How international PhD students choose top universities and interpret reputation and rankings

The World 100 2013/14 research project focused on international PhD students, and considered recruitment, use of rankings, university choice and reputational understanding. We conducted qualitative interviews with international PhDs at 21 of our member institutions across 12 countries, including the US, Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain, Scandinavia, Ireland and the UK. Moreover, quantitative surveys were distributed to all universities in the world’s top 200, with over 1,000 current and aspiring International PhDs responding. To conduct the study we were supported from the World 100 Reputation Network members for the interviews, and The British Council in Japan and in circulating the surveys.

The project considered how top students choose top universities for PhD study and what role reputation plays in attracting the best PhD students relative to the utilitarian factors such as location, facilities, price etc.

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PhD Choice Factors 2013/14: Executive Summary

Students choose to do a PhD for two main reasons – taking the first step towards an academic career and acquiring skills to be more competitive in the job market. Asians are more likely to be interested in non-academic career advantages than students from other continental areas. Students study abroad to enter more prestigious and higher quality universities, rather than primarily for reasons of cultural breadth, travel or life experience.

They choose where to study by first considering essentials, which include high-quality university, teaching in English, good academic facilities, high reputation, and the prospect of funding. Funding is probably the main essential for many, as they say they would not do a PhD if it wasn’t funded. They consider attractions too, which can sway them towards a certain university, and these include the attractiveness of the place and safety. When they shortlist a handful of universities, they then consider the quality of department/university, the length of PhD, reputation, and attractive location/city. When they make the final decision, supervisor is the main factor, closely followed by reputation and quality.

When we aggregate all the drivers of choice, ‘quality supervisor’ is the most cited, closely followed by ‘reputation of university’ and ‘quality university’. This shows the supreme importance of the supervisor in decision making, the dominant deciding factor. Students are more likely to say that the supervisor was what persuaded them to choose between two or three offers than anything else.

The results also shows how reputation, which PhD students see as public awareness, and its sister factor, quality, understood as expert opinion, are very influential. If we combined ‘reputation’ and ‘quality’ (because reputation is normally defined a spectrum of quality and amplification) then the factor has a stand out weight for students. Attractive location, taught in English and good academic facilities also leap out as being much more important as total aggregated factors.