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How do I choose between university rankings and subject rankings?
Gayathri Gopakumar

Meet Gayathri - a Content Editor at Hotcourses India- an IDP company. A once-international student herself- she loves to research & give insights into the world of global education through her writing. When she isn’t working, you'll find her playing, travelling or binge-watching just about anything.


07 Jul 2019 132 Book icon 4 mins Share

How do I choose between university rankings and subject rankings?

This article tells you how to pick between university rankings and subject rankings. A must-read for those in dilemma!

07 Jul 2019 132 Book icon 4 mins Share
How do I choose between university rankings and subject rankings?

Hey, you! Did you know that that about two in ten students (19.6%) opined that rankings played a crucial role in deciding which country they wanted to study? (According to QS International Student Survey 2017) –Yes, but what kind of ranking – subject ranking or university rankings?

As someone who’s done postgraduation in a UK university, I can so relate to this dilemma you’re having right now – having to choose between university rankings and subject ranking.

This question often made me doubt my choice of university even – so trust me when I say that how you answer this question is so important that it determines which university you’ll study abroad. So, without much ado, let’s plunge straight into how you should select a ranking!

There’s no simple way to answer this question. It’s no black and white, it’s a grey area that has to be answered after analysing multiple criteria. Here are the few criteria you need to consider – which’ll lead to you an answer.

Subject of specialisation

Before deciding on what rankings to go by – ask yourself how specifically career minded are you? Are you going to specialise and stick to one particular subject or do you see yourself being flexible with your career options?

If you have a very particular subject-specific career in mind, then naturally subject rankings should take precedence over the overall university rankings.

So, if you’d like to take up engineering and you’re specific about specialising in the field, then you must look at the universities that offer expert teaching quality and facilities for engineering. Take for example, the University of Sydney. It ranks 59th in the World University Rankings 2019. But for the subject of engineering, it ranks 93rd in the world. On the other hand, University of Glasgow ranks 93rd in the World University Rankings 2019, but is placed 126th in the world for business and economics.   

The best way to go about in this regard is choosing universities that fare well in the subject rankings. This also applies to those who select rare technical subjects like petroleum – it matters how the university teaches petroleum-related subjects than how the university performs in overall factors.

Country matters

Choosing rankings depends on which country you want to study and work (post study). While world rankings might apply to some countries, many countries have several rankings of their own which the companies there consider.

Let’s take the US for example. The US has several ranking systems of its own such as US News and World Report – which ranks the many academic institutions and universities within the US based on subjects, employability, etc. So, the world university rankings hold a trivial value among recruiters and universities in the US. Now if you want to work in the US after graduation, you should be choosing universities that rank well in the US rankings.

Level of education

One of the other important criteria that determines your choice between the university rankings and subject rankings is your level of education. Are you going to study an undergraduate programme or a postgraduate programme?

Broadly speaking, general university rankings will be more suitable for undergraduate programmes. Specific subject rankings do not really weigh in for undergraduate study since research and in-depth study of topics aren’t usually dealt with in the curriculum. 

If you’re planning to pursue an undergraduate degree, it is your department and peer that will shape you. Take your math class, for example. In most undergraduate programmes, you are graded out of a curve, according to your peers’ performance. So, you’ll be pushed to learn more if you’re going to a university that’s got good rankings, where your peers too will be more academically motivated.

On the contrary, for postgraduate study, you must bear in mind subject-specific rankings along with the university rankings – simply because the curriculum and modules in postgraduate study call for extensive research and exposure from experts in the field. Universities that are placed well in subject rankings usually bring in industry and subject specialists to teach its postgraduate students. This can prove extremely beneficial for your study. 

What would the employers say?

There’s a common perception that when employers spot an overall high-ranking university in your CV, they consider you to be brilliant and take you. Well – this is a very debatable perception. There are employers who do that and there are employers who are interested in what you actually learned from your university education. So, I’m going to give you points in both scenarios.

  • For those of you, who believe that employers look only at the university - There are employers who will be impressed seeing a big university name on your CV. For example, they might decide – “This candidate went to Cambridge! She must obviously be more brilliant than candidates from XYZ universities.” If you want to beat this, I advise you to go by university rankings. You’ll have to forget the university you like, or you think you’ll feel comfortable in and just work towards getting admission into the big universities that top the rankings.
  • For those of you who don’t agree – There are several employers around the world who look for much more than the university name. For example, they might decide – “This candidate has got a degree in business management from Harvard University – He must naturally be much better than this candidate who got the same degree in London School of Economic. If you still don’t get it, I’ll give you a more relatable example. There’s a difference between a student who did BE in IIT and a student who did humanities in IIT. Got it? So, just the university doesn’t signify anything – it’s also the subject it’s ranked well for. So, in this case, I’d advise you to go for the subject rankings.

Answer this and you’ll know what to choose…

The best way to conclude this article is by posing a situational question to you. How you answer this question will hint at what ranking you’ll choose. You ready?

Say you’d like to study computer science and I give you two universities – Yale University or the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (whose computer science department is ranked 5th in the US)? Which would you choose? If your answer is Yale, then you clearly put the overall ranking and brand of the university over the university’s value of the subject – because, Yale’s computer science programmes do not even feature in the top 20.

Whatever said and done, at the end of the day, it’s you who must decide which suits you the best. In my case, I picked subject rankings over university rankings. What are YOU going to pick? Check out the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019!

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