So, a confession up front: I haven’t visited a graduate program before knowing whether I was going to go there! I’ve now applied to a grand total of 11 graduate programs (three coming out of undergrad, 8 after completing an MS) and never, not once, did I even consider going to visit any of the schools…!
So, I’m not sure this advice is fantastic, but this is what I’ve got:
(1) If you decide to visit you should absolutely make sure that the faculty you want to work with are on campus and able to meet with you—have meetings set up in advance of making any travel arrangements!
(2) Definitely, definitely arrange to meet with graduate students—if possible—in the department you’re going to visit. Ask direct and important questions—“how do you feel about working with Professor X?” “How do graduate students get by financially?” “Do you have any particular qualms with the department?” “How long do most graduate students take to matriculate?”—and pay close attention to both what is said and how it is said. Graduate students often feel vulnerable—for good reason—and are probably not going to tear up their department to a stranger unless they have really good reason to, but if you pay close attention to how they communicate with you—pauses, hand-wringing, the whole nine—you should get a better sense for what is going on…
(3) I’d also schedule an appointment with the Director of Graduate Studies for your program…. I feel like if you’re going to make the investment—time and possibly money—to visit a program you should make sure that you don’t get to campus and find that you have nothing to do other than checking Facebook and getting lost on a new campus.
(4) Which is why I’d suggest giving yourself a tour—grab a campus map and figure out where your classes might be, where you might teach//TA, and let yourself get familiar with campus!
(5) Definitely look into campus housing and off-campus housing. Ask around, if possible, and make sure you have a few appointments lined up so that you can have a sense for where you might live if you end up attending…
(6) Some programs will reimburse you for travels—or at least get you some money for your travels—so be sure to ask the people you’re in touch with… Before you make travel arrangements, of course!
(7) Have fun and be you!