What goes before that, in planning and training, determines what kind of instrument pilot emerges from the process. Here we want to go through what it takes to produce the best and most complete instrument-rated pilot.
When we were writing about learning to fly, it was suggested that a private pilot course should be completed before starting training to get an idea of what is coming. That is an equally good idea before you begin instrument training. This is a far more complex endeavor and a pilot needs to go through an instrument rating ground course to get a feel for that complexity. An inexpensive PC airplane program, like Microsoft Flight Simulator or X-Plane (both available from Amazon), might also help in scoping out what is involved. These are not flight training devices but they can be useful in looking at procedures. An advance look at instrument training and flying might make it seem like the greatest and most fun challenge you can find, or it might seem a bit much. If the latter is the case, you might want to fly VFR for a while and then revisit the instrument course.
When contemplating an instrument rating some thought needs to be given to the risks found here. Some years ago, VFR weather-related accidents outnumbered IFR weather-related accidents by a lot. That has now reversed and many more weather accidents are found in IFR flying. Maybe there is more IFR flying, or maybe VFR pilots are doing a better job of risk management. Whatever the reason, the potentially high level of risk is something to think about before taking the IFR plunge.
More than half the pilots eventually get an instrument rating but only a small percentage of those maintain instrument currency. One association president said a while back that only 15 percent of its instrument-rated members were instrument current. That gives pause, and when you are contemplating the training it is best to know in advance what kind of instrument pilot you want to be. If you want to be one in name only, then all the training needs to do is get you through the check ride. If you want to be an active instrument pilot and not be a ready victim of the risks, then you need to go well beyond the basic requirements.
Instrument flying is a serious business. It is demanding. It takes active thinking. When a pilot gets the instrument rating he is authorized to evaluate weather, dispatch the flight, and is then challenged to fly the airplane in the same air traffic control system and weather systems that the two-crew turbine airplanes are using. The day after the rating is earned, a pilot is free to fly IFR to Atlanta Hartsfield on a dark and stormy night with passengers.
The colleges, universities and flight academies are doing a good job of teaching young pilots how to be airline first officers. The excellent safety record in regional airline flying is a tribute to the fine work being done here. Most pilots with a full-time job can't devote continuous time to training. And they are training for the more difficult job of starting out as a single-pilot captain. A smaller ship, to be sure, but the clouds and the hard ground don't know that. The record here is not so good.
This means that choosing a method of training needs to be done carefully.
One of the first things to determine is if the school really believes in flying light airplanes in clouds. There are three important questions to ask: "Will we fly actual IFR in training?" and, "Will some of the training take place at night?" plus, "After I get my instrument rating will you rent me airplanes for actual IFR flights?" The night part is important because the accident rate in night IFR is terrible and there is no night IFR training requirement. If you are training in your own airplane only the first two questions would be applicable. Another thing to resolve relates to the instrument panel in the airplane: glass or steam gauges?
This depends, at least partially, on what you will be flying after you complete the training. However, that is not something that should be cast in stone. It is my opinion that the training would best be done in a glass cockpit airplane because everyone who uses airplanes for purposeful transportation will eventually be flying a glass cockpit, so why not train there? It would probably be simpler to do it with steam gauges, if that is what you have been flying, but the glass is a nice challenge and once you learn it there is so much more capability there. Certainly if you learn in one you can transition to the other, but that will take some effort.