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Why go to Graduate School and How to Choose a Program

There are many reasons you might be considering graduate school. Two of the most common:

  • A graduate degree is required to enter or further your chosen career.
  • Candidates entering your career path with a graduate degree will enter at a higher position or salary level.

Many consider pursuing graduate-level studies as a way to further explore academic interests from their undergraduate years, or as a part of the process of finding the ideal career path. It is helpful, however, to have a clear goal in mind when deciding whether to go back to graduate school, rather than simply applying to graduate school because you feel it is expected of you or because you are unsure of your next step in life. Some questions to ask yourself before you begin the application process are:

  • What specific career goal(s) will be furthered by enrolling in graduate study?
  • How dedicated am I to the career that I will be working towards, and/or to the academic work I will be pursuing, if I go to graduate school?
  • What educational level do I need/want to attain – Master’s, Ph.D.?
  • Am I looking for a traditional program or a part-time program that will allow me to continue working?
  • How important is it to receive a degree from a prestigious program or institution?
  • Am I willing to relocate to attend graduate school?
  • How will I fund my education?
  • How long will my degree take to complete?

You should research programs in your field to find out which are the most highly regarded, and what opportunities particular programs will offer; the “big name” school programs may not offer what you are looking for. When deciding where to apply, consider your own strengths and weaknesses as an applicant for a reasonable assessment of where you are likely to be accepted. Talking to undergraduate professors or professional colleagues who know you (and your chosen field) well is a great place to start for this kind of assessment. It will also be important to line up letters of recommendation from professors or supervisors who know you well.

Some tips on investigating graduate programs:

If applicable, take a look at the annual U.S. News and World Report issue on the Best Graduate Schools. This will give you a general idea of the schools considered to be the best for the field you are considering. If you are an undergraduate, it can be valuable to talk to your undergraduate professors in the subject you plan to study, as well as anyone else you know in the field. Who are the people in your area of interest whose work most fascinates you and aligns with your research goals? You should try to acquaint yourself with the faculty of any program you plan to apply to. Visit the department if at all possible. Establishing personal contact with the department means that your name becomes a face, and this could help during the selection process.

Another important consideration is how you will fund your graduate degree. While professional programs such as law, business, or medical school have limited scholarships available and often necessitate taking out extensive loans, academic programs (especially Ph.D. programs) often provide fellowships and/or teaching opportunities that will pay for your education as well as provide you a modest living stipend. It is to your advantage to research and take advantage of these opportunities as much as you can. For example, two programs that are equally attractive to you may have different ways of funding their students, and it is important to be aware of what you can expect before choosing a program. Questions to ask when investigating a program include: how long do students generally take to complete this degree? Does the department fund students for the entire degree, through fellowships and teaching assistantships?

It’s helpful to be as knowledgeable as possible about the schools you are applying to so that you can tailor your personal statement to the particular program. A good first step is to look at the department’s website – usually you will find a wealth of useful information there. Do not be afraid to call the department and ask questions. It is a good idea to get along well with the department secretary, as he or she is the person who will be your primary contact during the application process and can be an important source of information and they can tell you who to ask if they cannot answer a particular question. It may also be helpful to e-mail professors you are interested in working with to ask them about the program, or even to ask if you may attend one of their classes. Make sure you are familiar with their scholarly interests before initiating contact!

Above all, be informed; talk to as many people as you can about the programs you are investigating. Focus on finding the right fit for you – make a list of what is most important to you and keep it in mind as you do your research. Look at many programs before deciding, and get the advice of people who have “been there, done that” – successful professionals in the field, as well as graduate students who are currently pursuing their degrees. As you probably did when you applied to college, you may want to apply to a few schools that are “reaches,” a few that are “safeties,” and a few that are in the middle. Keep in mind that application fees are expensive and that each application has to be completed separately, although you may be able to use the same general personal statement, tailoring it to each individual program. Give yourself adequate time to:

  • research your options
  • prepare for and take required tests
  • line up letters of recommendation and have them sent, along with transcripts, etc., to the departments you are applying to
  • write the required personal statement
  • complete applications

For example, if the application deadlines are mostly in January, you might want to start seriously researching programs up to a year before, and you should have a pretty good list in mind by summer or early fall, at which time you can get started in earnest on your applications. (Keep in mind that professors are hard to get in touch with during the summer, so you will find it easier to contact people during the spring or fall semesters). Line up your letters of recommendation as soon as possible (and do not forget to thank your recommenders!).  Ideally, all required testing should be completed a few months before the deadline, to make sure that scores reach the department offices on time, and in case you need to re-take any of the tests (such as the GRE, which can only be taken once a month), and make sure you know if the departments you are applying to require specific scores on the GRE. All of this can get very hectic if you are applying to many schools, so keep a calendar with all the relevant deadlines!

In the United States, a graduate school degree is becoming a near-necessity in many fields, and it can be a rich and rewarding experience when you have found the right program. As with any worthy endeavor, preparation is the key to success. Your PowerScore course will give you the tools you need to do your best on the GRE. Make sure to use all the tools at your disposal to prepare for every aspect of the application process, and you will be on the road to a successful graduate school experience!