Which university to go to is an important and delicate decision. International rankings can help you make that decision wisely. Or, can they? A study published last week in the open access journal BMC Medicine warns against putting too much faith in rankings.
As an example, the study compared the 2006 international rankings offered by the Times Higher Education Supplement's World University Rankings and the Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Academic Ranking of World Universities. They found that the two lists only had 133 institutions in common among their top 200. Four of top 50 universities in Shanghai Jiao Tong University's rankings didn´t make it to the top 500 of the Times Higher Education Supplement's list.
Part of the problem is that international rankings use different indicators for education and research excellence--and often they don't use those indicators rigourously, the study concluded. The Shanghai list, for example, gives great weight to the number of Nobel and Fields laureates, while the Times relies largely on a survey capturing researchers' perceptions. "I don't disagree that excellence is important to define, measure, interpret, and improve, but the existing ranking criteria could actually harm science and education," the study's first author, John Ioannidis, said in a press release. The study called for rankings to address the challenges or "be abandoned."
My take: Rankings like these can be useful but you shouldn't take them too seriously. Never use one ranking exclusively, and always look at the criteria they use to establish the ranking: Do their criteria match your criteria? Chances are also that the universities that really are among the best will always be looming somewhere near the top of all the lists.
Perhaps the most important point however is that a top university name may shine on your CV, but it will not guarantee you a successful and enjoyable experience. Rankings with compatible criteria can be useful information sources, but they must be used in combination with personal research and introspection. What you really should be doing is compiling your own ranking of the institutions you are considering, based on what matters most to you. Young scientists should certainly count the excellence of potential supervisors both as scientists and potential mentors. Adequate resources and facilities in the lab and good opportunities for collaborations may also greatly impact your career. How important is location and lifestyle? Paying a visit to see how likely you'll be to get what you want out of the place both professionally and personally is always a good investment.
Use rankings, but use them wisely.