How to Select a Graduate Program
It is very important to visit the university and the department to make sure that the environment fits you – your lifestyle and personality. If you are admitted, many departments will invite you for an expenses-paid visit so that you can determine firsthand if there is a good fit between your interests, etc. and their program. Important considerations in selecting a graduate school include:
- The quality of the university and the graduate program;
- The atmosphere in the department and at the university;
- Housing – availability and cost; and
- The local area – does it fit you and your lifestyle?
At the graduate level, the quality of the graduate program and your faculty advisor are more important than the reputation of the university as a whole. Consequently, in researching academic programs, key considerations in your decision should be the quality of the graduate program, its faculty and students, i.e., of the people with whom you will work and study in the immediate future. Several organizations rank graduate research programs. Two of the most useful include the National Research Council and the US News & World Report.
Good questions to ask that will help you assess the overall quality of the graduate program to which you are seeking admission include:
- Where did the faculty receive their advanced degrees? Have they won any national awards or received other forms of recognition for their scholarship and/or research?
- How productive are the faculty? Check the primary literature for references by those faculty with whom you might like to study. In the field of chemistry, the American Chemical Society’s Directory of Graduate Research is a useful resource. How many papers have they written in the last year? Two years? In what journals do they publish their research – what is the quality of those journals?
- What are the requirements for the Ph.D.?
- What is the size of the program? How many research active (and research inactive) faculty are there? How many full-time Ph.D. students?
- What is the range of research activities represented? Very specialized? Broad coverage of your field?
- Where do the graduate students in the program come from? What were their past undergraduate academic records and exam scores? i.e., what is the overall quality of your peers in the program?
- How many graduate students receive financial support? In what form (RA, TA, fellowship)?
- What is the average time-to-degree (You should anticipate 2 years for the M.S. degree and about 5 years for the Ph.D. degree – this varies though from discipline to discipline)? How many graduate students complete the graduate program? How many leave? Why do they leave?
- Where do the graduate students go after graduation? If you are interested in an academic career: how many students ultimately obtain an academic post? At what types of colleges and/or universities?
Some important considerations in this regard include:
- Is the department intensely competitive? Laid back?
- Is there a graduate student professional organization?
- Do the graduate students seem generally happy? Serious about their studies? Do they seem like they enjoy working with their advisors? Would you like to work with these people? Does it seem like a friendly, social environment conducive to student learning?
- How many faculty are there in the department with whom you might like to study – never know when a potential mentor might choose to move to another academic institution, not be able to take new students (change in funding situation, impending retirement, etc.), etc.
Good questions to ask include:
- Does the university offer any on campus housing? If not, is there any low cost housing available close to the university or within a reasonable distance (commuting)?
- What is the cost of housing? Will you be able to afford it on a graduate student stipend? If you must commute, is transportation available to/from the university?
- What forms of transportation are there available – train, subway, bus? What are the normal hours of operation for these forms of transportation?
- If you must commute by car, is parking available on or near campus? What is the cost of parking? Will you be able to afford it on a graduate student stipend?
The Local Area
Is this a region of the country in which you can see yourself living for the next six years? Important consideration might include:
- Weather (temperature, humidity, etc.),
- Economic considerations (cost of living for the area, employment opportunities for partner or spouse, etc.),
- Recreational activities (shopping, restaurants, night life, sports, theater, music, etc.)
- safety (crime rate for city and campus), and
- Family obligations.