Sometimes a smaller school can be better. It is true that the more researchers a school has in your area, the less likely it is that you will lose all the professors in your field. But, it can still happen at large state schools. By the time I came up for dissertation, all of the professors whose first-year classes I took were gone. I have had to completely retool. A smaller school can sometimes have more of a community environment.
This is just something to think about. It is easy to just look at the straight academic data when choosing a school, not realizing the importance of these other factors to finishing your degree.
[A:] A great point!
People who are not in graduate school often don't realize exactly how much time graduate students in Economics spend working. Eighty and ninety (or more) hour work weeks are not uncommon and many students, particularly those doing applied work, have to spend the majority of that time surrounded by other people in the program. Because of this, it's vitally important that you have people around you that you can at least tolerate. I see faculty members and other Ph.D. students a great deal more often than I see my girlfriend, which is not unusual for a Ph.D. student. So you can never underestimate how important it is to have a good working relationship with the people around you. Most Ph.D. students in economics now take five years to graduate, so unless you want to spend half of a decade miserable, it's important to end up in an environment with which you can live.
In "Choosing A Graduate School in Economics" I recommend contacting a few students at the school to which you are considering applying. You should make sure to ask them about what it's like to live there as well as asking questions about academics. If you're accepted into several schools, you may want to visit each of the schools and talk to the students and the faculty face to face before making your final decision. At Rochester last year a few students did that, and it seemed to make their decision easier. Also consider the type of city in which you wish to live. If you love big cities the University of Chicago may be a better choice for you than Yale.
In general academic economists tend to be somewhat introverted and anti-social, so don't expect a big party atmosphere in the department you join. I'm somewhat extroverted and I enjoy socializing, so going to Rochester was a big adjustment for me. I find if you make friends outside of your department, you'll enjoy your experience in economics more. If you're quite a social person, I'd highly recommend finding out what the social life is in the different departments you are considering before you apply to them.
Thanks for your helpful letter.
If you'd like to ask a question about graduate school in economics or any other topic or comment on this story, please use the feedback form. I'd also love to hear your graduate school horror stories, if you have any please send them my way.