3 Tips on How to Choose Between Grad School Programs

By Alicia Geigel on April 20, 2018

“What are your plans after college?” “Do you know what you’re doing once you graduate?” If you’re a college student, I bet these questions sound familiar to you and I understand your pain. When in college, students are constantly bombarded with questions like these and many others that concern post-college plans. Depending on who you are, post-college plans can either be exciting and enticing or intimidating and scary. Whether you want to go straight into the workforce or consider going to graduate school after graduation, the urgency to decide what to do is real. For some, the idea of graduate school is daunting due to financial reasons or other conditions. Others, however, delve right back into the world of college and go to grad school.

For the students making the next step and seeking to attend grad school, there are a plethora of choices and stresses that can make the process not only difficult, but also overwhelming in many ways. As a potential grad student, one has to search for programs, evaluate different schools, count costs and financial aid, track deadlines, take tests, send lengthy and time-consuming applications, etc. There is so much to process when you’re a grad-school applicant that when it comes down to the time when you’re accepted into programs, you are burdened with the decision of which program to choose and where to continue your path of higher education. This is tough stuff!

Grad-school struggles are closely similar to the struggles of considering colleges to attend for your undergrad years. Because you have to consider so many different elements and aspects about your potential program/college choices, it’s hard to narrow your focus and determine what is most important to you when deciding on the right program. Once you get accepted to multiple programs, there are three areas to consider in order to help you narrow your choices: finances, academics, and lifestyle. Are you a currently seeking grad-school? Have you been accepted into multiple programs? Overwhelmed with the options and unsure of how to narrow down your choices? If you are considering grad school but are not sure how to pick the perfect program that is right for you, check out my three “tools” to help you choose between programs! Not only will these tips help you organize your thoughts and options, but they will also help make your decision process so much easier in the long run!

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Timing

Before I delve into the tips to help you choose between programs, I want to highlight something that I believe is super important to remember when thinking about higher education: timing. Before you start to pay the application fees and fill out those time-consuming applications, it is important to determine the timing of graduate school for you and whether or not attending right away is a good idea.

Firstly, you want to make sure that regardless of your decision, you are not rushed into going one way or the other. If you feel level-headed and not pressured into making a decision, now its time to consider the timing of jumping into grad school.

If you are interested in pursuing graduate school immediately after obtaining your bachelor’s degree, Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D. of livecareer.com states that reasons to consider so are, “you are accustomed to being a student (and have momentum), your study skills are sharp, you have few obligations, and some occupations require an advanced degree even for “entry-level” positions.”

In contrast, if you want to attend grad school but not right away, Hansen describes the following reasons why you may want to wait, stating, “you can better know your career goals by working in the field for a few years, you have a more mature outlook on school and work, you can gain solid financial footing, and some graduate programs require work experience.”

Tools

Now that you’ve decided that you want to attend grad school, sent in the applications, done the hard work and anxiously waited for acceptance letters, you now have what I call the luxury, not burden, of choosing between programs. Though I know making a large decision like this is nerve-wracking, try to remember just how exciting it is as well! You are taking a fresh, forward step to follow your dreams and achieve your goals in life! Like I stated earlier, the three “tools” to help you choose are finances, academics, and lifestyle — so let’s get right into it!

Finances

As a college student, one of the biggest worries, if not the biggest worry, is funding your education. Figuring out the technicalities of funding your college years is a hassle, to begin with, but after you receive your bachelor’s degree, you may find it challenging and stressful figuring out how to afford graduate school. Fortunately, as a grad student, there are a few more options to provide you with sufficient funds to support furthering your education.

Choices are not nearly as limited when it comes to grad school, which can encourage you to strive further in the world of education! Options include taking out student loans, scholarships, fellowships, or working with your employer to get involved in a tuition reimbursement program!

Federal Aid: Based on financial information from either yourself or your parents/guardians, the FAFSA determines exactly how much financial you are eligible to receive from the federal government through either loans or grants. Loans taken out from the government are either subsidized or unsubsidized and have to be paid back, while grants are financial rewards that do not have to be paid back.

Types of loans that you can be taken out include the Direct PLUS Loan as well as the Perkins Loan. Taking out loans is an efficient way to pay for your grad school education, plus there are numerous options available when it comes time to pay them back, such as deferment of payments and loan forgiveness.

Scholarships, like grants, are financial awards that do not have to be paid back, collegescholarships.com notes. To look for scholarships, check out online databases which can offer a plethora of scholarships based on a variety of conditions, including gender, ethnicity, religion, military status, sexuality, etc.

