Have you heard The Undergraduate Myth: Grad school is like undergrad, but harder?
Well, everybody thinks this until they start grad school. Most new grad students wander
around in a daze the first few weeks, thinking they have been picked up and transported
to another world. Guess what? It is and there isn't a yellow-brick road to follow.
Most undergraduates are unsure about the difference between a research university and a teaching university. In terms of funding, research universities get the big money, from government grants to private endowments to corporate support. If you're pursuing a degree with the goal of teaching undergraduates at a college or university, a research school may not be the best choice for your career. Most schools combine the research and teaching components of graduate education, but many of the top universities will orient their students' education toward research-related academic pursuits.
Beware: Taken by itself, ranking is the least reliable way to pick a school. The rank of a department will vary depending on who's conducting the survey and what criteria are being measured. Ranking sources of universities and departments give you no idea of student satisfaction, the department's emphasis on grad student concerns, or the quality of graduate-level teaching.
Although graduate locator guides may list program offerings of M.S. and Ph.D. degrees, some schools will not allow you to apply for only a master's degree. You are required to apply to a Ph.D. program and get your master's along the way. In addition, if you complete the M.S. degree and decide to go on for a Ph.D. at another institution, the doctoral program may take only a few transfer credits and require you to repeat the master's program. Students who pursue graduate education specifically to advance their careers may only need the two-year investment in a master's.
Some faculty members will tend to frown on students who attend school part-time, assuming that these students are not as committed to the program as full-timers. Regardless, the increased number of older students with families and the necessity of employment to meet costs make part-time attendance the only choice for some students.
Many universities are expanding their traditional programs to include degrees tailored to the specific research interests of the students. While the opportunities for research within interdisciplinary study are undeniable, funding for these programs often lags behind the enthusiasm for diversification.
A few sought-after graduate programs provide total financial aid to students upon acceptance. If you don't think your credentials will get you into these competitive programs, you should find out what kind of support is offered at other universities. Combined with other information on financial aid, such information will give you a good idea of the financial support you can expect to receive. Financial support is usually not based on need.
Some departments are attempting to accelerate their students' time to degree, either by cutting off financial support after a designated number of years or by specifying in the course catalog that a degree must be completed within a certain time frame. If you plan on attending school part-time, you will need to know if the university will allow you to enroll for an unlimited period of time.
A prestigious program that has a very low placement rate indicates a lack of emphasis on its graduate students. A solid placement record, on the other hand, means that a student's potential is not only valued in the department, but also within the profession as a whole.
In conducting a student survey, I was surprised to find so many students who had selected schools on the basis of location. I would recommend weighing location with other criteria. You could find yourself miserable at a school that's five minutes from home or five minutes from the beach, when instead you could have received better financial opportunities, emotional and intellectual support, and the growth experience of a new environment in another state (or even another country).
Another important consideration is the faculty and departmental research focus. Some of the students now enrolled in excellent programs targeted their applications at particular faculty members. Not enough prospective students take the time to evaluate faculty interests and mold their applications to potential thesis or dissertation advisers. Keep in mind that the department as a whole may emphasize certain areas of specialization, and it's important to know if your research interest is sufficiently represented in the department.
This information can only be provided by current students and faculty within the department.
You need up-to-date, qualitative information on the departmental culture. Fortunately,
grad students are usually candid about the departmental climate and understand how
important this question is to prospective students. Are the faculty and students collegial
or competitive? Do faculty members take advantage of graduate students to further
their own political agendas? Is the departmental climate a chilly one for women and
Some schools receive grants to construct and maintain special facilities, such as
state-of-the-art electronic or computer labs, or high-tech facilities for advanced
biomedical or engineering research. These facilities are listed in most graduate school
directories but you will have to look elsewhere to get information on funding. In
addition, a faculty member or department may be involved in a special project funded
by government, corporate, or other outside sources. Targeting your application at
this research may result not only in your acceptance into the program but also in
getting financial aid as a research assistant to the project.