That said, there are some steps you can take to ensure the smoothest, happiest (I may be using this term semi-loosely) graduate school/PhD experience possible.
1. Before you choose your school: Check out the “Faculty” pages of your potential programs. Contact faculty and ask questions. These are your potential mentors/advisors. Read papers by them. Schedule a visit and meet them. Ask to sit in on a class or lab meeting. Talk to other students who work with/for this professor and are in this program or lab.
Make sure there is someone at the school who 1) is currently doing work on the topic of your interest and 2) that this person uses methods you are interested in. Being interested in similar things is not enough.
2. As you apply: You’ve found someone who does work you like and want to do, using methods you use or want to learn. Congratulations! Now stop. This advisor is good on paper.
I often compare shopping for grad schools to dating. This potential advisor has a good online profile. You both like dogs and long walks on the beach. You both want 2 kids and want to get married (someday). But a perfect marriage is not yet made.
Think about your visit/class/lab meeting/conversations with professor and others. If you haven’t visited yet, go back to #1 and do this! Can you really talk to this person? Do you trust them? Do they seem to have your academic-best-interest at heart? Can you really see working with them for the next 5 years (or more-- especially if you’re in the humanities)?
In Gary Molander’s Pursuing Christ, Creating Art, there is a fabulous chapter on Authority. It is geared from the approach of Artists (of various kinds) working in the Church, but truthfully, it applies to any kind of authority and is a great example of how authority should work, whether or not you are a Christian. In this, Molander details the notion of “covering”-- a concept I’ve heard throughout my Christian life without much explanation. He talks about the protection and security that authority is meant to provide for us. I believe these qualities can often blossom out of the type of kindness I talk about last week.
We don’t always have a choice in the authority in our lives (like the government-- you should vote(!), but your candidate may not always win), but sometimes we do. Choosing an advisor (or a workplace) is a chance to choose an authority in your life. Choose wisely.