There is tons of advice on the Internet (e.g., on the academic blogs I read) for prospective doctoral students. I am very happy with my own graduate school choices but I feel that I basically got lucky. Few people are saying the two things I really wish someone had told me before I made the decision to get a PhD:
- Most people getting doctorates would probably be better off doing something else.
- Evaluating potentially programs can basically done by looking at and talking with a program's recent graduates.
Most People Getting Doctorates Probably Shouldn't
In most fields, the only thing you need a PhD for is to become a professor -- and even this requirement can be flexible. You can have almost any job in any company or non-profit without a PhD. You can teach without a PhD. You can write books without a PhD. You can do research and work in thinktanks without a PhD. You don't even always need a PhD to grant PhDs to other people: two of my advisors at the Media Lab supervised PhD work but did not have doctorates themselves! Becoming a tenured professor is more difficult without a doctorate, but it is not impossible. There are grants and jobs outside of universities that require doctorates, but not nearly as many as most people applying for PhDs programs think.
Getting a doctorate can even hurt: If you want to work in a company or non-profit, you are usually better off with 4-6 years of experience doing the kind of work you want to do than with the doctorate and the less relevant experience of getting one. Starting salaries for people with doctorates are often higher than for people with masters degrees. But salaries for people with masters degrees and 5 years of experience are even higher -- and that's before you take into account the opportunity costs of working for relatively low graduate student wages for half a decade.
PhD take an enormous amount of time and, in most programs, you spend a huge amount of this time doing academic busy work, teaching, applying for grants or fellowships, and writing academic papers that very people read. These are skills you'll need to be a successful professor. They are useful skills for other jobs too, but not as useful as the experience of actually doing those other jobs for the time it takes to get the degree.
Evaluating Graduate Programs
If you are still convinced you need a doctorate, or any graduate degree for that matter, you will need to pick a program. Plenty of people will offer advice on how to pick the right program and trying to balance all the complicated and contradictory advice can be difficult. Although I love my program and advisors, I've known many less happy students. Toward that end, there are two pieces of meta-advice that I wish everybody was told before they applied:
Find recent graduates of the program you are considering, and the faculty advisor(s) you are planning on working with, and look at where they are now. Are these ex-students doing the kind of work that you want to do? Are they at great programs at great universities?
Chances are good that a PhD program and its faculty will prepare future students to be like, and do work like, the students they have trained in the past. Programs that consistently make good placements are preparing their students well, supporting them, making sure they have the resources necessary to do good work, and helping their students when they are on the job market. A program whose students do poorly, or just end doing work that isn't like the kind you want to do, will probably fail you too.
If recent graduates seem to be generally successful and doing the kind of work you want to do, find one who looks most like the kind of academic you want to become and talk to them about their experience. Chances are, your faculty advisors will overlap with theirs and your experience will be similar. Ex-students can tell you the strengths of weaknesses of the program you are considering and what to watch out for. If they had a horrible experience, there's a decent chance you will too, and they will tell you so.
Doing these two things means you don't have to worry about trying to think of all the axes on which you want to evaluate a program or pour through admissions material which is only tangentially connected to the reality you'll live for a long time. What matters most is the outcomes, of course, because you're be living the rest of your life for a lot longer than you'll be in the PhD program.