Choosing Graduate School

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Your graduate school pursuits begin long before you ever take your first graduate-level class! 

You have to decide if you’re even going to graduate school, for starters. And if the answer is “yes,” you then need to start researching and narrowing your graduate school options.

First Things First: “Should I Go?”

You need to ask yourself a fundamental question about graduate school before you invest all the time, energy, and money involved:

Is graduate school right for me?

As you begin pondering this question, know that there are two types of graduate programs to consider.

One is professional and is focused on giving you the skills and qualifications necessary to succeed in a profession; think of a master’s program in social work or business or a graduate degree from medical or law school. These programs are usually very structured and career focused.

Other programs, typically those that end in a Ph.D. but also some master’s programs, are more academically focused and aim mainly to prepare future professors and researchers. These programs are typically less structured and are built around your own academic interests.

What follows are two key questions that will help you make an informed decision about your potential graduate/professional school pursuits. You’ll be able to answer parts of them yourself, quite easily. For others, you’ll need to do some research and perhaps even talk to graduate program staff members or faculty.

“Why Am I Interested in Graduate School?”

Weak Answers Strong Answers
  • I want to take a break from a tough job market.
  • I want to figure out a new career path or find career direction. (There are cheaper ways to do that!)
  • I don't know what else to do, and my parents think it's a good idea.
  • I'm genuinely interested in my field and passionate about pursuing new knowledge and expertise in a very specific area.
  • My career goals require a graduate degree.
  • I have the resources I need (time, academic record, money, energy) to be successful in a graduate program.

“When Is the Right Time to Go?”

The other essential question to ask yourself is: when? Should you go to grad school right away, or should you wait?

Consider various factors in your answer. In some professions (medicine, for example), it's helpful to go to graduate school immediately after completing your undergraduate degree. For others, it’s better to gain some practical experience before attending graduate school. 

Remember, too, that some professions don't require graduate school at all.

Reasons to Go to Graduate School Right Away Reasons to Wait Before Pursuing Graduate School
  • You have momentum and you want to continue being a student.
  • You may have more flexibility, with fewer family, work, or financial commitments.
  • The degree might be necessary to help you get the job you want, or it could help speed career advancement in your chosen field.
  • You currently meet the requirements for admission (i.e., the program doesn’t require extensive work experience before you apply, and your GPA/test scores fit within the program’s criteria).
  • You have the financial means to attend.
  • You need more time to be sure of your career goals.
  • You currently do not meet the requirements for admission (i.e., the program you’re targeting demands more work experience than you have, or higher GPA/test scores than you have).
  • You don’t yet have the financial resources to invest in another degree.
  • You can save money by waiting, or you may find an employer that would help you pay for your program.
  • The experience you gain doing something else might help strengthen your graduate school application.
  • A break might boost your motivation for further study.

If you determine that you have solid reasons for attending graduate school and that the time is indeed right for you to go, you’ll then be faced with the next key question…

Where?

Researching and Evaluating Graduate School Program Options

Before you ultimately select a graduate program, you need to identify what you’re really looking for in one. So reflect on this question: What are your top criteria for picking a graduate school program? 

Common considerations include:

  • Location
  • Class size
  • Ranking
  • Program offerings
  • Faculty
  • Research opportunities
  • Financial support
  • Access to professionals
  • Internship and/or assistantship possibilities
  • Licensure

You’ll then need to research and evaluate graduate/professional school programs. The strategies you’ll use in this process will vary considerably by career field. But there are some common, general online resources you can use. Among them:

You will, of course, want to thoroughly review the websites of specific schools/programs of interest as well.

Depending on the type of program you’re considering, you may also want to look into current research that is being done in your field of interest so that you can identify potential faculty mentors (particularly if you plan to pursue a PhD). 

You can also look to relevant professional organizations in your field of interest to get guidance on specific graduate schools/programs you should strongly consider. 

Building an Initial List of Graduate School Possibilities

As you continue your research, you will slowly build a perhaps fairly lengthy list of graduate/professional school possibilities. Ultimately you will have to narrow this list down. Here’s how you can start.

