It undoubtedly requires a great deal of energy and stamina to apply to graduate school, but your task isn't complete once you send out those applications. Your endurance will be tested as you wait months for an answer. In March or even as late as April graduate programs begin to notify applicants of their decision. It is rare for a student to be accepted at all schools to which he or she applies. Most students apply to several schools and may be accepted by more than one. How do you choose which school to attend?
Funding is important, without a doubt, but don't base your decision entirely on funding awarded for the first year of study. Issues to consider include:
- How long does funding last? Are you funded until you receive your degree or is it for a certain number of years?
- Will you need to look for outside funding (e.g. jobs, loans, external scholarships)?
- Will you be able to pay bills, buy food, socialize, etc. with the amount being offered or will the cost of living need to be supplemented by other sources?
- Have you been offered a teaching or research assistantship at the school?
It is important to note other aspects that may be associated with financial concerns. The location of the school can influence the costs of living. For example, it is more expensive to live and attend school in New York City than in a rural college located in Virginia. Additionally, a school that may have a better program or reputation but a poor financial aid package should not be rejected. You may gain more after graduating from a school as such than a school with an unappealing program or reputation but a great financial package.
Visit the school, even if you have before. What does it feel like? Consider your personal preferences. How do professors and students interact? What is the campus like? The neighborhood? Are you comfortable with the setting? Questions to consider:
- Is the school located in a region that is habitable according to your terms?
- Is it too far from family members?
- Can you live here for the next 4-6 years?
- Is everything easily accessible?
- If food is a factor, are there restaurants able to cater to your diet?
- What kinds of employment opportunities are there?
- Do you like the campus?
- Is the atmosphere comforting?
- What types of facilities are available to the students?
- Do they have a computer lab that is easily accessible?
- What services are offered to students?
- Do graduate students seem satisfied with the school (remember that some grumbling is normal for students!)?
- Do you plan to live in this region after graduation?
Reputation and Fit
What is the school's reputation? Demographics? Who attends the program and what do they do afterward? Information on the program, the faculty members, the graduate students, course offerings, degree requirements, and job placement can sway your decision in attending a school. Make sure you do as much research as possible on the school (you should have done this before you applied also). Questions to consider:
- What is the reputation of the school?
- How many students actually graduate and receive a degree?
- How long does it take to complete the degree?
- How many students get a job in their field after they graduate?
- Did the school have any lawsuits or mishaps?
- What is the program's philosophy?
- What are the research interests of professors? Is there a professor who shares your interests?
- Are the professors with whom you want to work available to advise? (You should have more than one professor that your interested in having as an advisor in case one is not available.)
- Can you see yourself working with this professor?
- What is the reputation of the faculty members? Are they well known in their field?
- Does the professor have any research grants or awards?
- How accessible are faculty members?
- What are the rules and regulations of the school, the program, and the faculty?
- Does the program fit your research interests?
- What is the curriculum of the program? What are the degree requirements?
Only you can make the final decision. Consider the pros and cons and determine if the benefits outweigh the costs. Discuss your options with an advisor, counselor, faculty member, friends, or family members. The best fit is a school that can provide you with a good financial package, a program that is tailored to your goals, and a school that has a comfortable atmosphere. Your decision should be based ultimately on what you are looking to gain out of graduate school. Finally, recognize that no fit will be ideal. Decide what you can and cannot live with -- and go from there.