Okay, if you are still checking out this blog, you must be pretty determined to go to grad school. Picking where you do your graduate work is going to have an enormous impact on your career. What factors should you consider?
Well, the overall reputation of your school as an academic institution is extremely important. Where you got your undergraduate degree is going to have little impact on your career. I have seen several people well-served by letters from their undergraduate mentors, if they stayed in contact, but that example is not exactly the same thing. Regardless of the reputation of its history department schools with sterling academic reputations are always good bets. A degree from Duke University is a degree from Duke, and that is never a bad thing.
Okay, now before you start running off to apply to Dartmouth, Duke, and Emory, there is something else you should consider. What if you want to do a history of U.S.-Estonian diplomatic relations during the interwar period? How well will you be served if none of those schools have a specialist in Estonian or even eastern European history, or a language department that offered any courses in Estonian? Probably, not so much. That gets us to a second issue, you need to consider the strengths and resources of departments in choosing where you go to school. Now, if you are that budding U.S.-Estonia specialist, Columbia University might be the right place for you since it has a long, fifty year history in being a place that specializes in Russian and eastern European studies. None of the three schools that I mentioned earlier is particularly well-known for its European studies programs even though they are all pretty darn good. If, on the other hand, you wanted to write a study of Napoleon as a military innovator, Florida State University, is known as leader in both Napoleonic studies and military history, and that would be a very good place to study over say the University of Texas or the University of Washington, both of which have arguably better academic reputations than Florida State.
One of the most important factors you need to consider is the faculty member you are going to study under at the school you pick. The more focus you have the better when it comes to your application. Few selection committees expect you to have a dissertation topic already selected, but the more specifity you show the better. When I was in graduate school I was amazed at some of my classmates who had tired of selling insurance and decided to go back to school, but were uncertain what fields they wanted to study. A lot of them never graduated. If you are applying to a university to study with a specific individual that shows that you are pretty serious and not applying to graduate school on a whim.
The problem with going to a school to work with a certain individual is that they might not end up being a good mentor. Usually, this problem is the result of personality, but other factors can develop: they might get a good job offer at a different institution a year and a half after you arrive; the individual might be too busy with their own research, attending conferences and making media appearances to give you the supervision you need (often an issue when you are working with a “superstar”); or their personal life/health might prevent giving you their full attention (What happens if your advisor dies half way through your graduate studies?).
Being at a big, strong department can help to a degree. In these type of departments, the research interests of the faculty often overlap, so you can shift your focus. Many people can and do switch their interests, significantly in graduate school. A friend of mine went to grad school at one of the institutions of the Ivy League. After being there a year, he decided he did not want to study Eastern European history. Instead, he wanted to do U.S. colonial history.
More times than not, a shift is understandable. When making such a move, you need to consider that shift from a different angles, though. If you went to a lesser know school to work with a specific big name individual, is it in your best interests to stay at that institution if you will not end up working with that person? Are you as strong a candidate in another field as the one that you set out to study? This can be a real issue, if different language skills are involved in these fields. Think of going from general U.S. history to Latin America; what if you don’t read Spanish?
As a result, you need to keep a number of factors in mind when picking your grad school. There is no simple formula to use, but asking questions, visiting schools before hand, meeting with the faculty, explaining your interests, and talking with grad students in that department are all good ways of figuring what is best for you.