Living the Dream

This is how you get what you want…

How to get into grad school, Part II: Choosing your programs September 30, 2007

Before you get started with applications, how do you choose a program? You don’t want to apply to too many because the application process is costly. And however fabulous you are, it’s not a good idea to apply to just a couple of top schools without giving consideration to other decent choices, and even some backups.

Among the most important elements to attend to in selecting a program are the following: 


Read up on the program’s general philosophy. Look for important nuances, such as the focus- for instance, is there a differential emphasis on research vs. practice? Also, if you have specific interests within your field, certain programs have specialty tracks to accommodate these, while others don’t. Finally, find out if your field has an accrediting institution, and if the programs you’re looking into are accredited. 

Program length

Find out how long the program is designed to be. For some programs, typically doctoral programs, the time it actually takes students to complete the program often exceeds the planned timeline. In this case, get a more realistic idea of program length by taking a look at how long it has taken previous students to graduate. This should be on the department website. 


Will you be working closely with a mentor or an advisor? If so, your choice should hinge heavily on your mentor. Your interests should overlap considerably with those of a potential mentor. Find out what type of activities s/he’s involved in, and select a few publications of his/hers to read. If it’s not already built in to the admission process, try to meet her/him before accepting. To get the honest truth on what it’s like to work with this person, talk to his/her current graduate students. 


If a required internship or residency follows the academic years of the program, find out where the program has set its past graduates. Based on the type of internship you’re leaning towards, gauge whether the program will provide the appropriate and sufficient experience. 

Thinking WAY Ahead

Find out what types of jobs are held by graduates of the program. Whether you know exactly what you’d like to do, or you’re still paving your way to a specific career, consider whether are these positions in line with what you see yourself doing for the long-term future. Also this is a decent index to inform you about the program more generally, and what it gears its students towards. 


This is HUGE. Many doctoral programs fully fund their students, including tuition and health insurance, plus a monthly stipend. That’s right – you can get paid to go to school! Other programs offer some support, work-study, and/or loans. MAKE SURE you find out about this ahead of time! If you’re accepted, you might feel so lucky that you got in anywhere, that you simply brush the funding issue under the rug. Then you could be drowning in debt following graduation. All that hard work to be in debt…boo. Remember, the program picked you for a reason, especially if it subscribes to a mentor model. They want you, and they will make compromises to keep you.  


Find out what classes you’ll be required to take while you’re there. Consider how much wiggle room you’ll have for electives, and what choices you’ll have. Consider the typical semester course load and the usual coursework timeline at each program. 

Hands-on Opportunities

Find out if you’ll have (required or optional) opportunities to work with patients, clients, cases, samples during your time in the program. Find out if this will this happen on or off campus, and whether you will get to choose the site. 

Location, location, location!

This one’s a tad controversial, because you certainly shouldn’t select all of your programs because they’re in a particular location. You should be applying to programs, not to a geographic place. The other side of the coin is that you’ll be living in the place for several years- you should see yourself being happy there. Though you’ll be super busy doing a lot of hard work, you should enjoy the ride. Before you commit, visit the place and try to get a feel for it. Scope out neighborhoods and the local culture. Another issue is, will your significant other be moving with you? How does s/he feel about the place? It’s your career, but it’s also important that you both agree on a location to minimize the possibility of resentment in the future. If you’re single, do you have a friend there? This could make your transition a lot easier. Starting school, you’ll meet people in your program, but perhaps not many others. It is a good thing to have friends outside of your program to add some diversity to your social scene.