- School 1: top 10, not the best research fit but there are a few projects that I'm interested in. Not a great fit in terms of the living location either, but that's mainly because it's far from my significant other.
- School 2: top 20, many research projects in areas that interest me (two of which the school is the lead institution on). However I am a little concerned because the faculty I met with all had only 1-2 graduate students, and I don't know if this is because they scare students away or are just small in that field. Not a great living location.
- School 3: top 30, haven't made my visit yet but I already know I like the surrounding area. I believe there's interesting research going on here, and a few options for me.
- School 4: top 40, two possible projects, one of which sounds really exciting (and the school is the lead institution on). Good living location for me.
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I've gotten into a number of schools and am having a difficult time deciding where to go. I've been visiting them over the past month, and I have narrowed my decision to four schools. All of which have research I'm interested in and faculty I think I would like to work with. I'm having a tough time deciding where to go, and something doesn't sit well with me with basing my decision based on whichever one is ranked highest. So I'm wondering: how much faith I should place in the rankings (US News)? This is especially difficult for me since the four schools are all on different parts of the ranking spectrum.
Everyone will always tell you to ignore rank and that's pretty much the right advice. If you are interested in being a staff scientist at a government lab you should really be looking at what advisors you want to work with and whether or not they have contacts with these kinds of labs. On one of my visitor days, for example, 3 of the 5 prospective advisors I spoke to mentioned that they work with JPL staff and/or have a part time position at JPL and much of the staff that helps them with their research works out of JPL. This is one of the things influencing my decisions since I, like you, am also interested in these kinds of positions. Even in physics a lot of the time you need contacts to get these kind of jobs.
Yeah. I'd throw away rankings after deciding on what schools to apply to (since it's probably infeasible to look at EVERY school in enough detail before this). You have more detailed and better information than rankings to make this decision on. Rankings are just some other people's opinion based on a set of facts that honestly are probably less complete as yours after you visit campuses, and certainly less personalized. Find the top 3 faculty at each school that interests you, and decide based on how good a fit those advisors would be, how well-established they are in their fields, and how clear your path towards a PhD with them will be. Well, decide using that as well as personal considerations (like living conditions and location).