Applying for graduate work in philosophy is a time consuming and trying process. There are many good PhD programs, and there is a lot of variation with respect to requirements, timelines, levels and length of support, etc. Moreover, not every good department is good in every subfield of philosophy. Many departments that are strong in, say, contemporary european philosophy are embarrassingly weak in mainstream fields like epistemology, philosophy of language, and ethics. The same goes for departments with strengths in specific subfields: and excellent department for metaphysics or philosophy of mind may offer little to those with interests in social and political philosophy or logic. It is safe to say that the excellence of any department is always relative to some specific intellectual subset of topics/areas/periods within philosophy. Yes, there are some programs that are strong overall (they can train students excellently in a wide range of subfields), but none that are equally strong in all areas. In deciding where to apply, one must exercise one’s judgment. Schools that may sound impressive (like Yale or Harvard) do not have the best all-around philosophy programs, and given your specific interest and goals, some less impressive sounding school (for example, Arizona, Maryland, or UC Davis) might be far better than, say, Columbia or MIT.
Since choosing where to apply requires an exercise of your judgment, you will need to find ways to inform yourself about what the various PhD programs in philosophy have to offer. Important information (requirements, support, teaching opportunities, placement, average time to degree, and much else) can usually be found on departmental websites. Use the APA’s guide to graduate programs to see what programs there are. Still, one can waste a lot of time googling departments. It could help also to narrow, at least initially, the range of schools you’re considering to those that seem to have a reputation within the discipline for strength in the areas that are of most interest to you. Remember: given certain interests, the schools with the most impressive sounding names will not have the best graduate programs in philosophy.
There is an online repetitional ranking of philosophy PhD programs in philosophy called the Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR). The PGR is controversial within some philosophical communities. Some think it useless, others claim that it is deceptive or biased, some say that it is methodologically unsound and corrupt. The more severe objections to the enterprise are overstated. The PGR is certainly not perfect (what is?), but it is not the blight upon the profession that some claim. If you take the time to read the PGR website’s explanations of its aims, methods, and limitations, you will find the PGR to be a helpful resource.
Here are a few tips.
1. Learn what the PGR is. Read the sections on the PGR website about its methodology carefully. Read the website’s section on how it should be used. Think about what kind of information it is providing.
3. As it is not a substitute for your own judgment, the PGR is a place to begin thinking, investigating, and deliberating about graduate study. It provides information of a very specific kind; it does not provide all of the relevant information there is. Use the PGR to craft an initial list of departments that look suitable, given your interests. Bring that list to the philosophy faculty members who know you best. Use it to start a discussion, not settle one (or avoid one).
4. Do not place too much importance on the overall rankings, and disregard slight numerical differences among closely-ranked departments. The rankings in the subfields are often more useful for identifying (again, initially) the some of the programs that are well regarded in a given area.
5. Cross-reference the subfield rankings. Your philosophical interests will likely change during your graduate training. In some cases the change will be drastic. You may discover that your currently favorite philosopher has been subjected to a decisive criticism, or that the philosophical problem that currently fascinates you has been solved. You may discover that your interest in moral responsibility is really better addressed within metaphysics than ethics, or that phenomenology is methodologically bankrupt. There’s no way to inoculate against the most drastic changes (in fact, sometimes they should be welcomed). But you can try to account for the more likely shifts by looking for programs that are strong not only in the area you’re presently most interested in, but also have strengths in your other interests and in subfields that are closely related to what’s presently most important to you.
6. Have lots of conversations with your professors about all of these matters.