There are so many graduate school choices out there that it can be overwhelming. Before you work yourself into a froth, consider the following ways of narrowing down your requirements for an optimal graduate program.
Of course, the area of specialization will ultimately depend on your own interests, but you may also want to take into account the job market. Some specialties will experience growth in the future, whereas those that are currently growing may be expected to become stagnant. For example, if you're interested in getting a Ph.D. in microbiology, the job market in academia is projected to be relatively stable, whereas the job market in biotechnology and the pharmaceutical industry tends to be brighter. You might be better prepared to choose an area of microbiology that is more marketable to the biotechnology industry.
Graduate Program Ranking
For some students, a program's ranking is important. They feel that the rank of a program is an indication of the quality of education they will receive and the level of resources that will be available to them, and, in most cases, this is probably true. However, students should be aware of what qualities are used to establish a program's ranking and how those qualities are evaluated. For example, a highly-ranked program may indeed have greater resources available, but may also have a higher cost which may make it more difficult to attend, or a higher student-to-faculty ratio which may actually detract from the educational experience.
Graduate School Location
One criterion that may play an important role in the decision of which graduate program is right for you may simply come down to geography; is the program located in an area of the state or country in which you want to live. Be aware that you will be living in this area for an average of 2-6 years or more, depending on if you are seeking a Master's degree or Ph.D. You should be comfortable with the location. Some students may, for personal reasons, want to be relatively near their family. Others have a spouse who is more likely to be employed in certain areas of the country. Some students may have allergies, asthma or other health issues which may become aggravated in some areas of the country.
A good way to get an idea of what the location of a university is like is to take a look at the web site of the city or community in which the university is located. The city web site will often have links to local weather reports, employment opportunities, community businesses, health care facilities, etc. You may also want to consider our online graduate programs and schools listing and those on our sister website at eLearners.com which allow you to pursue your degree without moving at all.
Graduate School Faculty
Recently, I was speaking with a noted professor in the Department of Biology at Texas A&M University, and he made a comment that is especially applicable here: "You may get your degree from a university, but you get your education from your adviser." When you earn your graduate degree, you will be entering a professional community that is influenced by tradition and reputation. Your major professor will be your means of entry into this community, and his or her reputation will influence yours. Also, it is important to remember that, as with the location of the program, you will be working very closely with your major professor for an average of 2-6 years or more. It is important that your personalities and professional ideas are compatible.
The best way to get an idea of the students and faculty you will be working with is to talk to people. Talk to faculty at your current college or university to find out the reputation of the professor who will be your adviser. If at all possible, contact some of his or her current graduate students and ask them what he or she is really like to work for. Most importantly, talk to your potential adviser to get an idea of their personality and professional ideas.
Cost of Graduate School
The level of financial support you receive often depends on the degree you are seeking. There tends to be less financial support for a Master's degree than for a Ph.D. At the doctoral level, it is not uncommon for a university to waive tuition requirements (referred to in the business as tuition remission). In addition to not paying tuition, many doctoral students receive some form of grant, stipend or assistantship. Whether a university is public or private, if tuition remission is available, the likelihood of assistantships (either teaching or research), etc. are all issues to be considered when examining the cost of attending a particular program.
Quality of Life
Graduate school will be a way of life for the next 2-6 years. If you are married, however, your decisions will also affect your spouse and/or children. Some of the things to consider include the availability of child care, employment opportunities for spouses, health insurance, the local cost of living and the weather, culture, and local forms of recreation (is this a place where you can have some fun?).
If possible, try to visit the area and spend some time in the community. Talk to some of the "locals" and find out what's going on in the area. Talk to some of the business owners to find out what the job market is like for the area, to get an idea of the local cost of living and housing and to find out what people do for fun. When you apply to a university or program, quite often they will be more than happy to send you information from the local Chamber of Commerce concerning health care, child care, cost of living expenses and recreation opportunities.
This is in no way an exhaustive list of things to consider, and you should give a higher priority to those issues that are important to you. The decision is never easy; you will be investing 2-6 years, or more, of your life and you do not want to make a mistake. By beginning your search early in your undergraduate career, you will have time to objectively evaluate each program, closely examine the details of each, and ultimately reach a decision that is best for you.