It’s about that time of year to start looking for a graduate school and thinking about applying, if you haven’t already. There are so many universities and academic programs out there that, at least to me, it seems like nothing but a huge mush of possibilities. Well, possibilities are better than brick walls, in which case build it yourself. Here are a few things to think about doing when you’re researching potential universities.
Talk to your current professors. First of all, you will need letters of recommendation when applying to any school (generally three letters). To make it easier on the teachers you want to ask, get to them as soon as possible. Sometimes they are too busy with other letters, classes, and their own work to do it, so asking them early in the semester (even the year before) ups your chances. Plus, keep in mind that not everyone you ask will be able to help. No matter what though, it’s a good idea to start talking to them about applying in general. They will have good advice, know what things to look a little deeper into, who to talk to, and even possibly the best fit for you.
What do you want to do? Don’t get tangled up in a literature program if all you want to do is write a novel. Don’t get tied down by a research degree if what you really want to do is work on changing educational policy. Whatever it is you want to do, make sure you focus some your most serious program research time on what you will be able to accomplish with each degree offered.
Look into admissions requirements at every school you are interested in, no matter what. Some courses of study might hint at there being a standard mode of operations across every school, but that’s not really the case. Currently, I’m looking at programs that mostly require the general GRE test, but there is one school, yes a single, possibly excellent school that requires the general and the literature tests—and it’s the only one of the handful of others I’m looking at! Bah! So now I’m considering if that program is worth taking two $200+ tests when every other school I’m interested in only needs the one, and the same one. I’m going to research more, and I already know there are some amazing professors there; it’s something I’ll have to consider.
Where in the country is it? Or what country is it in?
Will there be an assistantship/fellowship/stipend?
What other academic opportunities are available (study abroad, research, grant writing, etc.)?
How many years is the program?
What are the class credit requirements?
What is the thesis/dissertation going to require?
How many people are in the program/are admitted every year?
Do your research. If you want to go to graduate school this really should not be a problem. Check into what the university, as a whole, has to offer. Are there any other colleges that you would find interesting? Maybe there is a program that isn’t exactly in your field but that has potential to inspire you in some way. Look into the professors in the program—and not just the biographies on the college’s website: find their other online profiles, go to their website and look around, read their publications, watch videos of their presentations, whatever you can find. You need to be sure that you find teachers who you will be able to work with. Grad school isn’t the lonely, open field of undergrad, and you will rarely work totally alone. Even your final project, your thesis, will be directed by a professor and will involve a number of others who will form your committee (in my program, at least). Know who you might get to work under/with and become familiar with their institution. You might find an amazing professor, but he/she teaches at an university that isn’t really a fit for you. Basically, be aware of the culture of the universities you’re thinking. If you’re liberal, avoid conservative schools. If you’re the quiet type, stay away from colleges known more for their parties than their academics.
When you’re finally getting to that last list of schools (I had three bookmark folders before getting down to the five I applied to for my masters), remember the time and work it takes to apply. There are web portals, paper submissions, transcript mailings, reference letter submitting, and all sorts of minute details that individual schools and their universities require. Yup, generally schools that house your program, like the College of Arts and Sciences, and the university itself. Just keep in mind that it really is a lot of work to apply. For reasons including the time/work it takes, the money it costs, and the stress of applying I kept my number of applications down to five. It still wasn’t very easy—keeping up with little differences between universities became a real pain—so I suggest pacing yourself.
If you’re still questioning whether or not graduate school is right for you, then you’re already on your way. You’re self reflective and aware of how much work it will be. Really, though, the work is just more focused. Yes, you will have more reading, more detailed work to do, and a bunch of other things, but if you love what you’re doing graduate school will only act to increase your abilities and desire to learn and accomplish something great.