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Grad School 101: How you can find the graduate program of your dreams

Picking the right grad program can be intimidating. Learn more about how to find your fit with graduate schools and how to research grad programs in the first of our Grad School 101 series.
BY Mallika Khanna |   03-06-2019

Grad School 101
Photo Credit: Pixabay

For many grad school aspirants, the mere mention of applications can reduce you to a puddle of anxieties. Right from picking the best program to taking the GRE to writing the statement of purpose, every step along the way seems to be a challenge that stands in the way of you getting to where you need to be.

Before even beginning the search, there’s a question you should be asking yourself: is grad school really worth it for me? Data doesn’t lie. Across the board, master’s graduates make more money than graduates who only hold bachelor’s degrees. Employers are also raising expectations of educational qualifications, so whether you like it or not, a grad program is probably what you need to move up the career and income ladders. At the same time, it’s important to consider the relative pros and cons. If you have to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to attend the program of your dreams, you might be better served working in the industry for a few years to move up the ranks. This holds especially true of a PhD - unless you plan to go into academia, a PhD is probably not worth the additional time and effort you’ll have to spend in grad school (more on that in a later post).

Once you’ve decided to forge ahead, the first, and arguably hardest, step is finding a program that’s just right for you. This deceptively easy process can often be the longest and most tedious part of your entire application process. As an international student, you end up facing the additional struggle of not being exposed to “insider knowledge.” Since at a graduate level, you’re expected to come in with a certain amount of knowledge about your field, this lack of knowledge can seriously impede your progress.

Then there are the financials. Even if you’ve found your dream grad program and are certain it’ll be the best place for you, the economics of it - tuition, living expenses, travel, could all add up to make your chosen program nothing more than a pipe dream. For many international students who earn in their local currency but pay for grad school in dollars, a scholarship is the only way towards their dream school.

Navigating this maze of ambition and realism takes a lot of juggling. One of the biggest challenges faced by prospective grad students is the search for that elusive “perfect” program. In many students’ imaginations, there exists one program that is highly ranked, affordable, in a city/ town of their choice, diverse, multi-faceted and perfectly aligned with their research interests.

I’ll let you in on a little secret: this program doesn’t exist. No matter how hard you try to micromanage every aspect of the application process, you’ll find that the program you finally choose will still have one little hitch: the location, the cost, the ranking, something.

Instead of hanging on to the myth of the perfect program, allow yourself the space to explore. One of the hardest parts of this process is finding the fine balance between chasing the dream and settling for something that doesn’t make you happy. In between those two extremes lie a range of programs that might not seem ideal at first but could end up being the right choice for you.

The best way to find those programs? Start by making a list of things you are, and are not, willing to compromise on. For some, finding a department that has a diverse list of nationalities represented is non-negotiable, while location and weather can be compromised on. For others, these priorities are reversed. Know what you’re looking for and you’ll be able to narrow down your work significantly.

From then on, it’s research, research, research! You aren’t going to know quite where you “fit” until you know the nuances of every department you’re considering inside out. Going by rankings is a start- but it’s not a great long-term strategy. A very highly ranked program may have a stellar faculty list but no one who focuses specifically on the area you’re interested in. Another lower ranked program might not have as many big names, but could have one professor whose work aligns closely with your own, making it a much better fit.

That’s one of the biggest things to remember: whatever else you’re willing to compromise on, don’t compromise on faculty. Depending on the degree you’re pursuing, grad school could take anything between a year to 10 years of your life. You want to be in a place where you feel supported by your mentors and intellectually stimulated by the work they’re doing. Name value comes second to working with people who have your back and are excited about your research and professional goals.

To get a sense of the faculty you could potentially be advised by, your first step is to go to the university’s website and look through all the faculty profiles listed in your department. Make a list of potential advisors and note down how their research aligns with your own. Really spend time on this; your likelihood of being accepted to a program is much higher if there are professors in the department who are excited about your work. Once you’ve been through all the departments across different universities, narrow down this faculty list to weed out anyone whose work only tangentially relates to your own.

An optional, but recommended next step is to email everyone on that list. This should just be a short note of introduction along with a request for information/ advice that might bolster your application. Gauge the response (if there is one! Many professors are so inundated with emails that they just can’t respond) carefully. You can tell a great deal about your fit with a department from how a professor responds to your request. If they seem unenthusiastic or even lukewarm, that should be an immediate warning sign that this program might not be the right fit for you. After all, who knows a department better than someone who teaches there? On the flipside, if they seem encouraging, you should take this as a green light and ask if they would consider being your advisor if you do end up joining the program.

Current graduate students are another great source of information for prospective candidates. They’ll be able to give you the inside scoop on the department: its work culture, its expectations of its students, the job prospects available after graduating from it.

Once you’ve created a list of departments that seem to fit your work best, go back to your original list of non-negotiables. Cut out any university that wouldn’t work based on that list. For example, if there’s an amazing department for robotics that is located in a city you just know will be difficult to live in, cut it out. Google maps is your friend here: spend as much time looking at the neighborhood and nearby cities/ states as you do exploring the faculty and research of the program.

When you have a list you’re satisfied with, zero in on the financials. This is where you need to be ruthless. If you can afford to pay for yourself or have family support, you can skip over this step. If not, create a budget for the amount you can afford to spend out of pocket, and a plan for how you will cover the rest. If you are looking for a scholarship (and remember, these are rare and usually given solely on the basis of academic merit at the graduate level), you should make sure the programs you’re interested in offer them to the amount that you need. Application fees themselves are expensive (anything between $50-200), so choose your program wisely. No point splurging on applying to a program that doesn’t have scholarships for international students in the first place.

While this can all be very cumbersome and frustrating, remember that you are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of graduates go through this process every year, so the information you need is all out there. Websites like GradCafe and Academia Stack Exchange can be great (if addictive) resources to remind yourself that others are in the same boat as you, while also providing valuable information about programs that you might be interested in. It all comes down to knowing as much as you can, both about programs and about yourself. If you can find a match between the two, you are that much closer to the ever-so-elusive program of your dreams.

You can read other parts of the series here.

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