In this post, revised from three that I last updated in 2008, I will consider the role of academic fit, location, and financing in graduate school selection. I suggest reading my posts on fit and prestige as well.
Whether you are in the process of deciding where to go or are deciding where to attend, academic fit is an important part of school selection.
How difficult is the program?Don't associate difficulty with admission with difficulty of the program itself, though the two are often correlated. Some degree programs are just easier to get through regardless of their ranking or other positive features. Below, I consider this issue in regards to MBA, LL.M., Ph.D., Masters, and the relationship between difficulty and ranking.
MBA: INSEAD, IMD, Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB (first year) and Darden, which at least based on what my previous clients have told me, seem particularly hard. Given the real variation in curriculum, this is partially a function of fit. Be honest with yourself and realistic about what you want to do. For example, HBS is great for some, but a disaster waiting to happen for some of its admits who will be invited not to return after the first year (maybe they can come back in a year or two, maybe not). Those not invited to directly return for the second year of HBS likely would have survived elsewhere, but due to weak communication skills, an inability to have anything useful to say in class, or weak quantitative skills, their two-year path to management greatness has been sidetracked, perhaps permanently.
An LL.M. at Harvard Law School also seems quite hard comparatively because international LL.M. students are not given extra time to complete their exams like they are at many other Masters of Law programs in the US. While most students who are admitted to HLS are likely to go and do well (My clients admitted to HLS have consistently been some of the smartest legal minds I have encountered), it is at least worth keeping this mind. When selecting where do your Masters of Law, as with degree programs, ask current students and alumni to get a sense of how difficult the program is.
Ph.D. programs: The rates of attrition in Ph.D. programs are high, so really think seriously about whether you should be applying for a Ph.D. or a masters program. Inside Higher Ed has a very good article on Ph.D. attrition rates (Yes, it is from 2007, but my attempts to find more updated data on this have failed. If anyone has more updated information, please email me at email@example.com).
Ranking does not necessarily tell you how difficult a program will be to get a degree from. Especially keep in mind that some mid-ranked graduate programs in the humanities and social sciences may often have more stringent requirements for obtaining a graduate degree than their higher ranked rivals. Often such mid-ranked programs have a reputation for providing the kind of master’s level training that gets their graduates into better Ph.D. programs.
Make sure that the faculty, classes, and other resources will support you and motivate you.
Are the program content and teaching methods used compatible with you? Think about what you want to learn and really look deeply into the program to see that it really will be focused on what you want to study. In some disciplines, teaching methods are more consistent, but in others, such as MBA, there is huge variation in what is acceptable. Do an honest self-assessment of what kind of learner you are in order to determine what will work best for you. For more about learning style, see here.
What are the faculty like? For those applying to graduate programs in the humanities, social sciences, sciences, and engineering, http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/ is a must. If you read that your potential mentor is consistently considered to be an asshole, a drunk, or otherwise undesirable, best find someone else to work with. If there is no one else consider other schools. Asking current students and recent alumni is always a good idea.See my earlier post (2007!) on how to learn about faculty.
What is the quality of the school's research infrastructure (libraries, research centers, and/or laboratories) for your intended field of study? Especially for those planning on doing intensive research, ask yourself whether the school is really equipped to meet your research agenda. Those applying for degrees in the sciences most obviously pay especially close attention to this issue.
To what extent will leading people in my intended field of study come to the school to deliver talks or hold short courses? One thing that often sets a top program apart is the frequency of visits by leading people in your field.
What kind of educational exchange options are there? If educational exchange is something that you are looking for, obviously you need to consider this issue. Many of my past MBA clients have reported wonderful experiences doing exchange programs.
Ask yourself whether you will be sufficiently prepared when you start the program.
If you think there is a gap between what you know and what you need to know when the program commences, ask yourself whether you can fill the gap. Even if you have obtained admission, ask yourself this question. Many admits will be covering those gaps in the summer before school starts and you should as well. If you are in the application phase, put together a plan for how you will cover any prerequisite gaps and decide whether your application needs to address this issue.
Fit with fellow students
One of the best reasons to visit a school or at least to interact with alumni is determine whether you like them. To a greater or lesser extent, your fellow students will impact your graduate experience both in and out of the classroom. Make sure that you feel good about the alums and current students you encounter. Regardless of attempts to diversify, all institutions have a tendency to attract certain kinds of people, so just make sure you are left with the feeling that you would want to be friends with the alums and current students you encounter. Consider what it will be like to be in classrooms, engaged in discussions, in groups, and asking for help from the students in your program.
