Expert Answers to Your Grad School Search Questions

If you've decided to go to grad school, way to go! Here are some questions (and answers) most graduate students have before starting their search.

If you’re reading this, you have most likely decided to pursue graduate study. Way to go! Below are some questions many prospective graduate students ask before starting their search, along with some answers to help you make the best choices for you.

Should I choose a full-time, part-time, or online program?

There are pros and cons for each of these options. Going full time means finishing more quickly, but it also means a possible change in employment status and income. As for the student experience, full-time students tend to develop more of a social network, which translates into continued personal and professional relationships after graduation. Part-time students usually juggle the demands of their studies with employment obligations. This does not allow much time for socializing and developing networks. However, the benefits of employment tend to lessen the pressure on finances. Pursuing an online degree program offers the greatest flexibility in terms of scheduling courses and degree completion but doesn’t offer the degree of networking or career service options usually afforded to full- and part-time students.

What if important people in my life are discouraging me from going to grad school?

Why are they trying to discourage you? Do you believe any of their reasons are valid? If so, do you believe you have a valid response? How well do you know these individuals? If they are loved ones or friends you trust, then you’ll do yourself a service to listen. However, they also need to do you the service of listening to what you have to say. In the end, this is your life. So hopefully you will not be in a position of looking back one day and asking, “What if I’d gone ahead with my dream of a graduate education?”

What if I’m considering grad school more for the credential and financial rewards rather than the educational and intellectual benefits?

Join the club! Many, many individuals do not pursue a graduate degree just for the intellectual stimulation. Most are looking for increased financial opportunities and career growth, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, don’t forget the amazing—and challenging—educational experience that awaits you as a graduate student—it is truly one of a kind.

The marketing materials from some grad schools basically sound the same—how can I really trust what I read about an institution?  

As with any type of advertising, grad schools want to put their best foot forward. They do so by using words, phrases, and clichés that sound familiar. Do not be surprised by this. If you dig deeper, you will be able to start making some helpful comparisons. For instance, get a list of a few recent graduates from the program to which you are applying and contact them. What do these individuals have to say? (Remember, they are no longer enrolled, so they can be completely candid with you.) Did they get what they came for? What about the faculty—how well known are they? How recently have they been published? Visit the campus if at all possible. What did you observe? How were you treated? How did you fit in? Overall, how did you feel? The way you feel during a campus visit is usually how you feel as a student on the campus.

What if my first-choice institution (or the one I end up in) is not as prestigious as some other grad schools on my list?

Long-term success is not directly correlated with the prestige factor of your institution. No doubt about it, prestige may open a few more doors, but keeping them open is all up to you. Being an outstanding worker, with persistence and determination, opens doors too—more than you realize. Hard work always pays off. 

At what point does an institution shift from being wonderfully responsive to appearing too desperate to recruit me?

Almost everyone has stepped into the recruitment ring these days. There is competition at all levels, even at the most selective institutions. As the competition for graduate students increases, so does the level of contact institutions will have with them. It may be a bit difficult to distinguish between genuine interest and overkill. Do your best to follow your gut. Does the contact seem reasonable? Are you being contacted more than once per week? (That might be a bit excessive.) Are the contacts made to you varied, and do they contain new and helpful information? Are folks respectful of you? Are those contacting you upbeat but not begging you to apply? Are they careful not to speak unkindly or inappropriately about other programs you may be considering?

What if my finances are just not adding up and going to graduate school seems economically impossible?

Cost will always be an important consideration before entering grad school, especially since you will likely be considered an "independent" student for financial aid purposes. It is helpful if you have at least one year of grad school tuition “in the bank” before you enroll. You should also know exactly what your graduate program will cost, as well as how you will be paying for it. Make sure you know what financial aid you can receive, including loans, scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, work-study, etc. Do some financial planning. You might consider meeting with a financial advisor or with trusted family and/or friends. If you have a spouse or serious partner, they should be a part of the conversation as well. Cover all your financial bases—don’t leave anything to chance, and don’t waste time applying if you haven’t planned for the financial responsibilities you are about to assume.

Related: How to Start Your Grad School Search

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