What to Look for in a Graduate Program

Now that you’ve made the decision to pursue your master’s or doctoral degree, it’s time to choose a graduate school program that matches your educational, professional, and personal goals. But what should you look for in a grad school program? What features matter the most to you? And what features will help propel you to the next step in your education or career?

What to Look for in a Graduate Program
By Dr. Sara Austin

Factors like quality, cost, and geography will likely play a role in your decision. You’ll also consider course offering, program reputation, and the presence of influential professors as you search for the right graduate program.

So how do you prioritize the variables that matter most to you, and how can you weigh these factors in order to arrive at your decision with clarity and confidence? To an extent, this depends on your personal goals, the nature of your discipline, and the type of degree you seek. But there are some common features that you’ll want to prioritize in your search. Let’s take a closer look at these features, first at the master’s level, and subsequently, at the doctoral level.

Choosing the Right Master’s Degree Program

Are you Seeking a Terminal Degree?

Graduate degrees are generally offered at two levels: the master’s and doctoral level. While the doctoral is considered a terminal degree, or the highest academic degree that can be earned, in most fields, the master’s degree may be the terminal degree for some disciplines. For example, the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) is the highest degree that can be earned in the field of fine arts.

This means that, depending on your intended profession, the master’s degree may be a terminal degree, or a stepping stone to a doctoral degree.

If the master’s degree is a terminal degree in your field…

…your top priority should be to find a school with a great reputation, both in general, and in the discipline you wish to study.

Once you’ve identified schools that excel in your discipline, look for graduate schools offering your concentration. For instance, if you plan to pursue a master’s degree in fine arts, and you have an interest in Renaissance Era painters, you might be drawn to a school with a specific Renaissance art concentration.

If a school on your list doesn’t offer your specific concentration, this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker. Find out if the program offers a similar emphasis, or if there are noteworthy or influential faculty working in your chosen area. Reach out to the school or department you’re considering to learn more. You may be able to connect with professors that specialize in the exact area you wish to study.

If the master’s degree is NOT a terminal degree in your field…

…there are a few more things that you must consider. If you ultimately plan to proceed into a doctoral program after earning your master’s degree, you should take a number of factors into greater consideration as you choose a master’s program.

Reputation

The reputation of your graduate school and your department are both paramount if you plan to continue into a doctoral program. Top-tier doctoral programs will pay close attention to the school where you completed your master’s degree. They want to know that you worked with influential faculty at prestigious schools. Going to a well-regarded graduate school will open more doors for you, both professionally and educationally.

A note about online reviews — As you research reputation, you will find that online reviews are plentiful for most schools. Grad school reviews can be helpful, but you should take these with a grain of salt. If the majority of reviews you encounter are negative, this is a definite red flag. You may want to investigate further. By contrast, don’t let a few highly negative reviews sway you from your other findings. Graduate school is a highly personalized experience, and everybody will face different challenges. Be on your guard for negative online reviews by students who either struggled or failed to overcome these challenges. Your experience may differ.

Faculty

Just as with reputation, faculty will play an important role in helping you leap from your master’s studies to your doctoral program. First and foremost, you’ll be seeking a graduate school with faculty in your area of interest, noted experts who can push you, challenge you, and prepare you for doctoral work.

As you consider a graduate school, find out if the professors in your discipline are influential in their field. Learn more about their areas of concentration, professional affiliations, important published works and other indicators of their impact on the field you hope to enter.

Their support and endorsement can go a long way in the eyes of a selection committee for a top-tier doctoral program. To that end, as you consider a graduate school, you should also begin to identify any influential faculty in your discipline who might be able to write letters of recommendation.

Whether your master’s will be a terminal degree or you plan to continue into a doctoral program…

…there are a number of other factors you’ll need to consider in your selection process:

Student Body

Visit every graduate school on your list. This is the best way to interact with actual members of the student body. Strike up some conversations, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Is the culture and community one where you believe you’ll feel comfortable? Can you see yourself forming partnerships and friendships with your fellow students?

Even for introverts, friendships with colleagues in graduate school can be a matter of survival. Graduate school is challenging. Whether you need a classmate to share ideas with, a few reliable study buddies, or just some moral support on your academic journey, graduate school is better if you don’t go it alone. Look for a student body where you can see yourself fitting in.

You’ll also want to determine what current students are working on. Beyond the importance of cultural compatibility, if there aren’t grad students studying what you want to study, it’s a good sign that your intended discipline is not among the school’s premier programs. This is probably not the right place for you.

By contrast, if you find that others in the student body share your interest, this common ground can lead to greater opportunity. In an intimate grad school setting, as few as three students with a shared interest may even be able to inspire the creation of a class on something seldom or never offered.

Post-Graduate Opportunities

Whether your master’s degree is a terminal degree, a step on the path to your doctorate, or a means to professional advancement, you will be evaluating prospective graduate schools based on how well they’ll prepare you for the next phase.

In addition to researching indicators like graduation and acceptance rates, find out where students are going after completing their degree programs.

Do most graduates enter work in their field upon completion? And if so, how plentiful are opportunities for graduates from the school in question? How plentiful are these opportunities for students completing a degree in your specific area of study? Does the graduate school have a strong reputation for job placement in your field? How well will your graduate school prepare you to compete and succeed in your job market? Learn more about post-graduate employment rates and earning potential based on the outcomes experienced by real students.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) may be a good source for data on post-graduate employment rates. You should also reach out directly to the university or your intended program to learn more.

