You know setting your eyes on a very high ranked school might seem like the best way to go and it might seem bad that you did not get in; But, there is nothing wrong with "lower ranked" schools. The ranking system means very little. It isnt going to be an indication of your personal experience at the university. It isnt going to be an indication of the difficulty you will face with getting postdoc positions afterwards. Where ever you goto graduate school, the most important things are you find a subfield you enjoy which you can devout yourself to and have an advisor that is supportive and provides the appropriate guidance.
I graduated in 2000 from a decent university with a Bach. of Sci. in Physics and credits for minors in Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry and Math. I had done alright on the GRE Physics exam but I could have done much better. It didnt really reflect my ability and all the course work I had done. I applied to various universities(probably too many) and I got accepted to a few of them. I decided I would goto SUNY Stony Brook as it was the best offer I had. I wasnt really all that pleased because my first choice had been Columbia. Stony Brook was number 26 or so on the list and it had a very large class of grad students which would mean a lot of competition for the area I was interested in (high energy theory). Well, I figured instead of playing the hand I was dealt I would go back to the table and see if I could improve the situation with applying again at the end of my first year. I had taken most of the first year graduate physics classes during my last year of undergraduate; so, I did not have to worry about those.
I took the subject test again and my score did improve. I reapplied and was accepted at different universities from my initial application during my senior year of undergrad. I still did not get into Columbia. But I did get into UCLA. UCLA was ranked 14 on the list. They had a smaller department but they did not have as many people competiting for research advisors. I opted to transfer to UCLA. I retook many of the second year classes I had taken at Stony Brook and passed the written exam during that first year. I did not feel I had lost a year because in terms of course work I was at the same level now that others I graduated with were at.
It was at the end of my second year that I got a research advisor. Also, it was during that second year that the incoming class of graduate student was much higher than the department had anticipated. So, I thought I was fortunate to have gotten an advisor when I did.
I continued to take courses, work on research, and teach various classes. I never received any research funding from my advisor. My research wasnt materalizing either as I was devoting a significant amount of time to teaching and classes. In retrospect I think one of the problems was my research advisor was also the professor I was a teaching assistant for. In fact, it was at the end of my third year when I saw things were not going anywhere that I decided I would take the financial plunge and not teach that quarter. I assumed that it would give me time to devote to the research and that my advisor might be willing to provide support. Well, that didnt exactly work either. In fact, my advisor signed me up to teach for his course. I continued to struggle to get some sort of working thesis. Something that I could present and defend so that I would advance past the oral qualifying exam. At the end of my 4th year, after spending 2 years teaching with the same advisor and after not making anywhere near the progress that I should have been able to make. It all started to become pretty clear what was going on. And that I had made a terrible mistake staying with my advisor as long as I did. That I should have switched at the end of that 3rd year. One of the reasons I didnt was because opportunities just were not there at least not in the subfield I was interested in. Anyway the beginning of my 5th year, funding was completely gone. I had used my teaching assistant funding up as that is limited to 12 quarters (4 years). It was at that point my advisor said that the project that I had been working on for the past 2 years wasnt something that would be able to be developed into a thesis. In fact, he even suggested switching to a different subfield or university as I had no funding and he was unwilling to provide it.
Well, I was fortunate to have saved personal funds to rely on for a bit. I figured I would stay there and see what I could do with getting a new advisor during my 5th year. An absolute nightmare come true. An unfunded quarter later, I am left with either leaving or going into a subfield that I had no interest in (beam physics).
So, I am opting to leave. If it wasnt for the course work and the teaching experience, I would consider the past 4 years a complete waste of my time as I am only leaving with a masters of science in physics and not the Ph.D. that I set out to get. If I count my undergraduate years that is nearly a decade of pursuing a single goal only not to finish it..
I looked back to see how the grad students that I left at Stony Brook did. Well, almost all of them have multiple publications and are at the stage of getting ready to complete the doctorate. I look at my fellow students here at UCLA and some of them have 1 or 2 publications to their names. Not nearly as many as the counterparts at Stony Brook. Of course, the ones that have survived here have all had research funding.
So, why did I bother writing this. Well, I just wanted to let people know not to put too much into the ranking system. That you can have a good experience at a low ranking school. The impression and what I saw in the graduate program at my much lower ranked undergraduate school was people enjoying their experience and getting publications out there. So, do not let ambition drive you to do something foolish like transfering because a school is ranked 10 more places up than the one you are at. Or not considering a school because it is lower ranked. Just make the best out of what you have. Start looking for an advisor as soon as you get to the department. Do not wait until your second year and definitely not the end of your second year (even if you are wanting to do theory). And if your advisor is unwilling to provide funding consider a new advisor. Teaching and courses are going to take a lot of time. So, having research funds lets you not have to teach. If your advisor isnt providing guidance and helping you form a thesis, find a new advisor and quickly do not let the situation sit around hoping that some insight will come to you and your advisor will jump onboard. Oh, it might be nice to have a wide background but do not keep taking courses unless they are seminar type things.
As for my plans at this point, I have absolutely no idea. I have considered everything from trying to finish this at another university to high school teaching. Though, I will probably end up doing something in science or math education. One thing I really got out of my graduate student experience was that I enjoyed preparing for and teaching others. With the way things are going in high energy theory and high energy physics in general, I doubt I attempt to go back to finish the Ph.D. I find myself depressed and disillusioned with the whole thing.
Well, I do not know if this will help anyone. Perhaps, it is more of what not to do.