Opinion: 5 questions to ask when choosing a grad program

These guiding questions can help you sift through different options and prioritize what’s most important to you. Photo by: CollegeDegrees360 / CC BY-SA

Discerning which graduate school is right for you can feel like an overwhelming experience. All of the marketing materials and websites start to sound the same. You may seek advice from friends and co-workers, but — at the end of the day — only you can make this important decision.

The Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs brings together the leading graduate schools around the world that specialize in international affairs. Our members combine deep regional, cultural and economic expertise with broad preparation in critical thinking, quantitative analysis, public communication, project management and teamwork.

Through our in-person and online recruitment events, we regularly encounter students wrestling with their many graduate school options. You build relationships through these events, which can help you get the best understanding of a program.

But how can you figure out the right fit for you? We recommend you ask yourself five questions to begin:

1. What will you study?

Every school can provide information on their curriculum, suggest example courses, and highlight amazing faculty. Only you can decide what fits your needs.

Do you want a highly proscriptive program, where each step is laid out? Is flexibility key, so that you can weave together different interests? Is there a middle way, which lays out an adaptable framework?

Compare the foundational courses you must take in each program. Consider the electives offered. Understand whether you have access to other professional schools within the university. Then, weigh which approach gives you the best chance to get the most out of your education.

2. Are you qualified?

Applying to graduate schools should be a labor-intensive process (see A 12 month guide to applying). Set yourself up for success; find schools for which you are well-qualified.

What are the average test scores and grade point averages of admitted students? How many years of experience do you need? What other indicators do they use to evaluate candidates?

While average numbers are intended as a guide — and not set in stone — use them to understand for which programs you will be most competitive. Then, also apply to one or two that are a bit of stretch if you can make a compelling case for admission. Understand where you fall as a candidate and adjust your application plan accordingly.

3. Do you like being there?

Graduate school is not just about your academic success. You have to live and thrive somewhere, too. Before you spend two years (or more!) in a place, be sure it’s where you want to be.

Do you prefer the city, suburbs or rural areas? Do you need public transportation, or is your car your best friend? When you’re not focused on school, are there enjoyable activities to pass the time?

Graduate school can be a great opportunity to test out a new location; but, be sure it meets your basic needs and comforts. You need to feel content where you will live and have some opportunities for relaxation and enjoyment.

4. Can you afford it?

Educational debt is good debt, but be sure you understand what financial obligations you are taking on.

What are the costs for courses and fees? Is there support for internships and study abroad? What kinds of loans and grants are available? Can you work while in school?

Most master’s degrees take two years — be sure to budget for the entire program. Don’t forget to factor in the costs of food, housing, and transportation. If your ideal program seems beyond your research, ask if there is a part-time option. Explore whether a year’s deferment would enable you to build up enough reserves. There are many ways to afford graduate school with the proper planning.

5. What is the professional fit?

Professional degrees must be grounded in your professional goals. Read job opportunities that seem interesting, even if you’re not yet qualified. See what skills they require. Look at the staff biographies for organizations at which you want to work. See what they studied and where.

Will you build those competencies in the course of a program? Do they have a network of alumni and faculty in the areas you seek? Where do students intern or take jobs after school?

Think about how a graduate school sets you up for your first job. Reflect on the foundation the program will provide for your fifth or tenth position. All of your work in graduate school should build towards the day after graduation. Even if you don’t know precisely where the degree will take you, get set up for professional success.

These guiding questions can help you sift through different options and prioritize what’s most important to you. Keep an open mind. Programs that you might not have heard of could be the right fit. Selecting the right graduate school requires a lot of self-reflection and information gathering. It’s a daunting, but rewarding task!

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 the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs, Duke Center for International Development, American University Kogod School of Business, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 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 postgraduate education here.

About the author

  • Carmen Iezzi Mezzera

    Carmen Mezzera has been executive director of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs since January 2014. Previously, she served as director of programs and operations at the Bretton Woods Committee; executive director of the Fair Trade Federation; assistant director for education and outreach at the Atlantic Council of the United States; and director of Alumni Relations for the School of International Service at American University.