April 26, 2011

Revised Rankings Benefit Cornell Graduate Programs

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A set of rankings of the best U.S. doctoral programs was corrected and re-released on April 21, which led to improvements in the rankings for Cornell’s aerospace engineering and French programs.

According to Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth, the changes made to the rankings — originally released in September by The National Research Council — were necessary.

“The first round of rankings by the NRC have been characterized as flawed by a number of organizations,” she said.

In the original report, the aerospace engineering program had an R-ranking — which compares a doctoral program’s similarities to the strongest programs in its field — between 10 and 23, meaning that there was a 95 percent probability that the program is between 10th and 23rd best in the country. In the revised rankings, the program’s R-ranking jumped to a range between 4th and 13th.

According to the new R-rankings, the French program at Cornell has a 95 percent probability of being between the 7th and 21st best of the country’s 43 doctoral programs in French. The program’s original R-ranking was a range between 12th and 30th.

The French program also received an increased S-ranking, a measure that depends more on program variables like faculty and student diversity. The S-ranking saw an increase from 16 to 30 to a ranking 11 to 26.

The revised rankings make four different corrections: they include all the honors and awards received by faculty — some of which were originally left out; correct citation counts for publications by faculty members in the non-humanities fields; take into account the proportion of new graduates who find academic jobs; and look at the proportion of first year students who receive full financial support.

“Commonly cited problems include the overall complexity and lack of interpretability of the ‘S’ and ‘R’ rankings, the wide range of rankings reported for some fields and the lack of timeliness, among others,” Knuth said.

While these new rankings address several concerns voiced after the September release, some remain wary of the ranking process.

Stephen Stigler, a professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, was invited by the NRC to review early drafts of the report’s methodology. Stigler said the new rankings should not carry much weight because the changes made to recalculate the revisions were not significant enough to cause the drastic changes seen in some program’s rankings, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Knuth said the rankings place too much weight on whether Ph.D. student plan to enter academia. Many Cornell students pursue non-academic careers in industry, government and the non-profit sector, so the measures used by the ranking system may be inappropriate for doctoral programs at the University, she added.

Regarding prospective students, Knuth said rankings are only part of the selection process when considering a doctoral program.

“Rankings, whether from NRC or other organizations, are only one component of evaluating the impact and value of a graduate field,” Knuth said, “Other components are important to consider as well, such as employability and placement of graduates.”

Original Author: Erika Hooker