If you’re wondering how to choose a graduate program that’s right for you, you may understandably feel overwhelmed. Ideally, a graduate degree should improve your job prospects, positively affect your salary and expand your professional network.
No pressure, right?
You can always change your mind if your master’s or doctoral program isn’t a good fit. However, like any other big decision in life, disentangling yourself from that commitment can be messy.
The good news is that, with some strategic planning, you can ensure that you find a program tailored to your needs. Just remember to avoid these common mistakes.
1. Not considering career goals
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is choosing a graduate program before you’re confident with your career path. Typically, graduate programs are designed to advance your career. So if you recently earned your bachelor’s degree and aren’t sure what you want to do yet, you may want to work for a few years and explore your interests before returning to school. On the other hand, if you’re passionate about a particular field and feel compelled to pursue it, starting a graduate program right away to boost your job eligibility could be a smart move.
2. Assuming all degrees are created equal
While they may seem the same, graduate degrees signify different things. For example, let’s say you aspire to become a school superintendent. In this case, you would want to earn an EdD rather than a PhD. Both are doctoral degrees but each has its own focus.
Additionally, graduate programs across different schools may offer the same degree but with different concentrations. Research the degree and each individual program to make sure it aligns with your professional goals.
Pro Tip: When doing your research, review the curriculum and find out if the program offers fieldwork or assistantship opportunities. Details like these will provide insight into whether or not it matches your job interests.
Finally, don’t forget about modality. A master’s program at one school may offer its courses online with part-time options, while another school with the same program might hold classes exclusively on campus, full time.
3. Overlooking the program’s faculty
In addition to features like curriculum and job placement, make sure you research your graduate program’s faculty. Professors can make or break your experience in grad school. Look into their areas of expertise and read from their published works. Do they have a point of view that interests you? Will their unique experience bring value to your education? If they’re professionally active outside of academia, does their industry intersect with yours? Ideally, they’ll stimulate your interests and inspire you to work hard.
4. Assuming you can’t get scholarships
True, there are typically fewer scholarships and fellowships for graduate students, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look. Before you decide to borrow money or fund your education out of pocket, research scholarships for which you’re eligible. You may find free aid from private organizations, your university, or even your graduate program’s school. To offset the cost of tuition and fees, some schools give financial awards to students.
5. Not contacting the Admission Office
When deciding how to choose a graduate program, don’t overlook your program’s admission office. In particular, admission representatives can be very helpful. They can answer your questions, provide valuable resources, and address your specific needs.
For instance, if you’re unsure about eligibility for a graduate program because, say, you feel like your GPA isn’t high enough, don’t count yourself out. Contact a representative to learn all of the program requirements, and see how eligibility is weighted.
6. Submitting your application at the last minute
Procrastinating until the last moment with your graduate school application increases the chances for errors. Whether you miss an important section or something goes wrong with your submission, you won’t have time to recover.
Depending on your program, applications can be long and contain multiple parts. After all, you’re investing in your future, and the program is investing in you. They want to get a holistic picture of you as an applicant. You’ll likely be asked to answer questions about yourself, write personal mission statements, complete a writing assignment, and more. Not to mention, you’ll need plenty of time to acquire transcripts and possibly get letters of recommendation.
Selecting the right graduate program can be challenging, but if you stay focused on your career and do your research, you’ll be sure to find a good fit.
Brian Soika is the Digital Content Writer at the USC Rossier School of Education. He writes about issues in higher education including graduate school, educational leadership, and practical guidance for students.
Contributor writers at TUN are academic professionals, thought leaders and industry experts who have stories or wisdom to share.