros and cons for going with an early career supervisor but the extra support is one of the few pros.

Quote From eng77:
think this is over generalisation. All PhD graduates I know got their jobs without any support from supervisors. Only if they were offered a Postdoc at the same institution.
The importance of academic connections is exaggerated. Getting a job in academia after PhD graduation is more difficult than getting a funded PhD. The most important criteria in academia is publications. Outside academia other factors come into play such as how the PhD work is presented and how it is related to the job.

I would disagree. I know several PhD students that have been offered post doc roles at other unis based off the supervisor introductions or recommendations. You are right that publications are all what matter for a full-time academic job, but for post-doc roles there is a huge amount of favouritism.

User: eng77 - 24 April 2021 09:51

Quote From rewt:
I would disagree. I know several PhD students that have been offered post doc roles at other unis based off the supervisor introductions or recommendations. You are right that publications are all what matter for a full-time academic job, but for post-doc roles there is a huge amount of favouritism.
Interesting to know. I thought from my circle that PhD graduates have good chances of securing a Postdoc with their supervisors but did not know that there are available roles in other institutions that are not advertised and could be secured through connections.
For a permanent academic position, the Postdoc role seems the first step and it can help to publish more if publications during PhD were not that great. So connections will definitely help provided a good relationship with supervisor exists.

User: abababa - 27 April 2021 02:59

I thought from my circle that PhD graduates have good chances of securing a Postdoc with their supervisors

Bit of a dangerous myth.

A postdoc is typically externally funded. This means the academic needs to a) secure a grant, and b) align recruitment ('align' being a generous euphemism for bias) such that you get the post.

There are a few barriers there. A well meaning supervisor who wants to appoint you, may well not have an appropriate grant the year you graduate. If they don't, just waiting a year then means they have another year of students wanting the post. They will also have to tackle/subvert HR (you see this happen on jobs.ac with many allegedly external, competitive 'Postdoc in extremely obscure thing only my PhD student could know') adverts.

Internal funding is usually rarely available in volume or at discretion to anyone who's not a very distinguished Professor at a top-ranked Uni.

The general take-home is a typical Professor doesn't have the resource to be making academic calls as to whether they take a PhD on as a Postdoc, they're typically very practical can/can't afford decisions, that can be in the hands of the funding lottery or internal politics.

Even a good professor will likely be more in a space to ask colleagues internally or externally if they have an available role, than offer one directly. They won't have the clout to force that; rather they can point you in a good direction and put in a good word. The most dangerous thing to assume is that if they're asking you to do non-PhD work on the vague promise of a post it's guaranteed. Never assume they're 100% able to offer it, as this is rarely the case.

It is very normal to need to apply competitively, and relocate after a PhD. This is not unhealthy; it will help your academic perspective to move and work with other groups. But it's also difficult, and you shouldn't go into a PhD assuming if you're 'straight-A' the Prof is in a position to offer you a job, because they very likely won't be.





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