How To Choose A Graduate Program

It comes as no surprise to most students that one needs more than just good grades and a lot of ambition to gain acceptance into a good graduate program. Effective letters of recommendation, good scores on standardized entrance exams, and a strong personal statement -- all of these things play important roles.

Just as important, however, are the choices one makes about where to apply. In some disciplines there are hundreds of schools offering programs that lead to a Master’s or Ph.D. The particular choices about where to apply may have major implications and significant consequences for the remainder of a person’s career and life. So, what are the important factors to consider when making these choices? Some are more obvious than others, and students who look beyond the obvious factors are at a great advantage.


What Are Your Particular Career Goals?

The purpose behind graduate school is to help promising students become experts in some domain. The particular degree that one obtains often fails to reflect the specialized nature of the education or training behind it. Different individuals who hold the same advanced degree in the same field will differ in terms of the nature of their acquired expertise. Having earned a Ph.D. degree will not be what determines the jobs or careers for which you are qualified. Instead, your qualifications will be determined by the particular areas in which you have gained special expertise.

Different programs offering the same degree can be very different in terms of the types of training they offer, and the types of specialists they can help create. You want a Ph.D. in Psychology? In order to decide what schools you should apply to, you need to first decide what area of psychology you want to specialize in. There is no Ph.D. in general Psychology. Just as there is no Ph.D. in general Geology, or general Economics, or any other discipline.

The first important thing to understand when choosing where to apply to graduate school, therefore, is that you cannot achieve the same types of expertise in all programs. For example, one graduate program in Economics might offer expertise in econometrics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, economic development and planning, and financial and monetary economics, whereas another program might have its strengths in areas of labor economics, environmental and natural resources economics, public economics, and industrial organization. A doctoral student will specialize in just one of these areas.

Your success in actually getting into graduate school will depend to a large extent on whether you pick the right programs, based on your particular career objectives. Do not underestimate the importance of this match. It is one of the main things that admissions committees are looking for when they evaluate applicants to their programs. Those who fail to convince that the match is right are sure to be rejected, no matter how strong their academic credentials, test scores, and letters of recommendation.

The importance of choosing a program that matches your objectives means that before you can choose an appropriate graduate program you need to decide what kind of career you want to eventually have. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer detailed advice on how to go about making those decisions. Apart from getting on the Web and doing some research on the kinds of careers available to someone with an advanced degree in your field, the best way to learn about career options is from faculty members or career counselors at your school. Make an appointment to visit with one or more of your professors to find out what graduate school in your field involves, and what kinds of career options are available.

Do Not Be Influenced By Factors That Are Not Really Relevant

Despite the importance of choosing graduate programs based on the types of specialized training available, most students will base their decisions about where to apply on less-relevant factors, such as geographical location, or the general reputation of the university. If you simply must live in a particular city for strong personal reasons, then you may have only one, or a few, universities to choose from. Even if there are programs offering the degree you want, there might not be any that provide the particular specialization you want. If you cannot go elsewhere for graduate school, at least understand that you may not find exactly what you are looking for at any particular university.

Many students apply to what they believe are the best programs or schools, without realizing that in most disciplines, there is no “best” program or school. What is best for particular students depends entirely on their specific goals. The particular strengths of any program will depend on the areas of expertise represented by its faculty members. In short, if no one in the department is an expert in the particular subfield in which you want to specialize, then this program probably will not help you reach your goals.

It is a common misconception that a Ph.D. from a high-profile university will give someone a significant career advantage. In reality, however, it does not actually work that way in very many cases. Having a Ph.D. from a high-profile school might sound impressive to some people you meet, but that will not include people in your field who may be potential employers. They are not going to be convinced to hire you just because you have a Ph.D. from a distinguished university. They will care only about what you know and what you can do, not where you got your degree.

Although it is true that some programs are much more competitive than others, it is a mistake to assume that training and education in a lower-profile, less-competitive graduate program is going to be inferior. The prestige associated with a distinguished university stems from many factors which have nothing to do with the quality of opportunities available there for your graduate studies. When considering the appropriateness of any particular program for your specific education and career goals, you should ignore superficial things like the general profile of the institution.

In many fields, the importance of making choices based on one’s specific interests and objectives goes beyond the selection of the right graduate program. Many graduate programs within the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, require students to do a great deal of research, culminating with a written thesis, or dissertation. In most such programs, each student’s work is guided and supervised by an individual faculty member (the term graduate advisor is used). Graduate programs in those fields are very concerned with matching students with faculty. This matching is done of the basis of common research interests, and no matter how impressive their qualifications are, applicants are sure to be rejected if they cannot be properly matched with a faculty member in that program.

