Questions to ask before applying to grad school

Continuing on a prior post about whether to pursue additional graduate school, here are some basic questions you should ask before applying to a graduate program:

  • What are the employment outcomes of their graduates? Can they point to specific successes? Beyond the nice success stories, what is the average grad doing—what percentage got jobs in their field 6 months after graduation?
  • What is their curriculum including? How often do they confer with employers about whether the curriculum is relevant?
  • Can you speak to some of the faculty or alumni?
  • Are there any measures of their reputation with employers or in the community? Look beyond US News & World Report rankings.
  • Look at the profiles of people in the field who you admire (look them up on Linkedin for example). Where did they go to school?
  • How many alumni do they have? How does their alumni network assist current students?
  • What is the cost of the program?
  • How many career services staff does the program have? What is the ratio of staff to students?
  • Is an internship or other practical training a requirement of the degree?

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Avatar photo Bill Brantley

Good list. I would also suggest that if you are seeking a PhD that you spend a lot of time profiling the faculty to determine who you want to study with. Read their research papers, attend some conferences where they will be presenting, and ask current students or alumni about their teaching style and mentoring style.

Also, have an idea about your dissertation topic before you go to graduate school and then try to make all of your assignments about your topic so that you can save time and effort. Focus is much more important to graduate school success than smarts.


Currently I think people jump in a little quick on graduate programs just assuming its worth it. But depending on the field, it can be really hard to pay back $50k in loans for a Masters in Social Work or Masters in Political Comm. You really have to think what you are trying to do and if this is best way

Richard Wong

Two additional suggestions: ask professionals in the field whether a particular degree from a specific institution would make a hiring difference, or whether two years of work experience would better serve you. Also look at your financial situation whether you could forgo two years of income and incur twenty additional years of indebtedness (paying off your graduate school loans).

Candace Riddle

@ Bill – Thanks for the suggestion on PhD. In addition, I’ve heard that your school’s national ranking for the PhD program that you’re looking at matters when it comes to getting a PhD.

Shannon Donelson

You definitely have to ask yourself these questions. As Steve mentioned, it’s easy to come out of undergrad (especially in the current economy) without a job and wondering if jumping into grad school is the best choice. I bought a GRE prep book and was going the through the motions of researching and studying when I really sat down and asked these questions. My answers led me away from Grad school and into a career! Everyone’s story/situation is different, but these questions should always be asked!

Richard Wong

@Candace – your school’s ranking and reputation tends to matter more when landing that first job. After that, your job success will be largely based on your professional reputation! 🙂

Daniel Crystal

The CPO for DHS brought up at interesting point at one of his mentor sessions: if you’re going to pursue a graduate degree, you may want to consider cross training in a field that’s different than what you studied as an undergrad. I majored n English and history, but I’m currently working toward an MBA. It’s been eye-opening, and I highly recommend that my fellow liberal arts majors consider an MBA instead of working toward a more “comfortable” grad degree in something like policy.

Mark Hammer

Always always always identify a prospective supervisor in each school you are considering and write to them. Your letter should convey an honest depiction of your research or professional interests, and experience to date. It should convey some level of honest familiarity with, and interest in, the individual’s program of research. It should convey some sense that you have a reasonably clear sense of direction, without making you seem pigheaded and unbending (i.e., the supervisor doesn’t have to hold your hand every step of the way and “invent” a thesis topic for you, but you’re not going to ignore their suggestions either). And it should convey some sincere interest in learning whether this would be a suitable match.

The individual you write to will either:

a) write back and say “Sure! Send in your application, and I’ll keep an eye open for it” or “I’m interested. Let’s discuss”;

b) write back and say “It’d be nice but I’m up to my eyeballs in grad students at the moment, and don’t expect to hatch any until next year.”, or say “It’d be nice but the funding situation is tight. You would have to assure subsidy from other sources.”;

c) write back and say “Thanks for your interest, but I’ve kind of changed research direction in the last few years. I have forwarded your letter on to a new colleague whom I think would be a better match. I hope you don’t mind.”;

d) write back and say “Sounds interesting. Please note that I will be on sabbatical and not available on campus for the next academic year.”;

e) write back and suggest a different program or school.

Either way, you will learn whether this is a wise choice. You’ll learn more about the funding situation, whether the person you wish to have as a supervisor is even in any sort of practical position to advise, whether they’re a mensch or someone to avoid, and you will have someone in your corner to act as your advocate when the selection committee meets. You may find out that it’s a good fit and the prospective supervisor has a summer assistantship that you may be able to fill, which can give you a head start on your thesis research, some much needed money to live on, and put you fully moved in to a new city/neighbourhood and set up when classes start, instead of frantically trying to get your life in order at that time.

Grad school is step towards moving into a community of professional peers. It is NOT like buying a lottery ticket, so don’t think “This place looks great”, apply, squint your eyes and and cross your fingers. The more you know about those who may ultimately BE your peers, the more rewarding and professionally enriching an experience it will be.