When I first started looking at graduate schools, I was directed to the Philosophical Gourmet Report. The report ranks PhD programs in philosophy based on the quality of each department’s faculty. Although, the scores for each department are formed by surveys distributed to a large number of professional philosophers, it is important to remember that the ranking is basically one of reputation among philosophers in the Anglo-American analytical philosophical community. It is not a rank of the graduate experience, teaching quality, or job placement after graduation (though it certainly makes sense that job placement would be highly correlated with faculty reputation). That said, it is certainly a good place to start your search for a suitable graduate program and it is great supplement to the opinions of faculty in your BA philosophy department.
During most of the application process, I paid way too much attention to the Gourmet Report and because of this I applied to some highly ranked programs that would not have been a good fit for me. If I had done things differently I could have found several programs that were ranked lower but who’s placement records and specialties might have served me well. I think a better strategy would have been to look more carefully at the faculty and their research, along with the types of courses offered. I have also heard quite a bit about some very highly ranked programs (featuring highly regarded faculty) where the graduate program is not given too much thought and therefore students are not given the benefit of being in the same department with such amazing scholars. So, simply put, rank is only one dimension. Also, note that departments that center around so called LEMMing philosophy (language, epistemology, metaphysics, and mind) tend to do better on the Gourmet Report; this isn’t a rule (and there is great debate about how the rankings treat departments not specializing in these areas) but if you are more interested in ethics or phenomenology (to give two examples) you might want to pay even less attention to the overall rankings and concentrate on rankings in those subject areas.
Another question that I still haven’t answered for myself is how much the location of a department should influence ones decision. There is a tendency for people to downplay the location factor. In fact, even bringing this up as an aspect of ones decision is considered a sign of not being serious about graduate study. I agree that one needs to be extremely flexible when going into philosophy; you need to apply to a wide variety of programs to have a good chance of going to any of them and upon graduation there is even more flexibility required because of the shortage of tenure track jobs. However, it seems that one’s living situation greatly affects the quality of one’s work, not to mention quality of one’s life; don’t forget that you will be spending about 6 years of your life in this location. This factor became most salient for me when I started to consider two schools rather similar in the Gourmet Report rankings but that exhibited extreme differences in the quality of their location. UC – Riverside (I will pick on them because they are the only department not to get back to me about my status – it is May already, and I would think I am at least entitled to a proper rejection….) is ranked 30th in the country for philosophy. They have a very interesting department and their group of ‘continental’ philosophers in a largely ‘analytical’ department is especially noteworthy; however, everyone I have talked to who has been to Riverside, CA has said it is a shit-hole. It basically has all the smog, traffic and gang violence of LA without any of the benefits of a major city. If you know anything about me, a car oriented desert is my version of hell. So, when I was considering whether I would accept my offer from the U of Maryland, which is also ranked 30th but located near Washington D.C, the location of Riverside meant that I didn’t even inquire as to my status with them. I figured I would be pretty miserable living there and, given my very broad philosophical interests, the individual strengths of Riverside probably wouldn’t overcome this fact. I did look at individual strengths of the department and Maryland still seemed like a good choice, but location had pretty much decided it for me before this comparison. Of course, location preferences are different for everyone; some people might prefer Riverside, CA over the Washington D.C area. But what sort of place you can stand and how much it matters to you is a personal decision and don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about that.
Next you need to ask yourself where you can realistically be accepted. You have to realize how competitive this entire game is; you might think you know (I thought I did when I applied) but you probably don’t. Here is some inside info, that might give you an idea. Maryland is ranked 30th in the nation, so it is by no means an elite program. It had only 4 open spots for its fall class and received over 150 applications (top programs can get about 300); of those who were accepted, one person had a BA in philosophy from an ivy league school and the other two had MAs. Now, there are a few people who get accepted to many top programs (so there certainly is a pattern to admissions) but most of us have to apply to many schools expecting rejection from most with the hopes of getting one or two acceptances. It is also my impression that many people are either rejected from every place they apply to or do not get adequate funding (probably from a school rather low on their list); so, if you are the average applicant (especially if you don’t come from an elite school, or one that doesn’t have a ranked PhD program in philosophy) you will have to fight your hardest to even get one acceptance. In order to find out what range you should apply to, ask your philosophy professors (perhaps with a copy of the Philosophical Gourmet report in hand). This will be more helpful if you are at a school that has a PhD program in philosophy because then your professors will have an idea of the sort of applicants that they typically admit. Also, try to get several opinions about your chances. One of my letter writers was far more optimistic about where I should apply to than another; if I had not listened to the less optimistic one I would likely not be going to graduate school next year. However, everyone I talked to told me to apply to as many places as I could afford and I think this is great advice. I applied to 17 places and I don’t think that was too many. Yes, I know, that is a crazy number but I get the impression that it is pretty typical.