Higher Higher Education: Choosing the Right Grad School

So you have (or almost have) your bachelor's degree - now what? Graduate school can give you the opportunity to specialize your education and prepare for an advanced career, but getting in can be even more challenging than applying for college. Don't miss our series on grad school admissions, starting with part one: Selecting the right program.

By Megan Driscoll

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Choosing a Program

The Degree

Chances are you weren't sure what you wanted to major in when you were applying for colleges. You just picked a few good schools, applied and went where you got in.

This is one of the key areas in which the graduate admissions process is different. Grad school is all about specializing, so the first thing that you need to do is choose a course of study. Many people start by considering their long term career goals, then identifying the degree program that best fits that path. This may be something as focused as a law degree (known as a Juris Doctorate, or J.D.) or as broad-based as a Master of Public Administration (MPA).

If you're unsure of your specific career goals, but know that you want to pursue advanced study, then the best plan is to look for a master's or doctoral program that fits your academic interests.

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The School

Once you've chosen your area of focus, it's time to look for the right school. There are many factors to consider, including:

Quality of the program.

Is the institution well known in your area? When it comes to career placement, the reputation of your graduate program matters, whether you're getting a Ph.D. in English or a medical degree (or anything in between).

You'll also want to consider whether there are courses and research opportunities that match your interests. That Ivy League school may have the best post-war European history program in the country, but if you're focusing on Japanese history then you probably want to look elsewhere.

Faculty.

You'll be working much more closely with faculty as a grad student, both before and during your thesis or dissertation process. Look for faculty whose research interests match or complement your own.

Graduate placement.

Where have graduates of your prospective program ended up? If possible, try to track down a few graduates and see what they have to say about their experiences in the program and the opportunities that were available to them when they finished.

Location.

Does the surrounding region have the resources you need to pursue your academic interests? Art students will want to go to school in a place with a thriving artistic culture, which is probably a larger city. On the other hand, aspiring astrophysicists need to be able to see the stars, so they may be hunting for a more remote location.

It's also important to determine if the school is located in a place you could live for the duration of your program. This matters less for 2-year master's degree programs, but could end up being very important for 7-year Ph.D. programs. Furthermore, many people make professional connections and settle down near their graduate schools, so you may even want to think about livability in the long term.

How many schools you ultimately settle on is up to you. Some people only apply to their top two or three programs because they would rather wait another year and reapply than settle. This route makes the most sense if you're looking at highly specialized programs that can only be found at a few places. For more widespread options, the safest bet is to apply to at least five institutions.

Now that you know what factors to consider, it's time to go think about where you want to apply. Just don't forget to check back later this week for tips on putting together your graduate school application!

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