Weighing the Decision

Attending a graduate or professional school is a good decision provided that you have conducted sufficient research, obtained a clear understanding of your goals and expectations, and that you are realistically prepared. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to evaluate your reasons for seeking a graduate or professional degree and to find a program that best suits your academic needs and interests. There are many factors to take into consideration, and it is often easier to begin weighing your graduate school decision by conducting a personal assessment and by speaking with faculty members and alumni.

Personal Assessment

Before making the decision to attend graduate school, take some time to learn more about yourself and your motives for seeking a graduate or professional degree. By carefully outlining your goals, talents, and abilities, you can avoid the frustration of choosing a school or program that is not in your best interest. To begin your assessment, start by asking yourself the following questions. Feel free to record your answers and share them with your faculty advisor or whoever is assisting you in your decision.

  • What are my short-term and long-term career goals? Where do I see myself in five years? Ten years? Where does graduate study fit into these goals?
  • Do I have a passion for a particular subject or combination of disciplines? What are my skills and strengths? Am I mentally and physically prepared to undertake such an extensive commitment?
  • Do I have other needs or obligations that conflict with attending a graduate or professional degree program? Will I need to take out loans? How is the job outlook for my prospective field or industry?
  • What type of value do I place on a graduate degree? Am I going to graduate school to please others? Am I using graduate school as a means to avoid seeking employment?
Faculty

Faculty members and your pre-professional advisors are among the best sources of graduate and professional school information. They posses tremendous knowledge in their areas of study, and they are abreast on current issues and trends facing their industry or field. Faculty members can give you information about their graduate institution(s), and most are happy to share their experiences as graduate students with you. They can help you locate programs that suit your needs and interests, and they can help you decide whether a master’s or Ph.D. program is best. Also, your professors can give you valuable contact information of faculty members at other institutions, and on some occasions, they may even contact a friend or colleague on your behalf. While interviewing faculty members, consider asking the following questions:

  • What is your background? Where did you obtain your graduate degree(s)? Why did you choose this particular program or institution? What was your experience like?
  • How did you make your way into this field? What career options can you pursue with this degree?
  • Should I go to graduate school right away or take time off to work for a year or two? What kinds of work experiences are preferable?
  • Who else should I see/call/write for further graduate school advice? Can you recommend other faculty members at Sewanee or elsewhere who may be willing to give me additional information?

Note: ALWAYS ask this question or something like it, and remember to follow up when a professor shares his or her contact information with you.

Alumni

Sewanee Alumni are also an excellent resource for graduate and professional school advice. By searching the Alumni Gateway, Sewanee’s online community, you can find alumni who are currently enrolled or have graduated from an institution that interests you. Also, you can locate alumni who are professionals in your field of interest. Alumni are usually happy to give you information on their programs and what the transition from Sewanee to graduate school is like. Alumni can tell you which degree or combination of degrees is helpful for the work they do or if a graduate or professional degree is necessary.

  • When arranging informational interviews with Sewanee alumni, be sure to sample more than one opinion. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
  • What has been you career progression? Why did you choose this particular graduate program? How do you feel about your decision to pursue graduate studies?
  • How does one typically move through your field or industry? What types of degrees or credentials are preferable? How has graduate school fed into your long-term goals?
  • How did your Sewanee education prepare you for graduate school? How is graduate school different from college? What courses do you recommend I take? What journals/magazines do you suggest I read?
  • Who else should I write/call for further advice?

Note: ALWAYS be sure to ask this question. If you need any help with arranging informational interviews, contact Career & Leadership Development or refer to our Informational Interviewing and Networking handout.

Career & Leadership Development

Our office is also able to help you with your graduate school decision. We can assist you in contacting alumni and finding resources in our library or on the web. The office also offers individual appointments and sponsors a host of events that can provide you with graduate and professional school information.

  • The Graduate and Professional School Fair
  • Graduate and Professional School Workshop
  • Individual campus visits by graduate and professional schools
  • Career-related panel discussions

Selecting the Right Program

Finding the right graduate or professional program requires a great deal of research and thought. You do not want to waste time, money, and energy applying to schools that do not provide a good fit. When building your list of potential schools, you should consult several sources of information. Your sources should include (at a minimum) your professors, Sewanee alumni, and the graduate institutions that you are targeting. You may also choose to consult PhDs.org's ranking tool, U.S. News and World Report; America’s Best Graduate Schools, Peterson’s Guide to Graduate Schools, and other helpful resources located in duPont Library, the Career & Leadership Development library or online.

When investigating graduate and professional institutions, remember to make several contacts at each school. It is important to contact the faculty members who share your interests or who may be future advisors. Feel free to ask questions about their research, what they teach, and how their program operates. If you are unsure about how to contact faculty members, consult with your professors or refer to Don Asher’s book, Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice. Also consider contacting students currently enrolled in your targeted program and ask them to share their thoughts about the institution, the professors, the quality of student life, and any other information that you would like to know.

Building a list of contacts can be a little overwhelming if you are not organized. Your research will go much easier if you keep all of your correspondence in order and if you plan ahead. Professors, students and admissions staff can be very busy, and you will need to give your contacts plenty of time to respond to your questions and concerns. When writing to these individuals, remember to be polite, concise and appreciative. Also, remember to follow up with your contacts in a prompt manner.

The following is a list of considerations that you might want to investigate:

The Program
  • What is the reputation of the program? Is it nationally recognized? Regionally? Locally?
  • What are the requirements for a master’s degree? Ph.D.?
  • How long does it typically take students to obtain their degree?
  • How flexible is the program? Full-time? Part-time?
  • What types of internship, externship, or research opportunities are available?
  • Is the academic environment highly competitive? Supportive?
  • What types of facilities are available to graduate students? How extensive is the library? How up to date is the computer or laboratory equipment?
  • What is the size of the program? Institution?
  • What is the student to faculty ratio? Do students receive personal attention?
  • What is the relative makeup of the student body? How many minority groups are represented? What is the ratio of men to women? Are there international students in the program?
Faculty
  • Are there any faculty members who are recognized leaders in the field?
  • Are the faculty members widely published? Where are they published? Note: You should consider reading some of the research of professors prior to contacting them.
  • What is the quality of their research?
  • Are there faculty members who share your research interests?
  • Are the faculty members good educators?
  • How diverse is the faculty?
Campus Community
  • Where is the geographic location? Urban? Rural? How far away is the institution from family and other loved ones? Can you live in this type of area for the time it will take to complete your degree?
  • What types of student organizations are available? Are there opportunities for campus involvement outside the program? Clubs? Intramural sports?
  • What type of housing is available? Do you have the option of living on campus?
  • What is the community atmosphere like? Are there opportunities to socialize?
  • What is the quality of student support services? Does the institution have a good career services office? What type and how much assistance is offered to jobseekers?
Financial Assistance
  • What are the tuition costs?
  • What types of funding and support are available? Research assistantships? Teaching Assistantships? Fellowships?
  • Approximately what percent of the student body receives funding and support?
Career & Leadership Development

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