One of the most difficult aspects of the graduate school admissions process is having to pick a realistic number of target schools from the overwhelming number of programs and overlapping disciplines that there are to choose from. Summer is an excellent time to create your own personalized and prioritized checklist of the qualities you desire in your graduate program.
Although the pros and cons of various programs vary greatly from one discipline to another, there are several key factors that any grad school applicant should consider as they narrow down their list of target schools. These factors are:
- Your Specialty. It is important to decide on your academic focus and research interests before you begin researching schools and programs. Make sure you look into the job market in your chosen field to better understand how your choice of degree and field may affect your professional opportunities. Once you have defined your interests, you can start researching specific programs.
- Finances. Many graduate programs offer fellowships and scholarships based on either financial or academic qualifications. However, the number and dollar amount of these awards are often quite limited, and there are always a large number of qualified students competing for the same awards. It is important that you conduct thorough research to determine which schools offer the best financial incentives for your situation. You should also create a back-up financial plan in case you do not receive an adequate award.
- Location. Keep in mind that your commitment to a graduate program may keep you in one place for up to 6 years, depending on the degree you are seeking. That’s why it is imperative that you consider location as part of your school selection. Think about what kind of environment you (and your family, if your spouse or children will accompany you) will be happiest in – i.e. a rural, urban, or suburban setting. Don’t forget to look beyond the campus to the community that surrounds a school.
- Prospective Faculty Advisors. Research work is a major element of the graduate school experience. Master’s students are often required to complete a thesis based on original research, and most doctoral programs require a dissertation. Having helpful faculty who will mentor you through this process is essential. Thus, you want to identify potential faculty advisors whose research interests are similar to your own. To better assess a faculty member’s interests, it is helpful to read some of their published works and to speak with them directly.
- School-Specific Opportunities. Another key factor to consider is the benefits that you would gain from the professional network affiliated with a specific degree program and with the university as a whole. Other criteria that grad school applicants consider are publishing opportunities, alumni networks, career services, and opportunities for international study.