Students have more choices than ever when it comes to graduate study. The variety of schools offering advanced degrees is truly impressive. But selecting a program involves more than just choosing the right institution or the most promising field of study. It also involves deciding exactly how you will complete your studies. The options for how to take courses vary not only from one school to another but also within individual colleges and universities. Many schools offer a variety of in-person and online programs. Others operate either in person or online but not both. And in some cases, select programs are based on a blended or hybrid approach, where students complete some work online and meet other requirements in person. But how do you know which format will work best for you? Let’s explore all your options so you can make the right choice for your graduate education.
The pros and cons of different graduate program options
There’s no one-size-fit-all when it comes to an instructional approach to grad school. "There are a variety of teaching and learning formats available to prospective graduate students, and you should consider the type of environment that optimizes your engagement and learning,” says Peter Bennett, Director of Career Development at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. For some busy students, the convenience of online classes is clearly the best choice, while the experience of meeting in a classroom with an instructor and fellow students is a priority for others.
Considering your own learning style is a must, notes Dr. Jaime Hough, Director of Graduate Student and Postdoc Retention & Support at the University of Oklahoma. “Some students thrive in the structure and routine of a traditional, in-person graduate program, while others enjoy the flexibility and pace of an online or hybrid program,” Hough says.
The world of online graduate study has made major strides in recent years, with expanded offerings from long-time providers as well as new programs from colleges that previously offered only undergraduate courses. When schools moved online in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of schools expanded their overall online offerings. Still others ventured into remote learning for the first time.
While online courses aren’t the best choice for everyone, they have much to offer—especially for working adults or others with busy schedules outside the classroom. Bennett notes that with online learning, you can complete your coursework anywhere, anytime through what’s known as synchronous learning. "This provides the ultimate [opportunity] in scheduling flexibility and can avoid some major expenses, including housing, transportation, and on-campus meal plan costs," he says. "Online learning can also expand your networking opportunities extensively, as you’ll interact with remote learners from around the globe.”
Of course, there can also be challenges with this approach, such as technical issues with online portals or software and delays in resolving problems. Distractions at home may also make learning difficult. But for many grad students, the pros greatly outweigh the cons.
For students who prefer plenty of personal interaction or the structure of showing up for class on a regular basis, traditional classroom programs may be the better choice. For some, this may go deeper than simply preferring more structure; it might also include the desire to spend time with faculty and other students for in-person experiences, collaborating on research initiatives or otherwise being part of campus culture. "In-person learning at the graduate school level can include a more immersive and dynamic environment featuring robust and widespread conversations with fellow students and faculty," Bennett says. "Students may also enjoy a focus on learning with fewer [at-home] distractions and an ability to form deeper friendships in and out of the classroom.”
That's the preference for Garrett Ham, who recently completed a graduate program at Yale University. "Having experienced different formats, I still believe the traditional in-person method is the best in terms of quality and opportunity for intellectual growth," he says. "It not only allows you to work through and interact with the material but also to exchange ideas with classmates and professors face-to-face.”
As with any option, in-person learning also has its downsides. Dr. Don Martin, CEO of Grad School Road Map, points out that attending classes in person means giving up options for full-time employment for some students. It can also pose challenges such as the need to relocate or separate from family members. Pursuing an on-campus grad program may also be more expensive, especially if it includes living in college housing.
A blend of benefits with hybrid studies
In some cases, grad students benefit from a combined, or hybrid, approach. "Hybrid delivery models are a very popular option for many graduate students, providing a best-of-both-worlds scenario by combining online learning with some type of regularly scheduled in-person classes or discussions," says Bennett. Many graduate programs include a team project in some courses, and this in-person experience can facilitate group performance. "This allows for graduate students to gain the benefits from both remote and in-person teaching models and is preferred by most of the graduate students I have worked with," he adds.
Weighing your options
Regardless of what anyone else says, the choice is yours to make. “At the end of the day, the right program is the one that fits the student,” says Hough. “Choosing a program in which you like the people and environment—whether that is in person, hybrid, or online—will ultimately help you be successful.” Martin suggests asking yourself why you’re pursuing a graduate degree. This should be followed by considering your balances between studying and work-life priorities. From there, do your research. This means taking time to evaluate each study option then further exploring programs that offer the options you’re most considering. “Don’t rush—take at least six months to a year before applying to check things out,” Martin advises. During the process, try connecting with current students or alumni from grad schools of potential interest to better understand their experiences and insights, Bennett recommends. It’s also a good idea to request graduate outcomes data from these schools to see where their graduates are working.
Again, there’s no one-size-fits-all choice for graduate study—you must decide which works best for you. Weigh all your options carefully through extensive research before you start applying for programs. Admission and department representatives are there to help you navigate the process if you need it. But know whatever learning format you choose, you’re on the path to a bright future.
Now that you have an idea of what kind of grad school experience you might want, start searching for your best-fit program with our Graduate School Search tool.