Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How do I explore graduate programs in my area of study?

So, you have your BA/BS degree in your pocket and hopefully a couple of years of work experience under your belt. In this day and age, if you want to be eligible for promotion in many companies or even if you just want to apply for a good position (often even an entry position) you need to have an MA. On the other hand, you need to be aware that not all graduate degrees pay off and that two additional years in school are a big investment that you should be able to cash in one day.

Another scenario is if you’re aiming for a Ph.D. If this is the case you should know that you are in for 4-5 years of serious work and if you don’t have a clear plan, even if it’s a couple of options instead of one – plans do change – for the love of god, don’t apply. Doing a doctorate is a serious thing, it usually involves working long hours as a research assistant/undergrad TA (teaching assistant) plus going to classes, doing homework, writing long essays and a thesis that will make everything else you’ve done in your life seem like a joke.

Student orientation
By Tulane Public Relations (Flickr: Student Orientation) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
On the other hand, if you’re completely in love with what you do, if you can see yourself working as a professor and/or researcher one day, and if the life of academics is the one for you, go for it! It’s a lot of work but it pays off at the end. Oh, and one more thing. Although you will probably get a scholarship from the university (accept nothing less, if you have to pay for it, they probably aren’t the right match for you anyway) do know that you will be as poor as a church mouse during your studies – the scholarships are very small and cover only the most basic stuff. 

Now, if after all this you’re still interested, let’s see what your first step towards applying could be.

The most important thing is to find schools that are the right fit for you, not the ones that would impress people when they ask you where you study. For example, when I was applying for grad schools in 2007 the example my academic advisor used was Harvard and its chemistry department – apparently they didn’t quite compare well against many universities you’ve never heard of that invested much more money (and effort) into this particular area of study. The point is, don’t go for the brand, look for the substance. People in your niche know what programs are good and when you apply for your first job after graduate school they might not be as impressed with a big university name as your friends and family might have been when you enrolled.

What you need to do is create a list of schools (programs) you are interested in and put them in order of preference – my first, second, third choice, etc. After you’ve done enough research this list will make itself, and may I suggest not opting for ten programs, 5-6 will do the trick. You should pick schools so that you are satisfied if any of them send you an acceptance letter and if they all reject you, well, it wouldn’t matter if you sent 100 applications.

By Ziko van Dijk (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Another mistake I’ve seen people make is apply only to the schools that top the rankings. So, it’s Yale, Princeton, Harvard or nothing! This is definitely the wrong attitude. There are plenty of great schools out there and if you can get into the one that’s number one in your field of expertise that’s great, but know that you should have some reserve options. For example, if you’re applying to 6 schools, make 2 your absolute priorities, 2 more realistic options, and 2 your fallback plan. Of course, you should know yourself best and only you (should) know what is realistic for you. The best option is the same for most people. If the two overlap you have hit the jackpot!

But there are so many schools, how do I cut the list to only a few good ones? Easy. Find a good academic adviser, get a list of all schools with programs in your area of study and start digging. If you want to know about rankings, check out US World & News Report. They are the most credible source out there but know that many faculty members complain of them privately because they have very rigid guidelines and don’t take into consideration all aspects of academic life.

Once you’ve found the schools that might potentially look interesting (up to 20, 30 if you’re really clueless) you just need to go to their websites and start doing incredible amounts of tedious research. But hey, if you’re not into that, you might as well give up on going to grad school in the first place.

You’ll soon see how all these websites look alike and you’ll learn the keywords like academics (to see what courses they offer and who teaches them), financial aid (differentiate between what is available to Americans and what international students can hope for – the answer is a lot less), bios of faculty members, housing (usually off campus for graduate students but there are exceptions), cost of study (take into consideration the cost of living at the location, living in Iowa will not hurt your pocket as much as finding an apartment, or a shoe box more likely, in NYC).

After you narrowed down your list even more and know you have a much better idea what you could hope for, check out the professors who teach the courses you are most interested in within these programs. If you already know some names and are a fan, that’s fantastic. If not, try to search their names using googlescholar. Find what they have written, read as much as you can, get a feel for what their course is about and what it would be like to be in their class or even cooperate with them if you’re a Ph.D. candidate.

Graduating students
By Sasikiran 10 (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Once you identify the professors that interest you most get in touch with them. It’s easy to find their profile on the faculty list section of the school website and that email address next to their name is there for a reason – use it! Get in touch, tell them what you’re interested in, mention some of their work and how it got you interested to join the program. You’ll definitely get a better feel for the school and it won’t hurt your chances in the admissions office once those faceless applications start pouring in. Some of these professors are on the admissions committees and they all talk to each other! Also, if you’re a Ph.D. candidate you’ll need a mentor and this is a great way to start working your way towards finding one.

Final thought, and this is especially important for international students who are not familiar with the way American universities work – make sure you note down all application deadlines way ahead of time. If you want to start school in the fall the application must be out the door usually in December or January and you won’t get an answer until at least early to mid March. Now, if you need to take the GRE/GMAT test (and you do) try to find the location nearest you where you can do this and please find a tutor or a good manual on how to prepare. But I’ll write about that in one of my next posts.

What’s coming up: how to find the right college. Stay tuned! Also, all you need to know about the GRE and TOEFL!

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