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Top 10 programs

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Good morning children. In an ongoing effort to not write the papers that are due in two weeks, as well as the effort to better educate newcomers, I thought I would take a moment to discuss what I view as a growing problem many of us face when deciding where to apply. If you read through a lot of the posts on here asking about where to apply, you'll notice a trend: "The only places doing the type of research I'm interested in are HBS, Stanford, Wharton and Duke (paraphrased)."

While it is certainly true that these places are putting out some amazing research, they are not the only schools doing so. People make statements like this for a few reasons.

1. They haven't done the research required to find professors outside of the top 10 schools doing the types of research they are interested in.
2. They have an inherent bias towards the top 10 schools, so they subconsciously block any information which points to professors outside of top 10 researching their field of interest.
3. They have an inherent bias towards the top 10 schools, so they subconsciously adjust their research interests to match those of professors in top programs.
4. Some combination of these (or other alternatives)

Notice that my list does not include the fact that only researchers from top programs are studying their area of interest. That's because for the most part (98% of the time) it's not true. Here's why. Let's say student X wants to work with professor Y at Wharton. If professor Y does in fact work with students, then professor Y probably has had a previous student. With placements being as they are, you'll notice that a lot of people out of top 10 schools end up at top 20 schools (a trend that is true across all tiers). So if you want to do work similar to professor Y, you can do it at a program in the top 20. If professor Y doesn't have any previous students, well then it's probably a good bet that professor Y doesn't work with students, so you don't have a shot of working with them anyway. (Quick aside: if a professor historically doesn't work with students, the likelihood of you changing their heart like little Cindy Lou Who and the Grinch is extremely small. My advice is to not go to a school planning to work with a professor who doesn't work with students.)

Secondarily if your research area is so narrow that only a few people in the entire world are working on it, you may want to broaden that up a little. I'm not suggesting that if your life's dream is to study a specific research area that you change that dream, but rather consider research that is "research adjacent", meaning you can follow your path after the fact.

So what can you do to make better decisions about where to apply?

First of all, you should have an idea of the type of research you are interested. This need not be specific, but it does need to be somewhat specific. You should definitely know what type of methodology you want to use (i.e. quant or behavioral or strategy for marketing). You could also know a specific context in which you want to study this (i.e. decision making). That's really as far as you need to apply.

Second, you should do a lot of research. A lot. Read as many papers as you feel you can beforehand to know the types of research being done in your field of interest. The more aware of the people doing research the better. A part of this reading includes reading things that have been recently written. Finding a seminal paper that you love, but that was written in 1981 will probably not help you decide who you want to work with (unless this paper was cited recently by someone you are interested in working with).

Third, you need to tell that little voice in the back of your head to shut its mouth when it tells you that if you don't go to Wharton you've failed at life. Maybe that voice is your mothers. Maybe it's your younger self. Maybe it's the voice of generations of academic elitism inherent to the system of education and false meritocracy you've heard your entire life. No matter who it is, squash it every time it rears its ugly head. It's not going to help you, it's only there to make your life more difficult and depress you when you inevitably don't get accepted somewhere. That is not a good way to live life. Rejection is a big part of this world, and even though we are all generally used to being the best, you will be rejected (by a school, a conference and eventually a journal). Ignoring that nagging voice telling you State University A won't give you the education you require will only help you in the long run.

This is the main point all of former applicants and now students are getting at when we tell you to make your own top 10 list. I know that it is not easy, but believe me, once you accept that programs outside of Harvard and Stanford will provide you with a great education and great opportunities you will be much happier and your applications will go much more smoothly.

This doesn't mean you shouldn't apply to top 10 programs. By all means apply. You'll hate yourself if don't apply to your dream school, but be realistic about your chances and spread the love across tiers. There are a number of what I consider to be success stories on this board of people who went to schools outside of the top 10. These people all do cool research and, for the most part, don't regret their decisions at all.

I hope that this post has brought some encouragement to current and future applicants. When I was deciding on coming back to school, my initial school list included only top 10 programs. It took a lot of research and a lot of soul searching to come up with my final list.

Good luck to all of you!

P.S. In case you were wondering my final list included 2 top 10 programs, neither of which interviewed or accepted me. To be perfectly honest I had accepted the fact that they probably wouldn't accept me, so when the rejection letters came it was neither shocking or disheartening.
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