At a couple blogs I read, there've been some discussions about grad school applications from the admissions side. Some of the comments sort of blew me away because they expect the undergrad applying for admission to know the quirks of the potential grad faculty.
Let's acknowledge that the field is very different from mine, and maybe things work very differently.
Here's how I chose my phud program, coming from a regional university where several faculty were encouraging me to go on. I talked to faculty members, and made lists of places I was considering. My advisor called someone she knew at the local flagship and asked him about programs in the field. He suggested a couple as being strong. I also looked at the Newsweek grad school information for my field.
What I didn't know, and really had no way of knowing, was that the flagship scholar was incredibly conservative in his scholarship, and suggested only the most conservative schools, including none with prominent feminist scholars, because he didn't think feminism had anything to do with scholarship. And he hated theory.
And so, I ended up at a pretty conservative English department, where out of 25+ tenured faculty, two were female (things did improve while I was there!). Theory was weak there, but improved tremendously with a couple of hires and a tenuring. I wasn't a great fit, but I made it through and the rest was history. But how was I supposed to know? I didn't have the resources, really, given where I was, to know about all sorts of grad departments. (And while it was conservative, it was an overall strong, large department with fair depth in most fields.)
And yet the comments on the other post suggest that I should have known which schools in my field had the best scholars interested in what I wanted to work on, which would be supportive of women, and so forth.
Maybe I'm totally clueless, but I don't think most people actually know that much detail about schools they aren't closely associated with, and those that do know, don't necessarily talk to people applying for grad school.
Here's an example. While I was a grad student, through a mutual friend in my program, I met a grad student at Berkeley who'd chosen Berkeley to work with Stephen Greenblatt. The student had done his undergrad at Yale, and gotten into Berkeley. He had the right connections. He was white, male, upper class, had gone to the right prep school. I'm assuming if his advisors at Yale had been able to warn him of a problem, they would have, right? Within a year or two of his arriving at Berkeley, Greenblatt had moved elsewhere. The student ended up working with a fine scholar, finishing his dissertation after several years, and then leaving academia.
Another example: in my grad program, there was a famous scholar. Every year, students applied to the program thinking they would work with him. Once in the program, no one worked with him. And a year after I got there, he took early retirement in a settlement to avoid a lawsuit brought by a male undergrad for inappropriate sexual behavior. No one warned all those grad students ahead of time, not their undergrad advisors, not when they were at interview dinners alone with other grad students, no one. But pretty much everyone knew this guy was a problem. But no one said anything, until students came, and then they figured things out pretty quickly, realized they'd better keep their mouths shut, and found someone else to work with.
I could give other examples. My point is that even when people know, they don't tell undergrads everything for a variety of reasons. And people often don't know a whole lot about the intricacies at other schools, about Joe Schmoe's sexism, drinking problem, whatever. Or maybe they don't consider the sexism or drinking a problem.
So I'm wondering, how much did you folks know about graduate programs when you applied? How did you know what you knew?