Via the rumor blog, I discovered The Grad Cafe, a website aimed at potential grad students in a variety of fields. For the potential political scientists in the audience, I found this post by “realist” and a reply by “eve2008” to be particularly of interest and largely congruent with my battle-tested views on the subject. (Reality is harsh. Deal with it.)
In terms of graduate admissions, I particularly would emphasize the importance of strong training in research methods at the undergraduate level—if your BA program doesn’t require a rigorous methods course (and many top departments don’t), take it anyway or if unavailable go to another department and take their equivalent course (e.g. econometrics, stats for psych/sociology/marketing). I’d also argue that some experience writing a real research paper either in a course or as a capstone/honors thesis is important. Even with weak GREs and a less-than-stellar GPA, those two would be enough to get into an MA program where you can prove yourself “worthy” of admission to get a placeable PhD.
For the morbidly curious, I believe the tenure-track placement record for my PhD program in the last seven years or so is 2 state school BA/MA/MPA programs (both for fall 2008, one of which is me), 2 state school BA programs (fall 01 and fall 04?), and 1 private BA program (fall 06). Our MA graduate who went on to another PhD program placed in a PhD program (fall 07). Not bad for a low-ranked program, overall.