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Choosing a Graduate School

How Do I Choose a Graduate School or Department?

Often, the most valuable sources of advice regarding graduate programs are professors, staff, and graduate students in those programs. Make certain to get recommendations from the appropriate people, but also make certain to weigh their advice against your own interests.

The Importance of Rankings

As you begin to research graduate programs, do so with an open mind. Know that when it comes to graduate school, a good university may not house an equally good graduate program. You may find that the best program in your field is located within a less prestigious university.

Graduate program rankings are perhaps most important for those seeking a career in academia. Those students who graduate from the top programs often have more career opportunities than those who graduate from lower-ranked schools. This fact becomes even more salient when taking into account competition in your discipline. If a response to a job posting regularly exceeds more than one hundred applications and it is well-known among those in the discipline that there is an excess of PhDs on the job market, then it becomes even more important that you attend the best graduate program that you can get into to help ensure your chances of gainful employment upon graduation.

Financial Considerations

Most graduate programs offer some type of financial package to their students. Financial aid in the form of tuition waivers/reimbursement, stipends for teaching/research, and university-supported fellowships are more common in PhD programs than MA programs. Generally, it is possible for strong students to obtain a graduate degree without having to pay tuition or take out loans. Students who need or expect this level of support ought to check with the programs in which they are interested in order to ascertain the level of support offered by the university.

The Importance of Research

Also, you ought to consider the type of training you hope to receive, as it is this training that will best prepare you for obtaining the position you want following graduation. In general, you should consider: the rank of the department, the area of specialization that you are interested in, and potential faculty with whom you might want to work/collaborate. You should know that different programs are known for different areas; a good graduate school or good graduate program may not be “known” for its work in a certain field.

You should also look into alumni placement – what kinds of jobs do graduates of that program obtain? If those positions look like positions that you would like to compete for, then the graduate program is probably a good fit. If you are disappointed or apprehensive about the job placements, then you probably ought to consider other graduate programs.

Campus Visits and Interviews

As you begin to narrow your list of potential schools to which you might want to apply, you should consider visiting the school and scheduling informal meetings or interviews with some of the faculty and graduate students. Campus visits and interviews can help you decide whether the area is one in which you would like to live, and whether the people in the department are those you would like to work with. It can also provide the selection committee with more information about you and your potential fit with the department.

Keep in mind, though, that not all departments are receptive to campus visits prior to when admissions decisions are made, so your best strategy may be to forgo the “college tour” model and visit only one or two programs about which you feel very strongly. On the other hand, once admissions decisions have been made, many schools encourage campus visits and interviews, although generally, neither are required.