How to Choose a Graduate School: 7 Tips for Success

So you’ve made the decision to go to grad school. You’ve weighed your options, researched the benefits of a graduate education, and discovered the value of having an advanced degree. Now it’s time to choose which program to pursue—a task that can seem overwhelming given the number of options available.

But your grad school search doesn’t have to be daunting. There are actions you can take to make choosing a graduate degree program more manageable—exciting, even. As you take the next step toward your personal and professional goals, take note of the following tips to help you choose a graduate school and degree program best suited for you.

Difference Between Grad School and Undergrad Programs

Before you start searching for the right graduate school for you, it’s essential to know what to expect for this new career trajectory you’ll be embarking on. Unlike an undergraduate program, grad programs are highly specialized and much more advanced in your field of study.

Prospective graduate students can expect a far more individualized experience as they work closely with students and professors. Due to this specialization, entering a graduate program will be an investment of time that’ll ultimately help elevate your expertise and career choices.

Tips for Choosing a Graduate School

1. Take inventory of your passions and motivations.

Pursuing a graduate education is a big investment, so it’s critical to understand the unique “why” behind your decision. What do you hope to achieve by going back to school? Whether you’d like to gain more specialized knowledge, change careers, earn a promotion, increase your salary potential, or achieve a lifelong personal goal, make sure the program you choose will help get you there.

Examine the curricula and course descriptions of various degree programs, and assess how each offering aligns with your passions and interests. Graduate school is challenging, but it will feel more manageable if you’re working toward something that matters to you. Understanding your expectations and what you want to get out of the program is the first step in choosing a degree that will be a good fit.

2. Do your research and explore your options.

Once you’ve determined your motivations for returning to school, leave yourself time to research the types of degree programs available in your preferred area of study and the opportunities each can create.

Resources like the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook can give you a sense of typical career paths by industry, along with the educational degree requirements for each. The handbook also provides market growth forecasts and earning potential to help inform your decision.

It’s also important to note the structure and focus of each program. Even in the same discipline, a program’s focus can vary among institutions. Does the curriculum emphasize theory, original research, or a more practical application of knowledge? Whatever your goals may be, make sure the program’s focus aligns with the educational experience that will provide you with the most value. Career changers, for example, who likely don’t have industry experience, might prefer a program with access to hands-on learning opportunities or a path for completing prerequisites like Northeastern’s Align and Bridge programs.

While conducting your research, don’t be afraid to utilize your professional network. Speak with colleagues who have pursued an advanced degree in your industry and reach out to alumni of the institutions you’re considering. Listening to their experiences as a graduate student and in the job market post-degree can help you gauge if the program is in line with your goals.

3. Keep your career goals in mind.

After exploring your range of program options, consider your career goals and how each specific graduate program can help you get there.

If you’re seeking a specialized area of focus, be sure to examine the program concentrations offered at each institution. One graduate program in education might prepare you to specialize in higher education administration or elementary instruction, while other institutions may offer concentrations in special education or classroom technology. Make sure the program you choose reflects your career interests.

Alternatively, if you’re unsure of exactly where your career path may take you, you may want to consider a broader degree that can give you flexibility in its application. Some degree programs, such as a Master of Business Administration, teach skills that can be applied across multiple professions. If this is the path you’d prefer to pursue, pick a degree that will remain relevant as you move around in your career.

Examine the types of credentials professionals in the industry possess and research the types of skills potential employers are looking for. Check to see that the degree program offers opportunities to learn and develop those same skills. You’ll want to make sure the program you’re investing your time in will arm you with the knowledge you can actually apply in the real world.

Some professions also require board certification and/or state licensure. For example, someone interested in becoming a ​​project manager must complete 35 hours of relevant training before gaining eligibility to sit for the certification exam. You’ll want to ensure that the graduate program you ultimately decide on is fully accredited and will help you meet any certification or licensure requirements.

Location is also an important factor to consider when thinking about potential employment opportunities after graduation. Individuals interested in financial services may consider schools in a major banking center, such as Charlotte, while those pursuing a technology career might look for programs in Silicon Valley.

