How Will I Ever Decide?
by Stephanie Small
Congratulations! Chances are you’re reading this article because you’ve been accepted into at least two graduate schools that you’re excited about. You’re in a privileged position!
However, chances are also that you’re having a tough time deciding between them. Sure, this sounds like a great problem to have. But too many choices can provoke a variety of reactions, from mild confusion to complete panic and overwhelm. So if that sounds like your reaction, stop and take a few deep breaths first.
Okay! On to the decision-making process.
We at GradSchools.com advocate a two-pronged approach. Logic refers to making comparisons, considering pros and cons, and doing your research. Gut is a slightly more intangible tactic, but no less important. It refers to that “feeling” you get when you think about the school.
Logic: Items to Consider
Location. Identify what kind of setting you’re interested in. A bucolic college town near rambling meadows and rushing streams? A fast-paced, vibrant, international city? Read up on our articles on graduate school in various cities to learn what actual students think, and visit your schools’ campuses. Which of your options comes closest to that ideal match?
Cost. If money’s no object for you, great. But many of us need to consider tuition and the resulting debt. This is particularly important if you plan on entering a low-paying field. For example, a friend wanted to get a Master’s degree in Social Work. Her dream graduate school (which is a fabulous school) is also arguably one of the most expensive social work programs in the country…and it’s pretty common knowledge that social workers don’t exactly make a lot of money. Conversely, she could attend a great state school at significantly lower cost, but that school just didn’t do it for her. Whatever choice she makes, she’s going to encounter some degree of disappointment. Is the graduate school of her dreams worth the debt? Only she can decide.
Grants and stipends
Corollary to the cost. If this friend finds that her dream school offers a scholarship that’s tailor-made to her – and she nabs it – she’s all set. So before you write off that insanely expensive school, do your research on grants, stipends, and work-study opportunities.
Faculty. Before you apply to graduate school you should have a pretty good idea of how you plan to focus your area of research. Naturally, that can shift over the 2-8 years you spend learning and studying. Assume, though, that you will be selecting a school that offers a program addressing your particular interests. Who are the faculty? Do their research interests match yours? If you’re absolutely, 150% dedicated to obtain your PhD by studying the male African grey parrot in its native rainforest, and there are only three professors in the country that study this guy, and two are at one of your acceptance schools….that should me a major factor in your decision.
Listen to your Gut
You’ve been accepted to a school that seems to meet all of your requirements. It’s in a great town, it’s affordable, has a top-notch reputation and faculty that will support you. So why are you hesitating?
If something “just doesn’t feel right”, take note. Our intuition often picks up on things that the conscious, logical mind can’t sense.
Got no idea what I’m talking about? OK, here’s an exercise. Pick a person, place or object that you love. Imagine it clearly in your mind. Now notice how you feel in your body. Notice your breathing. Notice your emotions.
Next, switch to something you hate. Again, notice how your body feels, how your breathing and emotions change.
This is a key to determining how you truly feel. If you’re torn between schools, imagining each potential school and noticing what comes up can be a great way to excavate reactions that you’ve suppressed. For example, let’s say you practice this exercise with your dream school and you find your breathing gets shallow and your body feels tense. In sitting with this reaction, you also realize that you feel pretty stressed by certain aspects of the school. Conversely, if, in visualizing a school, you feel pretty good and relaxed, that’s an indicator of what you’ll likely feel on campus too.
“Well, that’s silly,” you say. “I mean, I feel anxious and stressed when I visualize ANY school! Because grad school is stressful, right?” Well, you shouldn’t be stressed before you even set foot in a classroom. Ideally, you’d feel some combination of relaxation, excitement, and confidence. Notice these are all positive feelings. If your reaction to every school is negative, two scenarios are possible. It could be that none of these schools are a match. It could also be that the thought of graduate school in general is bringing up a lot of tension for you. And that’s something that you absolutely must sort out before you make your decision…otherwise you won’t be making your choice from a clear, grounded place.