Choosing a Graduate Program: Six Considerations Introduction. 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 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 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 professors, were there some that would be good advisors? 6. Do I have a good knowledge of my strengths and weaknesses?
Discussion. 1. Does 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 program, or not? Check 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 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 type of student who starts studying for a class night before 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 appropriate level of social skills and self-confidence needed to succeed in this program?
Graduate school is not for 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 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 material you learn on a deeper level than you are accustomed to. Your professors will expect you to understand 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.