Grad school programs can vary quite a bit. Each program has their own set of course requirements, guidelines for how qualifying exams are run, funding considerations, etc. Here are some things to think about:
There is a lot of variation between programs in how many courses students are required to take and what kinds of courses fulfill these requirements. It may not seem like a big deal to have to sit through a bunch of courses, but significant amounts of coursework can mean that you don’t get to your research project off the ground until your third year of graduate school. That’s a long time to wait if you’re ready to get started when you first arrive. On the other hand, some students benefit greatly from what they learn in class.
If you’re more of a self-learner or feel that you are already sufficiently familiar with the subject material, consider looking for a program with less coursework.
1) In a small program you’re far less likely to get lost in the crowd. It’ll be easier for the program directors to keep track of your progress and funding situation if you’re one of only a handful of students.
2) You get to know the other students in your program really well. Strong bonds formed during graduate school can be important for years to come as the students going through school with you will also be your future colleagues. These bonds will make graduate school a more pleasant experience and will provide an important support system.
3) You have greater access to professors and their advice by being in a smaller group. If you think you’ll want a lot of input while designing and executing your dissertation project, this may end up being very important to you.
1) You get to know other students in your program really well. If it turns out that you don’t get along well with a handful of people in your program, this could be a big problem. I’ve heard about cohorts of incoming students containing a few people who bumped heads and this made life pretty miserable for the group as a whole.
2) Small programs often don’t have a lot of money laying around. This means that they might not be able to help you should you somehow lose your funding and it might mean that they can provide fewer fellowships.
1) Large programs tend to have lots of resources. They’ll generally have more money for funding students, more money for funding projects, more equipment for running projects and more professors. The program in which I’m enrolled (the Graduate Group in Ecology at the University of California Davis) is large enough that we were able to cobble together funds to cover students when the California budget crisis resulted in a loss of funding for several student projects. I don’t believe that a smaller program would have been able to accomplish this feat.
2) Large programs have lots of people in them. Socially, this means that there is a greater diversity of people with whom you might choose to be friends. Academically, this means that there are lots of professors and staff available to you. Having access to a great diversity of professors means it’s more likely that someone will have an answer to whatever question you end up having while working on your project.
1) You can easily get lost in the crowd. You’ll get less attention and because people will be checking in less often, you’ll have to learn how to speak up and be proactive about getting help when you need it. If you worry about your ability to be pushy to get attention, then maybe you shouldn’t be in a large program.
2) You’ll be competing with all of the other students in the program for time with professors. Again, you’ll need to be pushy and will need to learn to start asking for help long before a deadline because professors often can’t meet with you right after you contact them.
Programs can have every different requirements for qualifying and exit examinations, but I personally don’t think that you should pick a program based on these differences. Unless, of course, a program is particularly well-known for having really unreasonable exams in which most of the students fail even after months of hard studying and preparation. In general, most programs having fairly reasonable requirements on this front and you’ll just have to jump through the hoops when the time comes.
Other considerations will be important as well, including whether or not you can envision yourself spending 6 years living in whichever city the program is found.
To get information on a particular program, scour the program’s website and then talk to the graduate students in the program about their experience so far. As I mentioned in the post on picking an advisor, graduate students will be a very important resource and you should pump them for information every chance you get.