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Re: California PhD programs
I think this depends on your field. As a development econ person I rank these like:
2. UCLA (not that good for dev but overall good ranking)
3./ 4. UC Davis /UCSB (I think Davis has better placements but UCSB has cool faculty and great location)
5. USC/UC Irvine. (Not really sure about either of these schools. Seems like many people apply to UC Irvine so it's probably better ranked).
UC Davis is very safe and a cute/fun/liberal college town despite the fact that it seems quite rural. USC is in the middle of LA so probably higher on crime. Note that UC's tend to have stipends on the lower end and require RA/TA most if not all semesters.