In economics .. publishable papers come from finding quality data. If you can get your hands on some unique datasets, the paper comes easy. Many people in the past have literally taken one author's paper, and applied the same techniques to datasets in different countries. Look at the history of papers written on the effect of tuition on enrollments. There is probably a dozen papers with the title "Education Demand in (insert random country here)". Very few publish papers on pure theory. As for research .. depends on the journal. Ability to write "publishable" papers is driven by the individual, anyone .. even at the Undergraduate level can come with an idea and write a solid paper (many undergraduate thesis' go on to be taken by faculty to get published). On the other hand, getting published in certain journal's is entirely the school you end up at. The top journals only publish from authors at top universities. If you teach at random state college good luck getting published in the American Economic Review. As for what is considered top .. really, depends on the person applying. Do you feel you deserve to be at that university? You have to be proud of your education at the Ph.D. level. If you think you are underachieving, that will follow you throughout your education, and beyond. You'll end up teaching at a school that you feel is below you, and it'll just be a waste of time. Be proud of your education, and you'll be proud of where you end up after. Personally .. I'd take anything that is formally ranked if I go onto my Ph.D. Still dream every night of being at Penn or Boston U though.