How to choose the right Graduate School

After a year of graduate school, I decided to look back and share my experience of choosing James Madison University and the process I will use to narrow down my choices of PhD programs.

When choosing a grad school, there are many things to consider.  The school, surrounding community, and cost are just a few.  Here is a more comprehensive list in no particular order.


When choosing a grad school one of the first questions asked is how much will it cost.  There are many aspects to grad school that we often do not think of.  Moving expenses, security deposits, utilities and bills.  The most important, of course, is the cost of the university itself.  How much is the tuition?  Is it by credit hour?  Are you eligible for in-state tuition?  Most schools will include a breakdown of your cost per year including room and board, tuition, books, and fees.


Most schools will offer some form of financial aid to assist students.  Unfortunately, federal grants are not available to grad students, only federal loans.  Many schools offer different types of scholarships and you should apply to any scholarships you are eligible for.  The most common form of aid offered to grad students comes in the form of assistantships.  There are three types of assistantships.  Research assistants assist professors with varying types of research.  This type is often used for the sciences.  Graduate assistants hold various types of positions including office positions and study groups.  Teaching assistants work with a professor with a large survey class.  TAs may or may not having teaching responsibilities, but will have grading responsibilities and are usually required to hold regular office hours.  The best thing about having an assistantship, however, is that most schools will offer a tuition waiver (for some or all your tuition) as well as a stipend.  This can greatly reduce the amount of loans necessary.  Not all schools or departments offer assistantships and it is important to check with all schools you are considering.


When talking with graduate coordinators for your specific majors, you should find out how many students are in the program and how many professors are in the department.  If the department only has 10 professors and 50 grad students, it may be difficult to get one-on-one assistance with your thesis/dissertation.  At JMU, the ratio is approximately 1/1, but even a 2/1 ratio is fairly common.


In addition to finding out how many professors are in the department, you should also look at each professors biography provided on the department’s website.  This will provide a lot of information.  Where they went to school, publications, and their concentrations.  It is important to find a school that has a professor with a concentration similar to yours.  That person will likely be the director of your thesis/dissertation and be able to direct you to the correct sources.  You can also look up professors on ranking websites such as  Knowing whom you want to work with can help you when you are writing a statement of purpose.


Most students assume that all universities and all programs within a university are accredited, but they are sadly mistaken.  There are stories of students going through a programing and getting their degree only to be told that their degree is unaccredited.  It is important to know, medical programs and other programs are accredited separately from the university since there are different standards.  Luckily, there is an easy way to check accreditation of the schools you are interested in by visiting the Department of Education.


There are several different ways to check the schools rankings.  The most common is US News & World Report, but there are many other online sources as well as print sources.  Be careful, however, because there are separate ranking systems for undergrad and graduate programs.


We often get excited about a school that we forget to look at several key factors of the schools location.  Is it in a large city?  Rural setting?  What types of stores are in the city?  All this can be discovered by looking at the city’s website or the local Chamber of Commerce.  Often either source will list what is available within the city.


If you are looking at a school in New York City, you are going to pay a lot more for an apartment than someone living in Harrisonburg, Virginia.  There are several websites that list apartments available for rent within a city and you should look into this before considering the school.  This will give you an idea of what types of apartments are available and their cost per month.  Also be sure to find out what utilities, if any, are included in the rent.  Including in cost of living is the cost of movies, groceries, etc. in the city.  This should all be a part of your decision.


The other thing to consider is the campus itself.  Is it large? Small?  In the middle of a large city?  What building is your department in?  What dining options do you have?  Is there a recreation center?  A campus should be a self contained city.  If you live on campus, you really should not have to leave to do simple tasks.


Eventually you will get your degree and want a job.  Does the school help you with job placement?  Resume building?  All this professional development should be included within the price of your tuition.  Most universities have a career development center to help with these tasks and also provide job listings.

Graduate school is a serious decision and there are many factors that should look into choosing the right program.  The program is only a part of the full experience of the graduate school experience.  As I mentioned last week, your work load will increase and it is often easy to forget all that is offered to you by the university.  Next week I will look closely at the process for applying to graduate school.  Until then…


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