Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Who are the top 10 Ph.D. programs in chemistry?

It's sweeps month at Chemjobber (this is a joke.)

I keep seeing references to "top 10" schools in chemistry, or "top 50" or "top 5" schools. I sure would like to know what this list of "top" schools is, so here we go.

I would like to know what subjective/objective rankings of worldwide or US-wide Ph.D. programs in chemistry (broadly defined) exist, or if you can make up your own. Readers? 

39 comments:

  1. I know it will never happen, but my old boss used to advocate for a departmental ranking system based on # publications/$$ received by the PI. Essentially, he was building an algorithm to determine cost per publication and rank departments based on some sort of normalized productivity scale. He found that many smaller departments actually looked quite competitive when normalized against the Big Players. As I recall, his preliminary findings actually had a PUI (possibly William & Mary?) cracking the top 20 programs.

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    1. I'm assuming that does not take the impact factor of the journal of each individual publication into account. Not sure if that should be an included metric.

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    2. I don't think it assumed impact factor, but I believe it had some citation index of some sort. Again, I wish I could go into more detail but RIP the old boss.

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    3. And this is how we forget that a PhD should be an education and not a paper factory.

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    4. The concepts are not mutually exclusive.

      Publication records help level the playing field between American academia's obsession with a select few universities and the reality that there is great research and brilliant hard working students at just about every Ph.D. granting institution in this country.

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  2. It's relatively easy to distinguish schools that could make a case for the top 5 from those that are probably more in the 40's, but it's challenging to compare schools that are likely within 20 or so ranking points. Wisconsin vs. Irvine? Utah vs. Michigan? Chicago vs. Washington? And what do you do about places that are more specialized, like Scripps or UT-Southwestern?

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  3. I am a chemist working in Michigan, at (shall we say) a large chemical manufacturer. I know literally zero people who have come out of the Chemistry program at the U of Michigan. Tons of ChemE's, zero chemists. After seeing the comment from Anonymous1:39, I did a search for University of Michigan chemistry ranking, and found the following: http://www.phds.org/rankings/chemistry. The front page of this mostly jibes with my intuition. The second page feels a little more suspect. Perhaps there are some new profs at some of these schools that I'm not aware of, or perhaps they work in a field outside my own. Basically a wasteland by page 3, though Akron is one of the top polymer schools. Again, potentially argues for specialty programs bringing up the rankings vs. an overall solid department.

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    1. Four people from my graduate school class at UMich (entered in '99, graduated around 2004/5) were hired on either side of Saginaw Road. None survived the layoff waves that occured in the 2009-2012 timeframe, myself included. Fortunately things worked out for me elsewhere and I was only out of work for ten weeks. With the severance and UI, I actually made a small profit.

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  4. http://grad-schools.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-science-schools/chemistry-rankings

    They also break it down by subfield, which can have a big impact. U Wash goes from 24 overall to 10 in inorganic.

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  5. Ranking numerically is tough, grouping into tiers is a bit easier. My take (in no particular order):

    Tier 1 (no-brainer top department)
    MIT
    CalTech
    Berkeley
    Harvard

    Tier 2 (Top 10ish, but not top 5):
    Stanford
    Princeton
    U Illinois UC
    Scripps
    UChicago
    Northwestern
    Wisconsin
    UPenn
    Columbia
    UNC Chapel Hill

    That's obviously highly subjective and it's worth noting that these rankings are essentially meaningless when chemists look for jobs within their subfield, where PI and publications record will mean more than the reputation of the school. I would argue that these types of general rankings are only important for chemists going into alternative careers where hiring managers would be less aware of the nuances associated with graduate school in chemistry.

    (Note: I am aware that I listed more than 10 schools. I'm a chemist, not a mathematician, give me a break!)

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    1. I agree with this for the most part. I might throw Yale in that Tier 2 over UPenn, but that could just be the bias of my subfield.

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    2. @Anon2:58 Yeah, it gets murky down there, could also easily make a case for UT-Austin, Cornell, UCLA, and UMich. As you said, this is highly dependent on subfield too. I wish rankings weren't so meaningless because they can be so damn fun.

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    3. I'm surprised to see UIUC on that list. I did my undergrad there in the chemistry department - would that carry any weight, or are the undergrad rankings generally considered unrelated?