Further, if your goal is to work for a specific company, do your research to determine where graduates of the programs you’re looking at are working. Universities often have corporate partnerships in which employers recruit graduates to work at their organization. Check to see if your dream company partners with any nearby universities.

4. Make sure the program fits your lifestyle.

While aligning your career goals, make sure the degree program you choose will realistically fit within your lifestyle, and determine what level of flexibility you need. There are many options available that will allow you to earn an advanced degree at the right pace and in the right format for you.

Some degrees can be earned in as little as 12 months, while others can take years. Determine how much time you’re willing to invest, considering your personal values, work and family commitments, and the type of graduate experience you’d like to have.

Full-time graduate studies are not for everyone. If you’re a working professional, you may benefit from the increased flexibility provided by a part-time degree program. You might also consider the benefits of online or hybrid graduate programs that provide access to worldwide institutions that may have otherwise not been an option.

5. Consider your finances.

Decide what you can afford for graduate school, and don’t forget to factor in both the up-front costs, such as tuition and textbooks, and hidden fees, like transportation and student activity costs. While your education is an investment, make sure you can cover the costs associated with earning your graduate degree.

Paying for graduate school can seem intimidating, but there are many different options available to you. While you narrow down your list of schools, be sure to check out the financial aid options at each institution. Along with scholarships, loans, and grants, some schools may offer assistantships or fellowships for graduate students.

For those who may already be working in their industry, your employer may offer tuition reimbursement, which pays for a predetermined amount of continuing education credits or college coursework to be applied toward a degree. Contact your company’s human resources department to determine whether tuition reimbursement is available to you and if your program of interest meets the eligibility requirements.

All of these options will help ease the costs associated with your education and could help you earn valuable experience to enhance your resumé. You may also want to consider your future earning potential and job opportunities when weighing your options—you want your degree to be worth the money, time, and energy you put into earning it.

6. Talk to admissions advisors, students, and alumni.

When determining your graduate school options, it’s important to talk to current students and alumni. Begin by creating a list of questions to ask, such as:

  • Do you have enough academic and career guidance?
  • What do you like and dislike about your program?
  • Are you happy with your professors?
  • Are there co-op and internship opportunities available to you?
  • How do you feel about the student community?
  • What do you wish you knew before enrolling?

What students and alumni tell you might surprise you and could be extremely valuable in determining the right graduate school for you.

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You can also speak with graduate admissions advisors to help you narrow your options. They have experience guiding students to make this type of decision and can provide you with the outcomes of past students whose goals were similar to yours. In speaking with the institution’s alumni and mentor network, you also have the opportunity to assess the type of connections you can make there and how they may help you get ahead after graduation.

7. Network with faculty.

Faculty can make or break your graduate school experience. Take the time to reach out to your potential professors and get to know them. Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions about their background to see if it aligns with what you want to learn.

Apply to universities that have one or more professors who focus on your area of interest and with whom you can imagine collaborating while earning your degree. Determine if they can help facilitate your growth, and go with a program where you’re comfortable with the faculty.

Applying to Graduate School

After narrowing down your options and determining which graduate programs align most closely with your career goals, lifestyle, and personal interests, you’re ready to begin the application process. It might seem intimidating, but applying to graduate school is simple so long as you remain organized and are well-prepared.

While the application requirements may look different depending on the institution and type of degree program you’re applying to, there are certain materials that you’ll likely be asked for as part of your grad school application. These include:

Do your research to determine what the application requirements are for your program of choice, and remain conscious of deadlines. 

Remember that Graduate School Is a Stepping Stone

When deciding which program to pursue, it’s important to remember that graduate school is a stepping stone toward your personal and professional goals—not the final destination. That said, the clearer you are on what you want to do following graduation, the easier it will be to find a program that aligns with your goals.

Start early, keep your search organized, and reach out for support. In the end, only you can decide which program will be best for you. No matter what program you choose to pursue, with commitment, resilience, and hard work, you can find success.