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Searching for the Right Graduate Program

Choosing a graduate school can be overwhelming and stressful, but it’s important to take into consideration all of the factors mentioned below so that you choose an optimal graduate program. By taking the time to evaluate the credentials, resources, and job opportunities of available graduate programs, you will guarantee yourself comfortable environment and craft a timeline that will help you achieve your career goals.

Career

Picking a program that matches your goals is important. Before you can choose an appropriate graduate school program you need to decide what kind of career you want to eventually have. Be sure you have given this considerable thought, because it is not enough to just know what “field” you want to get into. Try to have an idea of what careers you are open to pursuing and what programs would best lead you down those paths.

Apart from getting on the web and doing some research on the careers available to someone with an advanced degree in your field, the best way to learn about career options is from faculty members or career advisors here at PREPs. Visit one or more of your professors to find out what graduate school in your field involves, and what kinds of career options are available. Our PREPs advisors are more than happy to help you explore career options and graduate programs that best fit what you want to pursue.

Specialization

Graduate programs that offer the same degree are different in terms of the types of training they offer and the type of specialist they can help you become.

If, for example, one is thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, it is necessary to first decide what area of psychology you want to specialize in. There is no Ph.D. in general psychology. Just as there is no Ph.D. in general biochemistry, or general environmental studies, or general history, or general economics, and so on.

When choosing where to apply for a doctoral program, therefore, it is important to understand at the outset that a particular school will offer specialized training in only a specific range of sub-disciplines.

One graduate program in economics might offer expertise in econometrics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, economic development and planning, and financial and monetary economics. Another program might have its strengths in areas of labor economics, environmental and natural resources economics, public economics, and industrial organization. A doctoral student in either program would specialize in just one area.

Success in actually getting into graduate school can depend to a large extent on whether you pick the right schools and programs based on your particular career goals.

The match between what an individual is looking for and what the program has to offer is an important consideration of most admissions committees. Recruiters reject applicants who fail to show that the match is right, no matter how strong their academic credentials, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation.

Program Ranking

For some students, a program's ranking is important. They feel that the rank of a program is an indication of the quality of education they will receive and the level of resources that will be available to them, and, in most cases, this is probably true. However, students should be aware of what qualities are used to establish a program's ranking and how those qualities are evaluated. For example, a highly-ranked program may indeed have greater resources available, but may also have a higher cost which may make it more difficult to attend, or a higher student-to-faculty ratio which may actually detract from the educational experience.

School Location

One criterion that may play an important role in the decision of which graduate program is right for you may simply come down to geography; is the program located in an area of the state or country in which you want to live? Be aware that you will be living in this area for an average of 2-6 years or more, depending on if you’re seeking a graduate certificate, Master's degree, or Ph.D. You should be comfortable with the location. Some students may, for personal reasons, want to be relatively near their family. Others have a spouse who is more likely to be employed in certain areas of the country.

A good way to get an idea of what the location of a university is like is to take a look at the web site of the city or community in which the university is located. The city web site will often have links to local weather reports, employment opportunities, community businesses, health care facilities, and recreational activities.

Cost and Funding

The level of financial support you receive often depends on the degree you are seeking. It’s important to balance how much financial support you collect, how much money you will make if you work a job or get a graduate assistantship, and the cost of tuition and living at the intended graduate school. In order to get an idea of the total cost of making this move, either search the school’s website or contact their financial office to obtain a compilation of the average cost of housing, tuition, etc.

Resources that may be offered, either by the university or by the government, include scholarships, loans, short-term university assistance, long-term loans, etc. It is your responsibility to know what is available, what you need, your eligibility, and how to apply for this aid.

There tends to be less financial support for a Master's degree than for a Ph.D. At the doctoral level, it is not uncommon for a university to waive tuition requirements (referred to as tuition remission). In addition to not paying tuition, many doctoral students receive some form of grant, stipend or assistantship. Whether a university is public or private, if tuition remission is available, the likelihood of assistantships (either teaching or research), etc. are all issues to be considered when examining the cost of attending a particular program.

Jobs and Graduate Assistantships

There are many reasons students will need an opportunity to make money as they study throughout the school year or during their summer. Those can include needing to reduce financial strain by making money on the side, gaining skill sets for future careers, networking with organization or institutions that will set them up with internships or jobs in the future, and more. Whatever the reason, it’s essential to explore what type of job opportunities the university offers. They can be on-campus jobs, internships, research positions, or graduate assistantships offered by the department you will be studying under.

If you are pursuing a Ph.D, many graduate programs will offer fellowships and research opportunities that will both immerse you in the career field and help you pay your fees. Fellowships are a great opportunity to enhance research skills and start your work in research prematurely, giving you opportunities to collaborate with investigators on possible publications and more!

Student Life

Many students fail to consider this component when searching for graduate schools, but this can be a great resources in terms of networking, getting connected to professionals in your field, adding qualities and associations to your resume, and gaining new skill sets. When searching for graduate schools, see if they offer convocations for graduate students, informational sessions on programs and or careers, graduate student governments, general graduate student organizations, national/international graduate student organizations, volunteer networks/opportunities, department-specific graduate student organizations, and more.

Local Environment, Resources, and Family Support

Graduate school will be a way of life for the next 2-6 years. If you are married, however, your decisions will also affect your spouse and/or children. Some of the things to consider include the availability of child care, disability services, employment opportunities for spouses, health insurance, the local cost of living and the weather, and culture. Other resources to look out for include career service centers, international services, health centers, mentoring programs, and professional organizations.

If possible, try to visit the area and spend some time in the community. Talk to some of the "locals" and find out what's going on in the area and what people do for fun. When you apply to a university or program, quite often they will be more than happy to send you information from the local Chamber of Commerce concerning health care, child care, cost of living expenses and recreation opportunities.

Many students struggle choosing a graduate program that fits their every need, but sometimes finding a program that satisfies every single need isn’t possible. Therefore, you must prioritize the qualities you are seeking in the program. By doing so you establish a handful of schools that will at least meet your most important demands.

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