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    4. I went to grad school at UIUC, and while it's a top graduate program, I don't think it's a very good place for an undergrad to go. The professors are there to do research, not to teach (many of them dislike teaching and consider it a distraction from research), and there's very little accountability for the TA's who actually do the teaching. My labmate got into the habit of dismissing what was supposed to be a 50-minute class after about 15 minutes, and there were no consequences other than a brief scolding when he was caught. Unlike him, I tried to be a good TA, but there were no consequences (or help to improve) if your kids did poorly on exams or if your end-of-semester student evaluation scores were low.
      I did my undergrad at a small school with no graduate program, and would strongly recommend this to others. The professors at undergrad-only schools are there because they want to teach.

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    5. Thank you, Anon @ 8:33! That was exactly my experience at UIUC - in a word, terrible. Even the advanced chemistry classes where in large lecture halls, and in my two semesters of physical chemistry lab - despite the very small class sizes - I still had little to no opportunity to ask questions about the material, or even see the professor of that lab class.

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    6. But if you go to a school like UIUC for undergrad, you will have the opportunity to participate in cutting edge research, which I think is more valuable than lectures. A lot of what you learn in lecture is not applicable anyways. But learning how to properly tackle a research problem ( or at least getting your feet wet) is invaluable.

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    7. Access to top research faculty only matters if you are really good and if you are self-directed. (If you don't learn the stuff the school is supposed to be teaching then the research experience won't be useful or even available.) If you aren't in that class, then going to a big public school is like being thrown in the ocean during a shark attack and told to learn to swim.

      Universities are not cheap anymore, and much of what they're charging for is teaching students. (They can't make you learn or work or succeed, but they can teach you - it is their primary job, and it is what they can do.) If they can't or won't do teach, then most of their students are paying for nothing (because they won't be able to do research with the people for whom they're paying, and may not be able to even were they good enough, because there are only so many positions available for them).

      If you can't be bothered to do what your job is, then whatever else you can do, you can't really be considered good at your job.

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    8. You can't be good until you get experience. Best way to get experience is to work in a good lab to see how the best get it done. There are always positions. It's cheap/free labor. Don't be fooled by the lecture. Research is the best way to learn. Universities will be made cheaper through online classes.

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    9. Anon 8:33 here again. You're better off doing undergrad research someplace where you'll get personal attention from your PI, and a top program like UIUC isn't a good place for that. It doesn't need to be JACS-worthy research when you're just getting your feet wet. I was one of only two research students working for my undergrad advisor, and I also had a great experience doing an undergrad summer REU at a lower-ranking big state school's department (they had a decent-sized graduate program, but the MS students outnumbered the PhD students, it was much less competitive than UIUC, and my advisor spent a great deal of time helping me).

      I know of a situation where a UIUC undergrad with a terrible GPA was a rock-star research student in a well-known professor's lab, and his PI personally vouched to get him accepted at a top graduate program, so it can work out for some people. On the other hand, I suspect this kid may not have had an awful GPA if he'd been recognized for both potential and problems early and closely watched by the faculty of a small school, rather than lost in UIUC's auditorium lectures. I would also say that undergrads capable of being a rockstar research student at a top-10 program are exceedingly rare, and his experience was far from typical.

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  6. But Rice has KC Nicolaou.

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  7. I don't think that the following are fair metrics but I think that it is worth remembering that some (many?) people use the simple metrics of "these are schools I have heard of," "these were important schools when I got my degree," or "I know big-name researcher X works here." At least a few of the industrial recruiters I have spoken to recruit exclusively from a list of schools that they are familiar with. This list includes historically strong departments but does not necessarily reflect actual current strength. I attended a school that, according to U.S. News and World Report, had a top 10 chemistry program when I started and now barely makes the top 25. I was surprised to see Scripps had dropped from #1 to #7 on that ranking (although I understand some of the reasons). At the risk of admitting my own bias, will I continue to think of my former school as a top 10 school? Probably, at least for a while, although I will try to be perfectly honest with any of my current students if they apply to graduate school. In my mind (and in the minds of many chemists I have talked to) do departments at schools like Princeton and Yale have more prestige than their actual rankings suggest? Again, probably. Since the context of this post, I believe, was job market and hiring, it is worth considering that the hiring committees may have personal rankings for schools that are 5-10+ years out of sync with reality.

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    1. I think 5-10 years is a low estimate. Reputations take a long time to build up or fade away, and industrial chemists are often following their own subfield instead of reading JACS and going to ACS meetings.

