I am currently a postdoc in an engineering field who is trying to evaluate faculty offers and balance professional and personal (i.e. spousal desires) priorities. One offer is for a top-10 department in a location that neither my spouse nor I am particularly excited about living in while the other is a top-50 department (with aspirations to grow/climb that seem viable to me) in a much more appealing location that we would both prefer to live in. It seems like both departments have the lab equipment resources I would need — albeit the top-10 department has it more readily available — and the salary and start up packages are essentially equivalent between the two.
I am trying to understand just what exactly one 'gives up' by going to a lower ranked department (fully cognizant of how arbitrary these rankings often are), particularly from a research perspective. Is the main difference that of grad students (number and quality) and institutional support (teaching load, extra pools of money, collaborators on campus). Is there 'something in the air' at top departments? Or is it just prestige seeking that makes us think so?
I would really appreciate any faculty perspectives about what they see as the differences between these types of departments in the context of what one can accomplish in their career. I know that ultimately the answer is I have to decide what my priorities are and act accordingly, but it would be helpful to better understand what the practical differences in career trajectory might be.
I am also waiting to hear back from a top-25 department that is similarly in a more appealing location than the top-10 department. That seems like an easier call, but any perspectives on the difference between top-10 and top-25 departments would also be appreciated.
Final comment: I understand how incredibly privileged this question is. I am ludicrously fortunate to be in this position and feel embarrassed just asking.