Grad School 101

Grad School 101: Choosing the ‘right’ graduate program

Assalamualaikum,

This is a continuation of my previous post, Should You Go To Graduate School?. Assuming that you’ve either read that post or have already decided that “Yes, I am going to go to graduate school“, you might start to think about which graduate program to go to.

In this post, I will share with you some of the factors that personally took into consideration while choosing my graduate program. Hopefully, some of these can help you in choosing the ‘right‘ graduate program for you. As always, everything here is based on my own experiences, so do take it with a bit of salt, okay? Feel free to mix and match depending on your own preferences, and remember that there is never a right way in doing things.

And also remember that there is no one ‘right’ graduate program. Every program is unique in its own sense, and you can’t fully compare one program to another. At the end of the day, it all depends on what’s right for you at this time.

So, what do you need to know in order to choose the right graduate program?

As I’ve mentioned so many times on this blog (in any of my posts on Fresh Grad / Grad School, etc), you need to know yourself. When you know yourself better, it makes you more aware of your situation and helps you in making the right decision.

This includes things like:

What are you looking for in the graduate program? 

What are you looking to study? Why are you actually thinking of going to graduate school? What kinds of things are you looking forward to learn about? List down some of your expectations, and find a list of programs that may offer you some, if not most, of what you’re looking for.

When I was looking for my master’s program, I went through this process twice. I say twice because initially (in 2016), I was inclined towards pursuing a master’s degree in student affairs. Now, student affairs is a big thing in the US, but you don’t actually need it if you’re not planning on working in the US. There are not that many options to pursue that program outside the US anyways (last time I checked, there were only two programs in the UK). 

During Freshers Week (aka orientation week), where people assumed I was a first-year undergraduate instead of a postgraduate student.

I mean, it would’ve still been a solid option for me to pursue my studies in student affairs. I wrote a little about my decision here if you’re interested to read more about it. But considering other factors (funding, duration, etc), pursuing that in the US wouldn’t be feasible for me.

Changing focus, but that’s okay.

So I changed the focus of my program to education and youth. I didn’t want to pursue a MA Education that focused on teaching per se, because I was not (and am not) looking to become a teacher. But I wanted to learn more about how I can work with youth, either informally through my volunteer work, or through an NGO. 

That means, when I was looking for my program, I was looking for specifically youth-related education master’s, which helps in narrowing down my options. Once I have a list of about 5-10 programs, I started asking other questions, such as:

What are your personal preferences for the university / location?

Do you have a preference between attending a big research university, or do you prefer a smaller university? Do you like living in a city, or do you prefer somewhere more suburban / country? Are you looking for a university locally (either in your area, or in your country), or are you willing to relocate to a different place?

Not a city girl myself.

I knew I was not a fan of living in a big city, so universities like UCL was out of the question. I liked smaller, more country / suburban kind of areas, so Huddersfield fits in well with the type of places that I like. It’s small, in the middle of nowhere (like Madison, WI), and has everything that I need here (halal food, etc). And if I ever need to run away to big cities to clear my head, Manchester and Leeds are only a short-train ride away!

How does your funding looks like?

Will you be paying for your studies on your own, or would you need to depend on external funding? Are you applying or in the process of getting a grant by an organization? If yes, you might have to make sure that you are applying to universities that they approve of!

Some other things to consider also includes possible scholarship or assistantships / grants opportunities. Certain universities may have additional scholarships for certain programs or nationalities. Some may have agreements in place for a reduced tuition fees for a group of applicants. Other programs, like some in the US, may offer you a graduate assistantship that covers tuition fees as well.

Think also about your personal expenses throughout your program.

That includes the possible rental costs for the duration of your program and how much health insurance would cost you. Add on with estimated monthly bills and grocery shopping and occasional trips here and there. All of that plays a factor in determining which program is most cost-efficient to attend.

Huddersfield, back in January 2018

One way to do so may be by having a spreadsheet to help you estimate the total cost of attending a specific program. I uploaded a sample of the spreadsheet that I used in 2016/2017, so feel free to take a look at it if you want. Mind you, it may be incomplete. Once I decided that I was taking a gap year to work, I stopped updating it, so, yeah.

How long are you willing to commit for your graduate program?

Are you set to finish your Master’s in one year, or are you okay with a longer Master’s program? This is here because some universities may offer 1-2 years Master’s program. For some people, you might not even care about how long your program is for. But for others, they might prefer a shorter program because of their other commitments.

Personally, I originally didn’t mind between one or two-years programs. But since my plans changed and I was going for my Master’s right after my wedding, I knew I didn’t want it to be that long. I didn’t want to be on a long-distance relationship for too long, nor do I want to burden my parents for my expenses. So I opted for a one-year Master’s program.

Paying a little visit – if you’re able to do so.

One last advice that I have for people to help in choosing the right graduate program is to visit your options. Now, of course, only do this if you are able to. I know for some people, you might be applying for programs and universities outside your country. That’s okay. But if you are applying to local or nearby universities, I do highly recommend paying them a visit.

Most universities usually have an Open Day / Applicant Day, so that would be a good time to see the campus. You could also email the prospective department and set up a meeting with someone. This can help you tremendously in learning more about the program and finding out if it’s a good fit for you.

A visit to St Mary’s University in Twickenham, London. A quiet small town, although a bit scary to walk alone at night.

Personally, I paid a visit to my university and to St Mary’s University in London earlier this year. I was on my UK trip to send my brother back to Brighton anyway, and decided to make the most out of it. Visiting the place and talking to professors / advisors help me to gain a more in-depth understanding about the programs. 

But what if I can’t visit them? How do I know?

Now, this is where social media comes in play. Ah, the beauty of the internet. You can always reach out to current students via Facebook / Twitter. Check out the university’s pages on social media and learn more about their student life and events. Other than that, you can also email them and request more information or connections if you wish to talk to a student / advisor. I’m sure that most universities would be more than happy to help make that connection for you.

But whatever it is, you have to make the extra effort to research and find out more information. DO NOT rely solely on whatever they put up on their website, as this may not give you enough information to make a good judgement. Talk to someone, schedule an in-person or Skype meeting, find out as much as possible. Reach out to alumni and current students, learn from their experiences. 

Hopefully, these steps can help you in choosing the right graduate program.

There is no right formula in choosing the right graduate program. I can’t say that the right graduate program is 40% program-content, 20% location, 20% funding, 15% student life and 5% gut feeling. Ultimately, it all depends on you and what’s important to you. Some people may want a vibrant city life and would thrive in a big city university. Others may opt for quieter areas so that they can focus more on their research and studies.

Do whatever suits you and your preferences, and never let anyone look down on you based on your choice. I know I’ve had people questioning why I chose to attend the University of Huddersfield. It is in the middle of nowhere, and even my UK-graduated friends have no idea where it is. But it offers me what I was looking for, and is in a location that I like and enjoy. So why not?

Wherever you are in your graduate school journey, I wish you all the best! Hopefully you’ve found this post somewhat useful to you. If yes, please do leave a comment down below, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Also, feel free to send over suggestions / comments / requests on my Ask.fm!

Until next time, stay awesome <3 

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