How Important Is School Letterhead?
Q: I have just finished up my applications to various graduate programs (inorganic chemistry) and am wondering just how important is school reputation when it comes to opportunities after I finish a Ph.D.? I have one professor who says that although it's sad, people are often divided into two groups based on the letterhead (reputation) of their institution. I really don't think this is fair, but as a person who may have to choose between schools soon, should I weigh in this effect? Please give me some insight to better understand this better.
A: -Unfortunatly life is inherently unfair - otherwise we'd either all have cancer or none of us would. And, as you've been told, there is some truth to the adage you've been quoted. On the other hand, you shouldn't take the suggestion too hard to heart. Credentials from a top-tier school are not going to help too much if you're an incompetent. It might help get your foot in the door, but YOU still have to do the job. It also depends on what you want to do. If you have ambitions of becoming a world-class researcher at a top-tier school, you almost have to have the top-tier credentials. You can do it without the credentials, but you have to work harder to prove yourself. If, on the other hand, you have much more modest goals, a lower-ranked institution might do you just fine. For example, a local company that is familiar with Hometown State's product might be perfectly happy with your credentials, whereas Harvard might wonder why you claim to have the proper degree. - I have heard some people say that the letterhead is more important at the end of a post-doc rather than at the end of a PhD, basically because at the end of a PhD you can (to a certain extent) utilize your thesis advisor's network. Corollary, a thesis advisor with a good reputation/network will be able to help you onto the next stage (postdoc or otherwise), but once onto the slippery slope (post-doc) you are on your own. When you apply for a job, your resume hits someone's table with a large number of others (possibly >100). You need to avoid the "first cull" (i.e. filed in the round filing cabinet in the corner by the door). So, you need to attract the person's attention. Some try to do this by having flashy covers on their resumes (I don't think this works outside sales - I certainly don't do this). One idea I heard recently is to attach a vacuum-sealed coffee-bag to your resume - the implicit message being, have a coffee, read my stuff. Cute idea, again, I don't see it working well in academia (they tend to have coffee-breaks as a routine, or an intravenous drip already installed). Seriously, the prestige of their current/recent place of work (institution, research group, or boss, depending on how close to your current field the position is in) will be important at htis first stage. Also, a HR person (anywhere) knows a "form" resume when they see it. If you don't "relate" yourself to the job (i.e. a spamming resume mail-out), you are out at this stage. Once past that cull, other things become important - is your resume legible/comprehendable, do they know you/your referees personally. Then (and it's pretty much shortlist time by now) you get as close to a level playing field (i.e. a chance to truly stand on your merits) as you ever will. So your prof is essentially right in that there is an element of patronage/cronyism around. If you are good at "selling" yourself and your abilities, you can break through this to some extent. To do this requires a lot of work/energy, and a very clear idea about who/where you are aiming at. You basically have to convince them to go agains what could almost be described as "conventional wisdom". You want to go to grad school - Choose what you want to do, find the balance between who is the best person to do it with (who can take you) and who you can work closely with. Make contacts, find out where the opportunities are (academic and career) - keep your publication record growing, and you have a good chance of making your own way, rather than having it made for you. I say chance because (as Art S. will quickly point out) life isn't always fair/reasonable. But you've got to be in it to win it.