Graduate School: Choosing a Program

Selection of a Program

A major concern of many individuals considering graduate education is that they need to attend the best program of study. National rankings are available for review from a number of sources but may be based on different criteria. Is the national recognition that a program or school has received the most important factor to consider when selecting a program? Not necessarily. A program should meet your individual needs, interests, and goals.

Consider this information about each program:
  • Department courses and offerings Information on student outcomes
  • Accreditation and length of the program
  • Size, geographical location, type, and availability of housing
  • Community environment
  • Financial aid opportunities
  • Cost and residency requirements

Researching Graduate Schools

There are many ways to go about researching graduate schools.

Consider all of these options throughout the search process:
  • Talk with individuals who have knowledge of the field: faculty, deans, advisors, friends, family, career coaches, etc.
  • Consult general graduate school guides or resources geared specifically toward your field
  • Utilize the internet or link directly to schools of interest
  • Contact individual graduate schools' departments requesting a catalog, application, and financial aid information
  • Visit institutions and interview with directors, if possible Attend graduate school fairs and forums

Questions to Ask Any Graduate Program

  1. What is the largest and the most typical class size for a graduate class?  Are classes restricted to graduate students or are undergraduates common in your graduate classes?  
  2. What would be the advantages and disadvantages of going to graduate school immediately after completing the undergraduate program?  The advantages and disadvantages of waiting a few years?  The best use of the interim time?
  3. What are the criteria and process for selecting teaching assistants, research assistants, and fellows?
  4. I will probably need financial assistance.  Can you tell me how most students fund their studies here?
  5. Will I get to develop my own topics, or will I be expected to work on a professor’s ongoing research?
  6. What is the average time to complete (a) classwork, (b) research, (c) dissertation?  (I.e., what is the average time to complete the Ph.D.?  Ask about the program as a whole, but perhaps more importantly, by the professor.)
  7. What is your attrition rate?  Of those who don’t finish, what are their reasons?
  8. What kind of student thrives in your program?
  9. How reliable is your financial support year to year?  Is the first-year offer always sustained given attainment of academic goals?
  10. May I have some bibliographies of recent publications by faculty?  Which professors have won awards and grants lately (and presumably need graduate assistants)?
  11. Can you tell me about the types of jobs obtained by recent graduates?  (Avoid relying on testimonials and anecdotal evidence and try to see actual reports with statistics.)
  12. May I meet some currently enrolled students (in person or via phone or email)?  (Be sure to ask about their research topics and be sure to take notes on specific professors mentioned.)
  13. How can I be a strong candidate for a program like this?

Adapted from Graduate Admissions Essays by Donald Asher (Ten Speed Press, 2000)

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