What the Size of a Graduate Program Means for You

Big vs. Small

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to graduate school. Large graduate programs have several advantages over smaller ones. They offer students a well-known school name, numerous faculty mentors and course offerings, and some of the best research resources available. In a smaller program, however, students may find more abundant opportunities for graduate assistantships as well as options for individual attention and mentoring.
Every graduate student wants to be in a quality program, one with a recognizable and reputable name. Yet the name of the school is only part of the equation. Names of individual faculty members are just as important, perhaps even more so.
So, as you create a list of possibilities, consider the people with whom you will study as much as the overall reputation of the institution and its offerings in your field. You will find that exceptional professionals have made their academic homes at institutions of all sizes. Also, find out the extent to which you will be able to study one-on-one with anyone of interest at a particular institution. A person’s affiliation with a given program will not mean much to you unless you can actually interact.
Sometimes the best things come in small packages
Opportunities for financial assistance of one kind or another vary widely, even between programs of similar size. Smaller programs typically offer excellent assistantships, though, often more attractive ones than those available at larger institutions. Money certainly is not everything, of course, but graduate assistantships provide more than that; they enable you to gain valuable experience.
So, if you find yourself choosing between a one-year research fellowship in a large program and a teaching assistantship that will last the duration of your study in a smaller program, you will want to consider your own financial need, the demand for teaching experience in your chosen career path, and the value attributed to a research fellowship in your field.
Large and in charge
One area in which smaller programs struggle to compete with larger ones is research resources. This is true for both laboratory facilities and libraries. Even so, a number of smaller programs have affiliations which lessen this disadvantage – depending on your needs.
For example, it is probably not vital for someone earning a master’s degree in the humanities to have the nation’s largest library right next door; interlibrary loans can probably compensate for any shortcomings in the local resources. On the other hand, students in the sciences may find it impossible to replicate the value of a specific laboratory or other research facility available at a Research I institution.
Ultimately, the size of any given program does not indicate its value. Excellent programs come in all sizes, so only you can determine which size is the right one for you. Good luck!
Ann van der Merwe is a singer and music historian based in southwest Ohio. She holds a B.M. in music performance and M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in music history.