I need to be thinking about more applications right now, but every time I try, it just makes me want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head. So instead, let me say one more thing to prospective grad students.
Wiser people than me have already told you to make sure you get a look at the placement stats for the departments you're thinking of going to. That's really, really important. But at the same time, you've got understand most departments are probably--in at least some small way--juking their stats, as Major Daniels might put it. Not lying exactly, just, well, juking.
So let me try to lay out the information I think you want, even though I suspect you're not really going to get it all from most departments.
1. How long to people take to finish the program, and how many people bail or get kicked out before they finish? Suppose you get a five-year funding package, and whoever you're talking to in a department keeps telling you, "It's a five-year program." Well, maybe. I'm sure there are places out there that get people through in five years. But there sure as hell aren't a lot of them. So when you get told you're looking at a five-year program, you're probably getting a pile of bullshit. If you can, I'd suggest e-mailing a senior grad student in the department and asking them what their sense is of how long people take to finish. And ask them how people pay the rent in their sixth, seventh, and nth years. Those years can be damn lean.
Okay, onto placement stats proper. Here's what you want to now about them.
2. How many grads of the program get tenure-tracked jobs? This seems like it should be easy to get, right? It's not. For a department to give you a meaningful number here, they've also got to give you answers to these questions:
3. Exactly who does the department count as not getting tenure-tracked jobs? Here's where things get shady, because a lot of departments aren't going to count people who choose not to go on the job market. But what does this choice look like, and why do people make it? because they think they've got no chance on the market? That's certainly one obvious reason to choose not to go on the market.
So one guy from my department realized he had no chance on the market, and so he went straight to law school. He doesn't count. Another guy was one-half of a two-body problem, and realized he had no chance of ever getting a job in the same place as a partner. So after a year on the market, he bailed on academia. He doesn't count. If someone strikes out on the market four or five years in a row and then decides to throw in the towel, do they count? (Afer all, they did choose to throw in the towel.) If the placement stats are going to tell you much of anything, you need to know this shit.
Now here's a killer.
4. On average, how long do people spend on the market before landing a tenure-tracked job? Do most people coming out of the program get jobs as ABDs? Do they do a one-year? Or do they bounce around the country doing one-year after one-year after one-year before finally getting a chance to settle down?
Do not, under any circumstances, expect faculty from a program to be giving you honest and fair-minded assessments of their own placement stats. Maybe they are. I'd like to think most are. But maybe they're not, so don't get took.