Career Strategy Fellowships Study Abroad Summer Session CAREER LINK

Choosing a Program

You are here

General Thoughts

It is critical that you select the program and institution that is the best fit for your specific interests. This requires careful research, outreach to faculty and program alumni, and even a visit to the school. Academic disciplines at the graduate level can become tremendously specialized and certain institutions that offer superb facilities in one sub-discipline may be lacking in other areas. You cannot simply select an institution solely based upon their overall reputation. Sometimes the finest departments of a particular sub-discipline are found at institutions with which you may not be familiar. Presume nothing. Like a good researcher, approach this task with an open mind, sifting through all the information before arriving at a conclusion. While you may have some particular preferences that will limit the institutions you are prepared to consider, such as geography or funding, there are many other criteria you need to factor into your decision. The following section breaks the selection process down into two steps provides considerations relevant to each step; see also our I Might Be Interested in Graduate School Prezi.

Step 1: Research Programs

Start by identifying and gathering information on programs in your field of interest to develop a preliminary list of programs to evaluate further. There are many ways to identify programs, including seeking advice from faculty mentors and utilizing print and web resources.

Faculty

Your professors, Deans, DUS, Teaching Assistants, and PIs are all excellent sources of information on graduate programs. Remember, they have all completed, or are in the process of completing, graduate degrees. They can suggest specifi c programs for you to research further. They may know the scholars affiliated with those programs and be willing to make an introduction.

Print and Web Resources

Well-known general graduate school databases include Graduate Schools.com and Peterson's. Both websites have searchable databases that you can use to begin exploring programs. Other general resources include US News and World Report; they gather information on graduate programs and issue a yearly guide to “Best Graduate Programs.” Keep in mind that these are general rankings that do not take in to account your specific interests and criteria, so take the information provided with a large grain of salt.

In addition to general resources, you want to explore discipline-specific resources, such as professional associations and scholarly journals to gather information on programs and leading scholars in your discipline. Professional associations are nonprofit organizations focused on particular career fields. They serve a variety of purposes, such as establishing best practices, keeping members informed of industry trends and developments, organizing professional conferences, and publishing journals. Professional associations such as the American Bar Association, American Medical Association, and American Psychological Association maintain oversight of the legitimate practice of a profession.

Many professional associations have extensive information for students about particular fields and career paths, as well as information on graduate programs, including those that are recognized or accredited by the association. For example, the American Psychological Association has extensive resources for those considering an advanced degree in psychology along with information on scholarships and a network of students pursuing graduate degrees in psychology.  The Explore Careers section of the OCS website has information on professional associations specific to different fields. As you go about your academic study, consider the prominent scholars in your field. Who are the people publishing the latest insights or research on topics of interest to you? Where are these individuals teaching? What institutions are they affiliated with? Research those institutions to determine if they have a graduate program. Also, depending on your area of interest, you should consider where collections or archives that you anticipate using for your study or research are housed, and explore whether those institutions have appropriate graduate programs.

Master’s vs. PhD, what’s the difference?

Master’s degrees that focus on academic and applied research fields, such as Anthropology, Linguistics, and Chemistry, are considered research master’s degrees. These degrees typically require the completion of graduate-level courses and seminars, and may also require passing comprehensive examinations in the major subfield of research and possibly one or more minor subfields. Preparation and defense of a master’s thesis may also be required, though such degrees may be awarded without a thesis by substituting a capstone project for the thesis. Research master’s programs are typically designed to expose and prepare students for higher level graduate study, giving students the opportunity to test whether further study is the right choice for them or, in some cases, to provide students with the necessary academic preparation to pursue a PhD.

Professional master’s degrees focus on providing preparation for applied professional work, emphasizing practical skills and application of theory. There is typically a specified set of course or seminar requirements, graded exercises, and a project or other requirement that is substituted for the thesis. Professional internships in supervised work settings may also be required. Examples of professional master’s degrees include Master
of Social Work (MSW), Master of Business Administration (MBA) or Master of Architecture (M.Arch). When researching programs, you may see some master’s degree programs referred to as terminal degrees, which indicates they are designed to provide students with knowledge or expertise necessary for career advancement, a career change, or to satisfy intellectual curiosity, and not as a stepping stone to a PhD. This is more common with professional master’s degree programs, though any master’s degree program can be considered terminal.

