To choose schools. That's one of the hardest parts of applying to PhD. Also hard to tell a good way to do it. I'll share my experience and hope it can shed some light on the process.
So, I had defined that I would apply to PhD in the US, and that it would be in the Marketing concentration. I also had my GMAT and my TOEFL (IELTS as plan B). Add to that my transcripts, and I felt I was ready to go.
It is extremely difficult to gauge your own strength about many things, including your application's strength. If you are overconfident, it's bad. If you don't believe in yourself, it's bad. So, I really recommend you talk with more experienced and knowledgeable people about your profile, to get other people's points of view.
You should talk, for example, with those who are expected to write your letters of recommendation. If they are willing to recommend, they are willing to help. They can show ways you could improve, evaluate your odds. And talking to them may help them to write better letters of recommendations too.
I also recommend to use the forum at Urch.com, since there you will find not only other applicants like you, but also people who are already PhD students and candidates. Most of those people are not privy to the admissions process, but at least they are people who were successful in their application and can tell what worked for them. There isn't a lot of movement, but it seems there is always a loyal user who check the forum from time to time. Things get busier closer to deadlines. Very nice people over there.
People will not tell exactly which schools you should apply to. But they will have a feel about the general level of schools. That you should apply to top 50, or that you have a shot at a top 20, for example.
It seems that your GMAT/GRE score is very important to define the general level of school. A guide I found is top 10 for GMAT above 730, top 10-30 for GMAT 710-730, top 30-70 for GMAT 680-710, and below that GMAT 640-700. Of course that's just a rough estimate. That should be adjusted according to the strength of other aspects of your profile, like research experience. But it is a start. Although my GMAT score of 750 was enough for a top 10 according to that guide, I dont' think the rest of my application was equally strong, so I thought top 30-70 would be a better range. I applied to schools above that, but really didn't have much hope for top 20.
But how do I know if a school is top 10 or top 20? Which ranking do I use? Please do not use ranking for MBA schools, since MBA and PhD strengths of schools can be very different. It is not perfect, but the best ranking I found for PhD in business is the UTD ranking. That ranking is based on papers published by top journals, and you can make a ranking only with journals of your interest (Marketing journals, in my case). Since top researchers are able to publish at top journals, that ranking should show where are the best researchers in your concentration and, therefore, the best PhD programs.
Then you will see something interesting. A very well known school may be ranked much lower than a school you never heard about. Everybody knows about Harvard. But you may be able to find a school whose research in your concentration is stronger than Harvard's, and competition for PhD will not be as fierce since a lower number of people will apply to a lesser known school. You can find some hidden gems there.
You will also notice that a school ranked 80th, for example, can still be an amazingly great and known school. There are really many good schools around the world. So, don't feel like you got the short end of the stick if your profile seems to indicate a top 100 school.
So, I started to list schools around the level people suggested. Since I decided to apply widely to increase my odds of getting into a PhD in the US, I started with a long list of schools. If my final list was composed of 20 schools, the first list had much more than that, maybe 50 schools (out of the 100+ US schools listed by the American Marketing Association).
You will have to do some research about every school on your list. Some of the things you should try to evaluate:
- Where the school is located? Is it a place you'd like to live for years? If you hate cold weather, you should stay clear of freezing cities. If you have big cities, schools in New York are not the best choice.
- What is the culture of the school? What are its values? You may find that some schools are a perfect match to your personality, while others are far from it.
- How is the job placement record of the school? PhDs from good schools should be able to find academic jobs at nicely ranked schools.
- How good is the schools' financial aid? A school may be great, but without enough funding it may not be realistic for you depending on your financial needs and situation.
- And, the most important thing: is the school a good research fit for you?
That last item is really a lot of work, but one you should do. You should check who are the professors at the schools you listed. After you know that, you should find the papers they wrote, what kind of research they have an interest. Your goal is to find professors whose papers are a good fit to your own research interests. Right now you don't need to read those papers in depth, but take a look of them to know what they are about. If you don't find any professor with any work related to your research interests in a school, you probably should exclude that school from your list. If you find several professors aligned with your interests, that school should be a priority for you.
It may be a good opportunity to define or improve your research interests too. If you find too few schools, maybe your research interests are too narrow, too specific. If every school seems to fit your needs, your research interests are not specific enough. There may be cases where you know your research interests are really too specific, and you have your reasons to stick with them. But I believe having some flexibility about research interests is important to a PhD, since they are something that is expected to evolve.
The American Marketing Association has been saying for years and years, in one way or another, that Marketing metrics are a research priority. So, it was not a surprise to me that I found many schools with research about that. Some were really more closely related to the kind of metrics I am more interested (like customer lifetime value), some were not so close but still enough.
In my case, I also excluded schools from the list based on another factor. For most schools, application is totally online. But there are schools which require that you send documents like transcripts via snail mail. For me, it would increase the workload and the costs (it is very expensive to mail documents from Brazil to US), and I would have to rush to finish applications a lot earlier (since it takes a long time for schools to issue additional transcripts and to make them go all the way to the US). So, I applied to only one school which required physical copies, and that's only because I was informed about that after I finished by online application.
So, I ended with a list of 20 schools. Which, as I wrote before, it's much higher than the average.