I’m surprised so many PhDs misunderstood your question. You’re obviously not talking about a school without a big name but a school (and hence a lab, environment, setup, etc.) that is low-ranking. It seems many people assumed you meant “no name”, which of course is very different.
If you get a research degree (i.e., a PhD) from a school with a low ranking, you WILL struggle relative to those at higher-ranked schools, even to the extent of hurting your career.
Don’t buy the BS about doing research for science’s sake and all that. If you cannot get grants, you won’t survive in any research field. Prep for that starts in choosing a school with faculty that can show you the ropes in publishing and grant writing. Universities keep complete as****s on their faculties solely because of their abilities to bring in research funding. It’s like a mafia: if you’re an earner, no one will touch you.
Another consequence of a low-ranking PhD is having limited, alternative choices. Suppose you’re a brilliant student at that low-ranking school; there’s always a chance, of course, that you’ll get a mentor who should be elsewhere (i.e., at some great school) but, for family or personal reasons (or because of a drug/sex incident that occurred at their former place of employment) is on your faculty. He or she can theoretically help you launch and you might be fine. However, the competition for that person’s help will be fierce. Moreover, if you decide to change careers, post-PhD, or you don’t get along with that person, you will have wasted your time.
At the same time, going to a top school in your field is not necessarily a path paved with gold either. At Princeton economics, when I graduated, politics, in several dimensions, played a significant role—both in how you obtained an advisor and in determining whether the department would “push” you towards the market afterwards. The faculty took a view on who they thought would or should be a good economist and did not support anyone else. If you did not fit within certain boxes, ethnically, politically or otherwise, you had a harder time.
Nonetheless, my conclusion: When getting a PhD, try to get into the highest-ranked, strongest named school you can afford, or can get money to attend, and stop thinking about all the other alternatives.
Author: , Princeton PhD and studied at Stanford and Northwestern