With doctoral degrees, there are similar distinctions between research and professional degrees. A PhD is a research focused degree. PhD candidates typically conduct original research using quantitative and qualitative methods. Depending on the discipline, they may also focus on theoretical arguments that bring several competing theories into conversation with each other. A PhD program typically includes completing a dissertation that consists of a body of original academic research.

Professional doctoral degrees train graduates for applied work and practice. Examples of professional degrees include MD, JD, Psy.D (Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology) and Ed.D (Doctor of Education). In professional doctoral degree programs, the emphasis is on applications of research-based knowledge, since the intention is to prepare graduates for careers as practitioners. Depending on the program and discipline, degree candidates may be required to complete practical training rotations or internships, or similar to PhD programs, may need to complete a dissertation or doctoral research project in addition to completing graduate-level coursework and seminars. Licensing by an accrediting body may also be necessary prior to beginning practice.

Step 2: Evaluate Programs

After you’ve developed a preliminary list of programs, you want to begin evaluating each program to determine which ones may fit with your specific goals and interests. The following information highlights criteria you want to factor in when evaluating programs.

Outcomes

When you begin evaluating programs, it’s crucial to think beyond completing the program to post-graduate options. What is your intended outcome after completing graduate study? Are you preparing for a career in academia or are you planning to go into the public or private sector? Review information on program graduates and where they end up. Historically, many PhD programs have focused on training students for careers in academia and have provided little support for career paths outside of academia. Though this is slowly changing, the resources and support will vary widely from one institution to the next. For this reason, if you’re intending to pursue non-academic careers, you need to assure there will be services and resources available to support you in this. For disciplines that require licensure prior to beginning professional practice, such as psychology, law, or social work, research the percentage of program graduates that successfully obtain licensing or certification. A low percentage is concerning.

Faculty Mentors

“Who did you study under?” In many disciplines this is a common question you will be asked, and the answer may carry more weight than the school you attended. Selecting the right faculty advisor is key. Remember, this person will serve as a mentor and role model, will guide your course of study and your research, and in many cases will also help you launch your career. As you’re reviewing information on graduate programs, you need to determine if there is a faculty member specializing in your area of interest. Ideally, choose programs that have several researchers engaged in work that interests you. You don’t want to rely on one person, especially given the transitory nature of faculty positions. In certain disciplines, it is encouraged to talk to faculty members prior to submitting your application. In this case, try and set up a time to talk or meet with potential mentors prior to applying to make sure your personalities and interests are a good match. Meetings can be done via phone or Skype, or at professional conferences. Below are a few questions to ask when connecting with potential advisors; see also our Connecting with Programs & Selecting an Advisor Prezi.

  • What are the faculty in the department currently working on?

  • Do they work with graduate students? Are they taking on new advisees? What is the likelihood of serving as your advisor?

  • What is their advising style?

  • What have their former graduate students gone on to do? Where are their advisees now?

  • Are they planning to go on sabbatical or retire in the near future?

Financial Resources

Graduate school can be expensive. The percentage of graduate students programs are able to fund, as well as the level, source, and length of funding, can vary widely from program to program. While most master’s degree programs are not funded, the majority of Ph.D programs do provide some funding for their graduate students. According to the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Earned Doctorates, approximately 63% of Ph.Ds completed their degrees in 2012 with no graduate school related debt. Still, almost 18% graduated with more than $30,000 in loans (information retrieved from www.theatlantic.com).

When researching programs, look into what financial support is available. Support may be in the form of gradu- ate assistantships, tuition remission, grants, loans, or a combination of these. If financial support is an impor- tant factor for you, make sure to ask for details, including any terms or conditions of support. For example, does the program only offer assistantships to those who have completed at least a year of study? Do they limit the number of years they will provide tuition remission? Will tuition remission benefits cover only a portion of the time needed to complete your degree or extend throughout your entire program? If loans are a primary means of support in programs you’re considering, then it’s important to consider how much debt you can afford to take on. Research average salaries for those in your target career and determine if the amount of debt you will amass through graduate study is worth it. If financing graduate study is a concern, focus your efforts on applying to programs with the financial resources to support graduate students. Though cost is only one factor in deciding where to apply, it is a factor that has long-term financial implications. See the Funding Graduate School Handout for more details.

