This is the time of year when many grad school hopefuls begin their search for the perfect program. And no matter why they want to go back to school, whether it's for astrophysics or a master's in fine arts, the number of programs out there is nothing short of dizzying. Which is why it's so important to go about the process of considering all your options carefully, and with a solid plan in mind. It may seem like a lot of work in the beginning, but in the long term, you will end up saving time and make the best decision possible. It's worth the effort.
If you want to go back to school just to "get your graduate degree," you aren't the only one. While it's true that most people know what they want to go back to school for before they begin their search for a program, there are also those who begin their search for no other reason than the nebulous yearning they have to go back to school. This is more common now than it ever has been before. For years, a bachelors degree was enough to make people stand out from the crowd; now, however, a bachelors is often seen merely as a stepping stone along a much longer path that includes graduate school. In other words, as more and more people go to college, a graduate degree is increasingly necessary for professional advancement in certain fields.
If you are member of the second group, then your first step is to research the possible degrees you can earn in all the fields that interest you. The next step would be to compare those degrees with the list you've made (you have made a list, right?) of all the possible careers you would be happy to go into. Beyond that, however, it's really up to you to figure out what you want to do.
If, however, you are a member of the first group, then your first step should be to ask yourself the following questions: Where do I want to go to school? Is there a specific aspect of a field that interests me most? What degree do I want to earn? These questions will allow you to begin narrowing down your options to a manageable pool. The way in which you answer them will provide you with the guidance you need to start making some good decisions about your future.
Where do I want to go to school?
America is a big country, and there are graduate schools from coast to coast, so before you do anything else, you should decide how important geographical considerations are to your future plans. After all, there may be a wonderful program in California in your field, but if you're not willing to move away from the east coast, then it doesn't really pay to look into it. This issue also forces you to deal with how serious you are about pursuing a graduate degree. The fact is, in some fields, you may have to move to a city or town that you're not in love with in order to take the first step along the road to professional success; if you are unwilling to move for school, you may want to reconsider how serious you are about pursuing those fields. Of course, it's not always possible to relocate: Family obligations, professional necessities, all kinds of factors can affect your ability to move. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; still, narrowing down your search by geographic preference will give you a much smaller pool of schools form which to ultimately choose. And that, after all, is the goal of this process.
Is there a specific aspect of the field that interests me most?
Graduate students, unlike undergrads, generally become experts in a specific area of their chosen field. For example, though you may earn a graduate degree in political science, you will have focused on a very specific aspect of that field such as the political history of the Middle East, or the post-Soviet economic development of the Baltic Republics, etc. However, it's okay to begin with the idea that you want to study, say, the Middle East or post-Soviet Russia; even generalities like that will make it easier when the time comes to find the best program for your interests. Many schools, for example, offer graduate degrees in political science, but only a few specialize in those narrower focuses. Compile a comprehensive list of schools that fit the academic bill (as well as the geographic one), and proceed from there.
What degree do I want to earn?
There are two basic graduate degrees you can pursue outside of attending professional schools for medicine, law and the like: A masters and a doctorate. Make sure you know which one is right for you before you start looking for a program. A masters degree is often more practical in nature than a doctorate. Many teachers, for example, earn masters degrees to become better practitioners in the classroom, gaining an understanding of educational theory and a foundation in the best practices for classroom performance. A doctorate, on the other hand, is usually more intellectual in nature, more specific in focus, and affords greater opportunity to delve into original research. Thus, while it may not make you a better classroom teacher per se, it would afford you the opportunity to truly understand the philosophical and scientific underpinnings of education.
The two degrees can also result in completely different career opportunities, and depending on the field in which you ultimately want to work, one may be better suited than the other. For example, a masters in business administration is usually sufficient in the corporate world, rendering a doctorate superfluous; but if your goal is to work at NASA, you will probably want a doctorate in astrophysics, and engineering, and geology, and chemistry.... Suffice it to say, your choice of degree is dependent on your career goals.
Take heart, the process of narrowing down your options is not as painful as it may initially seem. And all the effort you put into it in the beginning will result in a much easier time in the end. Essentially, it's about front-loading the hardest work. That way, in the end, you'll be able to concentrate on what's really important: Applying to the best, most appropriate school for you.