How to choose a graduate program

By Rachel Dzombak, Stephen Suffian 03 November 2015

MPP and MPA students at the 2015 Ford School policy event and networking reception in Washington, DC. Below are tips to consider when selecting a graduate program. Photo by: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan / CC BY-ND

When deciding to pursue a graduate degree, in sustainable development or otherwise, most people face three nagging questions: What degree should I get? What specific area should I focus on? How do I go about finding the right program and university?

Graduate school is a significant investment of time, money and energy; you want to be sure your decision will advance your career. Here are five things to consider when choosing a graduate program.

Fair warning: We repeatedly nudge you to email or call people to ask questions. We cannot stress this enough. Grad school is the time for you to get proactive about your education. Find opportunities for yourself and dive right in — because no one is going to do it for you.

1. What is my passion?

If you get a graduate degree, it should be in something that you are passionate about, and will lead you to a career you want. Grad school is an investment and comes with substantial costs. You will have homework on nights and weekends, team projects with (potentially difficult) partners, and plenty of additional academic and personal hoops. You may be passionate about ICT4D in Africa, but before heading out to warm Kenyan nights, you may have to spend two to three years battling winter storms in Ann Arbor, Michigan — so you should be sure before you commit.

2. Do I want to work with this adviser?

When pursuing a research-focused degree, you should choose a program primarily because of an adviser. Your adviser will be your primary contact into the broader academic, administrative, and in some cases employment world. Sometimes, they may even become a lifelong mentor.

Prior to applying to schools, contact potential advisers by phone, email or personal meeting. Talk to their current students. Learn about the professor’s working style, the successes of past students, the career goals of current students and opportunities provided by the school.

3. What resources does the university offer?

Grad school is an opportunity to dive into a program and the larger campus ecosystem. You will have fewer distractions than you did in undergrad and more time to devote to building your professional identity. What opportunities in and around the school you attend will help you do this? Ask lots of questions, but remember that the program officers are trying to recruit you to their school. Make sure you talk with current students — they often have more honest insights.

3 things to consider when evaluating graduate programs

1. Events and resources on campus. Often programs or departments will have a weekly seminar. Are the speakers faculty members from the school or other institutions? Do people from local industries come on campus? Look up the website for the school’s career services office. Does it seem to focus on undergraduate job placement, or do they have resources for graduate students as well?

2 Multiple disciplines. Does the school specialize in a given field? Or does it have diverse strengths? For instance, I was looking to attend graduate school in engineering, but I still wanted to take MBA, law, and policy classes. When visiting schools, I was sure to ask how easy it was to enroll in courses from other disciplines and whether or not they would count toward my degree.

3. Ecosystem opportunities. What ecosystems exist on campus that you can plug into? Some programs may have a history of research turning into startups, others may be closely attached to large corporations, and still others may be focused on placing students into internships with the government. If you’re interested in conducting research in developing countries or jump-starting ventures there, travel funding is an extremely important factor. Think about what you may want to do and how the school can help you to achieve it.

4. What career paths do graduates of the program pursue?

Schools have different levels of relationships with corporations, nonprofits, multilaterals and other organizations. Say you are passionate about tech entrepreneurship. Is there going to be a mountain of international development organizations recruiting at a small private school in the Midwest? Probably not. Look specifically at the strengths of the schools you are applying to. Ask the program director if you can be connected with successful alumni or how often companies come to campus and what networking opportunities the school sets up.

5. How do I get into and pay for a graduate program?

Financing your graduate degree will depend on what degree you pursue and where you pursue it. Follow these tips to improve your chances of securing fellowships and scholarships.

Show your interest. If you’re really passionate about a program, make sure the admissions officers know that! Visit the school and set up times to meet with the fellowships office. If you’re interested in teaching either undergraduate or graduate classes, it’s also good to ask about how to apply for teaching assistantships.

Write a good essay. No matter how stellar your college GPA or GRE scores were or whether you have done wildly impressive things, you will be judged based on essays. The goal of an essay is to tell a good story. Anybody should be able to read your essay and understand the value of it. Therefore, give it to multiple people to read and critique — your mom, a professor, your boss, or a good friend. Each reader will have different insights and will strengthen your chances of producing a great essay.

Have your act together. Applications to grad school and fellowship opportunities require a lot of logistical planning. If you’re hoping to pivot your career aspirations or are looking into interdisciplinary programs, you may have to take additional courses before applying. Successful applicants have all their information to the intended recipient by the deadline if not well before.

READ: How international students can finance a US education 

6. Who do I want to spend my time with?

Every program has a culture. For MBAs, there are the case studies, networking events, and weekend parties. In engineering programs, it is solitude and homework, followed by labs and conversations about research. Design programs are known for long hours in the studio, real-world project work, and critique sessions. When you are selecting a program, go to the visitation days that are available, but also look for other opportunities to experience the school. Talk to the students currently in the program. See if you can crash on their couch for a night and ask as many questions as you can.

Also think about the location of the program and the general community that you will join. You will be in school for several years, so you want to live in a place where you can grow both academically and personally.

7. What is the brand recognition of the program?

Graduate school is your last degree. Unless you’re going to get multiple master’s degrees  – which probably is not as useful as it sounds, except in certain cases — your graduate degree is what will stand on your résumé as your final education record. Therefore, it should mean something. Think about the alumni network of the school and the brand recognition. When you say, “I got my master’s here,” are people going to respond by saying, “Wow! That is a great program” or “Hmm, I have never heard of that school.”

Global or national brand recognition may not matter as much if you want to work in the location or specialty near the school, but you still want to be recognizable in that community. And if you are pursuing a global career with a large organization or multilateral agency, or to build credibility as an entrepreneur, you may want a compelling degree from a prestigious school.

This article is an abbreviated version of a chapter from the book, “Solving Problems that Matter (and Getting Paid for It),” edited by Khanjan Mehta, that delves into STEM careers in social innovation and global sustainable development.

You know you need a postgraduate degree to advance in a global development career, but deciding on a program, degree and specialization can be overwhelming. In partnership with APSIA, Duke Center for International Development and the MPA/ID Program at the Harvard Kennedy School, we are digging into all things graduate school and global development in a weeklong series called Grad School Week. Join online events and read more advice on pursuing a post-graduate education here.

About the authors

Oped racheldzombak
Rachel Dzombak

Rachel Dzombak is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on mechanisms of sustainable development and design of scalable systems.


Oped stephensuffian
Stephen Suffian

Stephen Suffian is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering at Villanova University. He is researching information-driven flexibility options for electricity grids with high penetration of variable and uncertain renewable energy sources.


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