For your own sake, consider the 100 Reasons before committing yourself to graduate school. If there is no hope of convincing you not to go, here are three bits of advice:
1. Stay out of debt.
If you go to professional school (medical school, law school, business school, a school of education, etc.), you typically have to cover tuition and other expenses yourself. Students in professional school often have no option but to take out large student loans to get them through their degree programs. This makes sense only if you will graduate with a degree that will lead to a job with a salary high enough to make paying back your debt possible. For medical school graduates, this may not be a problem. For indebted law school graduates, the scarcity of jobs in the legal profession has become a crisis.
Graduate school, however, is different. In graduate school, you are not (ostensibly) being trained for a “practical” trade, but are instead becoming a scholar, undertaking the study of an “academic” subject for its own sake. This, of course, is nonsense, but it is the premise behind the idea that there should be generous financial support for graduate students (as opposed to professional students). Departments “fund” graduate students by giving them either fellowships (scholarships) or assistantships (jobs). You should NOT begin a graduate program if you have not been offered funding.
Some will say that being offered admission to a graduate program without funding is like being given a polite rejection, but universities will be happy to collect tuition from you if you are willing to pay it. No graduate program is worth the cost of tuition, especially if it requires you to go into debt. In reality, graduate school is professional training. It is training for a career in academe, and the academic job market is terrible (see Reason 55). Academic jobs are extremely hard to obtain and do not pay well, so if you go into debt for a graduate degree you are putting yourself at risk of being unable to repay that debt. Student-loan debt cannot even be discharged in bankruptcy.
2. Go to a prestigious school.
Where you go to graduate school matters. It is difficult to over-emphasize the importance of this point. As everyone knows, there is a hierarchy of universities, but no one takes this hierarchy more seriously than academics (see Reason 3). There are so few jobs in academe that the competition for virtually every open position is a national (and often international) competition. Those with the best chance of securing employment are the products of the nationally (and internationally) prestigious institutions. There are very few genuinely prestigious universities, and almost all of them are private. They are the Ivies and the quasi-Ivies like Stanford and MIT. The number of genuinely prestigious public universities in the United States can be counted on one hand, probably on three fingers, and quite possibly on one.
The large, perfectly respectable public university in your area is almost certainly not one of them, even if it offers an enormous array of graduate programs with extremely competitive admission standards. The problem is that there are hundreds of universities just like it all over the country, together producing tens of thousands of graduate degrees every year. If you happen to earn your PhD at such a place, you will be at a severe disadvantage on the job market, where you will be pitted against people with degrees from the genuinely prestigious universities.
Be wary of characterizations of “prestigious departments” or “top programs” at universities that are not themselves highly prestigious institutions, and bear in mind that the prestige of an institution may have no relation to the quality of education that it provides its students. As far as landing an academic job is concerned, the prestige of your degree is more important than anything you learned in the process of obtaining it. If you are not admitted to a graduate program at a highly prestigious university, then you have all the more reason to ask yourself if a massive life investment in graduate school is worth it.
3. Finish as quickly as possible.
This is by far the hardest piece of advice to follow. Circumstances tend to conspire to turn what is already designed to be a long, slow slog into an even lengthier ordeal. Everything from unreliable funding to onerous teaching assistantships can slow down your progress through graduate school. But every year that you spend in graduate school is a year of opportunity costs. It is precious time in which you’re not earning a salary, you’re not establishing seniority in a career, and you’re not exploring opportunities in fields with better job prospects than academe.
Remember that you can quit graduate school if you don’t like it, but this is far easier said than done (see Reason 11) and it is better to quit after one year than after five or six. Even if you do finish a PhD, there is no guarantee that you will ever find an academic position for which your degree is a requirement. Minimizing your time in graduate school limits your opportunity costs, as well as your exposure to an environment that can be stressful, competitive, and deeply discouraging (see Reason 50).
There is no simple way to ensure a quick path through graduate school, but following the advice in Point 2 will help. The most prestigious schools tend to offer the most generous funding packages, which can serve to relieve you of the debilitating financial worries that complicate the typical graduate-school experience. You would also be wise to choose an adviser who keeps you strictly accountable (see Reason 45) and to start working on your dissertation long before you take your comprehensive exams. You will find it very hard to prioritize your own research and writing when you have job obligations involving students and faculty, but if you do not prioritize your own academic work, graduate school can drag on for many years.