To determine whether a graduate program of this type is appropriate for you, begin by looking at the specific research activities and interests of its faculty members. The current interests of your graduate advisor will play the most significant role in determining what you end up studying in graduate school -- maybe not the courses you take, but definitely the nature of your thesis and other research. Typically, a student must indicate at the time of application who he or she wants for a graduate advisor. The importance of choosing the right program, and when applicable, the right graduate advisor, means that you must first establish your career objectives or research interests. Once you have done that, you will need to research the programs that are available, and the faculty members in those programs, so you can make the right choices.

Most students begin the search for a graduate advisor by visiting the departmental websites at a number of candidate universities, and scanning the list of faculty members and research areas, until they come up with a reasonable match with their own interests. This method can work sometimes, but it tends to be rather capricious, and most students end up “settling” on a prospective graduate advisor, when there may be even better matches out there.

My suggestion is to reverse the process. Rather than beginning with a university and finding out what people there are doing, instead start by finding out who is doing what it is that interests you the most, and then find out where those people are situated. In other words, don’t try to find an adequate advisor at a particular university -- find the most suitable advisors (based on area of expertise), and apply to the universities where they are located. This approach will turn up the best opportunities, and the closest matches between your interests and those of your potential graduate advisors. To get this process started, look through recent publications (books, journal articles, etc.) in your field of interest. Take note of the authors with university affiliations. Chances are, many of them are professors, and in some cases, their graduate students. Go to the relevant university websites and you will probably be able to find out a great deal more about the research interests of these people, and how to contact them. You can also find out about available graduate programs, at the same time.


Look Beyond The Labels

A growing trend in U.S. and Canadian universities in recent years has been the creation of new graduate programs that are geared toward training in specific areas of specialization, including some that are growing in popularity as career destinations within our society. Such specialized programs are possible when there is a critical mass of faculty members at the university who have some expertise within the area. For the most part, these new programs serve society well by providing excellent training in areas of high, or at least growing, demand. They tend to serve the host institutions well, too. Universities are operated like any business, and in that context, a new graduate program with an attractive label can go a long way toward promoting the institution, and attracting strong candidates who are interested in pursuing an advanced degree.

The advent of all these new specialized programs has been a good thing, overall. At the same time, however, it has made it harder for many students to appreciate the full range of good places where they might find good opportunities in their field of interest. That is, many students have come to believe that the only place to get quality training in a particular field is through a program that includes that field in its label.

I frequently encounter students who want to pursue a Ph.D. and become a forensic psychologist. (Television programs like The X-Files, and CSI, are probably behind the dramatic increase of interest in this field, in recent years. Whether or not there will ever be enough demand within society for such specialists to justify the high demand shown by students... well, that is another issue, altogether). Many hopeful students bemoan the fact that there are only two doctorate programs in forensic psychology within Canada (one at Dalhousie University, and the other at the University of British Columbia), and a little more than a half-dozen in the U.S.A. (where there are several more that offer a Master’s degree). Many students mistakenly believe that these are the only places where they can earn a Ph.D. and acquire the knowledge and skills that will lead to a career in forensic psychology. But, the reality is that there are dozens of other places where they could get the necessary training and qualifications, scattered throughout the various clinical psychology doctorate programs at universities across the country. These other suitable locations simply lack a special program with the word “forensic” in its label.

The message here is not to ignore is not to ignore the programs with labels that make them out to be highly-specialized. Most will provide excellent learning and training opportunities and deliver on the promise of helping you acheive your career objectives. You should certainly check out any specialized program that seems to match your interests. But if you do not look any further, you may seriously underestimate the number of different places where similar opportunities are available. Following the advice given earlier about tracking down potential graduate advisors will lead you to many of these less-obvious opportunities.

One more word of caution: One must keep in mind that graduate schools design their websites in order to convince people to apply. Post-graduate education is big business, and all programs want to attract applicants with good credentials in order to improve their national rankings and other “numbers”, all to raise public perception of the quality of education available, and to attract more money. Do not be influenced by the promotional appeal of a website. Focus on the relevant information it provides about the program that interests you.



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Article contributed by graduate-school expert Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.    

image courtesy of Stuart Miles /




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