Finding the Right Graduate Program for You

Several years ago, on a gray and drizzly morning, I walked up to my workplace, opened the office door, shuffled to my cubicle and plopped down at my desk. The dreary weather matched my attitude about my job that day. I loved where I worked, but I was over it. I was ready for a new challenge where I could expand my skill set and refocus my career. I was ready for graduate school.

If you’re reading this, then you, too, may be feeling the same way I did back then. You’re ready to go back to school. It’s an exciting place to be – the start of a journey to a more meaningful career – but where do you even begin when selecting a school? After my own experience in searching for schools, here are the most useful steps I can recommend:

Narrow the Search
There are more than 4,500 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. alone. You cannot possibly apply to them all, nor would you want to (considering most schools have an application fee of about $50, that would cost you $225,000). You need to whittle it down to a few top choices. When selecting schools, consider:

  • Location: What colleges and universities are close to where you live? This is especially important if you want to attend on-campus classes and don’t want to move. Online and distance programs alleviate the location barrier. Don’t be afraid to look outside your neck of the woods, but being a reasonable drive from your school offers perks for even online students, such as dropping into a class or visiting in-person with faculty.
  • Specialization: What schools offer programs in your field of interest? Find out schools that offer graduate certificates or degrees in your field. For example, Colorado State University OnlinePlus offers degree in fields such as agriculture, natural resources, and engineering, just to name a few. If you’re unsure, conduct a Google search, ask colleagues or check out rankings from U.S. News in areas such as business, education, and engineering.
  • Accreditation: What accreditation does each school have? This is especially important when selecting schools with online programs. Once you have the degree, the school’s accreditation can impact how employers view the degree or what further education programs you can apply to. For example, CSU is regionally accredited, the highest level of accreditation possible.

When considering schools, I made a list of all the qualities that mattered most to me in a school. I put CSU on my list because it’s a highly respected research university in a place where I wanted to live with graduate courses in journalism and natural resources. Once you create your own list, you’re ready to dig into the nuts and bolts of each program.

Check Admission Requirements
Find out if you meet the minimum requirements first thing. This can help you narrow your list even earlier in the process. If you fall a little shy of requirements, such as GRE scores or prerequisite coursework, but you’ve got your heart set on applying to the school, contact the department and discuss your options. You may be able to retake the GRE or enroll in courses with the university so you meet the minimum requirements for the program.

Go Over the Curriculum
Take the time to carefully review program requirements and courses. Do any classes excite you? Are any required classes deal breakers, ones you absolutely don’t want to take? Find out when classes that excite you are offered and if they’ll fit into your academic schedule. Most importantly, consider whether or not the overall curriculum will provide you with the skills and knowledge you need in your career. Some programs may focus more on theory and research, while others will place a stronger emphasis on developing practical skills. When I was reviewing programs, I was stoked about the journalism master’s curriculum at CSU because it focused on theory and research in my field, offered a thesis option and allowed me to take several graduate courses through the Warner College of Natural Resources.

Find Out if a Thesis Is Required
Determine if a thesis, final project or final exam is required, and think carefully about what fits you best. Completing a thesis can set you up for further academic pursuits, such as a Ph.D., but the amount of work required to complete a thesis can be too much for some students. Decide if you are up to the task. You don’t want to finish your coursework but fail to finish the thesis and – ultimately – the degree.

Get to Know the Faculty
Colleges and departments often post links to faculty websites and provide curriculum vitae for faculty members. See who teaches the courses that excite you. Take a look at their backgrounds and research interests. Are any faculty members doing research that aligns with ideas you have for a thesis or project? Have any professors attended or taught at the same schools as you? These faculty members may serve as your advisor or a member of your thesis committee. They also can become great references and help you network in your field. Contact those professors who have similar interests as you. Let them know you’re applying to the program. Some programs may require you to contact faculty before applying, but it’s a good idea anyway. These professors may be able to put in a good word for you, and it won’t be just name-dropping if you mention them in a statement of purpose. One of the professors I contacted prior to applying to CSU ended up serving on my thesis committee and has helped connect me to jobs and individuals locally in my field.

Explore Funding Options
Figure out how much the program will cost. You may be tempted to check tuition right off the bat, but I encourage you to determine if the program is a good fit for you and your career goals first. The least expensive school may not provide the best value. Determine if financial aid or scholarships are offered for the program. For instance, at CSU, we offer discounts for military personnel admitted to online degree programs in business and engineering.

If you’re currently thinking through going back to school, good luck! Check out this worksheet for another guide to help you find the right school for you. Going back to school helped me fine tune my career, and it can do the same for you, too.