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Choosing a Graduate Program: Six Considerations


Choosing a Graduate Program: Six Considerations
A well-thought-out decision to go to graduate school is one based on intense soul-searching, rigorous academic training, and careful research. Yet many undergraduates, eager to embrace academia as their future career, don't prepare themselves at all for graduate work. Often good or brilliant college students, they are unaware of gaps in their academic and social experience that may prove to be major obstacles in graduate school. I was one of those students.
After living through my own difficult graduate experience, I thought hard about why I had been so ill-suited to my particular program. I came up with many "inappropriate" answers: inappropriate study skills, inappropriate communication with professors, inappropriate intellectual preparation, and other problems. I had thought about none of these issues before I applied to graduate school; they had never occurred to me. If I had been told about them, or somehow figured them out by myself, would I have made different career choices? I would like to think so. In any case, what follows are six questions I believe every student aspiring to graduate school should ask himself or herself. I discuss each question in detail.

Six Important Questions.
1. Does the structure of this program fit my personal academic style?
2. Do I have study skills appropriate to this program's level of difficulty?
3. Do I have the appropriate level of social skills and self-confidence needed to succeed in this program?
4. Is my state of intellectual development advanced enough to succeed in this program?
5. When I met the professors, were there some that would be good advisors?
6. Do I have a good knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses?

1. Does the structure of this program fit my personal academic style?

Are you good at taking tests, or would you rather be graded on papers? Do you like a lot of formal class time, or do you prefer individualized tutorials? Do you want a structured curriculum with lots of required classes, or do you want more electives that fit your interests? Do you look forward to student teaching, or do you want a research assistant post? Do you want to choose a sub-specialization early on in the program, or not? Check the program requirements carefully, and ask lots of questions. You want a graduate program that is tailored to your needs. You should also be aware that many programs expect you to write reasonably well, so brush up on your expository writing skills before you start graduate school.

2. Do I have study skills appropriate to this program's level of difficulty?

Most graduate programs require a massive amount of study. So if you aren't good at hitting the books for several hours each day, day after day for an extended period of time, you might not be ready for this kind of program.

If you are the type of student who starts studying for a class the night before the final exam, here is my suggestion: take an intense self-study course and see how long you take to complete it. Or enroll in a rigorous class that covers a lot of material over a period of several months and see how well you do. If you have enough motivation and self-discipline to successfully finish one of these "programs," you might be able to succeed at graduate school if you focus on your studies.

3. Do I have the appropriate level of social skills and self-confidence needed to succeed in this program?

Graduate school is not for the timid at heart. It is not a remedial program where you are coddled and slowly taught step by step in order to master any personal or professional deficiencies you may have. The staff may not care if you succeed, or even want you to succeed. So you must start from a position of relative strength, exuding confidence and focused purpose till you earn your degree.

Are you comfortable with your own personality and learning style? Can you get along with many types of people? Can you put on a professional, non-emotional façade even when you are feeling upset? Are you able to project an air of confidence in front of people who are critical of your efforts, or hostile, or deprecatory? Are you able to keep your problems and concerns to yourself, sharing them only with a few selected, preferably non-departmental confidantes who are unable to hurt you professionally?

Professors do exist who are truly helpful, compassionate, and desirous of their students' success. In fact, most departments have at least a few of these. But most are also filled with teachers who take a sink-or-swim attitude toward the success of their students. And most graduate students have at least one crisis of faith in their abilities. So if you aren't political, if you aren't self-confident, if you can't put on an act when necessary to hide your feelings, learn these skills or watch out!

4. Is my state of intellectual development advanced enough to succeed in this program?

Many graduate programs demand a higher intellectual level from their students than undergraduate programs do. You will be asked to master the material you learn on a deeper level than you are accustomed to. Your professors will expect you to understand the implications of complicated theoretical problems in your field, synthesize other people's work to solve those problems or offer new solutions of your own, and ask new questions. You will thus need not only to acquire higher-level knowledge, but also to attain an advanced understanding of your coursework as you progress through your years as a graduate student.

You can prepare somewhat for this academic culture shock by taking undergraduate classes that demand higher-level thinking. Take courses that teach you how to do research in your field, that ask you to summarize and synthesize advanced or theoretical material. If you can, do some original research at whatever level you have obtained. The object here is to learn to think for yourself while you are an undergraduate; if you do so, you will have a much easier time of it in graduate school. Graduate school professors want your creative analysis and argument, not your regurgitation.

5. When I met the professors, were there some that would be good advisors?

You probably won't be able to deal with this question until after you start the program. What it boils down to is this: Choose your advisors carefully! They may make or break you. It's best to find someone in your specialization who you both personally like and professionally admire; if you can't, choose someone who you have high regard for professionally, and who you can tolerate personally. You don't have to be, and probably shouldn't be best friends with your advisor. Mutual respect and civility are what's necessary.

As you choose an advisor for that all-important master's thesis or the like, ask yourself the following questions about each professor you are interested in: Do you and other students whose judgment you trust believe this person to be professionally competent and knowledgeable in the field? Do you and the others believe him/her to be a good teacher, able to explain problems well and help students improve their work? If you can't answer both questions positively for the person in question, choose someone else. Your choice may decide the course of your academic career.

6. Do I have a good knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses?

This question is implied in most of the questions above. It is really the most crucial. Without a good knowledge of self, you will probably not succeed in graduate school. Indeed, you may not realize your own potential in your life generally. And if you do succeed in your coursework without this kind of wisdom, any happiness you attain is more a matter of undeserved good fortune than a result of thought-out, focused effort.

What subject areas are you deeply interested in? What kinds of problems are you good at solving (Numerical? Symbolic? Literary? Artistic?) How well do you handle social interaction? How self-confident are you? How long can you remain focused on a course of study? How much do you rely on your teachers? Do you like to do original research? Do you learn slowly and methodically, or quickly by leaps of intuition? Do you want to specialize in a narrow sub-field of your specialty or do you want to have general knowledge of your field? Do you like the subject matter to be black-and-white or do you delight in debating the gray areas? Are you detail-oriented? Do you like to learn by yourself, with a partner, or in a group setting? Do you prefer deadlines, or do you work best with no time pressure?

Ask yourself these questions and others. Look at the hobbies you most enjoy, the types of work and work settings that you like the best, the types of life experiences that you gravitate towards. Take an aptitude test and study the results. No answer is wrong; you want to understand yourself in order to make the decisions that are most appropriate for you. In summary, first look for patterns of behavior and thought that are intrinsic to your own personal style. Then match that style to the styles of the graduate programs you are interested in, and ask yourself if they fit. If they don't, choose another program.

Many students choose graduate programs based on physical proximity or their professors' recommendations. These are wise considerations, but they shouldn't be your only ones. This paper has addressed some of the other issues pertinent to your choice which I hope you will consider as well. I strongly believe that the questions above are essential because they focus on YOU as the starting point. Choosing the right graduate school should not be a haphazard decision; you should come out of the application process knowing more about yourself and what you expect out of the programs you selected. Then you will be able to fill out your applications with confidence, drop them into the mailbox, and congratulate yourself on a job well done.

About the Author

Andrea Jussim is an experienced writer with experience in teaching and research. She entered a prestigious 5-year Ph.D. program immediately after completing her undergraduate studies, but left with an M.A. and her sanity two years later.


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