In my three decades as a graduate admissions dean and counselor, I found many students struggling to succeed and often distraught over their graduate school choices. In almost every case, the cause of their dissatisfaction began before they even applied. Based on interactions with those students, I realized that if they had only asked themselves a few simple questions before applying, they would have never lamented their decision.
To help make a decision, ask yourself these questions, write down your answers, and be as honest as possible:
1. Why do I want to go to grad school? The reason you want to earn a graduate or professional degree is as important as the school and program you choose. Consider these factors and put them in order of importance.
• To learn more
• To add a credential to my résumé
• To have a better chance of being promoted
• To have more credibility in my chosen field
• To change careers
• To increase my earning potential
• Because of pressure from my family
• Because I need to feel better about myself
• Because I don't know what else to do
• Something else
2. Why do I want to do this now? Like your reasons to go to grad school, timing is very important. Before you invest in your time—and the application fees—be sure you are ready to go. Consider these statements and, again, put them in order of relevance.
• Because I am mentally and emotionally ready for a new challenge
• Because my employer is encouraging me to do so, and might assist with the cost
• Because I have reached a plateau in my career
• Because I am not getting any younger
• Because it is a logical next step for me professionally
• Because I am ready financially
• Because I have the time now to commit and it may be a limited window
• Something else
3. What type of academic or professional degree am I seeking? You need to weigh and consider a variety of motivations, including those that are based solely on current personal and professional realities, to determine what program you should pursue. But please don't choose your degree path on what you "think" you need.
Instead, start with knowing your passion—what excites you and makes you want to get up every morning. Turning what really motivates and enthralls you into a career path, due in part to your graduate and professional school study and degree, will give you a broader and more fulfilling career and life experience.
4. In what geographic region do I want to study? Perhaps you have always wanted to live in another part of the country or go abroad for graduate study. Knowing where you'd like to be will help guide your search, but be careful not to rule out certain locations completely in the early stages. During the search process, you may find an option emerge that is worth examining further.
And if you are able to move to a distant location from where you currently reside, don't rule out programs outside the United States. Most graduate programs throughout the world instruct in English, so language should not be a barrier in exploring international options.
[Read about how grad school abroad can be a cost-saving alternative.]
5. What type of learning and student experience am I seeking? Do you want an environment where faculty and students have an interactive learning approach? Are you more interested in a lecture style? Do you want to have a lot of social interaction with fellow students outside the classroom? Are you going to focus primarily on your coursework?
Do you have a preference of studying at a more research-oriented institution? Do you prefer a public or private university? Remember, you're going to spend a lot of time at the school you choose, so take the time to consider the campus environment and culture to make sure it's the right fit.
6. Will significant others, a spouse, or children impact my plans? Your partner and/or children add a significant, and often complicated, dimension to your graduate study decisions. All are impacted by the experience. Adjustments will need to be discussed, anticipated, and managed. By including those closest to you, you will reap huge dividends when the inevitable rough spots emerge along the journey.