The final two posts in this series will give a short look at a handful of other important factors in choosing a grad school.
Location, Location, Location
Personal preference - city versus rural, or East Coast versus Rocky Mountains - is only one part of the importance of location. As a paleontology graduate student, you will get very specific benefits from the location depending on where you live. On the East Coast, you get the benefit of having a whole ton of major museums (AMNH, USNM, ROM, etc.) within an easy flight, drive or train ride (not that there aren't major museums out west - they're just more spread out). If you anticipate doing lots of museum-based research, this can be a handy perk. But, it comes at the cost of being far, far away from most vertebrate-containing outcrops. This is where the West Coast and Rocky Mountain states certainly have an advantage! The field may only be minutes away.
A small department can be nice for an intimate feel, but you might lose out on opportunities for collaborations or advice that you might get in a larger department with more faculty and students. If you build contacts in other departments, however, you can overcome some of this disadvantage. Of course, some large departments can have the problem of each student being a little fish in a big pond.
The Right Timing
How long does it take students to finish? For a master's program, 2 years is typical and 3 years is the acceptable maximum. If students consistently take more than 3 years to finish a M.Sc., this can be a very bad sign - either bad advising, an unmotivated student body (avoid this sort of program like the plague!), or departmental politics. For a Ph.D., 5-7 years is typical (and even 8, sometimes). A 10 year Ph.D. program might be something to avoid, too. This is not to say that life circumstances (having a child, unexpected illness, or other event) won't sometimes add a year or two to graduate school, or that one or two students take an inordinate amount of time to finish - this happens, and the most important thing to consider is how long the typical student takes.
After finishing graduate school, it's really nice to get a job. Find out the track record of graduates from a program, and find out what kind of jobs they end up in. Do these jobs mesh with what you're interested in? Does anyone actually get a job in paleo? Do the students drop off the face of the planet after graduation? If you're interested in a career in academia, but all of the students get jobs as collections managers or technicians, you might want to look elsewhere (and vice versa). If you want a job at a big R1 university, but most of the students that graduate from a program end up teaching at small liberal arts colleges, you should also be wary. But, also leave the option of your career goals changing through the course of graduate study!
Up next: Tests, Campus Visits, and Final Thoughts