Posted August 28, 2013 by

Pursuing a Graduate Degree in the US: Important Factors to Consider

Young woman in thought with a question mark over her

Young woman in thought with a question mark over her. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

If you’re planning to pursue your master’s or doctorate degree in the United States, choosing the right school can be an overwhelming task. You may be looking at school rankings, tuition and location as you narrow down your list, and although those factors are important, you may need to dig a little deeper to find your ideal school.

Following are some tips that may help you find the right graduate program.

Don’t rely solely on rankings and prestige

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is regularly ranked as one of the best colleges in the United States, if not the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right school for you. While one student may flourish in MIT’s electrical engineering program and enjoy living in Cambridge, Mass., another might prefer to attend Purdue University in rural Lafayette, Ind., where the cost of living is considerably lower.

Find the profiles of some respected professionals in your chosen field and look at their credentials. Did many of them attend the same graduate program? If so, that school should be among your top prospects.

Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll need to find scholarships or grants in order to attend grad school. But according to “Passport to Education,” a free, downloadable ebook, choosing a public college over a private college can save you a significant amount of money. Keep that in mind as you search for graduate programs.

Research the faculty

If being able to interact with professors is important to you, then you should find out what the faculty-to-student ratio is before you pick a specific program. You may find that programs at smaller colleges offer the kind of individualized attention that you can’t find at large schools.

Once you’ve found a handful of schools that appeal to you, check each school’s website for information about faculty. Don’t be afraid to call a faculty member to ask questions. Ask about the curriculum, typical class size or anything else you want to know. Ask if you can speak to a few students, and leave your contact information so students can reach you.

The problem with data

Job placement data can be misleading. For example, Ph.D. programs may track job placement for graduates who remain in traditional academic roles but not track what becomes of graduates who pursue careers outside of university settings.

What may be more helpful in choosing a doctorate program is to ask schools for information about attrition rates. Because doctorate programs are lengthier than master’s programs, it’s not uncommon for schools to see PhD attrition rates around 50 percent. A school with a higher attrition rate is probably not doing enough to retain students.

Choosing a graduate program is a long process — and it should be. You need time to carefully weigh the pros and cons of each program you’re considering. Don’t make your decision based on what a magazine says about a school’s importance or what your parents or friends want you to do. Make a list of what matters most to you, and evaluate each program based on those qualities.

Lindsey is a professional writer living in the Indianapolis area and she writes on education and social media. Currently, Lindsey is completing work on her master’s degree.

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