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:
- Plenty of opportunities for "real world" application and partnering with local organizations.
- A faculty that seemed to have ample experience in the field as well as in academics.
- A couple of faculty members whose specific interests were aligned with mine.
- Opportunities for assistantships (and ideally, other forms of financial aid as well).
- Diversity among faculty and students.
- Classes (both cores & electives) that directly catered to my interests.
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:
- University, program name, and location
- Qualities it did/did not possess from my priorities list
- Other "pros" of the program
- 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 (it'll 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:
- 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.
- Make a list of the qualities that are most important to you in a graduate program.
- Browse through programs via internet searches and GradSchools.com.
- Keep a list of programs that interest you, with a few notes about their main features and their pros/cons.
- 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.
- 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.