Applying to graduate school can be a bewildering affair. Without a doubt, the process is different from any other, and most who go through it will discover that preconceived notions about how it works are steeped in naivety. To get into a good program, one needs to have more than just good grades and a lot of ambition. Effective letters of recommendation, good scores on standardized entrance exams, and a strong personal statement — all of these things play important roles. Just as important, however, are the choices one makes about which schools or programs to apply to. And there are so many to choose from. Students in some disciplines will find hundreds, or even thousands, of schools offering programs that lead to a Master’s or Ph.D. How should one go about making the choices? This article examines some of the factors that should go into the mix, with a special emphasis on a few that will not occur to most graduate-school applicants.
Think of what comes after the degree
The purpose behind graduate school is to help promising students become experts in some domain. The particular degree obtained, however, tends to obscure the specialized nature of the competence that has been acquired along the way. Different individuals who hold the same advanced degree in the same field will differ in terms of the nature of their acquired expertise. After you are done, and you have your Ph.D., you will find that the degree is not what actually determines the jobs or careers for which you are qualified. Instead, your qualifications are determined by the particular areas in which you have gained special expertise.
Different programs offering the same degree can be very different in terms of the types of training they offer, and the types of specialists they can help create. You want a Ph.D. in Psychology? In order to decide what schools to which you should apply, you need first to decide what area of psychology you want to specialize in. There is no Ph.D. in general Psychology. Just as there is no Ph.D. in general Biochemistry, or general Philosophy, or general Forestry, and so on. The first important thing to understand when choosing where to apply to graduate school, is that you cannot achieve the same types of expertise in all programs. For example, one graduate program in Economics might offer expertise in econometrics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, economic development and planning, and financial and monetary economics, whereas another program might have its strengths in areas of labor economics, environmental and natural resources economics, public economics, and industrial organization. A doctoral student will specialize in just one of these areas.
Your success in actually getting into graduate school will depend to a large extent on whether you pick the right programs, based on your particular career objectives. Do not underestimate the importance of this match. It is one of the main things that admissions committees are looking for when they evaluate applicants to their programs. Those who fail to convince that the match is right are sure to be rejected, no matter how strong their academic credentials, test scores, and letters of recommendation.
The importance of choosing a program that matches your objectives means that before you can choose an appropriate graduate program you need to decide what kind of career you want to eventually have. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer detailed advice on how to go about making those decisions. Apart from getting on the Web and doing some research on the kinds of careers available to someone with an advanced degree in your field, the best way to learn about career options is from faculty members or career counselors at your school. Make an appointment to visit with one or more of your professors to find out what graduate school in your field involves, and what kinds of career options are available.
Here, there, or everywhere?
Despite the importance of choosing graduate programs based on the types of specialized training available, most students will base their decisions about where to apply on less-relevant factors, such as geographical location, or the general reputation of the university. If you simply must live in a particular city for strong personal reasons, then you may have only one, or a few, universities to choose from. Even if there are programs offering the degree you want, there might not be any that provide the particular specialization you want. If you cannot go elsewhere for graduate school, at least understand that you may not find exactly what you are looking for at any particular university.
Many students apply to what they believe are the best programs or schools, without realizing that in most disciplines, there is no “best" program or school. What is best for particular students depends entirely on their specific goals. The particular strengths of any program will depend on the areas of expertise represented by its faculty members. In short, if no one in the department is an expert in the particular subfield in which you want to specialize, then this program probably will not help you reach your goals.
It is a common misconception that a Ph.D. from a high-profile university or some other Ivy League school, will give someone a significant advantage in the job market. In reality, however, it seldom actually works that way. Having a Ph.D. from a high-profile school might give you certain bragging rights that impress your parents, your neighbors, or the guy who cuts your hair. But, don’t expect the benefits to go far beyond that. Savvy employers are not going to be convinced to hire you just because you have a Ph.D. from a distinguished university, and when it comes to translating your credentials into an occupation and a career, those potential employers are the only people whose impressions matter. They will care only about what you know and what you can do, not where you got your degree.
There is no doubt that some programs are much more competitive than others. But do not assume that you will receive inferior training and education in a lower-profile, less-competitive graduate program. Some programs attract huge numbers of highly qualified applicants each year, whereas others attract fewer students or students with somewhat weaker credentials. Why are some programs much more competitive than others? Contrary to what most people assume, the more-competitive programs do not always provide better training than the less-competitive programs. As with many other things that reflect supply and demand, the prestige of a program can be unrelated to the real value of what it has to offer.
Who is doing what, and where are they doing it?
In many fields, the importance of making choices based on one’s specific interests and objectives go beyond the selection of the right graduate program. Many graduate programs within the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, require students to do a great deal of research, culminating with a written thesis, or dissertation. In most such programs, each student’s work is guided and supervised by an individual faculty member (the term graduate advisor is used). Graduate programs in those fields are very concerned with matching students with faculty. This matching is done of the basis of common research interests, and no matter how impressive their qualifications are, applicants are sure to be rejected if they cannot be properly matched with a faculty member in that program.