If you're planning on studying psychology, and need help deciding between a few of your choice schools, consider checking the rankings! Psychology school rankings and psychology program rankings are generated by several institutions. They measure psychology programs' quality by weighing various criteria, and are a quick reference to help students understand how well-regarded a university's psychology program is. A psychology graduate's job prospects can either be greatly enhanced or diminished by their alma mater's reputation with those in the psychology field.
Psychology program rankings are revered and competed for by some and detested by others. While there are certainly flaws in program rating scales, enough to say that they should be taken with a grain of salt, psychology students should not ignore them.
"Rankings are a very rough guide to the quality of a psychology program," said Dr. James W. Pennebaker, professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "They are partially arbitrary and have the potential to distort information and mislead users and departments. We use them if we're ranked highly, and we point out the negative aspects of the scale if we're not."
Every psychology program ratings scale is measured at least slightly differently from the next in what criteria it looks at and how heavily weighted each factor is toward determining the programs' final ranking positions. For example, US News & World Report, perhaps the most overt college ranker out there, is often criticized for being a popularity contest, judging completely on the opinions of others in the academic community. While US News does weigh a variety of measurements for most of its rankings in other emphases, in social sciences, it does rely entirely on opinions of a program for ranking. According to its website, rankings of doctoral programs in social sciences are based solely on peer assessment survey results. The surveys are sent to academics in psychology-each institution receives two-asking respondents to rate the academic quality of an institution on a five-point scale.
"A program's ranking depends on who's ranking it," said Pennebaker. "Some are based entirely on popularity; others weigh popularity along with other factors, such as the number of grants received, number of foreign students, graduation rates, etc. Those ranking scales are more meaningful. With more measured criteria, users can evaluate a school along their own lines of importance."
Other rankings, such as those done by The Center and the National Academies, stress the research capabilities and successes of universities with psychology departments. Self-rankings sites like StudentsReview.com and PhDs.org allow users to toggle the importance of ranking criteria themselves, making for a personalized psychology program search. PhDs.org uses a more scientific approach, weighing factors like improvements in program quality, recent publications by faculty, and scholarly quality. StudentsReview.com is a little more down-to-earth-it, too, is based on student voting, so its rankings are also greatly determined by program popularity, but it also grants its users the ability to include ranking aspects important to them, such as school safety, social atmosphere, creativity encouragement, and campus aesthetics.
With the most popular psychology program rankings based so heavily on perception, there are a host of inaccuracies due to voters' misconceptions or lack of information on the psychology programs being evaluated.
Pennebaker recalled a very poignant example: "Once, a school was ranked in the top ten with (a major ranking publication), but that school had virtually no psychology department."
Another dean from a typically high-ranking psychology department voiced similar frustrations: "I don't think much of rankings because their mode of gathering data leaves much to be desired. There are too many problems with how rankings sample research-they lean too heavily on reputations without evaluating quality factors of psychology programs in an unbiased way."
While challenges certainly exist with psychology school and program-ranking systems, they are still a useful reflection of sentiments from the higher education community.
Despite the difficulties quantifying psychology program quality, rankings are extremely valuable if you want a broad, nation-wide assessment of a program's quality, or at least the quality everyone believes it offers. Just because there are evaluation problems with many rankings, that doesn't mean that they cannot be taken for what they are and become a very useful tool. Remember the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and think about it in the context of how beautiful you will look to an employer as a graduate of a top-rated psychology school. Psychology rankings are a unique way of telling you what the beholder is probably thinking.
"Let's be honest; going to 'the number two' or 'the number six' school in the nation gives you bragging rights. It's like being the winner of an Academy Award for playing a phenomenal role," said Pennebaker.
While every perfectly good psychology program is not going to attain a high ranking, you should also make sure that the school you're eyeing doesn't consistently round out the bottom of the class.
"Rankings are certainly undependable, but they are based on the quality of a psychology program's research and faculty," said Pennebaker. "You can be fairly certain that a program ranked at number 200 does not have good faculty or research output."
Students investigating a psychology department, be it for undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral study, should dig deep to discover some of the unique attributes of the school. The most important thing for a future psychology student is learning all that you can about a school through researching and visiting it. Find a psychology program that fits into your own idea of what you want your studies to be like. Deciding factors for students who are looking for a psychology school to fit them include faculty research topics, quality of instruction, opinions of students, graduate employment rates and starting salaries, and admissions selectivity, among many others.
"Know the literature. Use the Internet to determine where good research is being done, who a program's key players are, and more," said Pennebaker. "Even a school that is consistently at the bottom of the rankings may have one or two faculty members who are world-class; if you want to study what they're studying, then going there would be a smart choice. If research is important to you, then you should look at what is being researched; if diversity is a big factor for you, then you should look at the percentages of minority students. Good rankings, calculated along multiple factors will give you a sense of what features a psychology school has that are important to you."