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How to Choose a Graduate School

Bridget Kulla, FastWeb.com

Whether you just finished your undergraduate work or have been in the job market for years, pursuing an advanced degree can further your academic and career goals. Your focus of study is more specific than when you entered your undergraduate college, and so will the process of selecting a graduate program. Consider these areas while searching for your perfect graduate program:

General Concerns

Enrolling in graduate school is a big decision with a lot to consider. Don’t overlook the basics when comparing graduate programs. How do you like the school’s location? Are the facilities adequate for your research needs? Are the program costs within your budget?

Going to graduate school means committing yourself to living in one location for two to seven years. Make sure you are happy with the school’s location before packing your bags. Also, consider the location in relation to what you will be studying. For example, if you will be researching wildlife biology, you probably won’t want to attend an urban school.

Take a look at the facilities available to students. Since you’ll be spending much of your time doing research, the school’s resources should meet your needs. Are the research facilities top of the line or gathering dust? Does the library have the latest books or do the shelves look a little bare?

Earning an advanced degree won’t be cheap. The average debt accumulated for graduate degrees ranges from $27,000 to $114,000, according to FinAid.com. Compare the costs of different programs and explore what financial assistance is available. Keep in mind that a program’s sticker price may be high, but this number could drop significantly if the school offers a wide variety of financial aid.

Academics

You’re going to graduate school to further your academic and career goals. Academic quality should rank as one of your top concerns when weighing the merits of various programs.

Don’t assume a program will include your specific academic focus. Make sure the graduate schools you are considering have the field of study and research programs that meet your interests. Unlike undergraduate programs, graduate schools focus on a few areas within a specific discipline. If you want to concentrate in environmental biology, check if a graduate biology program offers this area.

If you are unsure of the exact focus you want to pursue, choose a program that allows you to explore several research areas. “I did not have a specific project in mind when I applied to grad school. For that reason, I decided to apply to schools which allow students to explore different areas,” says Maria Sierra, a graduate student enrolled in the biology program at the University of Chicago.

Graduate programs concentrate on theoretical or practical applications. Theoretical programs emphasize academic theory and are best suited for students who intend to enter academia. Practical programs concentrate on practical career skills and are better for students interested in careers outside of teaching or research. Consider which focus best matches your interests.

Reputation

Finding a good job after earning your advanced degree will be easier if your graduate program is well regarded. Talk to your undergraduate professors and professionals in the field to see how a program is perceived. Take a look at college rankings.

Often more important than a program’s reputation, is the reputation of its faculty members. Investigate if a program has professors who work in the subject area that interests you. What kind of research are they pursuing? Schedule interviews with professors to discuss if their academic focuses are relevant to your goals.

Also, talk to students currently enrolled in the graduate program or recent graduates. Find out how satisfied they are with the program.

Part-Time or Full-Time

Both part-time and full-time graduate school enrollment have their advantages. Evaluate what type of grad student you want to be and make sure you explore programs that can accommodate you. Some schools, like Boston University’s School of Management MBA degree program, offer part-time programs designed for students who work. A school may have a stellar reputation, but if they don’t encourage part-time studies, you may do better elsewhere.

Career Services

One of the most important considerations you should make while selecting a graduate program doesn’t take place while you’re enrolled—what do graduates do after earning their degrees? Do they go into academia or have careers in the real world? What kind of career assistance is available to students? Alumni networks are one of the most valuable job-search tools. Talk to recent graduates and see if their career paths are in line with your ambitions.

Explore what career services are available to students. Most schools will have a student career services center specifically for graduate students. Campus career advisors can guide you if you are not sure what you want to do after graduate school.

Earning an advanced degree could open up new career possibilities. If you’ve decided grad school is for you, do your homework to find the school that will put you on the right career path.


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