How to Choose the Right Graduate Program in 2018
Meet the Experts
  • Dana BearerAssociate Director of Transfer, Adult and Graduate Admissions, Clarion UniversityRead More
  • Jessica RetrumAssociate professor, Metropolitan State University of DenverRead More
  • Julie MastersonDean, Graduate College at Missouri State University Read More
  • Shirag ShemmassianFounder, Shemmassian Academic Consulting Read More
Written by
Kenya McCullumRead More

Top 11 Tips for Choosing the Right Grad Program

Not all graduate programs are created equal, so it’s imperative that student really weigh their options. Following are 11 considerations prospective graduate students should keep in mind when selecting programs.

  1. Career

    Career goals should be top of mind when choosing a degree program — or deciding whether to attend graduate school at all. For some careers, having an advanced degree provides an edge in the job market, while for others job experience may be more important. If a graduate degree is needed for a career, a person should be sure to choose a school that will adequately prepare students for that type of job.

  2. Part-time or full-time options

    “For many students who need to balance work, school and life, full-time enrollment can be intimidating and may prevent some students from attempting graduate school. To be considered a full-time graduate student, one must register for at least nine credits,” said Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult and graduate admissions at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. “Students may also choose to attend part-time in most graduate programs. They need to check with their specific programs to confirm that part-time status is an option.”

  3. Program delivery

    Some programs are conducted entirely online, while others are hybrid, or a combination of online and on-campus components. If a program is delivered in a hybrid format, students should consider whether they’re able to travel to campus as often as required while also juggling their other responsibilities.

  4. Faculty specializations

    “Students should consider if the faculty specializes in their fields of interest. For instance, a prospective history student may want to attend School X, only to find that none of their potential advisers specialize in ancient Greek history, their specific area of interest,” said Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting. “Also, in the case of Ph.D. and certain master’s programs, students will be working closely with particular advisers. A student should reach out to the prospective adviser and gauge whether he or she will be taking on new students.”

  5. Admissions requirements

    Each program has its own individual requirements — from minimum GRE scores to entrance examinations or specific undergraduate coursework. For any school students are considering, they should look at what’s expected for admission and determine how to meet those standards.

  6. Cost and financial aid options

    “Students should incur as little debt as possible, so look at tuition and fee costs, as well as available financial help, such as graduate assistantships. Graduate assistantships are wonderful because they help with education costs and living expenses,” said Julie Masterson, associate provost and dean of Missouri State University’s Graduate College, and professor of communication sciences and disorders. “At Missouri State, for example, our graduate assistantships cover basic tuition and fees and provide a monthly stipend. They are excellent resources.”

  7. Facilities

    Depending on a student’s needs and goals, access to facilities may be an important factor when choosing a program. For example, those who are interested in graduate degrees in a health care discipline, like nursing, may want to know they can get hands-on experience at a hospital affiliated with the school. Similarly, someone studying a science may look for programs with state-of-the-art lab equipment.

  8. Accreditation

    “It’s important that the graduate school has the appropriate accreditation,” said Jessica Retrum, associate professor and the chair of the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “For example, in social work, if programs are not approved by the accrediting body for social work, the Council on Social Work Education, they may jeopardize being eligible for certain licensure and employment opportunities and even the ability to call themselves social workers after they graduate.”

  9. Reputation

    Just as professionals want to work for organizations with good reputations in their fields, graduate students should also look for programs that have a good reputations within their academic disciplines. Check out program rankings or speak to alumni about their experiences in any grad program.

  10. Length of the program

    Busy graduate students with full-time jobs and families need to consider the investment of time that a program will take. A person who isn’t in a position to spend a long time in graduate school may need to look for an accelerated option in order to complete the degree more quickly.

  11. Research opportunities

    Students who want to enter fields that require original research should look into how research is conducted in graduate programs and find those with strong research opportunities.

Expert Q&A: Choosing the Right Online School

Choosing a graduate program isn’t easy, so it’s important for those considering advanced degrees to get as much information as they can in order to make informed decisions. To provide additional perspectives on the graduate school experience, we asked the following experts for their opinions and advice.

  • Dana Bearer, associate director of transfer, adult and graduate admissions at Clarion University.
  • Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting.
  • Julie Masterson, associate provost and dean of the Graduate College, and professor of communication sciences and disorders at Missouri State University.
  • Jessica Retrum, associate professor and the chair of the Department of Social Work at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
  • When should undergraduate students begin investigating graduate schools?

    Masterson: From the beginning, or at least as soon as you think you might want (or need) to go to graduate school. Sometimes simply adjusting to the excitement and new demands of college can be enough for the freshman year, but you should start your research during your sophomore year. By the time you begin your senior year, you should have narrowed your choices and scheduled campus visits. Many graduate programs have application deadlines early in the spring semester for fall start dates, so you want to make sure you are prepared and meet them. In some cases, such as medical school, you actually apply the summer before you start your senior year. It’s important to understand the expected timeline for your chosen path, so you can make sure to follow it.

