Graduate School is an exercise in attrition. Perhaps especially so during the application process. The process is long, grueling, and expensive. You are trying to find that which will consume most of your time for 5-7 years. It is fair to say that you are looking for a temporary spouse. So, just as must people do not get married at the drop of a hat, but seek to understand and love the person to whom they propose, I propose that you do the same in your search for a graduate school. Don\’t marry a program and then decide two years in that you\’re not a good match. That\’s not good for anyone.
First, you search to find relevant schools for your area of expertise. For a Hebrew Bible/ANE guy like myself, that is a lot quicker than if I was a NT/Classics guy. There simply aren\’t as many schools where you can learn Semitic languages (e.g., Akkadian) as there are where you can learn Latin. However, the list of PhD granting programs in my field is still quite lengthy. To help me manage all of my notes and information on these programs, I actually created a spreadsheet. I gave each school a column, and then designated various rows for different information. Honestly, I don\’t know how anyone else does it any other way. It gave me a really nice way to view the schools side-by-side and make decisions between them (see below for more).
After identifying particular schools, then you have to look at their specific program. While there are a number of programs that are related to what I want to teach (the history, languages, and literature of the ANE), I had to decide exactly where my focus would be. Did I want to be a Comparative Semitics guy? A Hebrew Bible guy? A History guy? Or did I want to focus on archeology, Summer, Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, or Religion? These are all slightly (or very) different foci, and deciding exactly which best suits your interests (and dissertation topic) is very important.
The above step is vital. Especially because of how much it impacts the next: researching the professorship. After you have decided on your area within the overall field (or major within your department), you need to take a serious look at their teaching faculty in that area. This doesn\’t just mean looking at their names and thinking, \”Oh! I saw that he wrote an article in ASOR once!\” Instead, this means making an intensive study of what they\’ve written. What is their focus? What methods do they employ? Do you think they would be a good match for a dissertation advisor? Do their interests mirror yours? And, an often ignored question, \”How often does this professor actually teach?\” Some professors department websites list simply teach one class every two years, acting more as professors emeriti. If you are really looking forward to taking a majority of your coursework from that professor, you would end up sadly mistaken. Similarly, don\’t just research the professors, research the classes that they teach. Normally, department websites have old course offerings available for viewing and I highly recommend that you consult those as well.
Lastly, research the school/program itself. What reputation do they have in the scholarly community? The above questions have more to do with your education, this question has more to do with what you\’ll be able to do after you receive your education. For better or for worse, the academe is a political creature. We can discuss how this shouldn\’t be so (which I won\’t do at this time), but think that just because it shouldn\’t be that it isn\’t is a mistake. So, if you want to teach at a state school after graduation, don\’t get your PhD from a seminary. While the education you receive at X Seminary could be better than at Y State School, if you have your heart set on teaching at a state school then don\’t go to Seminary X.
All of the above points, though, are based around the most important–and often hardest–area of research: yourself. After you have done all of the above you still have to filter it through yourself. You need to understand what your own dreams, hopes, values, goals, and research projects are before you can evaluate those of the schools at which you are looking. Being happy at a program will be crucial to your success, and realizing whether you are a good match for a program is just as important. If you are an evangelical Christian, you might not want to submit yourself to, say, Chicago\’s Divinity program. Likewise, if you are an anything other than an evangelical Christian, you probably wouldn\’t be very happy at, say, Wheaton. That\’s not to say that anything is wrong with either of these two schools, merely that you owe it to yourself and to the school that you plan to attend to know–is this a good match?