Researching PhD Programs
To do your research well, expect to spend hours looking up every program that your professors think should be on your long list. Don't worry; it will be fun, or if it's not, then maybe you should rethink grad school. Every time a school or professor sounds interesting, make a note of the reasons they caught your eye; when you are finished, you will have a good enough list to start discriminating between programs, selecting those you like best.
Step 1. Meet with your major advisor; share your academic aspirations, discuss (or clarify) your specific interests, and request suggestions of possible schools to explore.
Step 2. Historically, the National Research Council has provided the most valuable rankings of PhD programs allowing you to compare them based on several factors. While they have not updated their findings in the past decade, if you Google "NRC rankings for X field" you can often still find their information online. Look for the PhD programs that most closely match your interests, selecting the features you are seeking in a PhD program. With that information, refine or add to the list of schools developed with your advisor.
Step 3. Look up each department's home page, reading every single page of it. Look at the curriculum: Does it encourage interests like yours? Does the program have a slant (that is, for example, if the program is Classics, does it emphasize literature, philosophy, history, archeology, etc.)? If so, can you live with the emphasis? Note the names and research interests of each professor. Note also where they got their PhDs, which may help you to expand or refine your list.
Step 4. Look up the professors above on scholar.google.com to see what they have published and when they did so; note how many times each was cited to see how influential it was. Click on the links to read abstracts of their papers or even the publications themselves. Now the big question: you'll be working closely with a professor for at least 5 years, and they want someone who's excited about the research they've been doing: who is doing work in an area that you find fascinating?
Step 5. Try to find out or intuit how many people each program admits each year. Are they admitted straight into the PhD or are they encouraged to take the intermediate step of earning a Masters? If this information is not provided outright, then count how many current grad students they have: if they list the year they were admitted, then note that as well to help you calculate the class size. The size of the department may impact the access you have to faculty (as you will have found by attending Hanover); however, smaller programs may be more competitive. You can find some good information about this also on the grad school pages at petersons.com.
Step 6. What do they say about funding, teaching assistanceships, etc?
Step 7. Look up the programs still on your list to see how long it takes people to earn degrees, the reputation of the programs, etc.
Step 8. Look up the towns in which the schools are located on Craigslist and Google Images; is this an environment that suits you?
Step 9. Meet again with your advisor to discuss your revised list. What other things matter to people in the field you're pursuing? Facilities? Library? Ask your advisor for insight.
To do a good job on your research, you cannot take shortcuts and, unfortunately, no one else can do this work for you no matter how well they think they grasp your priorities. As you read and learn, you will gain subtle impressions that will matter; give yourself time to absorb them. PhD programs average 6 years to complete: be sure you are well-suited to the program you attend.