Program Focus, Requirements, and Support

When reviewing information on each program, consider the type of environment that is best for you. The program culture varies widely from institution to institution, as do the amount of support services and resources available to graduate students. Talk with program faculty and administrators, current students, and program alumni; how do they de- scribe the culture? Do they describe it as collegial or competitive? Is it considered to be supportive, or is there a sink-or-swim mindset. The program or department mission can also be very insightful. What do they state as their goal and purpose? Are they training the next generation of academics or scholars in their discipline or are they focused on preparing students for careers in the private or non-profit sectors? Beyond the mission and culture, you need to review the nuts and bolts of what will be required to earn a degree.

Here are a few key questions to keep in mind as you review information on the structure of the program:

  • How many courses are required and are those required courses of interest to you?

  • Is there flexibility to tailor the program to include other disciplines relevant to your focus?

  • How many electives will you be able to take? Are the electives focused on topics of interest?

  • How often are electives of interest offered. When were they last taught and when do they expect to be taught again?

  • Are there internship, research, or practical training requirements? How are students fulfilling those requirements? What opportunities are students currently taking advantage of and what may be available in the future?

  • Are there any teaching or research requirements? If so, how many and how are they obtained?

  • Are students required to complete a thesis or dissertation? What does that entail? What are the expectations and criteria? What requirements will need to be met before you begin your dissertation?

  • How long does it take, on average, for a student in the program to complete his or her degree?

  • What are the program demographics? Are most students full-time or part-time? What are the profiles of those admitted (such as experience level or academic background)?

Beyond Academics

Though your academic study will certainly command most of your time and attention, it won’t fill every waking moment. It’s important to consider other important components of your lifestyle and assure there are the appropriate outlets and supports to meet your needs. Look into religious, cultural, or community organizations both on-and-off campus that you can get involved with. Also consider what it would be like to live in the sur- rounding area and consider area resources, including access to public transportation if needed and proximity to stores and restaurants. Are there many housing options that are within your projected budget, and would you be comfortable living there? Is there convenient and affordable access to child care, if needed?

Once you’ve gathered information and reviewed all of the relevant factors, compare programs and narrow your choices down to a realistic number of schools. This realistic number may vary from person-to-person depending on factors including the number of programs that fit your specific needs and academic interests. Keep in mind that you will need to develop tailored application materials for each program you choose to apply to, and you may need to get specific letters of recommendation for each program; this, along with application fees, may also factor in to the number of programs to which you choose to apply. Make sure to touch base with your under- graduate faculty advisors throughout this decision-making process to assure you’re thinking through all angles and not missing key criteria.

Graduate School Abroad

When considering graduate programs abroad, it is essential to connect with current students, faculty, and pro- gram alumni to discuss the program in detail. Is there an emphasis on independent study and research or class- room lectures? What is the culture of the program and institution? There are graduate programs at international schools, or international branches of U.S. institutions, where knowledge of another language is not required. Though keep in mind that even if the classes are in English, you will need to interact with people outside the institution at some point during your years abroad; speaking the native language and understanding the culture will make this considerably easier. Whether you have spent time abroad or not, there will be a degree of culture shock that comes with living and studying in another country for an extended period of time.

The initial steps of evaluating and selecting programs are the same, though variations may come with the application process and timeline. Pinpoint what you want to study, what you are looking for in a graduate program, where you want to be, and identify programs that match your criteria. For those planning to pursue a professional degree in fields such as engineering, medicine, education, or law, make sure the degree will be recognized by professional associations and accrediting bodies in the country you plan to work after graduation. Review the application process and requirements and remember requirements and application timelines may vary from one country to the next. It is important to note that the time to degree may vary in different countries; for example, a Ph.D. in the U.K. may be completed in three years. This is mostly attributed to the fact that there is no Master’s Degree component to the Ph.D.  Therefore this may be a good option for those who know what their specific topic of study will be, but is probably not the right choice for those who want to explore various areas.