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How to choose a graduate school

Choose the right graduate school with these important tips

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Written by Jonathan Trout
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Walking across that stage as a new college graduate with your Bachelor’s degree is undoubtedly a proud moment. For most people, graduating from college means jumping right into the workforce and starting your career. Others are pursuing a career path that requires an advanced degree, which means applying to grad school.

There’s a lot to consider before you start applying to graduate schools. What area of study do you want to focus on? What are your long-term career goals? Do the schools you’re applying to have faculty and programs that excel in your field of study? You’ll quickly find that applying to graduate schools requires a lot more research and networking than applying to your undergraduate program did. Here are some things to think about before you start.

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Think about your career goals

Before choosing a graduate school, you need to nail down the area you want to specialize in and the type of career you want to have. Admissions committees look carefully at how well your desired area of study and long-term career goals match the graduate school’s programs. Even if your academic credentials, test scores and letters of recommendations are outstanding, you need to make sure your goals align with what the school has to offer.

If you’re looking to pursue a Master's or Doctorate in sociology, for example, one graduate school may offer expertise in sociology and social research, intercultural mediation and strategic prospective. Another graduate school may focus their sociology graduate programs on gender studies, environmental social design and humanities and applied social science.

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Find the best professor or mentor in your area of study

When you applied to colleges for your undergraduate degree, you probably looked at the universities first and then, maybe, considered who taught there. For graduate school, finding an expert professor to mentor you is important. As you begin looking for a graduate school, look for individual professors who work in the field that interests you, and apply to the schools where they teach.

So how do you start this process? Do some research and look through publications (books, journals, articles) in your field of interest. Write down the names of the authors whose articles or books interest you along with their school affiliations and what they’re researching.

Once you’ve found some potential mentors, you can go to each of their respective university's websites and find their contact information. You’ll also be able to read specifics about each university’s graduate programs. Talk to your undergraduate professors to see if any of them have connections at the universities you’re looking at. They might be able to help you connect through email, telephone or even in-person at a conference or other academic event.

Networking and speaking with a school's faculty through email or over the phone is a great way to get details and insight to the graduate program you’re interested in. Making personal connections with professors can also help your application.

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Learn about financial assistance

For a lot of people considering graduate school, the biggest determining factor is whether or not they’ll get money from the school for attending. Once you’ve been accepted into a graduate school program, the university will send you an offer letter. Sometimes offers include money in exchange for an assistantship, fellowship or scholarship. Depending on your financial situation, the amount of money you’re offered plays a big role in whether or not you accept the offer.

Assistantships: Assistantships are positions that require you to work for the university in some way in exchange for funding. Most schools offer graduate assistantships (GAs) and graduate research assistantships (GRAs) within different departments. A common example of GA work is teaching a class to undergraduates.

Fellowships: Fellowships are usually merit-based awards that financially support you as you work towards your master’s or doctorate degree. The money comes directly from the school, which is divided up among graduate programs within the school. Fellowships provide money for tuition or can be used as a living stipend.

It’s important to know application deadlines for assistantships and fellowships for each school. Look for funding opportunities as early as you can since most deadlines for funding run around six to 12 months before funding actually begins.

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Frequently asked questions

  • Should I worry about school rankings? Most people agree, while rankings are worth looking at for reference, you shouldn’t place a whole lot of importance on them during your decision process. People often think having a Ph.D. from an ivy league school gives them a significant advantage in the job market. While it might give them bragging rights, employers care about what you know, what you can do and how your credentials translate into your job. Don’t let rankings be the reason you miss out on the perfect graduate school for you.
  • What about accreditation? You should make sure the graduate school you’re attending is accredited. Most employers look for that accredited seal when considering your job application. Beyond that, an accredited school has to adhere to stricter standards than schools without accreditation, meaning you’ll end up with a better education overall.
  • What kinds of application materials do I need? Most graduate schools require you to submit official or unofficial transcripts, letters of recommendation, essays, writing samples and personal statements by mail or email. If the school you’re applying to requires an official transcript or standardized test scores, you’ll need to contact previous schools and testing organizations so those documents can be mailed directly to the graduate school.

Note that most, but not all, graduate schools require you to take a standardized test. Make sure to schedule your tests well in advance of when you’ll be applying in case you need to retake the test to get a higher score. Stay organized by creating a spreadsheet to track every school’s application requirements and deadlines.

Bottom line

Choosing a graduate school should be all about your career goals and the area of study you wish to focus on. Make sure the school you’re applying to has professors who currently research and work on the type of specialized degree you’ll be focusing on. Don’t be scared to reach out to faculty and specific professors at each school you're interested in. Making personal contacts and networking will ensure you’re choosing the best university for the kind of advanced degree you want.

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