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How to Find the Right Graduate Program for You

Finding the right grad program will inform your future career opportunities and choices. Here's some comprehensive advice to help make this important decision.

You may be thinking, “I got through the search for my undergraduate program just fine—why would searching for a graduate program be any different?” For some, grad school can be that straightforward. But for most, it’s among the toughest decisions to make. Why is that? You just need to find a graduate school that has your desired program and apply, right? Wrong. 

Here are two key differences: First, you are a different person now. You have grown, discovered your passions, know more about what you want, and are concerned with far more than simply getting through junior year. Second, graduate work is about focusing on a particular discipline. The scope of the program is different, and the way in which you apply to graduate programs is also very different. I could certainly keep going, but homing in on your motivations and reasons for wanting to go to graduate school are at the heart of the rest of this article. In short, it seeks to help you answer the question: “How do I find the right graduate program for me?” 

Goals and expectations

To ensure you make the best graduate school choices for yourself, you’ll need to spend a considerable amount of time not thinking about grad school. That’s right! It’s time to do some reflection and research. Start by considering the following questions:  

  • What’s your timeline? How do you define where you want to be in one, three, five, and 10 years from now?
  • What do you value? What is important to you for learning, living, your graduate experience, and work/life balance? Do you want (or need) to work while going to graduate school? What are the areas you must balance, and where can you make sacrifices?
  • How do you learn? Who are you at your best? How do you process information in an academic or professional setting? Reflect on these things using assessment tools (e.g., StrengthsQuest), talking with friends, etc. 

This is not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea. Don’t worry about the particulars of your graduate degree just yet. Know who you are, what your plans are, and what you need to do your best. 

Related: Undergraduate vs. Graduate School: What to Expect

Career plans

It may be fun to think about using grad school to launch a particular career, or perhaps you have thought to yourself, “That seems like a good job. Grad school will get me there!” But do you really know everything about the position? Career path? Industry? The jobs of today may not exist in the near future, and there will be careers in a few years that don’t exist today. It’s important to be mindful of career planning as the precursor to your graduate education. To that end, the second thing I recommend doing before launching into your grad school search is to spend time evaluating your career interests and get to know what specific positions are available. You may learn about perfect-fit opportunities you never even knew existed. 

There are many career research resources out there, but starting with the Occupational Outlook Handbook produced by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics is the perfect place to start. There you’ll learn about the specifics of the career path, as well as the education and degree requirements for those positions. And you’ll be able to evaluate the forecasts for employment growth—or decline—in those fields as well. The information is there. It’s important for you to find it, digest it, and build your grad school plan around it. 

Degree profile

Once you know what kind of education is needed for your chosen field(s), it’s time to nail down the degree type and focus you should pursue in grad school. There are professional master’s (e.g., JD, MBA, MPA), Master of Science degrees, Master of Arts, and more. But beyond knowing the mere degree title, you should know what your potential degrees truly entail. For example, while the discipline may be the same, an MS in Mathematics tends to be more applied, while an MA in Mathematics is more theoretical, which is good preparation for a doctoral program. 

Then there are professional degrees, which are largely designed for entry into a specific industry. Furthermore, depending on your career goals, applying for a terminal degree (doctorate level) is something you will need to consider when planning out your graduate school plan. Many programs admit to the doctorate, where the master’s degree is obtained along the way. When it comes to your degree focus, you’ll want to know what exact type of program you are looking for. The focus, or academic orientation, of the program may differ in the way courses are delivered or the research faculty members conduct. Using the math example again, an MA in Math might have an actuarial focus, or its focus might be calculus.  

Related: Choosing the Right Graduate Degree for Your Goals

Institutional differentiators

After conducting the aforementioned career planning and reflection, you will know the degree type and focus you want and have a sense of your values and expectations. Now it’s time to work on identifying how these things align with what I like to call the “differentiators.” Simply put, how does a particular college with the degree you are seeking stack up? What are some of the aspects of the program and institution that fit who you are and what you need? Your interpretation of these differentiating things is inextricable to setting yourself up for a transformative grad school experience. While you may have others, here are two critical categories of differentiators to consider: 

Academics

  • Research opportunities: This may be very important for your discipline. Does the institution have a great track record for grants? What types of opportunities will you have to get published? 
  • Program makeup and delivery format: What is the setup of the program? If online, what’s the track record? If part time, what kinds of class schedules are available? How well do you think (or know) you’d learn in that format? 
  • Admission: What prerequisite courses might you need to take to be eligible for admission? Do they offer them? Is there a way to gain conditional admission and still start the program?
  • Accreditation and rigor: Outside of regional accreditation, are there program or discipline-specific accreditations to help you determine degree quality? 
  • Prestige and reputation: A school and/or program’s reputation in your (intended) field can play a big role in your decision and determination of quality. 
  • Class size: How big is the program? Do you learn better in small classes or large? What outcomes do you identify with as it relates to the number of classmates in the average cohort?

