Choosing a Graduate Program to Fit Your Needs
Making the decision to continue on to graduate study is a long-term commitment. People offer many explanations for their own decisions to pursue graduate school. It may well be worthwhile to examine your own reasons for pursuing graduate study. For some, the decision is personal, the challenge, a sense of achievement, personal growth, or the love of study and the campus life. For others, it is specifically geared towards career development; or perhaps an advanced degree is necessary or will increase qualifications and, therefore, competitiveness in the job market. It is usually a combination of several reasons. A period of self-assessment may prove beneficial; knowing why you are going to graduate school will help you get what you want from graduate school. It will help you maintain the motivation and dedication needed to succeed in a graduate program.
It is critical that you gather enough information about your field to make a wise decision about graduate school. Every field is different; in fact, in some fields you can be in a negative position if you attend graduate school at the wrong time during your career. Talk to faculty, professionals in the field, or the Career Center to gather information about your chosen field.
You also need to ask yourself some of the following questions: Am I ready to continue my formal education? Do I have sufficient financial resources? Do I know enough about the field to make this commitment? Would it be more appropriate to work first and then return to school? Are there other options that I should consider? Is this the best career path?
While considering graduate school, be aware of the application deadlines. For fall admission at most graduate schools, applications are due in January or February, some are even earlier. Often it is necessary to start thinking about graduate school and taking some first steps before the end of your junior year.
After making the decision to go on to graduate school, the next step will be locating and evaluating potential graduate schools and programs.
Evaluate the quality of the academic department itself. While the institution may hold an excellent reputation, some departments will be weaker than others. Also, a less well-known or lower-rated institution may offer an excellent department in a particular area of study. There are published ratings of graduate departments. Use these with an open mind, recognizing that listings can demonstrate a bias toward reputation and establishment.
The department is comprised of individual faculty members. Find out who they are, their areas of specialization, and what research interests they are currently pursuing. Good sources of information are college and department catalogs and publications in journals. Some departments publish their own brochures listing faculty research interests and publications. Write directly to the department for these publications or to receive additional information about their faculty. You may also wish to consider the ratio of faculty to students and the amount of potential contact you will have with faculty members.
Examine the curriculum for breadth and diversity, keeping in mind your own personal goals and educational needs. It may be important to know if the program offers an interdisciplinary approach to the field or focuses specifically on one approach. Other important considerations are the philosophy and methods of instruction; try to gather information on the size and composition of the seminars, the amount and kind of interaction expected and encouraged and the relationship between faculty and students among students themselves.
From the school catalog or, better still, from a visit to the campus, the potential student can get an idea of available facilities. Find out about the libraries, laboratories and research facilities as well as any cooperative arrangements with other research educational and professional organizations.
Consider the overall size of the program. The critical aspect of size is the ratio of faculty to students in the specific graduate program. In a large program the applicant should be concerned with the ratio of active faculty to students and the number of students in the common first-year graduate courses. In a small program the concern is focused upon the number of active faculty and the number and scope of the graduate seminars offered.
Choosing a Graduate Program Based On...
- What is the reputation?
- Is the opportunity for specialization present? Is specialization required?
- Will you feel comfortable with the method of teaching used?
- Does the school offer the type of enrollment option you want?
- Does it offer you sufficient courses and career options?
- Are internships or work-study programs part of the curriculum?
- If certification is required, what percentage of the class passes?
- How long is the program (number of credits)?
- How many classes are required outside of the discipline?
- What is the retention rate into the second year of the program?
- Is it a research based institution or an applied based institution?
- What are the pre-requisite requirements?
- What is the make-up of the faculty?
- How many professors hold doctoral degrees?
- How many professors have had extensive work experience in the field?
- What is the faculty's quality with regard to teaching and/or research?
- Is the school selective with regard to admissions?
- What is the make-up of the student body?
- What academic standards are placed on the student?
- What percentage of students has worked full-time?
- How many enter directly from their undergraduate degree?
- Is there a student association? What are its activities?
- Where are most graduates employed?
- What types of jobs do recent graduates hold—and, at what salaries?
- What placement or career services are offered?
- If certification is required, what states have reciprocity?
- Can you be competitive and effective in the program?
- Will it offer you knowledge within your capability and interests?
- Will it challenge you?
- What social/cultural life will be available?
- Do most students reside on-campus or off-campus?
- What living accommodations are available and what are they like?
- Will you be comfortable with the class size?
- Is the faculty accessible to students?
- What library and computer facilities are available?
- How accessible will they be to you as a student?
- What types of professional affiliations are there?
- Do you prefer an urban or rural environment?
- A hot, cold, or mild climate?
- Will the location offer an outlet for your individual interests and activities?
- What is the distance from home?
Costs and Financial Aid
- Do the tuition fees fit your budget?
- What type of work-study programs, loans, scholarships, research opportunities, and assistantships are available?
- Do you know the admissions procedures?
- Are any advanced exams required?
- What documents will you need?
- Is there an interview process?