Choosing a Graduate Program

You’ve decided to apply to graduate school.  How do you find the program that is right for you?  Sending away for brochures about programs is usually free but sending in your application will cost serious money.  The costs can vary depending on the school.  You want to be sure to only apply to programs that meet criteria you have set for yourself.

You should consider several areas when deciding to apply to a graduate program.

Length of Study

How long will it take to earn your degree and what kind of work is expected of you?  If attending on a full-time basis a master’s degree can take from one to three years, depending on the number of credits required.  If you decide to attend part-time, completing your degree can take significantly longer.  Make sure you are aware of any time constraints the school puts on part-time graduate students.  Many schools require that students complete the degree in a certain amount of time or risk expiration of credits.

Faculty

One of the most important aspects of a graduate school is the quality of the department and the faculty that will instruct you.  Determine if professors at your target schools are well known in their disciplines by consulting with faculty at your undergraduate school. Do the faculty members concentrate on research and publishing?  Are they concerned about and accessible to students?  Is there diversity in terms of faculty specialty?  During your campus visit, arrange to speak with a faculty member.

Curriculum

It is obviously important that you attend a school that offers the kind of program that will get you the degree you need to get the career you want.  Again, research and informational interviews are the best way to determine if a school will meet your criteria.

Reputation & Rank

Talk with professors who teach related undergraduate courses.  Ask where they went to school and what programs they recommend (and why).  If possible, visit campuses and talk with graduate students currently enrolled.  You can find guides to specific programs which cover one field in depth, books on medical schools, law schools, MBA programs, etc.  Remember, any books you find that rank programs reflect the opinions of the authors and should be only one part of your informational search.

Accreditation

Understand the role that specialized accreditation plays in your field, as this varies considerably from one discipline to another.  In certain professional fields it is a requirement to have graduated from an accredited program in order to be eligible for a license to practice. In other fields accreditation is not as important and there are some excellent programs that are not accredited.  University’s are required to tell you if a program is accredited.

Costs/Financial Aid

Ask about tuition and financial aid.  Do out-of-state students pay more?  If so, how long does it take to establish residency and qualify for lower costs?  Ask about grants, loans, scholarships, assistantships and availability of off-campus jobs.  Remember: high cost does not necessarily mean the best education.

Resources

Find out what resources are available on campus, particularly in the library, labs, computer center and career services.  Are resources current, complete and easily available to students?

Students

What types of students attend the graduate school in which you are interested? Determine the undergraduate schools where they studied. Talk to faculty and administrators about employment opportunities after graduate school.   Many programs advertise their employment statistics, but it’s also good to dig deeper and find out specifics about jobs that alumni acquire.

Atmosphere

Consider the size, location (urban/rural, East Coast / South, etc.), average class size, housing, facilities, cost of living, proximity to career environment (for example, not all graduate programs in Oceanography are located on the coasts).

Visit the School!

The best way to get a feel for the schools in which you are interested is to visit them in person.  You can do this before or after you apply.  Either of these times will work, but remember to choose wisely because traveling costs can be expensive. Sometimes a school is more likely to pay travel expenses after a student has been accepted.

Visiting allows the opportunity to explore the campus and surrounding area as well as meet faculty members and current students.  Remember to make an appointment through graduate admissions before you plan your trip.  You will want to make the most of your time there. It is important that the school to be expecting you so they can arrange the appropriate meetings.

While you’re there be sure you check out the offices, library, laboratories and other facilities.  Look into the cost of living in the surrounding town. Can you afford to live there?  A good idea is to buy a local newspaper and the student newspaper so you can get a feel for local events and check out housing costs.

Go with a prepared list of questions and topics you want to cover.  Of course you’ll want to include financial aid and housing in these questions.