When looking at the department, use the RePEc journal ranking as a guide. Since you're going to be focusing on the econometrics department, the Top-5 journal that's relevant to econometricians are Econometrica, AER and REStud, in that specific order, as well as the top field journals (which would be Journal of Econometrics, Journal of Business and Economic Statistics and Journal of the American Statistical Association). I almost surely would've missed one or two (since metrics isn't my field of interest, so others should chime in).
Look at the senior faculty members and their publication history. Papers take years to publish, but it's not unreasonable to see a publication or two in those top field journals every 3-4 years or so. This points to the fact that the person is still research-active (and therefore, still open to the idea of advising grad students). Focus your search on senior faculty (Associate Professors and Professors) since it's no guarantee that any junior faculty will stay with the department once their tenure window ends. They might be asked to leave the department if they didn't make tenure or they might be offered tenure but a higher ranked department has made a better offer.
Lastly, look at the current and past people on the job market, and see who their advisors are. Sometimes, it's the same few people, and that one specific person that you're eyeing in the department isn't really taking on students, so that's something to take note of as well.
Yes, I know what you're thinking. This seems like a lot of work. That's because it is! You're deciding where to spend the next 5-6 years of your life. It's not something that you can hash out in a single sitting. Start an excel spreadsheet or something, and keep track of the schools that you've looked at, as you continue working up the USNEWS ranking. Once you get higher, the task becomes easier since higher ranked schools will almost always have more research-active people. However, it could very well be the case that a lower ranked school has better placements for a specific field since that's the school's area of focus.
Thank you so much for sharing all these information, it would really help me on the next application cycle! I will start researching more for next application cycle.
Also, thanks to everyone who responded to my post, I found them to be excellent advices and very helpful for me!
The other thing is I would not be hung up about ranking as much and look for program fit. The reality is in economics is that entering cohort size is directly related to program ranking, where top programs have more students than bottom programs. Most students actually graduate from top 30 programs and the median student in any ranked school doesn't do that much better than schools ranked much below them. Instead, the criteria you should be is the program a good fit. Does it have people working in the areas you are interested in? Do the faculty in those areas put effort into advising graduate students? Etc.
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