Ask anyone who's done it; selecting a graduate school isn't easy. It involves much more than just picking a school that offers an appealing program. First, understand that there are differences between graduate programs — some graduate degrees are academic and others are professional. Academic degrees focus on original research, whereas professional degrees stress the practical application of knowledge required in a certain profession. The professional master's degrees may take one to three years to earn, while an academic doctorate generally takes four more years to complete. Those who intend to pursue a doctorate's degree may decide to earn a master's degree first, then perhaps move on to a different university, or somewhat different program, to finish their doctoral work.
To meet many career goals, the master's may be the only degree desired — examples include the Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.), the Master of Social Work (M.S.W.), and the Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.). For other careers, a doctorate is necessary — the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.), the Juris Doctor (J.D.), the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) for becoming a college professor. In deciding on a graduate school, spend plenty of time thinking about your own goals.
Researching for schools
To begin researching graduate schools, speak with members of the faculty at your own university. Tell them about your interest in continuing your education and ask their advice on specific programs and institutions. Find out where they studied. Also consider making a trip to the library and seeking out professional journals in your field. See which professors are being published in your area of interest; make note of where they teach, or consider e-mailing them for advice on the programs they would recommend, given your own career goals.
You can use the Internet to research the staffs of colleges and universities and other professionals in your field across the country to see where they studied. Or find other people who are doing what you want to do in your hometown and ask about their graduate school experiences, or what they look for and what schools they believe provide the best experience. In addition to helping you narrow down grad schools, this is also a rich opportunity to network with people that may some day become valuable connections.
Looking at programs
As you evaluate each program you decide to consider, evaluate the quality of the faculty and learn about their personal teaching goals, areas of expertise, and what the department as a whole expects of their graduates. Also research the special concentrations and courses related to your interests, the facilities, placement opportunities, and housing.
Take some time looking over the course offerings at each school to see if any one program has classes that sound particularly interesting to you. Do they have fields of specialization within the department, or is it a general degree? Are most of its graduates placed afterwards? Are there opportunities to teach? Do graduates go into academia or the professional world? Is the school close to major conferences in your field? Does the program emphasize theory or practice? Is there an opportunity for you to be published in your field? Does the general, overarching theme of the department's research appeal to you?
Considering other factors
You'll also want to research the overall prestige of the universities you're considering and each department's reputation. You can probably find copies of university and graduate program ratings at the reserve desk of your college library. But don't get too caught up in school rankings or ratings. The criteria used for rating graduate programs vary, so read the introduction of each rating carefully to see how rankings were ordered.
Carefully consider the size of the department you'll be entering at each school. Some students enjoy a fairly small department where you won't feel lost in the crowd, but other students feel claustrophobic in a small program.
Of course, you'll want to consider the school's tuition costs. And you should think about location, factoring in details like cost of living, weather conditions, recreational activities, and the size of the community or city where the school sits. Even two years can be a long time to spend in a place that just doesn't appeal to you.
Finally, visiting prospective grad schools is money well spent. When you visit, be sure to talk with the faculty and graduate students in the department you'll enter. Feel free to ask specific questions such as which graduate dorm is best, which professors make good advisors, where the best places to study are, and so on.
Sound daunting? It shouldn't be. While this much research can be time intensive and feel overwhelming, putting in the time and effort will pay off handsomely when you find the place you truly want to be.