There are thousands of graduate programs and the choices can seem overwhelming. Rather than spending hours browsing graduate school websites, first identify what you want to get out of your graduate degree. In other words, think about your career aspirations and what knowledge, skills, and experience will help you achieve them. Next, pick a program that suits your intellectual interests and career needs. Unfortunately, this is sometimes easier said than done.

Explore Opportunities

It is very important to target your program search to match your professional goals, as studying at a graduate level is where you develop expertise within a particular field. Many undergrads still have no idea what they want to do next semester, let alone the rest of their working lives. While uncertainty is perfectly fine and understandable, it’s also important to do some due diligence. Research the career choices within each program that interests you, look at the class schedule, talk to students in that program, and look into an internship in the field(s) you’re considering.

For graduate school applicants who have trouble choosing one area to focus on or don’t have specific career aspirations yet, be introspective. Your perceptions of certain programs may not be entirely accurate; so as an undergraduate, consider taking a course or two in each area of interest. Applicants should also look for programs with opportunities to study a range of different topics as well as for internships to sample different professional roles.

Think Outside the Classroom

Internships give you the real world experience that can’t be taught in a classroom or found in the library. Before you fully commit yourself to a program and career field, diversify your experiences. Get a relevant internship or do some job shadowing to obtain a real-world sense of your program’s day-to-day work. This will allow yourself to realize whether your profession of interest is or isn’t for you.

Start reading papers published by well-known researchers in your field(s) and explore which papers you find more interesting than others. Determine why certain areas of those papers are interesting, and use that as a stepping-stone to do more exploring.

Be proactive and go to the meetings of academically focused clubs that are interested in the same topics as you. Attend events, lectures, and seminars hosted by your prospective program departments. Speak with students enrolled in the programs you're considering, and see how they feel about their course and workload. Individual impressions vary, so be sure get a balanced opinion. If you hear the same things from several students, then the information is probably reliable.

Weigh All Your Options

Many undergraduates choose to pursue professions and postgraduate degrees based on what’s going to make them the most money. While it may be a good idea to plan your future based on the field’s financial outlook, remember that this is your life, it’s not all about the money. Do you really want to devote 40+ hours a week for the next 40 years in a career that makes you miserable, simply because it delivers a hefty paycheck?

An informed decision of the best program involves exploring all opportunities to determine what you want your end goal to be. While your career outlook is by no means completely dependent upon the program you choose to pursue, it’s a great place to start. You’ll want to think about how much education you will need to qualify for the career you want while at the same time give you a competitive advantage in the job market. For example, if your undergraduate major is psychology, you will most likely need some kind of graduate degree for you to practice in the clinical or academic field, whereas if you want to teach at the University level, you will most likely need your PhD.

Consider studying abroad. There’s the general benefit gained from studying abroad as employers are increasingly valuing international experience across a wide range of sectors. By choosing to study abroad for your graduate degree, you’ll add strength to your résumé and set yourself apart from the other applicants.

Work with a Program Counselor

Unmistakably, there is a lot of information available on the internet, whether its websites dedicated to studying in general or studying in a particular field, sites that address multiple schools, or graduate schools’ own websites. However, when gathering information to know what to expect once you join the program, don’t forget to contact representatives from the school of the graduate programs you are considering.

It is beneficial for you to utilize your university’s resources when choosing a program. Talking with a program advisor will give you a more in-depth look at finding out the best prerequisites to take, the length of the program, and future prospects with that program. Don’t be afraid to do this, or feel that you’re wasting the advisor’s time, graduate schools are also looking for the right match with students who fit well with their programs. Remember, while the internet makes it much easier to discover information without speaking with someone, it still doesn’t beat personal interaction when it comes to decision making.

Create a Degree Plan

Once you have chosen a program, create a concise and focused degree plan. With it, you should have an idea of your graduation date and it will enable you to plan accordingly. A degree plan, sometimes referred to as a program plan, begins with an academic evaluation. It is a tool universities share to help students identify the areas of credit needed in order to complete a degree. A completed academic evaluation will show you which of your previously earned credits apply to a degree, where in the degree they apply, and where in the degree there are still required credits to be completed.

Taking a course and then finding out the credit won’t apply towards your degree is among the most frustrating student experiences. The university and degree advisors are there to help you avoid such experiences and the unnecessary expenses. Therefore, by selecting potential classes before registration and getting them approved by a program counselor, you will be able to make a long-term degree plan.

Every section in your degree is filled by either credits you have already earned or credits you can earn with the following methods of earning credit:

Prior Learning Methods New Learning Methods
College-level courses taken through regionally accredited colleges or universities and transferred to the university* Distance courses from any regionally accredited colleges and universities
Examinations such as the TECEP©, CLEP, DSST, and Excelsior College exams along with the university and ACTFL Foreign Language Proficiency exams Classroom courses from any regionally accredited colleges and universities
PLA (Portfolio Assessment) through the university or other schools** Online courses from the university
ACE, NCCRS and the university APRs

*PLA/portfolio credit done through institutions other than the university needs to be reviewed for its transferability.

When you plan credits, your advisor will place them on the degree plan where they can be more beneficial to you. Sometimes course credits are transferred to other sections within the degree. That is okay. It is not always important where credits fit, but that they do fit.

Final Thoughts

As an undergraduate, you shape your degree toward your interests and future goals. There are also opportunities to participate in clubs, internships, department lectures, and study abroad programs. In many ways, this is similar to graduate school. Once you have decided that graduate school is part of the career path for you, the next step is to develop professionalism. Even as a student, you are part of a professional field. Get involved, make use of your student memberships, and maximize your time so that you are building a solid record of experience for your resume or CV.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

1 Information taken from “Creating Submitting and Updating a Degree Plan,” Thomas Edison State University 2017, URL: https://www.tesu.edu/current-students/handbook/Degree-Plan.cfm

2 Information taken from “Creating Submitting and Updating a Degree Plan,” Thomas Edison State University 2017, URL: https://www.tesu.edu/current-students/handbook/Degree-Plan.cfm

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