It is that wonderful time of year when you have heard where you have been accepted. You will be told about the hundreds of advantages of the program that is trying to recruit you. Your offer letters most likely have information on how you will be assisted in paying for graduate school, though the points I make here also apply to undergraduate colleges and professional programs. How do you choose? Only three things really matter.
First is finances. You should avoid putting yourself into debt if at all possible. Debt will taint your opportunities once you are done studying. Debt is a burden. Debt is staying up at night wondering how you will afford to take the next step when the previous step is weighing you down. Debt cripples your choices. What exactly did you expect to get with that expensive degree? Was that program really better than the one that offered you funding you could live on? The point of this stage is not to profit from studying, just not to have it hijack the rest of your life. So choose a program that offers clear funding, unless you are one of the very rare for whom money is not an issue.
Second most important is to surround yourself with smart people. Programs with smart people will have you thinking in ways you could hardly imagine before. There are lots of ways of being smart and lots of programs with smart people. In these programs questioning will be encouraged. Exploration will be a team process, with “what if” being an exciting challenge. Smart people are interested in ideas and will talk about the papers they just read, or the talks they heard. I was formed by the smart people, faculty and students, at my own universities, Michigan in Ann Arbor and Texas in Austin. I continued to learn and discover from smart people at meetings from all over the world and at the universities where I have been employed, Rice and Washington University.
Seek out the smart people wherever you are, for they will delight and challenge, though also sometimes annoy. There are smart people in every university and college, but they are more concentrated and more free to discover in some places than others. If you wonder whether your prospective program has smart people, look at their funding. It should be from curiosity driven funding agencies like NSF or NIH in large part. The funding should not be from outfits demanding very specific answers to small problems. It should not be mostly contracts. This is advice my own undergraduate adviser gave me many years ago when I was choosing a graduate program.
There is probably a level above which smartness no longer is a variable that has an impact. I would guess the top 50 or so programs in any field have plenty of smart people to challenge you. They will vary more in the third important component important for your decision.
Third most important is that you should choose a program that reflects your interests. At this level it is not true that all programs do all things. The world experts in something you love may not be at the program that is top rated by US News and World Report, or by any other rating program. At this level the name of the university has little bearing on whether it is a good fit for you. Even if your interests are not very well defined, they are likely to be defined enough for you to see that some universities are much stronger than others in the area of your interests.
That’s it, funding, smart people, and a program that is a good fit. If your offers differ in these variables, your choice should be easy. If they do not vary in these, then other things might influence you. Probably tops for these are collegiality and productivity. Smart people all around do no good to you if there is no time to talk to them, if all are holed up and on their own desperate paths to glory. Your ability to take the next step will be influenced by your productivity in papers and grants, so you should find a program where publishing and grant writing by graduate students is encouraged, assisted, and viewed as normal.
You’re about to embark on a wonderful phase of life, the Ph.D., 3 year or 7 year, or something in between. It is a time when ideas are important, when experiments enthrall, and you’ll make friends for life. Choose and enjoy.