2023 University Rankings for PhD Study - A Guide | FindAPhD.com

2023 University Rankings for PhD Study

Written by Mark Bennett

University rankings aren’t necessarily designed with the needs of PhD students in mind, but they can still help you in your search for the best PhD programmes in the world.

This page will show you how to get the most out of the various global university rankings, using their metrics and league tables to decide on the best research universities for PhD study.

On this page

Top universities for PhD study in 2023

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 doctoral degree programmes it currently has available.

Top 50 Universities in 2023
University THE 2023 QS 2023 ARWU 2022
University of Oxford 1 4 7
Harvard University 2 5 1
University of Cambridge =3 2 4
Stanford University =3 3 2
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) 5 1 3
California Institute of Technology 6 =6 9
Princeton University 7 =16 6
University of California, Berkeley 8 27 5
Yale University 9 18 11
Imperial College London 10 =6 23
Columbia University =11 22 8
ETH Zurich =11 9 20
University of Chicago 13 10 10
University of Pennsylvania 14 13 15
Johns Hopkins University 15 24 14
Tsinghua University 16 14 26
Peking University 12 18 34
University of Toronto 18 =34 22
National University of Singapore 19 11 71
Cornell University 20 20 12
University of California, Los Angeles 21 44 13
University College London 22 8 18
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor 23 25 28
New York University 24 39 25
Duke University 25 =50 31
Northwestern University =26 32 30
University of Washington =26 80 17
Carnegie Mellon University 28 52 101-150
University of Edinburgh 29 15 35
Technical University of Munich 30 49 56
University of Hong Kong 31 21 96
University of California, San Diego 32 53 21
LMU Munich 33 59 -
University of Melbourne 34 33 32
King's College London 35 37 48
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore 36 19 89
London School of Economics and Political Science 37 56 101-150
Georgia Institute of Technology 38 88 151-200
University of Tokyo 39 23 24
University of British Columbia 40 47 44
École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne 41 - 101-150
KU Leuven 42 76 95
Heidelberg University 43 =65 70
Monash University 44 57 75
Chinese University of Hong Kong 45 38 101-150
McGill University 46 31 73
Paris Sciences et Lettres – PSL Research University Paris 47 26 40
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign 48 85 49
Karolinska University 49 - 41
University of Texas at Austin 50 72 37
Information in this table is based on the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings, QS World University Rankings and Academic Ranking of World Universities. Visit their websites for more information.

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 the top PhD universities in the world.

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 and won’t always show you where the best PhD programmes are. 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 your graduate school's 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 doctoral 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 programme.

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 offered by graduate schools.

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?

Top research universities

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 Research Universities – 2023 THE World University Rankings
Rank University Overall rank
1 University of Oxford 1
2 University of Cambridge =3
3 Harvard University 2
4 Tsinghua University 16
5 California Institute of Technology 6
6 Peking University =16
7 Stanford University =3
8 Princeton University 7
9 University of California, Berkeley 8
10 ETH Zurich =11
This table ranks universities from 2023 Times Higher Education World University Ranking, based solely on their 'research' score.

For more information, see the official THE Ranking website.

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 graduate 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 during your doctoral programme).

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.

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 to find out the best research universities

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 latest REF exercise took place in 2021. You can check out all the REF results right here or read our detailed guide to how the REF works.

You may also like...

The Best Universities for PhDs in Electrical Engineering in the USA (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Electrical Engineering in the USA? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more
The Best Universities for PhDs in Electrical Engineering in Canada (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Electrical Engineering in Canada? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more
The Best Universities for PhDs in Biological Sciences in the UK (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Biological Sciences in the UK? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more
The Best Universities for PhDs in Business & Management in the UK (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Business & Management in the UK? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more
The Best Universities for PhDs in Biological Sciences in Italy (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Biological Sciences in Italy? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more
The Best Universities for PhDs in Communication & Media Studies in Italy (2023)

Looking for the best universities for PhDs in Communication & Media Studies in Italy? Compare ranking tables from top sources here, along with their methodologies.

Read more

Last Updated: 16 November 2022