How do you start researching PhD programs?
Obviously, a simple web search is the simplest and first step. There is a lot of valuable information publicly available for almost any program in the country. It’s important to look at each program’s strengths and weaknesses, to assess student outcomes, and to reach out to faculty members that students may want to work with.
What should you look for in a PhD program?
Metrics might be a worthwhile consideration, but students should also look beyond numbers (such as rankings). Above all, “fit” should be a priority. Students should focus on finding potential faculty they would like to work with and institutions that serve their unique needs and priorities. There are lots of issues to consider, from teaching expectations to geographic location to whether a program is family-friendly. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to graduate school. Different students will have different priorities and needs, and there is no sense in spending money, time, and effort to apply to programs that may not be good fits.
What questions should you ask in your campus visits?
Again, I would recommend asking questions that will help determine whether a given university is a good fit: What are the funding policies? What are the teaching/work expectations? What interdisciplinary opportunities are there? How diverse are faculty and cohorts?
What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the application process?
Faculty that do not respond to emails or that are not helpful are red flags. If a professor can’t be bothered to answer a quick question, will s/he be available when you need them as an advisor or mentor? Relationships are crucial in graduate school, and first impressions matter. You want to be in a program that values you, your dignity, and your experience. Look for universities, faculty, and programs that appear open, transparent, and welcoming. Trust your instincts.