I wasn't sure of where to post this initially, but I supposed that since students in different fields have to take different things into consideration when choosing between grad programs, I should probably stick to my home turf. Much of this, however, likely applies to fields outside of poli-sci.
After going back and forth between two excellent schools offering comparable funding packages, I've settled on a grad program [yay!]. I'm very, very fortunate and grateful to have been admitted to both of them, which is part of what made this decision so difficult. This post is a list of the strategies, exercises, and 'games' that I came up with [I'm sure others have thought of similar things, too!] to help me reach a final decision.
These are, of course, meant as a complement the usual deliberative channels. The most informative thing you can do by far is talk to the faculty and students. A lot. Ask different people the same questions. Annoy yourself with how many people you email, ask to be put in touch with, etc. Ask former advisors. Ask anyone you know in academia; it's a small world. [In fact, asking 'outside sources' about these different programs helped me learn a lot of things that I never would have learned through internal recon!] If you're a spiritual or religious person, it helps to meditate or pray, if only because doing so can remind you of what matters most to you, personally, in choosing a school. And, don't let any one factor overpower all the others.
I'd really love to hear what you all did/are doing to make a decision, too—ideally current and future prospective students will happen upon this, find it useful, and add to it themselves!
1. Go over your statement of purpose. If you haven't done so already, print out a copy of each of the statements your wrote for each school you're considering and re-read them. Pay extra attention to how you feel when you get to the POI parts—you know, the ones where you say how excited you are to work with Professor Professorson because of XYZ and can't wait to participate in the Center Institute's programs because of ABC. For which schools do those portions of your statement feel most true, or most exciting, now?
Then pretend you have to create an outline for your dissertation today. Yes, I know your topic will change. Pretend you have to write it out anyway. Using your statement as a reference guide, make that outline [it can be brief and general].
Now, look at that outline and decide what you know the most about researching vs. the least. What areas are you most comfortable with, methodologically? Where do you need help, even in terms of coming up with a basic research design? Look at the list of things that you know the least about and figure out what resources, professors, reading groups, or interdisciplinary colloquia are most suited to help you at each school. What, if anything, do you notice?
2. Pre-empt your regrets. Imagine your lowest period at each of the schools you're considering. This will look different, depending, but imagine those times—we've all had them before and we all will again—where you'll feel behind, unseen, frustrated, stupid, lonely, like you desperately need a haircut but don't have the time or the money, and are you effing kidding me [insert The Last Straw here]. T
These are the moments when a little voice will pop up in the back of your head and say, 'if only I'd gone to _______ instead...' . Complete that thought. What's that second clause? What will you most readily regret about not going to Alternate University?
'If only I'd picked Alternative University, I would have been able to work with that professor who shares my quirky research interests and methods.'
'If only I'd picked Alternative University, I'd be able to afford something nicer than this glorified walk-in closet.'
'If only I'd picked school Alternate University, I'd have more research autonomy and a less rigid curriculum.'
Compare the 'if only's that you come up with for each school. Which internal monologues look easiest to recite? Which ones look the most painful? Which ones seem like the most valid?
3. Use numbers! Ranking systems get a bad rap for being overly simplistic. Which they are. So are all of these strategies. That's the point. None of these should be used to change your mind. Rather, each of these is just a new way to help you make up your mind. They're exercises for getting more information from yourself—the sort that's difficult, if not impossible, to come by directly if you just, y'know, think really really hard about your options. [Because you've probably done that already, and now your head probably hurts.]
One thing that I did, after visiting my prospective schools [and taking an aspirin], was to put a note card on my desk and—every day for a week—assign each day a number 1–10 to represent how close I was to choosing a certain school. You can either do this for each school individually, or if you're choosing between your final two, you can make '1' mean 'I am, at this moment, about to press the "accept offer" button for University X' and '10' mean 'I am, at this moment, about to press the "accept offer" button for University Y.'
After however many days seems prudent, look at your note card and see if there's a pattern.
4. Make a list of all the stupid reasons. You're smart. So you've probably already thought about what the smart reasons are to choose any given school. You know the sensible things to take into account. Maybe one university has a better cost of living, a better stipend, better study abroad opportunities, or a better placement record. Maybe another has a more engaged student body, more compatible faculty, more intellectual diversity, or a uniquely kick-ass comprehensive exam format that would just help so much when it comes to publishing.
Assuming that each of these 'good' reasons cancels out the others... what about the 'bad' reasons? The ones that aren't supposed to matter, but do? When you think 'this really shouldn't make a difference, but...' what are the siren songs that draw you toward each school? Better weather? Nicer architecture? [Personally, this UChicago kid has a thing for bad weather and ugly libraries, so those 'bad reasons' were flipped.] More TA office space? Is there a department dog? Do you want there to be a department dog?
Assume you're in a ceteris paribus scenario. I mean, if you're reading this, you probably are. All else is equal... so what are those final non-equalizers? Do any of them offset the others?
5. Hit "record." I was fortunate enough to have audio evidence of my absolute shock and delight immediately after receiving each acceptance letter. I use Voice Memos on my phone for... well, everything, so when I saw an acceptance email [within the hour] I would do a voice memo 'journal entry'/freeform gabble-fest about how excited I was to have been admitted. When I was deliberating between my final two schools, I went back and replayed those two voice memos. Yes, there was a clear difference between how I sounded in each one. And no, it wasn't one of audio quality.
You can do this retroactively, too. Take some time to really tap in and be completely present with your excitement over getting into one school. [At a time, that is.] Then start recording [or writing], stream-of-consciousness, about that excitement. Then read or play back each session. Again, observe what differences you notice without judging any of them or jumping to conclusions.
6. Plot your research trajectory. If you've done this right [and you have], you already have a pretty good sense of what your research trajectory would look like at each of the schools you're considering. You know what your core classes are, you know what 'normal progress' looks like, and so on. Now put that knowledge to use, and add to it.
Go to each university's website and make a 'mock schedule.' Don't limit yourself to core courses or options within the poli-sci department. Obviously, course offerings are going to change, so are your interests, and it makes no sense to 'decide' when you'll take different non-essential courses. But you can list courses, seminars, TA opportunities, reading groups, conferences, projects, and professors that look cool. Sketch out the trajectory of classes that you know you're going to need to take [field seminars, dissertation workshops, mandatory TA practicums, etc.]. Then get familiar enough with your other options to have some idea of what the rest of your time could look like.
Again, this is about familiarizing yourself with the possibilities, not making a plan. The idea is to use these exercises to move past any implicit rigidity you may be experiencing—not create more.
7. Practice saying "yes." In front of a mirror, without trying to manage your reaction, practice saying that you've decided to go to School X. Then do it for School Y. And so on. Imagine you're telling your friends, your family, your former professors, etc. How did you feel each time? Physically, emotionally? Was there a knot in your stomach when you said it? Did you feel like a weight was lifted off of your shoulders? Did you tense up? Relax? Where? Did you smile? Laugh? Make a mental note of it.
Then, actually tell someone—before you hit "accept." You should only do this when you feel like you're ready to make that final call. Once you do, give yourself some time [a day is ideal] to see if any last dissenting thoughts come up. They probably will, if you're a commitment-phobe. The point isn't that you shouldn't have any doubts. You should, because ideally, you chose to apply to these schools for a reason, and they chose to admit you for a reason. You both saw an extreme level of compatibility between yourselves. The fact that this is a difficult decision is a sign that you did this absolutely, perfectly right. Go you! Honor that.
Again, I'd really dig hearing the unique strategies that others used to come to their own decisions!