Does it ever make sense NOT to go to the most prestigious graduate school you can get into? [closed]

I’m a senior undergrad at a top-ish(say, top 15) math school. I’m a solid, not stellar, student. This year I’m taking the qualifying exam grad courses in algebra and analysis and have been taken aback by the “pressure cooker” atmosphere among grad students here. That is, even moreso than in the undergraduate program.

If I’m self driven, could going to a “less prestigious” school afford me more space(I mean in a psychological sense) to produce a more solid contribution to math? By “less prestigious”, I mean a school “ranked” significantly lower than the range of schools that I could comfortably get into. For me, “less prestigious” would be ranked around 40-60 on, say, USNews or NRC.

My reasoning is that at such a school, I would be more able to learn the fundamentals at my own pace, as opposed to a pace dictated to me by the program. I know I want to do math, and I think my learning style may be better suited to going at my own pace. Thoughts?


I think that there are several important points.

First, you will learn just as much from your fellow
graduate students, especially in the initial years, than
you will from your professors, and far more from your
fellow students if there is a good atmosphere for it. Thus,
I suggest that you try to land at a school with a
supportive and studious student environment. You can visit
the places to find out, and talk to graduate students
there. From this perspective, it is very helpful to be at a
place that has many talented graduate students—they will
help you rise to their level (or you will all rise
together). Since the top schools tend to have stronger
students, this can be a good reason to go to a top school
when it is possible.

Second, most of the pressure on graduate students is
self-imposed, instantiating their drive to do well
mathematically. Every school, including the top programs,
have some students that proceed at a different pace. So you
can often resist whatever external pressure you imagine is
there. (One important exception to this is at a school
where financial support might be withdrawn for slow
progress—so look into that at the places in which you are

Third—and actually I find this to be the most important
point—you shouldn’t look at the school only and make a
such an important life decision based only on mathematics
and prestige. Rather, look at all aspects of how the choice
of a school will affect your life. You must consider the
city and region as well. For example, do you prefer city
living or country living? If you like the mountains, hiking
and snow, then don’t go to Florida, and similarly, if big
city living is your preference, then don’t go to small
town. I find that this kind of consideration is oddly often
neglected among mathematics students.

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