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Deciding whether to go to graduate or professional school is an important and often difficult decision to make. Pursuing graduate study affords you the opportunity to delve more deeply into a subject area than you were able to in your undergraduate education. In most cases, you will also be able to work closely with professors and conduct research of your own. In addition, a demanding schedule with work, teaching, research and classes will require you to develop personal motivation as much of your work will be independent (particularly true for Ph.D. programs). Because of the demands, as well as the rewards, not to mention the costs, it is important that you give this decision much thought.
We have all heard stories of the student who went directly from undergraduate to graduate study, partly out of indecision, only to be miserable in graduate school and still without a career direction. We would like to assist you in making the best decision.
Some Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What would I like to be doing five to ten years from now?
- Will graduate study assist me in getting there?
- What do I want to learn and accomplish from graduate study?
- Are there other ways to reach my goals?
- Do I know what to expect from graduate/professional school?
- What are the advantages of going to graduate school immediately after obtaining my B.A./B.S.?
- What are the advantages of waiting two to five years before beginning additional schooling?
Strategies for Making the Decision:
- Talk with faculty members about your decision, and about career fields and universities or colleges that would match your interests.
- Read graduate school catalogs and general directories on areas of study, such as Graduate Study in Psychology and Guide to Graduate Management Education. Use online tools like My Next Move and WISCareers or visit the Career Center or Academic and Career Exploration Services(ACES).
The Decision is YES...Now Where?
If after much consideration and soul-searching, you decide that graduate school is for you, the next step is to decide what kind of program and where. Many of the same resources will be helpful to you:
- Alumni who have volunteered to talk with you about their employment experiences
- Career Center staff and resources in the Career Center
Write to the Graduate Division of the potential institutions or contact them via the Internet for application materials, information on financial aid, a catalog, and information on a particular program or department. (This later information you may have to obtain from the department itself.)
Establish which criteria are important to you in the selection of a university or college. Factors you might wish to consider:
What will I be doing in three to five years after Completing my graduate program?
Inquire about the kinds of employment are most frequently accepted by graduates of the program you are considering. Visit the institutions and ask near-graduates what they expect to be doing after they graduate.
Do students of this graduate department frequently fail to complete their degree programs? Once again, this is not something you will learn from the catalog or the department brochure. Visit the campus and ask both faculty and students.
Depth in the faculty
How many faculty members are in the department? Does the department's reputation rest heavily upon the shoulders of just one or two professors? What if they should go elsewhere?
Diversity in the faculty
Is there a variety of points of view in the department, or are most of the faculty members' approach to the discipline rather single-minded? Would you rather be a disciple or develop your own approach to the field?
What have the faculty members published recently? This will give you an idea of whether the faculty's interests are similar to your own. In many cases, what the professor publishes is what he or she spends the most time talking about, both in and out of the classroom.
Availability of faculty
Are there several notable professors on the faculty? If so, ask the students how often they actually see or talk with these faculty. Would you be likely to work with the notable professor on a research project, see him/her only in class, or just hear about him/her occasionally?
Internships and assistantships
Does the program have any planned practical experiences? If so, where would you be likely to work and what would you do?
Fellowships and funds
How much fellowship money is available? How many students receive fellowships? Are you likely to be among the lucky few?
How many Ph.D.'s has this department produced yearly? What is the average length of time it takes to complete the degree? Is the master's a terminal degree in the program? If not, as a master's student, how much attention will you get by professors or do they devote their time to working with Ph.D. candidates?
Assistance in finding a job
What percentage of graduates and degree candidates in this department succeeds in finding employment? To what extent, is the department helpful in enabling the graduate to find suitable work?
Does the department prefer to have a recent graduate of an undergraduate institution apply? Or, do they prefer applicants having work experience relevant to their field?
To what extent can you use the degree from the department to pursue other kinds of work? Is there much latitude for transferring this degree to other fields?
In addition, look at the size of the school/department, the city itself, transportation, geographical location, employment opportunities in your field, cost of living, and opportunities to pursue co-curricular interests.
Choosing a graduate school involves finding a program that matches your academic interests as well as your personal preferences and needs. After all, you will be there for at least two years, and probably longer if you are pursuing a Ph.D.
