Does your undergrad university matter?

I stumbled across an interesting article from the Globe and Mail the other day: Do employers care about a university’s reputation? It reminded me of an article I read quite a while ago over on mygraduateschool.com called Do graduate schools care where you earned your bachelors degree?

And I think both are applicable here because it’s likely you’ll hear profs (and other students) talking about reputations of various undergrad institutions. And there’s a lot of bias to be heard.

I have attended two universities in Canada – the first for my undergraduate and the second, where I still am, for my Master’s and PhD. I have had profoundly different experiences at both schools and there are lots of differences between them. However, I would say I received an equally good undergrad experience at the university I went to compared to if I had done my undergrad at the university I’m at now. And, for the most part, across Canada the universities are generally good if you stick to one that’s fairly well known, like UVic, McMasters, McGill, and UofC, and away from the private ones, like DeVry. I know it is not quite the same when you go to the USA, as there are just so many more universities down there and the specific category of Ivy League.

The second article claims that graduate schools don’t care about your undergraduate school and I strongly disagree. In my experience, they do care. A student who gets a 3.8 GPA from a well known and highly-regarded university is going to be thought of differently than one who gets a 3.8 from an unknown or less-regarded university. In my experience it’s just a fact.

Then, you can add on the experience that Professors gain over the years. Professors supervise lots of students coming from lots of undergrad universities. They talk with other professors who do the same. They are smart people. They will make connections and notice patterns if students coming out of University X struggle a lot more than those from University Y or vice versa. This will bias their opinions when evaluating students to admit to the program.

That’s not to say going to a lesser known/regarded university means you’ll never get into grad school. There are other factors at play, but it does mean that the rest of your application is going to need to be stronger to help you climb up in the rankings. And everyone, whether your school is stronger or weaker, will benefit from strong reference letters and having work/research experience in your field.

The first article I linked to has nothing to do with graduate school, instead it has to do with how employers judge the name of your undergrad institution on your resume. I still found it very interesting, because the possible conclusions from the data suggest that depending on the ethnicity of your name, the name of the university is going to matter more. Those with very common Jane Doe type names don’t need to worry as much as those with more foreign sounding names. It’s an unfortunate conclusion, and I really hope that this continues to change as our world becomes more and more diverse.

However, my graduate school experience has involved a much more diverse population in terms of names and backgrounds than my undergrad. This leads me to believe that these conclusions would not be similar for graduate students as the pool is much more diverse, and also a lot smaller.

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5 thoughts on “Does your undergrad university matter?

  1. You are wrong. Most graduate programs do not care where applicants earned their bachelor’s degree. This is certainly true in any discipline within the sciences, social sciences, humanities, or fine arts.

    Like you say, professors are smart people, and this is why experienced professors know that location of undergraduate educations factor has almost no relevance, whatsoever, so long as it is an accredited institution. Like you said, “professors supervise lots of students coming from lots of undergrad universities. And “they talk with other professors who do the same.” These are precisely the reasons why experienced professors know that the undergraduate school is of very little relevance.

    You say that most professors view two people with a 3.8 GPA differently, depending on which school they were at. Not generally true. Only lay people or inexperienced academics (such as those who are still in graduate school) believe it. There are many widespread misconceptions out there, and you seem to possess some of them.

    So, when you say “In my experience, its just a fact”, it is important to consider that you don’t have much experience, and that just because you believe something, that does not make it a fact.

    By the way, I am a seasoned professor at a large university, with 20 years experience. I’ve served on many graduate selection committees, and over the years, I have discussed matters related to graduate studies with Graduate Program Directors and other faculty members in a variety of disciplines, and various universities, within the U.S. and Canada.
    I have some experience to back up my comments.

    Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.
    Department of Psychology
    Center for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology
    Concordia University
    Montreal, Quebec

    • Hi Dave. Thanks for sharing your experience.

      I will say, that my comments are based on discussions with multiple professors within my department (some with even more years of experience then you). So while they may not be universal between all universities/departments, they are true in some. It’s good to know that not all Universities/Departments share the same biases or negative opinions of other universities. I do think it’s good for students to know that there are departments out there that do. Like I said above, I don’t think this means you can’t get in, just that you need to beef up the rest of your application.

      I think this discussion points out that it’s good (and necessary) for there to be a wide variety of professors (both experienced and inexperienced) on graduate selection committees, in order to counteract any biases any one person brings to the table.

      • I agree, and you raise a couple of really important points, here. First, there is a lot of individual variation among faculty members in terms of the criteria they use to evaluate potential graduate students. This has several implications. First, when the graduate program is one in which new students are selected by committee, then you get the kind of control or counteracting of an individual’s biases, as you point out. This would generally be a good thing, as it levels the playing field for the different applicants, somewhat.

        In most graduate programs in which a student is supervised by an individual faculty member, however, the decisions about who gets in are not made by committee. Instead, applicants indicate who the would like to have as a graduate supervisor at the time of application, and each faculty member makes his or her own decisions about who to accept. The fate of each applications is determined by just this one person, and something that matters to one person might not be so important to another. For students applying to graduate programs in which they will have a faculty supervisor, it is next to impossible to anticipate what personal biases your potential supervisor has.

        I also agree that there are big differences in terms of how well undergraduate programs at different schools prepare their students for advanced studies following the baccalaureate. I notice patterns like this, and so do some of my colleagues because we comment on them from time to time, so we’re just like the professors in your department in that respect. But, these patterns are based on post hoc observations and retrospective considerations, and they don’t have any real influence on the decision-making about who will be accepted into the Master’s or Ph.D. programs. The reason why they don’t influence the decisions is because the those decisions are based on careful consideration of several factors pertaining to the individual applicant. When you’re looking that these things about an applicant, you tend to look way past any consideration of where he or she went to college. We all know that some of the best graduate students come from some of the weakest undergraduate programs, and that some of the weakest grad students come from some of the best UG programs. A person’s success in grad school is greatly determined by personal factors, which are unrelated to their particular college.

      • The program I’m in is kind of interesting. PhD students come committed to a supervisor, so in that sense, they only have to be approved by the committee in terms of meeting the minimum requirements. But master’s students are accepted that way. Instead, they spend the first semester or so taking classes and talking to profs trying to find the right match. So they are more approved based on general agreement/approval from the committee.

        I guess another thing to note, is that if a university and/or prof doesn’t want to supervise you because they have a low opinion of the school you came from, you probably don’t want to be supervised by them. Probably the worst thing that can happen to a grad student is having a very bad match/fit with their supervisor. It’s much easier to continue on when there are problems with a project and disappointing results if you have that connection to your supervisor. If you have a low opinion of them or they of you, could be enough to cause you to drop out of a program.

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