Do many graduates go on to pursue doctoral work? And if so, do many of these graduates gain access to highly influential R1 graduate school programs — those noted for “very high research activity”? Or do most graduates transition toward high research (R2), traditional doctoral (D) or professional doctoral (PU) programs?

These classifications can tell you a lot about the doctoral opportunities awaiting graduates, as well as the types of concentrations common among students in a given program. For instance, if you hope to transition from your master’s program into a research role, but the vast majority of graduates from a school on your list transition into professional doctoral programs, it may not be the best fit for your goals.

Once again, this is an opportunity to reach out to each graduate school on your list for answers. Contact the academic department for your discipline and inquire about the doctoral opportunities that typically await graduates.

Whether you plan to enter the job market, continue into your doctoral program, or both — which is not uncommon — seek a graduate school whose real-world performance aligns with your goals.

Conferencing

Conferences are an important part of graduate school, and one often overlooked during the selection process. Conferencing is one of the most effective ways for academics to build networks and share ideas. But attending conferences costs money.

As you consider graduate schools, find out what your discipline’s department does to support graduate student conferencing. Ask what financial support is available for conferences. Will the department help cover conference fees or travel expenses? And what does the department do to help their students create work that will get accepted to conferences? Does the graduate program offer workshops, assignments, or faculty with a focus on presenting at conferences?

The level of support your graduate program provides for conference attendance and presentation may not only be an indication of the opportunities available to you as a student, but a strong conferencing history may suggest that your department is influential within your chosen discipline.

Choosing the Right Doctoral Program

As you begin your pursuit of a doctoral degree, you’ll be considering many of the same features that might influence your selection of a master’s degree program. However, you will likely prioritize these features somewhat differently.

Faculty

When choosing a doctoral program, faculty may be even more important than school reputation. Your doctoral program will typically focus on the pursuit of original research and the development of a dissertation around your findings. You will rely heavily on the support of faculty to achieve your goals, from partnering with a mentor to defending your dissertation before a committee of faculty members. At the very least, you’ll need a graduate school that employs enough faculty in your discipline to form a dissertation committee. Beyond that, look for schools with influential faculty in your specific concentration.

This step will require meaningful face to face engagement. As you research faculty, make appointments to speak with those who you believe can help you on your journey. Be prepared to travel for in-person meetings. Travel may be costly, but now is not the time to pinch pennies. This decision is too important to cut corners.

You’ll be spending a lot of time with the faculty in your department and concentration. If you don’t get good vibes during a personal meeting, beware! There may be an issue of compatibility.

Ultimately, as you consider faculty, your goal is to find an enthusiastic research partner and a department where your dissertation can garner the support, resources, and feedback it deserves.

Publishing

Scholarly journal articles are important markers of achievement among academics. Getting at least one article published before completing your dissertation will improve your job prospects dramatically. However, the academic publishing process is extremely competitive, especially for a graduate student. Ask the department what they do to help students develop publishable journal articles.

Does the department offer workshops where students can receive feedback on their research and writing. How effectively does the department prepare students for the peer review process? What additional steps does the department take to improve students’ chances of successfully publishing their own work?

If publishing is a goal for you, prioritize doctoral programs that provide meaningful support in this process.

The Students

Just as in college and graduate school, the students around you can tell you a lot about your likely experience. Once again, visit the school and meet your fellow doctoral candidates. It’s common for departments to dispatch current students to tour you around the facilities, and perhaps even take you out to dinner at the expense of the department.

You’ll want to use this time wisely. Move past the small talk and get right to the heart of it. What are the professors like? What are the students like? Are they happy to be there? Do they have everything they need to succeed? Do students feel optimistic about their educational and professional prospects?

Find out everything you can about the experience from those who have actually been there. And don’t be afraid to eavesdrop on a few of the student conversations around you. Take a “fly-on-the-wall” approach to observing the student body in its natural habitat.

The Campus

Speaking of natural habitat, how does the campus feel to you? This may seem like a petty question for a doctoral candidate, but it does matter. For the next few years, you’ll be spending a lot of time in this environment, even if you live off campus. So how does the campus feel? How about the department? Admittedly, few doctoral department offices are aesthetically pleasing, but is office space available? Will you be sharing that space with other graduates? Is it a space you can work in? As you visit the campus and its facilities, think about the environment you require to do your best work.

The Commitment

Every doctoral program comes with opportunity and commitment. Completion of your program may require you to make some additional contributions to your department. Indeed, you will usually get a stipend from your school for doing doctoral work, but be sure you know what is asked of you in return.

Do you have to teach, and if so, how much? To be blunt, many universities use grad students as a cheap source of teaching labor. You may be required to provide instruction, grading, proctoring or other services to undergrads at your school. Gaining experience teaching is good, even when the experience of teaching is bad. However, some schools simply require too many courses to be taught by grad students. The burden can be an unneeded diversion from one’s research.

Find out what’s expected of you from each of the doctoral programs on your list. Make sure the burden isn’t greater than the opportunity.

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Now that you know a bit more about the selection process, find out How to Apply to Graduate School.

You can also start your selection process by choosing from a list of the the Most Influential Schools in the World Today!

Or begin your search by ranking the most influential schools in your discipline. Choose your graduate program by navigating according to discipline.