It’s easy to get swayed by marketing when you’re researching graduate schools. World-renowned faculty, the brochures scream! Paid internships! Beautiful campus in the heart of the city! Opportunities abroad!
While location, faculty, course offerings, and networking opportunities certainly contribute to a unique and wonderful graduate school experience, they’re not the only important components. After all, putting in years of effort to earn a degree won’t be worthwhile if your program won’t help you advance in your research or land a job afterward. Or if it leaves you in crippling debt.
Once you’ve established an initial list of prospective programs, don’t forget to ask some “tough questions,” especially in the following three categories, to help identify potential deal breakers.
Financial fit: a program’s effect on your wallet
Consider not just the immediate but long-term financial implications of graduate school. You may be giving up a steady salary or taking out additional loans to cover the cost of living in addition to tuition. Before undertaking such a commitment, ask these questions to ensure you’re minimizing financial loss.
What types of scholarship opportunities exist?
The admission or financial aid office at your prospective institution should have information on scholarship and grant opportunities readily available. They may have information on scholarships based on merit, field of study, student status, cultural background, or other factors. Don’t be afraid to make a call or schedule a sit-down meeting with your school’s financial services office to find out what type of funding opportunities are available.
If you don’t find what you’re looking for at your institution, there are literally billions of dollars available to cover tuition and living expenses through private or foundational scholarships. (Start with our scholarship search!) While competition for scholarships can be tough, it pays to familiarize yourself with this information far in advance and apply for as many as you qualify for.
What is the median income of students fresh out of the program?
Graduate schools should have average or median salaries for recent grads. If this data is not available through the school website or admission office, you may be able to check in with recent graduates about their experience or speak with a recruiter or hiring manager in your field. Will your potential post-degree salary increase significantly within a few years, or will the costs outweigh the possible financial gains? If it’s the latter, you may want to consider lower-tier schools willing to provide more funding or join a part-time program so you can work to offset the costs.
Career fit: how your program will actually help your job
You might be surprised by the number of people who apply to graduate programs for reasons of convenience (“I can’t get a job right now”) or confusion (“I’m not sure what I want to do”). Before making any decisions, stop to reflect on whether earning a graduate degree will provide a concrete benefit to your career or personal life. Here are some additional questions to consider.
What is the measurement of success with this degree?
How do most degree candidates and faculty members in your prospective program measure career success? Is it the same way you do? If your eventual goal is to become a college professor, pursuing a doctorate is a good investment, as Ph.D. curricula are geared toward helping those who want to work in academia. But if you wish to be a legal writer, earning an M.A. in English may not necessarily be the best use of your time compared to, say, a certificate program in that field. If the majority of those who graduate with your intended degree are striving to do something different than you are, it may be worth re-evaluating your choice of program.
What is the competition like?
It’s important to know who and what you’re up against professionally. If your goal is to take on a management position in a growing company, an M.B.A. will probably help you beat out other candidates and would thus be a good investment. However, some fields prioritize experience over education, so earning a degree—when you could be learning in the real world—might actually hurt your career prospects in the long run. Speak with recruiters or arrange informational interviews with businesses that interest you to ask their opinion on what truly makes a candidate stand out and whether a graduate degree is necessary.
What does research look like in your field?
Many students enroll in graduate programs with the intent of contributing knowledge to their field through a thesis or dissertation or even kicking off a career in research. However, it’s important to consider the current outlook of research in your field and how your program fits into it before committing.
It is a discouraging fact that federal funding for basic research, which normally makes up the bulk of research funding universities receive, has been steadily declining since 2010. Unless researchers can effectively plead their case in the halls of Congress (which, frankly, hasn’t gone well so far), competition for grants will likely remain extremely high. Start investigating how your school can best support your research interests in the long run: Are there administrators available to help navigate the endless maze of rules pertaining to grant applications? Are there faculty members already doing research in your area of interest, and would they be open to hiring graduate assistants? Talking with sponsored funding administrators or faculty at your prospective institution will give you an idea of how much school money is available, what type of support system students receive when competing for federal grants, and whether faculty members who receive sponsored funds would be willing to collaborate or help you seek independent opportunities.
What percent of graduates end up in their chosen field within six months of graduation?
This is a question for the admission officers, student advisors, or faculty members at your prospective school. Are new grads consistently finding jobs in their field soon after graduation, or are they forced to take on other positions to earn a paycheck? Of course, this can vary based on field and program; however, it pays to speak with your school about this, especially if you expect to start in your field just after you complete your studies.
Program fit: details that matter
You’ve been in school long enough, so by now you know your own learning style and what type of graduate program would fit you best. Do you need a part-time or flexible program that will allow you to work while in school, or are you looking for a full-time master’s that will allow plenty of time for networking and internships? Are you looking for an independent experience, or do you need more guidance? A fruitful grad school experience depends on you being a good fit for your program and the program being a good fit for you. Here are some questions to ask admission offices or currently enrolled students.
Did my undergraduate degree prepare me for grad school and this program specifically?
With the competitive nature of graduate programs, it would seem that an admission committee would only accept students they believe have the tools to succeed. However, this isn’t always the case. Research has shown that students often underestimate their grades and credentials when applying to schools, which can result in them “settling” for lower-tier schools that may have fewer resources and opportunities; in other cases, schools may overestimate students’ experience and award them merit-based scholarships that are difficult to maintain. In addition, graduate courses can involve a very different set of organizational and motivational skills than undergraduate ones do.
The best way to see how your skills match up is to contact current students and recent alumni. They are in the best position to be informed—and honest—about what it takes to do well in the program. Check admission and alumni websites; chances are they can put you in touch with someone who has a similar background to your own. Ask students about their daily workload, the biggest challenges they’ve faced, and what’s surprised them most in graduate school. They will likely be willing to talk about their experience and can share organizational tips or prerequisite courses they feel might help you succeed.
How will my real-world experience help me? Alternatively, would I be better prepared for this program with real-world experience?
Think about your past work and life experiences: how can these benefit you in the program? If you don’t feel you have enough to bring to the table, consider internships, travel, or freelance work you could undertake to boost your application and help you narrow your research interests. Beef up your portfolio by joining online freelance communities or searching job boards for gigs or unpaid internships. Try volunteering with a local organization related to your field. You could even participate in a trip or short study abroad program to make your résumé more interesting. Ask faculty members, program advisors, and admission officers if they have any suggestions on how to make your application unique.
Is the program all course work, or are independent or research opportunities available?
Of course, part of the reason you’re in graduate school is to connect with faculty. However, the biggest opportunities for networking normally come outside large lecture classes, and your opportunity to really stand out and make progress in your field may lie in independent work. Does your prospective program offer extensive opportunities for research and individual work? Are assistantships available with faculty members, or could you take on individual academic jobs? Taking on additional research projects in graduate school will make you stand out from the crowd, so investigate how much support your prospective institution can offer outside of the classroom.
How long does it take students to finish the program?
Last but not least, the all-important question: how long does it take to finish this thing? While many full-time M.A. programs will likely take about two years, accelerated programs could be finished in one. Ph.D. students normally don’t walk away with a degree until five to seven years later. Ask not just about the ideal length of time of your program but the average actual length of time students take to finish, as well as the dropout rate. Based on this, consider whether the pace of your program is too fast to be comfortable, too slow to endure unemployment throughout, or just right.