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Assuming that an applicant does his research and applies to a bunch of schools for a PhD. He gets accepted by a few of them with full aid.

Assuming that the research and faculty at all places is more or less of the same quality, what factors come into play when deciding where to go? (Also assume that the student is an international student)

How important are the following factors:

  • Location (Urban/Rural) of School
  • Country of School
  • Rankings (For instace, U Tennessee Knoxville has awesome Supercomputing Research but a not-so-good overall Ranking)
  • Size of Department
  • Diversity
  • Student Faculty Ratio
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I applied to six graduate schools in my field, and was accepted at all of them. The criteria I used to whittle down the choices were:

  • Did I like the people in the department I was visiting? (This surprisingly did eliminate one school.)
  • Did I want to go to live in the city where the school was for five or so years? (One more down, four left.)
  • Could I find enough people I was interested in working for, so that if I didn't get my top choice, I'd still be happy with the projects I'd be taking?
  • Can I financially afford to live in the city? (One more down, two left.)

At that point, however, the remaining criteria were all competing with one another: one school offered me a lot more money, the other had a lot better location. Both offered plenty of research, and both had excellent reputations in their field. Ultimately, for me, the location, combined with the slightly higher general profile of the school I attended, swayed the balance for me.

Remember that you're looking for individual groups or faculty members as well as entire departments. Students and faculty will both be considerations for you.

  • Why even apply to a school in an undesirable location? Might as well save your money if you don't want to live there. – jurassic Feb 16 '12 at 2:10
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    Well, I obviously didn't realize at the time I applied that I wouldn't like the city in question. – aeismail Feb 16 '12 at 6:11
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Two that struck me while I was applying for schools of similar rank:

  1. Location. You're talking about living in this place for close to a decade in some cases, and at least several years. Is this someplace you want to live? I haven't found that people living in someplace they hate and are miserable are more productive because they just hide in the lab. I've mostly found them miserable and apt to burn out.
  2. Attitude. Is the department somewhat more "relaxed" and supportive of its students? Will they pull out all the stops to make sure you can make ends meet if something goes wrong in your funding? Or do they consider graduate school to be a fiery crucible upon which researchers are forged? Which environment would you rather work in?
  3. Aid. Advice I got frequently was don't go somewhere that isn't paying you - you don't want them, and when it comes down to it, they don't really want you.
2

Other factors might include:

  • Association with an industrial research lab, due to to proximity or high-density of alumni in that lab. That'll make things a lot easier when looking for summer internships!
  • The climate of the place. A Ph.D is a 4+ years commitment, and whether you'd be spending 6 months every year in freezing cold or not does make a difference once you are actually there!

I'll add more factors you might want to look at as they occur to me!

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Average time to completion. Shorter better. Many places in the US have 7 year doctorates. A few still have the traditional 4 year expectation. Note this will be department specific.

Percent of starting students getting eventual Ph.D. Higher better. Again, department specific.

Student population: gender mix, where from, friendliness, etc. Go with your gut, based on the visit.

Finally if you are single and looking to change that (especially male in a male dominated field), I would pick the urban school because of the better dating prospects. If you are married, rural will probably be better cost of living but then likely your spouse's job prospects or situation will impact the decision strongly. In general, I think urban is a better overall option as a young professional (even a poor one).

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A strong factor for most people will be the financial impact, i.e. how much is it going to cost and are there scholarships available. I would also have a look at the specific field (or subfield) that I'm interested in and compare the faculty and research according to that criteria. In particular the prospective advisor, not so much the rest of the faculty.

  • I edited my question slightly since I thought it was becoming a list/subjective question. Also, assume that the student has an aided admit and the only thing he will "waste" is time. – user107 Feb 15 '12 at 20:34
  • In my opinion, the only generally relevant factor for grad school is the "ranking" for the specific field. The location is a matter of personal preference, the size of the department and its diversity is unlikely to have a major impact on a particular PhD (although there may be more chances for collaborating with lots of people) and the student to faculty ratio doesn't really apply. A more relevant factor is probably how many PhD students the future advisor has. – Lars Kotthoff Feb 15 '12 at 20:40
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If we are talking about Europe or the US then your PhD experience will mostly be determined by your supervisor and maybe few immediate colleagues. Perhaps it is more likely to find a good group in a higher ranked university, but it is not a direct connection.

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