Campus experience

  • Culture: Think of a grad school’s culture as “that’s how we do things here.” Visit your potential graduate institutions and talk with various stakeholders to help understand what their philosophy on education really is.
  • Outcomes: This is pretty straightforward—and telling. What is the track record related to student outcomes, and what resources are in place to secure employment and assess ROI of their graduate programs?
  • Living and learning: What’s the living situation? Is there housing for graduate students? Is it on or off campus? What’s available to support your lifestyle while in school? 
  • Support services: Where can you get campus assistance when you need it most? Whether it’s academic, financial, or career counseling help: it’s not just that they have it, but what it is and how it applies to you.
  • Community: What’s in the area around the graduate school? How does the college engage with the community it’s located in? What can you expect from the area in terms of experiential education opportunities, employment, housing, and amenities? 
  • Professional development and engagement: Are there supplemental programs, networking events, and other activities that would enhance your experiences in the graduate program
  • Connection to industry and alumni: How accessible are these two groups to you as a grad student? Does the college engage in conversations with them to ensure the graduate curriculum is current and relevant? 

Related: Campus Visits: Not Just for Undergrads!

Financial consideration

Another important element in finding the best grad school fit is cost and financial aid. You may identify two graduate programs of equal value to you, but their financial support adds another crucial element to your success. Ask about, identify, and make sure you understand what’s available in terms of financial assistance and the likelihood of someone with your academic profile and experience receiving funding. Determine what’s available for all of the following categories: scholarships, grants, fellowships, teaching positions, research or graduate assistantships, and other funding you don’t have to pay back. Research the true cost of your graduate education, and remember that your investment will extend beyond the tuition you pay. Part of finding a grad program is ensuring it fits your budget too, including such things as the cost of living in a particular location. Using sites like GradSense.org will help you understand the overall investment.

The search: where to look and who to ask

Actually searching for a grad school may seem like the hardest part, but if you’ve considered everything above, you have all the tools you need! Now you can use everything you know about your goals and yourself combined with the institutional differentiators to make an informed decision. Here are the key resources for your graduate program search:

  • Grad school search directories: Grad school search sites/directories give you opportunities to search by many different variables and filters. 
  • Individual colleges and universities: Talk to current students, recent graduates, and faculty. Visit the colleges (online and in person) and test out the differentiators that matter to you most.
  • External assessments (e.g., grad school ranking lists): Use these tools but do not base your selection entirely on these reports.
  • Surrounding community: Get to know and research the area the college is located in to assess your living priorities. 

Final thoughts and tips

I can’t stress enough the importance of individual research and planning as it relates to making the best choices for you and being a competitive candidate when you are ready to launch, relaunch, or continue in your career through graduate school! Beyond that, here are a few closing tips: 

  • Stay organized. Find a way to organize your grad school search criteria by creating charts and assigning point values to some of your differentiators. Do the same for evaluating admission requirements and financial opportunities. 
  • Ask questions and glean different perspectives. Look for consistent messages to validate the way the institution, program, and the overall experience is presented. 
  • Best fit will vary for everyone. Only you can determine what’s ultimately important in your grad school search. Differentiators that may be important to you may not be to the person next to you. Gather information, but don’t be influenced by others. 
  • Have a plan of attack. Preparing for the grad school search and managing multiple admission requirements and timelines is good practice for the organization and time-management skills you’ll need in grad school. 
  • Start early. Your graduate school search and application process should begin 10–15 months prior to desired term of entry.

Related: Essential Grad School Search and Application Timeline

The right graduate program for you is going to depend entirely on your future goals and ambitions. There are broad degree programs that could prepare you for many different careers and there are highly specific grad pathways that will take you to that one place you want to be. Your choice is ultimately your choice. Don’t let others sway you into doing what you think you should do over what you really want to do with the rest of your life.

What are you doing to find a great graduate program for you? Start here on CollegeXpress by using our featured grad school lists!

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