5 Ways to Figure Out if a Grad Program is the Right Fit for You

By Francine Mahak, Ph.D., CPDC Graduate Career Coach

So, you’re thinking about graduate school: advanced degree, higher salary, more skills and knowledge in a field you love. A graduate program is an intensive academic and interpersonal experience: it pays to do your research, so the one you choose is a fulfilling and successful fit.

5 ways to evaluate each graduate program you’re considering:

1- Look up syllabi and publications by their faculty to determine if their interests align with yours, so they can guide your research. For example, if you want to study “ball lightning” (physics), and your favorite school doesn’t have faculty in that specialized area, they cannot support you (and will wonder why you applied.)

2- Assess the fit with your values and learning style: go beyond the website and talk to people! Ask the grad program advisor to connect you with alumni, so you can hear how they assess the program and the value of the degree. Request to talk to several of the graduate students, and ask candid questions about the mentoring and the learning atmosphere. One program that marketed cooperative teamwork, for example, turned out in reality to have a culture of unwholesome competitiveness. (You may enjoy competition, but probing can clarify if it is healthy or toxic.) See if you can join a class or two to get a feel for the interaction.

3- Determine whether the grad program aligns with your prospective career goals: Research careers that flow from this degree, through LinkedIn alumni, Onet Online, Occupational Outlook Handbook, and your Undergraduate Career Coach. Look at the career paths of professionals with this degree, and seek conversations with them. Also, some programs are more theory and thesis oriented, while others focus on practical applications and internships. Which approach suits you best? While many good career outcomes aren’t tied to particular degrees, the more informed you are and the broader your network, the better your choice of graduate program will be, and the more options you will have afterwards.

4- Check which programs have Graduate Assistantships, Teaching Assistantships, or Research Assistantships to help finance your studies: These opportunities can make a big difference vs. work/study options or self-financing, and they also build valuable career skills and experience. Research scholarship opportunities as well.

5- If you can, visit each campus to gain a sense of the program environment: For one applicant, that was decisive: at the first school, program representatives welcomed her and helped her gain an experiential feel for the program, while the second school did not engage her with students in the program, and simply had her wait for her interview. Look for the small indicators that can make a big difference.

Your careful research now is an investment in a graduate experience that will best serve you, both during the program as you develop your skills and expertise, and over your lifetime as you apply them.