Dear Ally,

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Grad School: Choosing Where to Apply

Dear Ally,

You’re only a sophomore, so grad school seems far away. I didn’t really decide to actually apply or go until late in my junior year. I hadn’t really thought about it and, at the time, was thinking, “Oh, I’ll at least go for a Master’s.” I did the Master’s, but had decided well before that was finished that I’d stick around for the terminal degree.

So where do you want to go? There are several answers to this question including:

  • Where the program and degree you want is offered. If you have a specific career in mind, make sure you find a school that offers the exact curriculum and degree level you need to meet your goals. Also, make sure the program is accredited by the professional organization of your chosen field. In fact, professional organizations might be the first place to look for a list of schools from which to choose.
  • Where you’ve been accepted. Grad school is not as competitive as med school, but certain schools and programs can be very selective. I was told to apply to at least 6 different places: one “dream school” that’s a top 10 school for your program (For me, this was Standford), a few in the middle, and at least one “fall-back” school into which you know you’ll be accepted. With common on-line applications, it’s easier than it used to be to apply to multiple programs. Find the grad school rankings here.
  • In a geographic location where you’d like to live. Grad school is a long time, so some people (like me) choose to stay near friends and family, but it’s also a finite amount of time, so if there’s somewhere you’ve always wanted to live, this might be the perfect way to do a trial run of an area. Some things to consider are weather/climate, traffic, safety, cost of living, and availability of housing. If you choose an on-line program, you can live anywhere you want.
  • To a school where you’ll have support. Support can mean a variety of things, but you should definitely consider the financial piece. Are there grad assistant positions, scholarships, or fellowships for which you are eligible? Is grad student housing an option? What about lab and library facilities? Are there grad student groups – what about for women, international students, or professional groups for students in your particular program? Women who already have children or intend to start a family in grad school (yes, some people do this on purpose, especially if the health care is good) should ask about daycare options for children of grad students.

Choosing a grad school should not be based solely on:

  • Where your mentor thinks you should go. Your advisor and current professors, especially those with the degree you are seeking, can be excellent sources for recommendations, but don’t feel pressured.
  • Where your significant other will or will not live. So, I actually got accepted to Standford and my boyfriend at the time responded, “If you move to California, we are over.” It was not a threat, just a fact. He couldn’t afford to move and live there and 4-6 years is too long for a long distance relationship. As you know, I didn’t go to Standford for a variety of reasons nor did I marry that boyfriend. I met your uncle in grad school and have the job of my dreams, so I have no regrets.
  • Where the recruiter had the best sales pitch. Sometimes choosing a school can be like buying a car. Beware of the “hard sell” and random incentives like, “Every new grad student gets a free laptop.”

I found this helpful resource as you begin your search:  where you can filter by degree, category, subject, and state or country.

Good luck getting started on your search. This is the most fun part! Once you choose a few schools, plan how you might be able to visit them during breaks (road trip!). You should also start thinking about whether you could spend a summer doing undergraduate research. The National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergrads (NSF-REU) Program is how I was able to spend summers at two different schools , one of these is where I ultimately chose to attend. Applications are due in February or March.


Aunt Sarah


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