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Choosing a Grad School
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Sending out grad school applications is time–consuming and expensive.
Skip the blitz method; don't apply to every school with a program in your field. Instead, focus your attention and energy on a few carefully chosen schools.
Divide and (hopefully) conquer
We recommend dividing potential graduate schools into categories based on your chances of admission, just as you did when applying to undergrad. Select two schools you're fairly certain will accept you, two with whom you have a fighting chance and one school that you'll get into if lightning strikes. This is your target list; add more schools if you have the time and money to do so.
Remember that you'll be hitting the books, not the links
There are a many factors to take into account when choosing schools for your target list. The quality of life, social scene and surrounding community will all certainly impact your happiness. But these considerations, while significant, should be secondary. You're not taking out thousands of dollars in student loans to go to great parties or dine at the best campus cafeterias in the land. For grad students, the academic experience is paramount.
Your career goals will impact what you look for in an academic department. If you want a master's degree to round out your education or give you that professional edge, then the overall quality of the faculty may be more important than finding the ideal mentor.
If you are aiming for a PhD, however, it's critical to find a specific professor to serve as your thesis advisor. This person will be your guide, mentor and critic. The best advisors are approachable, available and engaged in your work. Apply to schools that have one or more professors who do research in your general area of interest, and with whom you can imagine working closely for a year (or six).
Make personal connections
To get the real scoop on a school, turn off your computer and pick up the phone. Better yet, hop in a car or get on a plane. A conversation with the faculty members you are most interested in working with will give you insight into the program and the dynamics of the department. And making personal connections with professors will certainly help your application. Make sure you can picture collaborating with these people for one or several years.
You should also contact grad students currently studying in that department. Do they enjoy working with their professors? Do they feel they have been given enough guidance and opportunity to develop their own research? Are they pressured to follow a certain methodology? What are the positives and negatives of the department and the school at large?
Two final considerations
Since you will be spending much of your time doing research, you should check to make sure that the institution has adequate facilities and resources for your particular needs. This could include labs, libraries, grants and summer fellowships.
Finally, remember to peruse the graduate course catalogue. Even if you're pursuing a PhD, the first year or two of graduate school generally involves regular coursework. Make sure that the classes offered are relevant to your interests and that they'll complement your research.