05 May 2010

Places versus programs versus people

When I talk to students about how to pick a graduate program, I usually tell them to find “The guy.” * Find the person who is the best in the world at the kind of research you want to do, and who is a reasonable person for you to work with.

Now, “the guy” might be in a place you have never heard of. This, to my way of thinking, should not matter. Grad school is about personal relationships, not bricks and mortar.

At least, that’s what I’ve thought. But lately, I’ve had a gnawing worry about whether this is the right strategy.

At the undergraduate level, I was disappointed to read how much the average starting salaries differ for university graduates in the United States. As I started to think about the intangible factors that lead to scientific success, I went back to the list of some prominent scientists in an earlier post.

  • Carl Sagan: Pulitzer Prize winning book The Dragons of Eden published in 1978. Degree from University of Chicago, worked for Harvard and Cornell.
  • Stephen Jay Gould: Breakthrough paper on punctuated equilibrium published in 1972. Graduate work at Columbia and worked at Harvard.
  • E.O. Wilson: Breakthrough book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis published in 1975. Degree from, and worked at Harvard.
  • Richard Dawkins: Breakthrough book The Selfish Gene published in 1976. Degrees from, and worked at Oxford.
  • David Attenborough: Major television series Life on Earth debuted in 1979. Degree from Cambridge.
  • David Suzuki: Began as host of The Nature of Things in 1979. Degree from University of Chicago, worked at UBC.

Call me suspicious, but I see a fairly small cluster of institutions in these sorts of lists. It almost feels like people are only willing to let scientists from certain places be “prominent.”

Have I been wrong all this time? Should a student looking to go to graduate school just find the most “famous” school they possibly can, and consider who they might work with as an afterthought?

* “The guy” might well be a woman. I think “guy” can be almost gender neutral, but tell me if I’m wrong.


Roger G-S said...

It's not the fame of school so much as the depth of program and its fame within the discipline. Yale, Harvard etc. may be terrible or limited places to study what you're interested in. At the same time, following "the guy" can be risky if his department doesn't have 2-5 other mutually supportive faculty in roughly the same area (i.e. looking to publish in the same journals, let's say).

The benefits are a wider networking circle from both the other faculty and grad school peers, and more security in case you change interest or have personal issues with the initial supervisor.

Kim said...

I think working with a good graduate adviser (and committee members) is really important, but the place also makes a big difference. But what is The Place (as equivalent to The Guy) in a given field? In the geosciences, 25% of faculty have their degrees from 10 institutions, but half of those institutions are public universities (Wisconsin, Washington, Arizona, UCLA, and Berkeley). (The private schools are MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Columbia, and Harvard.) Source: http://www.agiweb.org/workforce/Currents-008-FacultyRankandDegreeOrigins.pdf

It might be difficult to separate The Guy from The Place; those top schools also have a tendency to make big-name senior hires (from possibly biased observation; I don't know of data on that).

Sarah F. said...

Two points:
First, all of "these guys" are science popularizers in their fields, rather than heavy hitters in research, the latter of which I would think should play a bigger role in a student's choice of graduate schools. Second, if you look at the big names in research from these fields, you do find them to be better distributed among non-ivy league universities. For example, EO Wilson may be the biggest name in his field (social insect biology) in general, but I would consider scientists like Gene Robinson (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) and Rob Page (Arizona State University) to be among the big researchers in the field, and better potential mentors for students.

Bjørn Østman said...

That group is not one of prominent scientists. It contains some prominent scientists (but aren't all). Rather, they are prominent communicators of science. In my field the prominent scientists are not all from Harvard and clones.

Zen Faulkes said...

I appreciate the point that I ticked over several professional scientists who were better known for science communication. Touché.

Still, several of those people hard substantial and substantive technical work, too. Plus, I expect that if you looked at it from other angles, those usual suspects would show up again.