Fellowships: Depending on your field of study, you may be eligible to participate in a fellowship while obtaining your graduate degree. Fellowships allow potential students to engage in learning and career opportunities while getting money to support their educational advances.

Workplace Reimbursement: Similar to fellowships, workplace reimbursement programs can help fund your grad school education. According to gograd.org, “many companies offer tuition assistance programs to employees who enroll in degree programs that are relevant to their industry.”

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Image via Pexels

Academics

Right behind finances in the top elements to consider for grad school are the academics of not only the institution, but also the specific program you are looking into. When deciding between multiple programs, consider the following:

Curriculum: Though this might seem obvious, the curriculum of grad programs is an important element to consider when you’re trying to decide between programs. You may be thinking, “how exactly do I compare something like curriculum?”

Tara Kuther, Ph.D. of ThoughtCo.com notes that one way to help is to scan the department web pages thoroughly and make note of any differences in curriculum. Additionally, the Princeton Review states that institution resources are also important, stating, “Check to make sure that the institution has adequate facilities and resources for your particular needs. This could include labs, libraries, and grants.”

Requirements: Hand-in-hand with curriculum, requirements are a significant element to the grad-school process. Differences in requirements could be as simple as minimum GPA to theses or fellowships. Be sure to look into this when going back and forth on different programs!

Active Research: Grad school is heavily research-based, so when considering a program, determine if there is current, active research going on within your program of consideration.

Student Reviews/Experiences: Certainly one of the most reliable and honest ways to find out what a program is like is to hear from students themselves.

The Princeton Review states, “You should also contact grad students currently studying in that department. Do they enjoy working with their professors? Do they feel they have been given enough guidance and opportunity to develop their own research? Are they pressured to follow a certain methodology? What are the positives and negatives of the department and the school at large?” If you are curious about the institution, academics and your program of interest, approach current students and ask about their experiences!

Graduate Employment: One anxiety of college students, whether undergrad or grad, is finding employment post-graduation. When looking at the programs, research where graduates of the program are employed to help you decide.

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Lifestyle

Even though grad-school is considered to be super serious and academically challenging (which it is), it is still important to have a life outside of the classroom and textbooks. Letting loose every once in a while is necessary to be balanced and maintain some semblance of sanity after all! There is more to lifestyle than the latest club or bar to hit, however. When thinking about which program to enroll in, evaluate your lifestyle needs like:

Location: Are you planning on staying in-state or going out-of state? Will you be close to family and friends or will you be moving away? Location and distance is a huge part of the decision process for both undergrads and grads, so evaluating if you would rather study in an urban or rural area or live close to home or far away can be something that makes the choices a lot simpler!

Housing: Having a place to live is not a luxury, it’s a necessity! Though it may be stressful to figure out, housing options can and will influence which program you choose. Are you planning on living in an apartment, home, or on-campus housing? Are you considering having roommates or will be living alone? According to Peter Mazareas in an article by Reyna Gobel of U.S. News, “Students should find out information on the amenities and price of nearby options before considering going off campus. University housing offices, especially those in cities a student is unfamiliar with, can be very helpful in providing neighborhood and pricing information for nearby apartment rentals.”

Cost of Living: Evaluating a location’s cost of living is important since you’ll be balancing tuition costs, housing costs, and other expenses as a grad student. Consider how much groceries, gas, clothes, and other necessities will cost in the location you are considering to attend grad school, and realistically evaluate if this is manageable for you!

Now that you’ve gathered some tips on deciding which grad school program to choose, keep in mind that regardless of where you go or where you end up, you’re making a conscious choice to better yourself and make a great life for yourself. As students, we are constantly critical of ourselves, comparing ourselves to our peers, over-analyzing our abilities, and stressing about the future due to the hectic environment of college.  The best possible advice that I can offer is to trust the process.

Though it may seem cliché, it is one of the ways I have gotten through my college years. Embrace the present, own your struggles and failures, focus on building and bettering yourself now and try not to focus so much on what the future holds, because let’s be honest, I’m no fortune-teller and neither are you, so trying to predict the future is just a silly waste of time. Do not be discouraged if this process takes you longer than you would like or you have trouble along the way, surround yourself with positive people to encourage you along the way and to keep you motivated.

If all else fails, remember this: you have made it this far, you have proven yourself to be a person of value and worth, you are moving forward in the direction of progress and personal growth, and regardless of how you got here, you are here. As always, good luck and congratulations on this new chapter!

By Alicia Geigel

Uloop Writer
Temple alum | columnist at Uloop News | writer at Top5Must & KnowPhilly | photographer | food blogger

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