    Retrum: If students believe they will eventually want to go to graduate school, it’s never too early to start exploring. In terms of how long most applications cycles take, usually you need to plan to apply anywhere from six months to a year before the program will start. Often students are notified they are accepted four to six months before classes begin. In our program, we have an early and regular application cycle with a deadline. Some programs have rolling admissions cycles.

  • What qualities should students look for in graduate programs?

    Bearer: Accreditation, mode of delivery, admissions standards, costs, program outcomes, job placement, reputation of faculty and quality rankings.

    Retrum: This is unique to the degree, so students should research what is important in that discipline or field. Other more general qualities might be the training and degrees of faculty, how long a program has been established or through what institution the program is offered. Universities also are held to a certain standard and quality; a student should ask any university being considered who its accrediting body is. At Metropolitan State University of Denver, we are accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC); in the United States HLC is one of six regional institutional accreditors.

  • How can students impress a graduate school during the application process and stand out from other students?

    Bearer: Constructing a well-written essay or personal statement, having a solid test score (GMAT, GRE, MAT), having strong undergraduate core grades, demonstrating motivation, doing a personal interview, having relevant work experiences, meeting deadlines and showing good references.

    Masterson: Do your homework early! Make sure you know what information will be collected during the application process, and ensure that you have accomplishments and experiences in every area. Of course, it’s important to keep your GPA as high as possible and take the courses that the program will expect to see on your transcript. Make a strong case for your commitment to the profession associated with the program. That is, if you want to get into a graduate program in accounting, make sure you have shadowed or even worked with an accountant. If you want to be a doctor, make sure you’ve logged numerous hours shadowing doctors in various specialties. You want to make a convincing case that you are interested in that profession, not just the idea of it or the salary associated with that profession. For many graduate programs, strong experience in research projects as an undergraduate is highly desirable. For many professional programs (e.g. medicine, pharmacy, physical therapy, speech-language pathology, engineering), there is a centralized application service (CAS) (see Liaisonedu.com/association-partners). If your desired profession has a CAS, start a student account as soon as possible so you know what’s in the application. If you do this a few years before it’s time to apply, you’re guaranteed to have a chance to build an impressive portfolio of the necessary experiences. Finally, ensure that your writing throughout your application is strong. Take plenty of time to prepare your responses, and then have someone proof your work for content, clarity and accuracy.

  • Is an interview necessary when applying to graduate schools?

    Shemmassian: Some graduate programs require interviews; others do not. It’s worth finding out as far in advance as possible if a program requires interviews — and whether or not they’re conducted in person or remotely — to financially plan for travel and sufficiently practice. When preparing for interviews, students should be aware that they may be asked to clarify anything listed on their applications and discuss their educational background and career aspirations. They should be prepared to highlight their “fit” between their academic backgrounds and goals with what the program offers. Finally, it’s important to not only rehearse content when answering classic questions like, “How do you envision your career 10 years from now?” but also to practice engaging your interviewer and speaking eloquently. Faculty at graduate programs want to know that the student is bright and a good culture fit.

    Masterson: This totally depends on the program. Many professional schools, such as medicine or dentistry, always involve interviews. Others vary from institution to institution, and still other areas, such as the MBA, may rarely involve interviews.

  • Will students get a good return on their investment when they earn a graduate degree?

    Bearer: That is the goal with any earned degree from a reputable, regionally accredited institution. It really depends on the economy and job market for the chosen program at any point in time. In general, earning a graduate degree should increase career opportunities, especially in fields such as speech pathology, physical therapy, library science and physician assistant, where graduate degrees are required.

    Shemmassian: It depends on the field (number of years of school and training, debt accrued, job/salary prospects). For instance, if a student will leave a graduate program with $150,000 in loan debt and the career choice typically commands $50,000/year in salary, it will take a very long time to pay back the principal and interest of the loan. It’s possible he or she could have received a similar salary without attending graduate school, allowing them to save, invest and grow in the chosen field.

  • What are the most important things prospective graduate students should know?

    Shemmassian: Whether they’re fully committed to the fields they intend to pursue. Graduate school (and post-graduate training) is often a long journey and requires financial, personal and interpersonal resources to complete successfully. Also, whether the programs they’ve identified will support their educational and career goals. Can they study/research what they want? Do program graduates receive attractive job offers?

    Retrum: There are a few different reasons students seek a graduate education. One is professional advancement — sometimes they can’t get a promotion or do the type of work they would like to do without graduate degrees.

    Don’t assume you will be accepted just because you have a strong GPA. The admission committee doesn’t know you and will make a decision only based on your application — make sure the unique qualities that define you shine through. Take your time, read through the admissions requirements and be sure to address each one thoroughly.

    Be ready to be challenged! For example, many graduate programs require readings to be complete before the first day of class. The expectations are different in graduate school, so make sure you have the time and space to be successful.

Common Online Grad School Misconceptions

People considering graduate school may not know what to expect and consequently believe several myths about what it’s like. Below are some common misconceptions about grad school and the truth about these ideas.

Applicants must be perfect to be admitted into a graduate degree program.

“The notion that a student has to have perfect grades and test scores to be admitted to graduate school is just not true. Schools look for well-rounded, passionate learners,” said Bearer. “Letters of recommendation and work experiences can be determining factors in an admissions decision, even if the student falls short of the typical academic profile.”

