How do you start researching PhD programs?
I would begin researching PhD programs by speaking with your college advisors and mentors and asking them what programs to consider. They often will have specialized knowledge about particular programs—their pedagogy, research areas, strengths and weaknesses—which can help you begin the research process.
Next, make a list of the senior scholars in your area whose work you most admire. Find out where their institutional home is, and whether they supervise PhD Students. You can also research the editors of the major journals in your subfield, the officers of major disciplinary associations, recent disciplinary award winners, or people who have themselves advised scholars you admire.
Lastly, acquire data. Consult rankings, but be careful to note the limits of those rankings. Schools specializing in a particular, specialized area of research may not be as highly ranked overall, but still worthy of consideration; highly ranked programs may nonetheless falter at graduate education. Find statistics for placement record, the average time to completion, and the average debt load of PhD graduates. Duke’s Graduate School does a marvelous job of posting this data online, and if other programs don’t have it readily available, email them for it.
What should you look for in a PhD program?
First, think carefully about finances. The decision to go into debt for education is a deeply personal one, but at least in the humanities and humanistic social science, I would strongly recommend only attending a fully funded PhD program, which generally includes tuition, fees, as well as compensatory package of some kind.
You should also look for a PhD program in a location where you will be happy to live for five years or more. Graduate school is difficult in a variety of ways, both expected and unexpected, and you want to live in a place that gives you joy amid these challenges.
You can’t predict exactly how your own interests will evolve over your time in graduate school. You will inevitably pick a school with depth in your own research area—but make sure that program also has the breadth to allow you to explore a range of other questions and puzzles.
What questions should you ask in your campus visits?
Dig beyond the website and program brochure to find out what a program is really like. Ask if it would be possible to sit-in on a class or workshop, and schedule meetings with as many faculty and students as possible, both within and beyond your research area.
For the graduate students, I would ask: what is life like in that city? How competitive is the program, and how much collaboration is there? What is your favorite part of the graduate program, and what is one thing you wish you could change?
For faculty: how do you advise graduate students? Is co-authoring with graduate students common? What makes your school’s program different from other programs? What kind of research projects are you working on currently?
What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the application process?
One pitfall to avoid is to apply for graduate programs without also applying for fellowships, scholarships and grants. These awards can help offset the cost of graduate school—and, in turn, open up new intellectual networks while serving as a signaling device to future employers. A second pitfall to avoid is the assumption the application process works objectively. The vicissitudes of applying are many—and whether or not you are accepted to a given program is not an evaluation of your worth as a person or scholar.