A prospective PhD student writes:
As April 15th approaches, I think it would be very helpful for many of us making final decisions on offers to have a thread on your blog that discusses whether it is a wise decision for applicants to turn down offers from programs that are much higher ranked overall in favor of a program that ranks much higher in their planned area of specialization (so, for example, turning down an offer from a top twenty program that emphasizes M&E for a top 40 program that ranks better in the history of German philosophy, for example).
First, by the time you are choosing PhD programs, you will hopefully have a lot of additional information pertinent to your decision, that go well beyond the professional reputation of the faculty at the programs. A lot of factors can, of course, trump the overall reputation of a program: strength (or weakness) in your area of interest; financial support; the faculty's commitment to teaching and mentoring; and so on. But let's assume those factors even out, and so the only differences that remain are strength in your areas of interest versus the overall reputation of the program. Here I think a lot turns on (1) *what* your areas of interest are, and (2) how certain you are that these are your interests going forward. (1) matters because it really isn't possible to pursue some specialties without faculty who are genuine specialists in the area (ancient philosophy is a good example, so too, in most instances, post-Kantian German philosophy). (2) matters because, in point of fact, students often find that their interests change. (I recall one student who came to grad school strongly interested in Heidegger, who ended up working on philosophy of language.) So, ceteris paribus, someone strongly committed to working on the history of German philosophy ought to pick the 'top 40' program strong in that area over the top 20 program not strong in that area. On the other hand, if the 'top 20' program does have some offerings in German philosophy, that might complicate the decision. But then it would be good to know: do any students ever write dissertations in that area? Do they then get jobs? and so on. (There can be advantages to studying German philosophy in a department also strong in M&E--a lot of scholarship on post-Kantian German philosophy suffers from the fact that it's clear the scholars just aren't very good at or knowledgeable about philosophy generally.)
Thoughts from readers? Signed comments will be strongly preferred, per usual.