Trust No Single Perspective
Finally, when looking into these issues, don't simply accept one perspective on the school. You should never let your decision to apply or attend be based simply on the judgment of one other person. Ask around, look around, and ultimately trust no one but yourself to make the decision.
Be sure that you will be able to thrive in whatever kind of place you will be studying in. Some people really do need less distracting (rural) environments, others need warm locations, and students with school age children really do need to think about this issue as well. I certainly would not say location is necessarily the most important factor, but if you are thinking of being somewhere for a year or more, it should certainly be taken into consideration.
Some questions to think about:
1. Will the location help or hinder my studies? For some people, going to school in a small town would be a great way to stay focused, but for other people it would be torture. For some the distractions of a big city would be fatal to their studies, while for others it would only facilitate them. If your studies are highly dependent on or will be greatly enhanced by access to location specific specific resources, think carefully about this issue.
2. Is the school located in a safe place? Everyone has different conceptions of what a safe place is. For US schools, see College and University Campus Crime Statistics. Also take a look at the crime rates in the city that your school will be located in. Risk is always a relative consideration, but those coming from safe countries with their families, it often can be a considerable one.
3. What is the availability, cost, and quality of housing?
Related to location, really think about what kind of place you need/want to live in. There is such huge variation on this and it is unlikely to be fully revealed by the estimated cost of housing that schools will provide you with. I strongly suggest asking students once you are admitted. In addition to the school's housing office, craigslist is one great resource for finding housing.
4. The transportation infrastructure: (public transportation and availability of parking). Invariably campus parking is a pain, but that said, if you are going to be doing a commute to get to school, you should at least look into this. For those who don't know how or don't want to drive (For the record, I fit into both categories), you should really consider this issue.
5. If the school is not located in a major city, how easy is it to get access to a major airport? Easy airport access is quite important if you will need to travel for job interviews, academic conferences, or just to get away from your little college town.
6. Does the school's location support my personal or family's needs? For some individuals, such as observant Jews and Muslims, having easy access to appropriate places of worship as well as acceptable food are critical. For others, it will be access to good schools for their kids. Whatever your personal or family needs are, you should consider them when applying to a school. It is best to do your homework on this issue first and take nothing for granted, especially if you are applying to a school located in a small town.
FINANCING YOUR EDUCATION
DISCLAIMER: While I review scholarship essays, I am in no way an expert on scholarships or financial aid. I help my clients and blog readers with graduate admissions, but once they are admitted, my role has ended. The following comments are made simply for purposes of initial consideration of school selection.
How I can pay for tuition and all related costs? Except for the rich and possibly the company sponsored, the cost of education is always a consideration. You will need to figure this out for any school you attend, so look carefully to see what you will actually need, what you can borrow, and what kind of scholarships might be available. Don't be afraid to ask admissions questions about this because it is too important a topic to guess about.
For those who are deciding where to apply to, you need to have a clear plan for how you will finance your education. Many applications will require that you state this, so you might as well do your homework at the initial stage. If you will be coming to the US as an international student, you will need to demonstrate that you have sufficient funds in order for the school to issue you an I-20 (the document you need to get a student visa). While much of your plan will likely be a function of your finances and those of your family, your plan might also rely upon support from the school or from loans.
What scholarships are available to me and how likely is it that I can get one? Depending on your background, financial need, academics, and GMAT, and the program you are applying to, schools have very different levels of funding available. If you are expecting to get scholarships, look closely at their availability when selecting schools.
The availability of part-time work, research assistantships, and teaching assistantships is another consideration. If you are an international student, your ability to work will greatly vary depending on where you go. The US has very stringent rules on part-time work for those on international student visas, so don't count on being able to work. For those pursuing Ph.D.s one primary source of funding would be a research or teaching assistantship, but the availability of such positions varies widely.
Loans: MBA programs often have great programs for all admitted applicants to obtain loans, but this is less often case with other types of degrees. Look at what will be available to you before you apply. If you are international student, depending on your situation, you may need to obtain loans in your country, so look into this before you apply.
ROI: Return on Investment. Simply calculating costs is not enough, you have to look at the return you can expect as well. It may very well make good financial sense to leave school with $100,000 in debt if the return justifies it. Regardless of what type of program you attend, you really do need to do some cost calculations so that you have a sense of what your graduate degree will be costing you and what kind of potential return you can expect from it. It is an investment of time, energy, and money, so make your decisions carefully. For more about MBA ROI, see the Businessweek ROI calculator. For any international applicants considering obtaining an LL.M. and then practicing law in the United States after passing the bar, I suggest you do an intensive reality check on that option. Those considering application to US law schools should most certainly read abovethelaw.com, but if you do so chances are you might end up applying for an MBA.