First, I'm going to be a big dork and quote my response from over at DD's.
Ask yourself what you really want: why do you want to go to grad school in the humanities or social sciences? What do you hope to get out of it? Is it ok, in your opinion, to spend 5-10 years studying and doing a PhD and not get a professorial job on the other end?Yeah, sorry about hogging the comments DD!
Because, as other people have said, it is incredibly difficult to get a full-time, non-adjunct job as a humanities professor. Even if you do get a job, you are limited in terms of where that job might be, and they don't pay all that much. Seriously, think about this. It seems like an easy decision when you are 22 and all your friends are working for just above minimum wage as Starbucks baristas while they "find themselves," but as you get older you will want more stability in terms of your paycheck and living situation, possibly want to start a family and think about retirement. But you will only be partway through a long time of angst and financial precariousness and will either have to soldier on through for a long time or quit the program.
That said, you should choose schools not only based on an advisor you want to work with, but also on their funding packages and job placement rates. Ask the graduate admissions counselors for your targeted departments about these numbers, and be prepared for them to put the most positive spin on their response. I bet you that the faculty you try to contact will not have any data on this, and in our dept., they want to hear from students who have been admitted and are considering attending, but not before.
So people applying to grad school right out of undergrad, who are young, are also often inexperienced in the ways of money and support --- typically their parents paid, or helped pay, their way through undergrad, and they might have had jobs, but were not reliant on their jobs to eat in a serious and fear-inducing way. (I understand this is not true for everyone, but I am not the only sheltered middle-class kid in my grad program.) College and right after, especially for the humanities and artsy type students, is a time of bohemian existence --- travel, working various shit jobs, holing up somewhere and writing a novel or some god-awful poetry, and in your early twenties you are resilient and unafraid, able to take on partying, all-nighters, and laugh in the face of not being able to pay your rent. So --- I include myself in here --- you might not have thought about money or your future career much, and you might seem puzzled that every time you talk about going to grad school people start ranting about money and the job market when obviously you are going there to talk about Art and other Deep Things and isn't it a little bourgeois to be harping on a steady paycheck in the face of Matthew Arnold, yo?
Ah, but now you must consider the other element of grad school: time. I like to say that, since grad school is about twice as hard as undergrad, it should take twice as long. Of course, that is only because I plan to finish during this, my 8th year. (Think I'm slow? Talk to the rest of my cohort for a wake-up call.) Plus, I went to a crappy MA program (the only place that accepted me the first time out) which helped make me competitive enough to get into this semi-crappy PhD program (more on that later). So I will have been in graduate school of some form or another for an even 10 years. Bite me, ok? The discussion of whether this is fast or slow, or public vs. private school, can wait till another time.
This means that, if you follow my 8-year-plan, you will be ending your twenties and entering your thirties as you finish grad school. Many things happen over the end of your twenties, regardless of your life situation. Your metabolism slows down. You start living a quieter life (more or less). You suddenly think kids are cute and want to have some, or possibly actually marry someone. Your old dreams of starting a punk band while squatting in an Oakland warehouse living the bohemian life suddenly seem ... uncomfortable. (Ok, I'm just jealous of Cool Scientist Friend's life ---- I was never that cool.) You start wanting to buy a house, and worry about having a retirement account. You are just different and interested in different things 8-10 years later.
And even if you don't fully succumb to the American-Dream-white-picket-fence ideal, you start to get tired of living like a grad student and being treated like one long before you finish your program. It gets old, scrambling for new funding every few months, and shuddering and closing your eyes whenever the student loan reminder comes in the mail, and planning everything --- or putting things off --- based around whether or not you will file or get a job or move back in with your parents. (Don't laugh! At some point it will seem attractive.)
So, to sum up, when you decide to go to grad school, you need to think not only of your early-twenties self, but your later-twenties/thirties future self and what s/he may want. What if you change your mind and want kids? How much debt are you willing to take on? Will you be willing to live in family student housing, or have roommates, or live in a slum, 10 years down the line? How many years can you eat beans and rice and not take a vacation? How many side jobs are you willing to take on for extra money? How long will you take shit adjunct work before you walk away from the whole thing? Is your family going to be able to help you out a bit, or will they be needing help in a few years? Will your 30s-self be pissed at your 20s-self when you finally graduate 50K in debt, with no job and no benefits or retirement fund started up?
And you need to think long and hard about whether you'd be ok with not ever landing that permanent job --- that's what I'm thinking about constantly right now --- and realize that even if you promise yourself that you won't get sucked into the whole "I must get a tenure-track job or a certain type or I am a personal, moral, and academic failure" --- even if you swear you won't fall into this thinking, remember that the pressures to think that way, to invest in that mindset, will be around you constantly.
I mean, sure, going to grad school isn't the end of the world. But if the worst-case scenario --- not to mention the medium-case scenario --- horrifies you and doesn't look like what you want, then don't apply. Think about it long and hard.
And the title of this post? I have a second part coming up. The second question you'll need to ask yourself: why do grad schools want you?