Most Applications Consist of Six Sections:
- Application form
- Personal statement/autobiography/essays/portfolio
- Transcripts of past academic work
- Letters of recommendation
- Test scores (GRE, LSAT, MCAT, GMAT)
- Financial aid forms
Many schools have application deadlines well in advance of the entrance date. Be sure to check the particular department in which you are applying for the application deadline dates. You also need to be aware that financial aid deadlines are often different (and sometimes earlier) than the regular application dates. Be sure to register for the appropriate test well in advance of when the institutions need your scores. Begin the application process early. It often takes more time than you realize to complete the forms and to send the letters of recommendation and transcripts.
Filling Out Your Application Form
In completing the application form and personal statement, make sure you follow directions on formatting and length. It should state who you are, your goals, and why you want to attend that particular institution in clear and concise language. For many schools, the written essay plays an extremely important role in the selection process. Have someone review your personal statement or essay and check for clarity and proper grammar. The tutors and staff in the Writing Center are happy to review personal statements.
Letters of Reference
Most graduate schools require two or three letters of reference. Some schools may simply ask that you supply names and addresses, others will provide you with forms that you must give to the letter writers, and still others will request letters but have no specified form. Remember that for very competitive program, a letter on departmental stationary directed to that particular program may give a better impression of you. Contact your references to see if they are willing to compose individual letters. References may use the same letter for all institutions, but individualize it with a schools address.
To assist in facilitating your reference requests:
- Provide each reference with information about your interests, classes you have taken, activities you have been involved in and why you want to attend graduate school.
- Include information about the particular graduate school(s) that you are considering.
- Indicate the deadline that you need the letters sent by. Make sure to give them at least a month before the deadline date. Conduct a follow-up contact with faculty to ensure the letters have been sent.
- Give the writers pre-addressed, stamped envelopes, if applicable.
- Send a thank you note to those who have recommended you.
If you are applying to more than one institution, it is important to record all activity related to the application process.
Ensure Your Materials Are Complete
Make sure that you have completed all of the necessary forms and that the appropriate office has received them. You should conduct follow-up telephone calls to confirm that the graduate school has received your materials. Never assume that because you have not heard from an office, your application is complete.
In graduate school, you will be working closely with your advisor, so you should conduct research on the individuals who most closely match your interests. The graduate catalog often lists the research interests of the faculty. Check in the college for publications written by these faculties. Are they conducting research/writing in areas of interest to you?
Write or call the faculty that interests you. Inform them you have applied to the program, what your interests are, and how your interests relate to their research. If possible, schedule a time to meet, or at least talk on the phone. This way, when your application comes across their desks, it will mean more to them. By talking with the faculty, you will also find out if you are compatible in other ways beyond just research interests.
Visit the School You Are Interested In
A visit to the school can be particularly enlightening. Does it match the description in the catalog? Sit in on the classes, talk with students currently in the program, talk with faculty, check out the physical and social environment of the campus and community. Ask the questions of yourself and others listed on the previous page. Is this a place you will feel comfortable living/working/studying in for the next few years?
If you cannot visit the school, ask for names of alumni in your area with whom you can discuss the program in greater detail.
Once your application is completed and you have talked with people at the universities/colleges, sit back, relax and enjoy your free time. Form a group of friends who can provide you with support once you start receiving responses from the institutions.
Feel free to contact the Career Center at any time during your graduate/professional school decision-making and application process for assistance or information.
Sources for Aid
- Graduate schools
- Federal government
- State government
- Private foundations
- Commercial institutions
Things to consider
- Apply for aid even if you think you are not eligible. Some grants are not based on need.
- Contact the financial aid office of the graduate schools for which you will be applying and request information on every possible kind of aid (request early, as there are often deadlines).
- If you are currently a high need student, you may be eligible for a fee waiver for graduate school applications and the GRE.
- Consider your long-range goals. If you think you might want to teach or conduct research in your field, experience as a Teaching Assistant or Research Assistant can be invaluable.
Helpful Web sites
- Peterson's Guides
- College Source
- Law School Admission Council Online
- Kaplan Online
- The Princeton Review
- Association of American Medical Colleges
- Law School Directory
- America's Best Colleges
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