What Are the Best Grad Schools?
The answer to this question is different for everyone. What you need to consider is, what are the best grad schools for you?
We’ll spare you the suspense. There is no simple answer to this question. The “best grad schools” are different for everyone. What you need to consider is, what are the best grad schools for you. Depending on your prospective programs, you will likely have dozens—if not hundreds—of options for where to apply.
Here are just a few things to consider when choosing a grad program.
A matter of location
Are you interested in moving for grad school? Depending on your current situation, job, or if you’re relocating your entire family, moving may or may not be in the cards.
If you are open to relocating, think about where you want to live—and what kind of resources different areas can provide you on your academic and professional path.
Do you prefer a school in a large city or a more remote setting? Do you want to live on a college campus, or perhaps closer to family?
Beyond personal preferences, which locations best suit your career interests? For example, if you’re studying biology, does the program or city have top-notch research facilities? How wide or narrow are your requirements? If your graduate thesis is going to be on the mating rituals of insects in Minnesota, for example, location will play a huge part in your search.
Reputation and prestige
Which schools in your field are most highly regarded? Is a more prestigious school the right fit for you? What is the program’s reputation for job placement following graduation? What does alumni involvement and contribution look like? All of these things might guide your decision if you’re targeting top programs in your field.
If these factors are important to you, see if you can find stats on the school's website that address your questions about a program's reputation. Not all schools publish this info, but online resources can help—or a phone call to the program's admissions office can point you in the right direction.
Curriculum and program features
If you're trying to determine a good fit, look into whether the program focuses on your particular areas of interest. If so, great; go from there. Consider the school's requirements, as well. Are there prerequisites for the program that you haven’t yet completed? If so, it's best to know as soon as possible so you can target those areas that will make you an even better candidate.
Maybe there is a particular professor on faculty you’d like to work with, or a particular facility that’s notable. Feel free to reach out to those parties and tell them you're considering applying. You may fit a certain area they're looking for—and you might even get an ally on the admissions committee.
While you’re doing your graduate school research, find out if prospective employers recruit from the programs you’re considering. Major industries or organizations will often visit campuses to interview candidates. Are your dream employers visiting the campuses you want to attend?
Consider other career and job placement services that the graduate program provides, as well. What is the average starting salary for graduates in your specialty? Does the school have data on this? If it’s hard to find on the website, contact admissions to see if this info is available to applicants.
If the programs you’re going for are in academia, find out if recent grads have accepted academic positions, how long their searches took, and where they're working now. Are they getting tenure track positions or one-year contracts? Are they working at top schools?
School cultures vary dramatically from one to the next—and cultures between graduate programs in a specific school can vary. Find out not just what the school is like overall, but also the program. What's expected of the class? Will you be able to keep up with the workload? What course size is standard, and what level of involvement with faculty? Find out if the program fosters a collaborative environment or expects more individual work. Then consider which learning style works better for you.
Cost and financial aid
Think about the total cost obligations for your graduate program—including tuition, room and board, books and materials. What other obligations, such as utilities, transportation, and childcare, will you face? These things can vary depending on several individual factors you bring to the equation. For example, if the school is far away from home, and you like to be near family, you'll likely face more transportation costs than an average applicant.
Look into financial opportunities, as well. Is financial aid readily available at this school? You can find this in the form of scholarships, fellowships, grants, or research assistantships—as well as other options. The school's financial aid office will likely have lots of information on hand that they're willing to provide.
These are just a few of the major factors to consider as you evaluate schools, and then you can begin to rank your programs of interest based on the factors that are most important to you. Create a chart with all these factors to compare your options. This can help you easily identify the programs that best meet your needs and goals.
What to do before you decide
So what if you're accepted to more than one of your target programs? This is a good problem to have, for certain, but remember that before you determine the absolute best fit for you, you should take a few steps to confirm that you’re still on the right track.
In all likelihood, you have the potential to thrive at any graduate program you choose, but it may help to revisit your original goals—especially if you're making a tough decision.
Revisit each graduate program’s website
Your target graduate program’s website will not only give you all of the basic information about the program, but it will also provide you with general information about the school. Of course, if you applied there in the first place, you’re probably already familiar with the website, but it never hurts to revisit specific details about each graduate school to see what attracted you in the first place.
At this point, it's also a good idea to take a longer look at factors like tuition costs, financial aid options, program length, and where alumni end up after graduation.
Attend the open house for admitted students
Some graduate programs offer admitted students designated days to visit campus and even attend classes, which can provide a real sense of what the day-to-day would be like as a student in that program. These types of orientations can be extremely beneficial, especially if you’re on the fence about which graduate program to pursue and how to choose the curriculum that’s best for you.
Don't forget to introduce yourself to faculty and talk to current students while you're there. If you get the chance to sit in on classes, take it. Not only will it introduce you to the program's academic rigor and style, but it may also help you get a sense of how you will fit into the culture.
Reach out to professors and alumni
If you don’t have the chance to speak to professors or alumni in person, that's fine. Most of these people are happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have via email or phone. After all, they are hoping that the students who were offered admission will end up choosing their program.
Talking with professors and alumni will help you learn more about the nitty gritty details of the program—which can make or break your decision to choose one school over another. These details can include things like career support, if the subject matter taught in the program’s courses aligns with your specific interests and career goals, or potential downsides that alumni may have experienced during their time there.
Make a list of the reasons you applied in the first place
If you’re choosing between two graduate programs, one of the best ways to decide which to attend is to remember why you applied to them in the first place. What initially stood out to you about each grad program? Which specific aspects made you think it was the right fit?
If you consider this, you may gain a new appreciation for the program that's right for you, all over again.