The good news is that no two graduate programs are alike. While they may offer the same degree—Master’s in International Affairs, Master’s in Public Policy, Master’s in Communications, etc.—the course sequencing, curriculum, professors, and school itself will make each degree unique.
As you weigh your options of programs you’re researching, it is important to consider “fit”: how you will fit into the program, how the curriculum fits into what you’d like to study in graduate school, and how that degree fits into your future goals.
Graduate school is a big investment of time and money, so you owe it to yourself to do some homework and make sure that the program you select is the best one for you.
How will you fit into the program?
Be honest with yourself about what environment you’d like to learn in. Are you drawn to a large program with multiple degrees offered, a diverse student body, and many events and extracurricular activities to take advantage of? Are you seeking a more intimate graduate school experience with a close-knit cohort of students and an environment that will allow you time to focus on research and your studies? Each applicant may have a different preference,but you likely know what environment will be the best choice for you. Visit your top few programs, talk with current students and professors, and ask questions about the learning environment and community. The more you know, the easier it will be to decide where you belong!
How does the curriculum fit your interests?
Ultimately, you’re going to graduate school to go to class. The classes you take will shape your degree and allow you to focus on specific issues or expand your interests outside of your comfort zone. Each program will boast a specific area that it is are known for or exceptionally strong in. However, before you spend time filling out the application, making sure the curriculum is in line with what YOU want to learn is essential. Look at the required course sequence and elective options. Is there anything missing that you value as important to your education? Is there anything there that makes you scream and run for the hills? If so, this program might not be the best fit. You may find it helpful to map out your ideal course sequence for each program. Spend some time thinking about how each sequence addresses your interests, and you’ll soon see which program is best for you.
How does the degree fit into your future?
Aside from going to graduate school to learn more, you are also probably going in order to advance your career. Look at where the alumni from that program go on to work or study. Are you comfortable with those trends? Talk with the career center staff or professors if you’d like some more clarification. If building a network is important to you, are there opportunities to engage with alumni or practitioners in the field? Will the program help you build a skillset or area of expertise that will make you stand out? Weighing how each program will fit into your long-term career goals is important to consider.
In the end, think more about how each program will ask you to spend your time and what you stand to gain from it, rather than simply thinking about reputation or prestige.
The fact of the matter is that graduate school is a training program, so consider what you’ll be trained in and how. It will make all the difference in your happiness during and after graduate school.