Talk with Program Representatives

You can usually contact a graduate school’s admissions office for answers to your basic questions, and the people there will often give you contact information for graduate program faculty and/or students as well.

However, graduate programs vary considerably, and not all schools have admissions staff. Some graduate programs will instead offer a faculty member or a graduate coordinator as your preliminary contact. These key people can help you plan a visit to the campus. 

While you’re there, you can arrange to sit in on classes and labs, if possible, and meet program faculty, staff, and students. 

When you ask questions about graduate schools and programs, be open to different viewpoints, and listen for common themes that come up. Take notes. And if you arrange a program visit, prepare in advance the questions you’d like to ask while you’re there. Here are some ideas for you:

Questions About Admissions

  • What application deadlines should I be aware of? What is the application timeline (is it early-decision, early-action, or rolling)?
  • What is the undergraduate GPA range/preference for this program (sometimes referred to as the middle 50%)?
  • If an entrance exam is required, what is the preferred test score (for standardized tests such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT)?
  • What percentage of students who applied last year were admitted? If the school breaks first-year students into sections, how large are the sections?
  • How many letters of recommendation does the school require?
  • What is the school's personal statement prompt, and how long should the personal statement be?
  • What additional factors have the most impact on acceptance into this program?
  • What previous experience or knowledge (if any) is preferred for this program?

Questions About the Program

  • Is the school public or private?
  • Are there prerequisite courses I need to complete before I start this program?
  • What are the degree requirements? How many required and elective classes are there?
  • How long do students typically take to complete this program?
  • What areas of concentration are available?
  • What percentage of students complete the entire graduate program?
  • How does the program’s department evaluate student progress?
  • What kind of thesis and examinations are required?
  • What practical experiences are students expected to complete?
  • What professional development opportunities exist for students?
  • What kind of licensure/certification will I be eligible for after completing the program?
  • What support is provided to help students fulfill the experiential components of the program?
  • What kind of job search support is provided by faculty members?
  • What types of careers do alumni go into with this degree?
  • Can I sit in on a class to observe the program in action?

Questions for Program Faculty

  • What is most important to you in an advisee?
  • When and how is an advisor selected? How difficult is it to switch advisors once you're into your program?
  • How many full- and part-time faculty members teach in this department?
  • What diversity exists within the faculty?
  • What experiences have the faculty members had outside academia?
  • What opportunities exist to work with faculty on their research or do research on my own?
  • What are the research priorities of the faculty?

Questions for Students Enrolled in the Program

  • How available is your advisor?
  • How would you characterize the departmental culture?
  • What is the actual time commitment for a teaching assistant or research assistant position?
  • Is the funding/stipend provided by the department enough to live on?
  • How do students interact with each other inside and outside the classroom?
  • What are some of the politics or current issues within the department?
  • What diversity exists within the student body?
  • How much support do students receive in developing their own approach to the field?
  • How often do students present their work at professional conferences?
  • What are the courses like?
  • Are there opportunities to engage in research?

Questions About Finances and Resources

  • What is the cost of attendance (tuition, fees, books, cost of living, etc.)?
  • Does the application for admission allow you to apply for scholarships at the same time, or is there a separate application for scholarships?
  • How available are teaching assistantships, research assistantships, or fellowships?
  • What other resources are available for students (e.g., graduate student housing, medical insurance, child care, fitness facilities)?
  • Are students guaranteed funding throughout their time in the program, or is it awarded on a yearly basis?

Narrowing your List of the Graduate Schools You’ll Apply to

You will likely have a preliminary list of 10 to 20 graduate school program possibilities initially. If you'd like more information about any of these programs, contact them and request their program booklet and any other materials that will help you make a decision. 

You can also contact the department chairs of the programs that highly interest you. They can usually provide information about areas of current research among the professors in that program. 

As you continue gathering information about the schools on your preliminary list, eliminate some so that you end up with a final list of two to five. Add each “finalist” school’s admissions address and application deadline to your list.

Then start thinking about your timeline (and related tasks) for applying!

The CLA Career Readiness Guide talks about graduate school and a host of other career-related topics in depth. Access it online, or pick up a copy in CLA Career Services or in one of the CLA Academic Advising offices.