Identify Schools and Programs in Your Field of Interest
Factors to Consider in Deciding Where to Go
In order to make a well informed decision about where to attend graduate school, several factors need to be considered in the context of your wants, needs, values, and career goals. Some key factors that you should take into consideration include the faculty, program, university/area resources, and students. Listed below are specifics in each of these areas.
- Academic Training/Credentials – Where did faculty receive training and what philosophy did that school hold about the profession?
- Research Interests/Productivity – How much time do they devote to research? Will they be able to assist you in developing your research skills?
- Teaching Style/Effectiveness – What classes do they teach and how often are tier classes offered? Is it difficult to enroll in their classes (are they full time faculty or affiliate faculty members?) Will they be on sabbatical during key courses or program course sequences?
- Concern for Student Welfare and Development
- Involvement in Professional Activities – Do department faculty work well together?
- Group Morale and Cohesiveness
- Well Balanced Gender/ Ethnic Representation
- "Connectedness" with Potential Employers
- Goals/Philosophy – Do the values parallel your own?
- Course and Program Offerings – How often are classes and programs offered?
- Academic Difficulty
- Evaluation of Student Performance
- Effectiveness of Student Advising
- Internships, Assistantships, Practicum, & Fellowships
- Degree Requirements (Theses, Dissertations, Comprehensives)
- Possibility of Taking Interdisciplinary Courses
- Average Length of Time for Degree Completion
- Percentage of Students who Complete Degrees
- Admissions Policies – Timelines and Deadlines
- Job Placement of Graduates
University and Area Resources
- School Location (Urban, Rural, Suburban; Geographical Climate/Culture)
- Financial support—Internal and External
- Laboratory Equipment and Facilities
- Computer Facilities
- Access to Future Employers
- Cost of Living
- Access to Transportation, Shopping, Leisure Activities
- Housing Options
- Safety of Students
Academic Ability at Entrance
- Achievements, Knowledge, Skills at time of Degree Completion
- Professional Accomplishments of Graduates
- Student’s Judgments/Opinions of the Program’s Quality
- Satisfactions with the Program
- Group Morale of Program Students
- Gender/Ethnic Diversity
Reflect on each of these factors when choosing a program that best fits your future goals and values. Keep in mind that each of these factors will vary in importance depending on the person; only the person who will be in the program can make the decision about which program is most appropriate. The key to being happy with your choice of a program is to actively reflect on your personal needs and responsibilities and find the program that best matches them.
Deciding Which Offer to Accept
After researching graduate school programs and completing applications, the acceptance letters have come in the mail. Now you must consider which offer to accept.
Just as self-assessment, research, and asking thorough questions were critical to effective selection of and application to graduate school, these elements are again essential as you choose among those programs that offered you admission.
Although you may have compared and prioritized schools during the application process, be cautious about simply accepting the offer from the one you ranked the highest. While worrying about just getting accepted, you may have overlooked or underestimated potential problems. Once schools actually invite you to enroll, it is wise to take a second look at your options and carefully investigate each one.
Six Key Questions to be answered:
1. What is the overall quality of the institution?
The overall reputation of a school is not as critical as how well the particular academic program meets your requirements. Nevertheless, all things being equal, it makes sense to select the institution with greater prestige and visibility. Your degree will receive more recognition and be more marketable.
2. How well does this program fulfill my academic and professional objectives?
To answer this question, do not simply rely on published rankings of academic programs. The rankings may be difficult to interpret since they are usually based on a composite score covering many factors. Their relevance to you will depend on what the criteria are and who is doing the evaluation.
Some of the factors you can investigate for yourself include accreditation, performance of alumni on professional licensing exams, research facilities, computer systems, and student services. If this information is not available in the standard graduate school guidebooks, you can ask the department directly.
Find out how often courses listed in the catalog are actually offered and when key professors are due for sabbatical leave. Also, consider what percentage of students complete the program, how long it usually takes, and how they fare in the job market. Assess the focus of each program’s curriculum, philosophy, and teaching style in terms of your particular needs.
A critical factor in evaluating academic programs is the faculty, their scholarly reputation, accessibility to students, and research interests. The reputation of faculty members is built on their published work, their appointments to the editorial boards of scholarly journals, their teaching awards, and the level of research grants they receive. Their accessibility and research activities can be determined by talking with currently enrolled students. The presence of the right faculty member—highly respected, focused on your area of interest, and committed to mentoring students—may be more important to your success than overall reputation of the program.
3. Considering my financial resources, including the aid package I have been offered, is this a wise choice?
To assess the financial implications of your choice properly, you must weigh the costs and benefits. What is your total expected cost of pursuing your degree? Is it realistic to work full- or part-time while pursuing this degree? (If you plan to enroll part-time or choose an evening or weekend college be sure to evaluate its quality in relation to the full-time program. Realize that part-time study is more feasible in professional fields than in academic Ph.D. programs.) Consider your aid package. How much consists of fellowships or outright grants? How much aid is offered as loans which will put you in debt? Have you been guaranteed a teaching or research assistantship? Consider whether a more expensive program can be justified in terms of any advantages it may give in the job market. Finally, are you prepared for the possibility that the debt you accumulate could end up dictating what kind of job you can accept?
4. What are the implications (personal and professional) of the institution’s geographic location?
Aside from the climate, cost of living, cultural opportunities, proximity to family, or employment opportunities in a given location, you must consider where you hope to live once your student days are over. Generally speaking, it is best to select a school in the same geographic region where you want to practice your profession. You can establish contacts with potential employers and clients and begin to get involved in the total life of that community while you are still in school.
5. What is my personal reaction to the thought of toiling for an undetermined number of years in this place, with these faculty members and students as colleagues and friends?
In making your decision, do not underestimate the impact of more intangible factors. Paying a personal visit after being accepted is a smart thing to do. Even if you already visited the school for an interview, try to make a return visit. During a visit you can reassess the campus climate and student morale more realistically. Look for evidence of gender, ethnic, or age group representation in your academic department. Try to gauge the level of intellectual stimulation and excitement since that may be all you have to sustain your motivation at stressful times!
If you anticipate having to juggle your student role with family responsibilities and employment, how flexible is the program in responding to those needs? You may want to ask about services such as childcare or support groups.
6. What is my backup plan?
Develop a backup plan. If the only program that accepts you fails to measure up to your criteria, you can put "Plan B" into effect, temporarily, while you find out what you can do to gain admission to a more appropriate program in the future.
For help in identifying the factors that are most critical to your choice or in making a final decision about continued study, seek the assistance of a Marymount Career Coach. You could also talk with a trusted mentor or friend about the pros and cons of each program in comparison to your needs. Taking the time to thoroughly consider your needs will help you make the right choices for you.