A reader has written in to ask what I think of the recently released ranking of doctoral institutions by the National Research Committee. Since I got my doctoral degree in the instituion ranked the highest in my discipline in terms of research and science, I can say with 100% certainty that these rankings are a load of complete and utter bullshit.
When I came to this highest-ranking doctoral institution as a graduate student, I had already started a very productive research agenda. I had published with good journals (not graduate journals, mind you, but very respected publications in my field), spoken at international conferences, won grants to fund my projects, etc. My professors at the much lower ranked institution where I got my MA had helped me enormously in my efforts to begin a research career.
As soon as I arrived at my highest-ranking institution, however, all that had to stop. The departmental philosophy was that doctoral students are not prepared to publish or speak at conferences above the level of a graduate colloquium. In my first couple of years there, I still tried to publish but the feedback was so nasty that I got completely discouraged. Not only wasn't anybody offering any help, the attempts I made on my own to continue my research were shot down immediately. As a graduate student, one still doesn't have the self-assurance of an established scholar. When your senior colleagues scoff at your publications and refer to them as "garbage," you tend to get discouraged. The only word I can find that would describe the general environment at the top-ranking institution in question is "anti-intellectual." While I was there, I could literally feel my brains turn to mush.
The entire experience of a doctoral student at this highest-ranking institution is reduced to taking some very antiquated courses and teaching lower-level language classes. Unless you are somebody's personal favorite (which always comes at a very high price), you never get an opportunity to teach or assist in teaching literature courses. As a result, you get this paradoxical situation where people graduate with a very prestigious diploma accompanied by a completely empty CV. In the recent years, people who graduate from this department have found it extremely difficult to find employment. The ones who will be able to continue doing research (as opposed to teaching lower-level language courses or leaving our field altogether) are very few. This is not surprising since our growth as scholars and pedagogues was stunted by our department on a daily basis.
So if you are thinking of applying to grad school and don't know where to apply, don't consult these stupid rankings. They are completely meaningless. Go on a campus visit as a prospective student or, if you can't take time off, at least establish a correspondence with the graduate students at the department where you are planning to apply. Make sure you ask the following questions (of course, it makes no sense to ask senior faculty members, they will not tell you the truth. Ask other grad students): how many literature courses will you teach or assist in teaching before you graduate? how many publications do you have? are you working on an article right now? are the faculty members helping you get published? how many conference papers do you deliver per year? what is the level of those conferences? how active is your thesis advisor in finding conferences for you to speak at and journals where you can publish?
I know that it's difficult to think so far ahead. I know that when you get that letter of acceptance from Harvard or Brown, all you want to do is go out and celebrate. In my experience, though, those grad school years roll by pretty quickly and the painful job application process begins. No matter how well your grad school's name sounds, it will not substitute a CV filled with varied courses one taught, a handful of articles one published, and several conferences one organized.
Here is a link to an article from Inside Higher Ed that questions the usefulness of such rankings.