Graduate school is only worth it if students attend top-tier schools.

Some people considering graduate school believe if they’re not admitted into Ivy League schools, graduate school isn’t worth their time. However, it’s most important that students go to the schools that are the best fit for them — and, in some cases, the highest-ranking schools may not have the best programs for students’ goals.

Graduate degrees are always a good idea.

“Given the years of education, training, financial and opportunity costs, attending graduate school may actually harm the graduate’s quality of life. For instance, paying back massive loans over decades can impact important decisions like in which areas the graduate can afford to live and which jobs provide salaries that can help pay back loans and support their desired lifestyles,” said Shemmassian. “In addition, prospective graduate students often have dream jobs that may in fact be quite difficult to obtain. It’s well-documented, for example, that tenure-track professorships are hard to come by in general, let alone at well-known institutions or in desirable locations.”

Some people are too old to go back to graduate school.

Although some people may feel uncomfortable going back to grad school because of their ages, in many cases, schools prefer students who are in their mid- to late 30s because they bring valuable life and work experiences to a program.

Graduate programs are too challenging for most students to handle.

“I’ve heard students comment that they are nervous when they start and concerned that they won’t be able to do the work, or that the faculty will not be approachable or have realistic expectations. The actual experiences usually quell these fears in the first semester,” said Masterson. “Graduate school is qualitatively different from undergraduate programs in that they require much more reading, writing and independent work. Most students are ready for that and welcome the change.”

Graduate school is held from nine to five.

While graduate school can be the equivalent of a full-time job in terms of the amount of hours and effort students are required to put in, they can’t necessarily expect to keep business hours as they would their jobs. Depending on their areas of study, students may end up working late hours and should be prepared for that possibility.

Graduate degrees are completely unnecessary.

“One myth that is prevalent right now in higher education generally is that a degree is not necessary. At MSU Denver, we aim to change that because we know access to education changes lives,” said Retrum. “While an undergraduate degree plants the seeds for lifelong learning and critical thinking, a graduate degree is an opportunity to refine your professional self and change your career trajectory. Not all careers require graduate degrees, but many do, and obtaining that degree can set you up for success.”

Life must be dominated by school work.

Grad school is a great deal of work, and it can be stressful, but it’s important for students to take the time out to enjoy themselves. Doing things like spending time with classmates and engaging in extracurricular activities give students the balance they need to avoid burnout, which will help them perform better in their programs.

The Advantages of Online Grad Programs

Just as online undergraduate programs offer students many benefits, earning a distance graduate degree provides students with several advantages.

Convenience Online graduate degree programs provide some flexibility and convenience that students who are working full time or raising children may need in order to manage all of their responsibilities. Students may have the option of taking courses that are delivered completely online or enroll in programs on a part-time basis to fit their studies into their lifestyles. Many online classes can be completed asynchronously, so that students can access their courses at any time of day and from anywhere.
Flexible career options “Many individuals who obtain graduate degrees will enjoy a higher ceiling with regard to salary, positional seniority, etc., as well as more flexible career options,” said Shemmassian. “For instance, whereas an individual with a bachelor’s degree in psychology will be limited in the ways he or she can participate in mental health provision, an individual with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology can open a private practice, lead research programs or a combination of both, and also have other options available to them.”
Lower costs In some cases, online programs may charge per credit hour, which can potentially save students money. Also, since they are not commuting back and forth to campuses, students save on transportation and parking costs.
Improving online communication skills Since students have to communicate with their professors, and each other, through message boards, online chats and video-conferencing programs, students get the opportunity to sharpen their virtual communication skills. These written and verbal communication skills can help them in their workplaces, no matter what careers they pursue.
Personal growth and achievement “Completing a graduate degree brings incredible satisfaction to those who value lifelong learning,” said Bearer. “There is a sense of accomplishment from challenging oneself academically and completing a rigorous program.”
Increase technical skills Students in online graduate degree programs must master the technology used to deliver course materials. As a result, they may gain expertise in programs such as Trello, Skype, Basecamp, Dropbox and Slack, and this technical knowledge may improve their performance in their jobs.

More on Graduate School

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This podcast from the Institute for Humane Studies provides advice on how to succeed in grad school. The discussion covers how to build a relationship with a faculty mentor, make a good first impression on professors and peers and overcome doubts about being in a graduate school program.

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In this video, UC Berkeley’s Graduate Division Diversity Program Director Carla Trujillo provides advice.

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In this video, Anne Curtis of The Princeton Review offers tips on how to get a good score on the GRE.

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This video from Bridgewater College discusses how important GRE scores and grade point averages are when applying to a graduate school program.

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In this article from University of California, Davis, professors from various disciplines — such as chemistry, mathematics and history — give advice on how to decide whether or not to attend graduate school.

Grad School Advice — The Princeton Review

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5 Things You Need to Know About Graduate School

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Readers of this article from The Washington Post will learn how to impress schools when applying to graduate programs.

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The Forbes article shares effective ways to pay for graduate school and describes mistakes students make financially.

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