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So You Want to Go to Grad School? - What to Consider Before You Apply

Craig Zelizer

September 5, 2017

This blog is part of PCDNetwork’s career in change 2017 series. Click here for information on all the activities, webinars, blogs and ways to participate.

By Bri Riggio, International and Experiential Education Advisor / Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF). Member of PCDN Career Advisory Board

This month's career series is sponsored by Rotary’s Peace Fellowship program. The fully funded Rotary Peace Fellowship increases the capacity of current and emerging peace leaders through academic training, field experience, and professional networking. Up to 100 leaders are selected globally every year to earn either a master’s degree or a professional development certificate in peace and conflict studies at one of six Rotary Peace Centers at leading universities around the world. Applications go live in early February and the application deadline is 31 May. Learn more today by visiting www.rotary.org/peace-fellowships


For many, going to graduate school seems like the next logical step after getting a Bachelor's. However, not all career paths require an advanced degree, or if they do, the degree may not be needed until much later in life. Given this, you want to make sure that you are pursuing graduate school for the right reasons and that you are picking the right program for you needs. While some applicants are only interested in the best-ranked or most well-known schools and programs, there are a lot of other (and arguably better!) ways to assess whether a grad program will suit your personal and professional needs.


Mission Statement and Learning Outcomes

What do those running the program purport to do for their students, alumni, and/or the surrounding community? What learning goals or outcomes are students expected to have upon graduation? Then, ask yourself: does this program’s mission and goals fit with my own values and goals? If a program does not have these listed online, it is worth asking an admissions officer for this information. If those working for the program can’t articulate the program objectives to you, it might be a sign that the program is not very well-structured, designed, or thought out in terms of enabling student success.


Class Offerings (subject matter, means of assessment, timing, modality, etc.)

Are the classes and concentrations offered interesting to you and do they align with your academic and professional goals?  Will your professors assess your knowledge through sit-down tests, or are you going to be producing research papers? Papers and projects might be time-consuming, but they can give you something tangible to put on your resume and to show to employers. When are the courses offered, and how are they delivered? If classes are mostly held in the evening, that could mean that you could take on a full-time job or internship in addition to your classes. Additionally, courses that are offered online may afford you more flexibility with your time, but they may also leave something to be desired when it comes to making connections with classmates and professors.


Experiential Learning Opportunities (internships, merit awards, field work opportunities, etc.)

 What opportunities are available to graduate students beyond the classroom? Some programs may require students to complete an internship while they are in the program, or there may be opportunities to take experiential-oriented coursework, such as a practicum or skills institute. These types of opportunities complement the formal education that you will receive in your courses and offer you the chance to get some hands-on experience in your field before you start the full-on job search. Does the program offer financial support to help you pursue unpaid internships or other field work research projects? If you are interested in pursuing a prestigious merit award (such as Fulbright, Boren, etc.), does the program and/or school offer application support to its students? And does the program have the flexibility to accommodate you accepting one of these awards if you receive one?


Career Services and Employment Statistics

Does your program offer one-on-one career advising? Group advising? What kind of career development workshops or career panels does the program organize for students? Does employer recruitment happen on-campus, offsite (or at all)? Does the program have its own dedicated career services team, or will you be relying on a career services office that is housed centrally with the program’s school or university? How many students graduate from the program with an offer of employment, and are those students using their degree in their work?



Faculty members are the ones teaching your classes, grading your papers, serving as mentors, and even connecting you to employment opportunities, so you want to make sure that your program has faculty who are studying topics of interest to you. While the status of a faculty member does not necessarily correlate with his or her ability to teach well, a program taught mostly by career-track academics will have a very different feel than one that is primarily taught by scholar-practitioner adjuncts. Adjuncts who have years of experience in the field may be better resources for connecting you with employers and other professionals, but they may be less accessible, since teaching is not their full-time job. Alternatively, full-time professors tend to be around campus a lot more often and thus are often able to serve as better ongoing mentors for students.


 Student Community and Alumni Network

While it would be a mistake to choose a program solely because you want the school’s name recognition or access to a few individuals, consider what type of community you are essentially paying to join. Do other students have the same academic and career aspirations that you do? Are they full-time students looking to develop deep friendships, or are they working professionals juggling part-time classes with the other demands? How engaged are the program’s alumni? Are they interested in mentoring students or hiring recent program graduates? Alumni who are able and willing to donate their time or money to their former programs often indicates satisfaction with the program experience.


 Cost of Program and Availability of Funding

Examine the per-credit price for each of your programs and make a cost-of-living budget for each. Public universities will have lower costs for in-state residents than private universities, but private institutions often have more resources to spend on students and programming. Be honest with yourself about what you can afford and consider all of your costs (tuition, additional student fees, books and learning materials, rent, transportation, food, etc.) when making your budgets. Which programs are offering you grants or scholarships? Are there opportunities to obtain funding after a semester or two in the program? Are there opportunities for teaching or researching fellowships? Understand the true financial commitment and burden of a program before you drop your deposit.

A version of this article was originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on May 10, 2017: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/so-you-want-go-grad-school-what-consider-before-apply-bri-riggio



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