Shelley, a real-life grad student, shares how she chose her graduate program
Last updated November 2010
Choosing a graduate school felt a bit overwhelming at first.
When I finished my undergraduate degree in 2003, I had graduate school in the back of my mind. I guess since it was in the back of my mind, as opposed to the forefront, I ended up not pursuing graduate studies right away. Instead, I started my career with a job that seemed like an ideal fit given my background and interests.
Although the job was a good fit, I knew I needed a master's degree to get into the type of position I really wanted. So after working for a couple of years, I decided to start looking at programs.
I knew what I wanted to go to school for, but I didn't really have a clear idea of what I was looking for in a grad program. As a result, I started my search kind of blindly at first. I plugged some key words into a Google search and perused the programs that appeared.
Just looking through a few program websites gave me a clearer idea of what would be most important to me in making my decision.
Once I clarified my priorities, I made a list.
Top qualities I wanted in a grad program:
1. Plenty of opportunities for "real world" application and partnering with local organizations.
2. A faculty that seemed to have ample experience in the field as well as in academics.
3. A couple of faculty members whose specific interests were aligned with mine.
4. Opportunities for assistantships (and ideally, other forms of financial aid as well).
5. Diversity among faculty and students.
6. Classes (both cores & electives) that directly catered to my interests.
7. Geography wasn't important to me. I was willing to move just about anywhere for a good program.
With my priorities identified, I felt like my search had more direction. I went back to my Google search results and re-examined the programs. I designated a notebook for my search in which I dedicated a page to each program I found. On each page, I listed the following:
1. University, program name, and location
2. Qualities it did/did not possess from my priorities list
3. Other "pros" of the program
4. Potential "cons" of the program
I refined my Google search a handful of times to ensure that I hadn't missed anything. In one of my searches, I noticed a listing for GradSchools.com - so I decided to check it out. And this is where my search became easier. I used the GradSchools.com site to browse by related subject areas and geography. In fact, it was via the GradSchools.com website that I found most of the schools that I went on to seriously consider.
After looking at SEVERAL program websites, requesting information, reading through additional information I received by mail, and engaging in email exchanges with professors, I was able to narrow my list of schools down to a few that I felt were the best fit for me.
I then contacted a couple of professional organizations in my desired field to ask which they would recommend as the "best" program. There were a couple of programs and schools that were mentioned repeatedly (which also happened to be on my narrowed down list), so I decided to zoom in on those.
Ultimately, I decided on the school I'm at right now because it met all of my original criteria. In fact, it not only met my criteria, but it did so to a much greater degree than most of the other programs I considered. And on top of that, I was offered a graduate assistantship, which meant that all of my tuition & fees were waived AND that I was to receive a biweekly stipend for my work.
Right now, I'm in the second semester of my graduate work, and it will take me a total of four semesters to complete my master's degree. Despite the fact that my search started out really fuzzy, there's not a doubt in my mind that I picked the right program and school.
If I were to give advice to a friend who's just starting to consider grad school, I would offer this:
1. Start by looking at a few programs in your field, just to get a feel for what the programs are like and how they tend to differ.
2. Make a list of the qualities that are most important to you in a graduate program.
3. Browse through programs via internet searches and GradSchools.com.
4. Keep a list of programs that interest you, with a few notes about their main features and their pros/cons.
5. At some point, contact your undergraduate professors or relevant professional associations to see what programs & schools they recommend: that way you can see which schools are considered to be the "top" ones in your field.
6. Weigh everything out and narrow your focus down to a few.
It is overwhelming at first but once you get into, you'll develop a rhythm and things will start to come together.
Photo by Daniel Morris