How To Interpret School Rankings

There are many different rankings available for Ph.D. programs in CS. In making your decision about where to apply and attend for your Ph.D., use one that is based on meaningful, objective metrics of program quality.

Ranking are an important tool for figuring where you might want to apply and which offer you ultimately accept. However, rankings are just one of several factors you should use in making this decision, and as a result, there’s no need to obsess about detailed orderings that they provide.

Where Should I Look for Rankings?

No set of rankings is perfect, since there is no empirical, universal measure of how “good” a Ph.D. program is. It is clear, though that some programs are better than others in that they produce more, higher-quality research, are better regarded, and/or send their graduates on to more illustrious careers.

Fortunately, most rankings agree generally on ordering of the schools, and a rough ordering is all you really need. So, you can safely focus on a couple reputable rankings and ignore the rest.

Currently, csrankings.org is one of the best ranking sources for computer science. There are some other sites that are based objective metrics that correlate with research output, I’ve included links to those at the end of this post.

What Rankings Tell You

CS Ranking’s methodology takes an objective and transparent approach. It is based on how many papers the university publishes in the most prestigious CS publication venues. It has the advantage that it’s completely empirical and a school’s position is determined directly by a reasonable measure of research success (i.e., publishing papers).

You should pay attention to both the overall quality of the Ph.D. program and its quality in your area. These can diverge quite a bit. For instance, CS rankings puts Northeastern University as #1 in “Measurement and Performance Analysis” but #13 overall. If that were your area of choice, Northeastern might be a better choice than CMU (#1 overall).

Both CS Rankings provides a mechanism for narrowing the rankings to particular sub-fields of CS.

What Rankings Don’t Tell You

Rankings cannot answer the most important question you have about when picking a Ph.D. program: Will I be successful and happy there?

The answer to that question depends significantly on how good a “fit” the school is for your interests, personality, and life priorities and how well you “click” with your advisor. We’ll cover those factors in another article.

How To Use Rankings

Rankings are useful in two ways during the application process.

First, you can use them to choose where to apply. CSrankings.org makes it easy to generate an ordered list of schools based on overall ranking and ranking in your area of interest. Use those as a starting point from which to filter schools further.

Second, if you have multiple offers of admission, you can use their relative rankings overall and in your specific field as one factor among many to help you choose which to accept.

In neither case should you spend too much time worrying about rankings.

The Trouble with US News

US News and World Report’s ranking of CS programs is among the widely cited and most visible to the general public. However, it has several problems that make it less useful in meaningfully evaluating schools.

The US News methodology is “reputation based” in that it relies on a survey sent to professors. The survey asks the professors to rank the schools based on how good the professor thinks the schools are. Reputation is important – having a degree from a “big name” can open doors – but it is not always a good measure of actual quality since good reputation can persist even after research quality declines.

There have been great many critiques of US News rankings:

  • This article in the Communications of the ACM (the flagship publication of the Association of Computing Machinery, Computer Science’s primary professional organization) argues that it is best to ignore reputation-based rankings altogether.
  • The Computing Research Association (a leading organization promoting CS Research) provided this withering dismissal of the rankings as “nonsense”.
  • Many others have written about a range of problems with them.

To this expansive body of criticsim I’ll add two things:

  1. CSRankings.org provides, in my opinion, a more useful interface than US News for identifying top schools in your area of interest.
  2. CSRankings.org and US News are 80-90% correlated (based on this data). Since you should only be using these rankings as a rough guide, it doesn’t make that much difference which you use.

More Ranking Sites

Here are some other ranking sites you might find useful. They are also based on objective, meaningful metrics of CS program quality.

Ask Your Question!

If you have a question about this topic (or anything else about getting a Ph.D. in CS), ask below. We will answer!