Questions to ask yourself

How does the value of a graduate degree compare to its opportunity costs?
If you’re applying to graduate school because you think a degree will advance your professional prospects, compare the value of a degree to the value of the professional experience you would accumulate in the same period of time. I feel well-served by my PhD and enjoyed working on my dissertation, but I suspect that an additional six years of work experience might have done as much for my career as the PhD has.

What do I want to study?

The best way to find out which departments to apply to is to look at who is doing good research in your area of interest. You probably already know the best academic researchers in your particular area; if not do some online/library research. It’s also worth considering the “brand” value of each department, both on the academic job market and in the larger world (in case you lose interest in academia or can’t get an academic job).

Can I drop out?

This is a question for you, not for the department. The biggest danger of beginning a PhD is not the danger that you won’t finish: it’s the danger that you won’t NOT finish. On the one hand, starting a PhD program is a great way to get a free MA: in the US, many PhD programs will fund your course of study, and if you drop out after completing your coursework and/or general exams, you walk away with a Master’s degree.

On the other hand, once you begin a PhD program, it’s really, really hard to walk away. That’s why the world is full of ABDs (All But Dissertation – ie people who finished their coursework but never finished the dissertation, and thus the degree). Depending on your temperament that ABD status can really hang over your head and keep you in a state of psychological limbo for a long time. So beginning graduate school will be lower-risk if you can set yourself some deadlines or guidelines that will help you recognize if and when you should actually decide to not finish, and walk away.

What kind of lifestyle do I want?

Think about the kind of setting, institution, student body etc that will make you happy — b/c grad school is often pretty miserable for a lot of people (I think it has to do with being trapped in student life while well into adulthood) so make sure that you’re living somewhere you can feel ok about, and that you vaguely like the kind of people you’ll be in school with.

My complete guide to grad school applications:

Who I am: my faux qualifications for dispensing grad school advice
My story: how I survived the application process
My results: where I got in, and how I got funding
Questions to ask yourself: things to think about when applying
Questions to ask departments: things you need to find out for your applications
Acing the application: my tips for winning at the application game