Comparing and Evaluating Graduate Programs [IV]

Evaluating graduate schools and comparing them just became much easier. In my three previous postings on this topic I provided numerous criteria that an assiduous graduate school candidate might use to drill into web sites as well as to question graduate program chairs about various dimensions of a program. The goal of this deeper inquiry and comparison is to find a higher degree of comfort or “fit” with the programs to which a student might apply. With application fees averaging $75, it pays to be thoughtful and deliberate in determining which programs you should consider. It is easy to name the top three programs in many disciplines, but finding outstanding programs that also provide generous funding should not be left to word-of-mouth networking or to relying on reputations that may have grown stale. Now, an invaluable on-line resource is available that allows for assessments in ways that were not easily possible until now.

It took five years and after numerous delays, the National Research Council published A Data-Based Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs in the United States. This is a rigorously constructed, detailed and critically assessed study of more than 5000 programs in 212 universities. The study can be downloaded for free [see #1 below] and contains instructional tutorials, one aimed specifically at students, to help you to use the database to explore and compare programs. The data in this document is not exactly “fresh,” because it was collected during the 2005 – 2006 academic year, but it is still the best data that we have; it is also true that changes in the rankings of schools proceed at a glacial pace, so while there is some reason to be skeptical about some of the outcomes, it is not wise to diminish the results of this study by being overly skeptical.

Students will probably find the following site [see #2 below] even more useful than the NRC’s site. is an independent organization that has used the data from the Assessment of Research-Doctorate Programs to create a site on which users of the Assessment can rank graduate programs according to their own priorities. This site allows you to sort and rank universities at two levels and to use multiple variables to achieve a detailed view of the program[s] you are considering. For example, at what I would label the “primary level” you can sort by size [larger or smaller], by the nature of the faculty [gender/minority], by tuition costs and by the number of funded students. At the “secondary level” you can rank items using a scale that allows you to check what is important to you [1 to 5] and explore items like the faculty’s research productivity [publications, grants, awards], student outcomes [time-to-degree, placement, academic jobs] and resources devoted to students [professional development, health insurance, employment, training for teaching].

In short these two sites provide tools that allow you to acquire a level of transparency that would have been impossible to achieve, even if you assiduously called graduate school deans or graduate program chairs. The amount of information available is daunting, the sites may take some time to negotiate, but what you can mine from these databases is invaluable.