5 Strategies to Help You Choose the Best Graduate School for You

It’s that time of year again! The wonderful time where many are starting or continuing their graduate studies and many others are applying to programs. Applying to graduate school is one of the most stressful and exciting times in your life. It can be a little overwhelming with all the options available to you. But don’t fret. All you need is a clear strategy that will help you weed out the schools that are not meant for you and identify those that are. Here are 5 ways that can assist you with choosing the best grad school for you.

1.    Research your program of study

It should go without saying that you should know what area of STEM you want to study. But realize that many programs offer many different courses and experiences. Your core classes will more than likely be the same, but credit requirements and electives may be totally different. It is important to research these differences and do a comparison analysis to see which program would best fit and support your future career goals.

For example, you may want to go into genetics, particularly epigenetics. You’re researching two programs that you are very interested in. They both have the same core classes and similar electives. However, you notice that program A allows you to cross register with biochemistry courses and they have a course which is all about protein repressors and their mechanisms.  Program B does not allow you to cross register. Clearly, program A would be the better choice since it offers you a way to further study and develop your intended career field.

2. Consider Location

No, I’m not talking about where you ultimately want to live or where the best parties are (although this is important), you should be looking at areas that will contribute and elevate your growth in your career. Want to go into research? You should probably look at schools near or around the Research Triangle in North Carolina or even Huntsville, AL. Want to go into tech. It’s a no brainer that you should probably research schools in Northern California.

Now I’m not saying that things such as weather, distance from family, and other factors shouldn’t play a part. But you should not rule out a school because it’s in Alabama...but, it is a hub for leading research scientist in your field. You don’t have to live there forever. But it would behoove you to attend a school in a place where resources and leaders in your field will be readily available to you.

3. Determine your price range

Yes, it will be expensive, but you need to know how much you are willing to pay for school. Do you mind paying all out of pocket (loans) or would you like assistance in the form of a graduate teaching assistant position or scholarships. And, does your perspective school even offer any grad TA positions, scholarships, or an internship network?

It’s so easy to say that you’ll just get loans to cover your educational costs, but I’m here to tell you that this ain’t what you want. I was fortunate to have my undergraduate expenses taking care of, but I get real perturbed when it’s time for me to throw these coins at Navient when it’s that time of month to repay my graduate school loans. Therefore, your girl stays on the hunt looking for scholarships and anything that will help cover the cost of medical school.

Get rid of the anxiety and panic attacks that are sure to come with paying back student loans. Decide how much you are willing to spend for school and then look for ways to offset those costs.

4. Decide on your Deal Breakers

As in dating, you need to establish some deal breakers that will determine the schools you will apply to. Some possible deal breakers could include:

  •  Not many minority students and/or faculty
  • Not many female students and/or faculty
  • Has a not so good history of how it treats its students and/or surrounding community
  • No community involvement
  • Dean and faculty members are not easily accessible
  • Limited access to resources

These are just a few things that you can look at. Also realize, that for many deal breakers, you will have to do a little more research and digging to find the answer. You may have to reach out to former or current students, go on forums, or research the community where your school is located.

One of my deal breakers was not having an established, beneficial relationship with the community that the school served. I did not want to attend a school that basically ‘used’ the community as research subjects while never giving them preliminary and finalized reports of the data that was collected, and never returning to help improve the community based on that data. Thankfully, I found a school that not only had established and beneficial relationships with the community, but it was also engaged in TRUE Community Based Research which not only had input from faculty members but also community members.

5. Will you be supported?

This is a very important aspect to consider, especially for minorities and women. You want to attend a school that will not only support you, but help nurture your talents and growth. Look for schools that have dedicated faculty mentors and advisors as well has heavily involved student organizations that match your demographic(s).

Graduate school is very stressful. I still remember the nights I would continuously ask myself, “Why am I doing this?!”. But it is because of the dedicated support system that my program had. I knew that I could vent, cry, laugh, and dance with my advisor and some of my professors and not feel shame or rejection. My classmates were awesome and we really helped each other through. Now, you can’t control who your classmates will be, but one thing that you can control is which program you decide to attend.

Before you decide to apply, ask around about the culture of the program. Are faculty members helpful? Will you feel like it’s just you against the world? And on your interview, also be aware of how faculty members treat each other and their students. Yes, everyone will be on their best behaviors but if you pay close attention, real feelings and intentions will present themselves.

So, there you have it. 5 strategies you can use to help choose the right grad school for you. Don’t forget to download your free grad school search spreadsheet to help you narrow down your schools and programs.

Now I want to hear from you? Are you currently in grad school? If so, what strategies did you use to narrow down your school list? And if you’re thinking about applying to grad school, have you considered any of the strategies above? How has the application process been going for you?