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  8. I am at Buckeye state and watching with dismay the complete meltdown of its chemistry department. Nothing has come out of it and in these tough times no popular organic chemist to speak of. I wonder even if it would make to 50? It is tragedy!

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    1. 30 years ago, it would have not mattered where you got your PhD from, you could still expect a good first job and a nice career. Not anymore, and you can thank globalization for that.

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    2. Anon 9:31AM as I am from that era I beg to differ slightly in that 30 years ago prospects for a good first job where probably better however 1) a nice career was not guaranteed particularly staying at the same company, unless survived merger-mania and 2) Big Name School/PI was a very significant factor in ability to even get interviewed at many places such as the major pharmas who because they had the power of choices where very elitist and nepotistic in hiring. Because there were more jobs to fill and competition for Top 5 or 10ers the companies would in practice have to dip deeper in to pools for "lesser" schools but never seem to wake up to the fact many schools and individuals produced people who achieved more than those of pedigree who sometimes relaxed effort in resting on their laurels/connections. Globalization started to take off in the 80s perhaps as a trickle more than the tsunami it has become thus I would shift your time frame to 40 or 50 years ago as a more golden age but as overlapped with a few chemists from then not sure that perceived Uni/Prof ranking was ever either not a stepping stone or a pothole career-wise.

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  9. Top 10 in no particular order: Harvard, MIT, Cal Tech, Berkeley, Stanford, Columbia, Cornell, Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Scripps, Northwestern

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    1. I would rank MIT below the others.

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    2. I'm curious as to why you would rank MIT below the others? Bad hires over the last 5 years?

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    3. Wisconsin is definitely better than a lot of those schools.

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  10. http://www.shanghairanking.com/SubjectChemistry2015.html

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  11. Top 10:

    1. Private school with Big Names and Ca$h
    2. Equivalent State Uni
    3. Another Ivy here
    4. Famous State School with acronym on Sports Caps
    5. Famous Prof who Runs with Iron Fist at Smaller Program
    6. Big State U number 2
    7. Left Coast Independent
    8. Famous International Academy
    9. Ivy Again
    10. Research Institute du jour

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  12. *ctrl+F Minnesota* *no hits*
    *returns to performing research, teaching, enjoying wonderful students and colleagues, and a small semblance of work/life balance*
    *burns USNWR for warmth*

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  13. Always found it confusing when people make a big deal out of these rankings of schools or departments at the PhD/grad level. Undergrad, sure, the prestige plays a significant role. But for graduate research, it seems like the more critical factors are who you work for, when you work with them, and how well your research interests jive with theirs.

    Maybe I'm too pragmatic, but my personal viewpoint is that people should go to the school that has the most research programs they'd be willing to spend 5-7 years working on, (mostly) irrespective of prestige. Top 50, you're probably fine. Better to finish the PhD with your sanity intact and with minimal burnout, rather than working on something you end up hating halfway through just because it might get you higher-impact publications or a more prestigious pedigree.

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    1. The reality is, people do tend to be more impressed by a big name school. In some cases, it doesn't even need to be a good chemistry department!!! You want to impress people up the ladder so you can get hired, etc. Dow-Dupont isn't the only game in town.

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    2. I agree with this. Chemists know that a PhD from Wisconsin, Minnesota, UIUC, or UNC is on about the same level as one from Harvard or MIT, but to someone outside our field, the last two sound much more impressive. There's a good chance some MBA is doing the hiring, or that some HR drone is screening the resumes.

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    3. At the aforementioned company, the technical staff makes the hiring decisions, much like hiring committees at universities. I've been involved with hiring new PhD's for years and have never seen an MBA or HR drone involved in the process. That being said,100% of our 2015 hiring class came out of < 25 universities and half of our class came from only 5 schools.

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    4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I would love that list, even as I might be able to guess its contents. E-mail me: chemjobber@gmail.com

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    5. "half of our class came from only 5 schools"

      The 5 schools from whence most of the technical staff making the hiring decisions went?

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    6. No, actually. Our technical staff are surprisingly diverse in terms of pedigrees. I've never actually seen or heard evidence of extending an offer based on alma mater. I've heard anecdotal stories of entire pharmaceutical research groups composed almost entirely of graduates from one or two academic groups. All things considered, our hiring does seem to be largely merit based.

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