The foremost advice I’d have for students who are expressing an interest in graduate school is for them to ensure that they have significantly progressed beyond the typical questions that undergraduate students tend to struggle with: What do I want to do with my life? What is my purpose in this world? How can I best utilize my skills toward a specific career?
If you are still agonizing over any of these questions, I would suggest you are not ready for a graduate program. A graduate program is not the place to “find yourself.” It is a program to consider when you are looking at a long-term career plan. There are exceptions, of course, and some can afford to waste time and resources on graduate classes, but that’s why we call them exceptions.
Costs, Financial Assistance, and Incentives
What are the costs and what financial assistance and incentives does the program offer?
These are the most practical questions you’ll have to consider. There is a good chance you’ll end up accumulating debt as a result of your years in graduate school, and you may already have debt because of your undergraduate years. Are you prepared to incur these debts and will it be worth it to you? Does the program offer any way to reduce the costs? Are there scholarships, grants etc. that you can apply for? Make sure you have explored all these avenues and compared the financial aspects of each of the programs you are interested in.
What are my specific career goals and how does this program serve these goals? I would suggest you write out a list of your career goals, including the specific field you want to work in, the particular positions you may occupy, the possibility of moving into management, the possibilities of further graduate work etc. Then weigh these goals in light of the graduate programs you are examining. Decide which program can best serve these career goals, and then proceed accordingly.
What are the strengths of this particular program? Each of the programs you are interested in will have its own strengths and weaknesses. Which program possesses the majority of qualities you’re looking for? Go with the program that can best put you on a career path aligned with your goals.
What are the professional opportunities and connections this program offers? This question encompasses everything from landing you in particular cities, internships, access to professional networks, to the track record from past graduates of the program. There may be similarities among the programs you are interested in, but some will be better in their ability to put you in an advantageous position to make superior professional connections. It’s not always about pure merit. Some schools simply have better access to elite networks of professionals. There is nothing wrong in considering this factor when selecting a graduate program.
Graduation and Dropout Rates
What are the graduation/dropout rates for the program? I referenced the term “track record” in the last paragraph. Researching the recent history of a program for their graduation and dropout rates can be helpful. You’ll be able to see how similar students have fared over the course of the last decade or so. It may influence your decision whether or not to enter a program if you see a large number of students unable to complete it. Conversely, if you see the opposite, you may lean more heavily towards entering a program.
Class Size and Setup
What are the class sizes and basic pedagogical setup for the classes? This may not be high on most lists, but I would encourage students to visit and research prospective graduate schools and see how daily business is conducted. Are students learning in large lecture halls or are they in small seminars, interacting with professors and each other? Or is it a combination of both? Are the programs entirely online and how often does the cohort meet? I personally would err on the side of smaller, more intimate settings, where I can collaborate closely with peers and know my professors on a first name basis, whether online or not. This is the type of learning environment I excel in. You may find you enjoy larger group settings. Do not discount this aspect to choosing a graduate school and program. It could make a big difference for your long-term success.
Is there flexibility for working students, those that have families and other responsibilities? For students who have been out of school for a while, these tend to be very important questions. Students may have completed their undergraduate degree and decided to settle into a career, get married, have children etc. Now they are expressing an interest in returning to school. What programs consider these factors the most and make it as convenient as possible for such students to succeed in graduate school? If you are in such a position and circumstance, examine these factors and ask these questions. You will need far more flexibility than a single student right out of undergraduate school.
As you can see, there are many factors to consider and weigh when researching graduate schools. Take your time and do it correctly. Make sure you are completely thorough in your review, and select the program that is the most suitable for your professional and practical needs. The program you choose to enter will have lasting lifelong consequences for your career and personal life. Good luck in your search.