The first step is deciding to pursue a graduate degree. The second step is choosing one. This process can be intimidating, but this guide will walk you through how to choose a graduate program and how to set yourself up for success.

Taking the next step in your education journey means making a commitment to yourself and to your future. With so many graduate schools to choose from, it can be difficult to know what the best option is for you. 

Deciding whether or not to go to graduate school in the first place can be challenging to figure out. Graduate certificates are also an option for those who want to hone a specific skill set and — in many cases — can be completed along the way to a master’s degree. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in master’s and doctoral programs is on the rise and is projected to be 6 percent higher in 2030 than in 2020 (3.3 million vs. 3.1 million students, respectively).

This blog post will offer a few tips on how to choose a graduate program that fits both your goals and your lifestyle, as well as what will help set you on the pathway to success.

Why pursue a graduate degree?

Before beginning the process of applying to graduate school, take some time to figure out what you want to get out of the graduate school experience. 

Whether you’re looking to open up your career prospects, gain new professional skills and connections, or return to academia to develop yourself personally, having a solid “why” in mind can help you clarify your next steps.

“While a new career path may reveal itself as a result of graduate study, don’t rely on it if you’re unsure about what you want to do next in life or you aren’t happy in your current job,” says Kimberly Parke, executive director of pre-degree advising, recruitment, and admissions at Harvard Extension School. “Instead, spend time in self-reflection, and engage in research about all possible options, including informal interviews with people in jobs and fields that seem interesting to you.”

Once you do figure out that “why,” the value a graduate degree can bring can go far beyond the individual.

“The difference you’ll be able to make in your community with your new skills and connections, the impact you’ll have on your friends and family through modeling the discipline and responsibility it takes to complete a program, and the confidence you’ll gain for all those same reasons and more are invaluable,” adds Parke.

What factors should you consider when choosing a graduate program?

When thinking about how to choose a graduate program, there are multiple elements to consider, according to Amanda Peters, director of Harvard Extension School career advising and programming.

“Each person really needs to prioritize what matters to them and what will allow them to be successful. Find what holds the most value and what is the priority and all the rest of the evaluation is going to be based on that,” says Peters. “You want to make sure you’re going to be able to commit to following through on the program.”

The most personal part of choosing a graduate school is taking stock of what’s most important to you. These priorities can be broken down into a few main categories. 

Career Goals and Personal Interests 

Consider whether or not the program will help you advance in your career. Additionally, reflect on your personal passion for your chosen industry and whether or not you see yourself in this field long term.

Lifestyle and Program Format 

Most adults who are working full time in addition to balancing family responsibilities likely do not have time to take two to three years off to complete a graduate degree program. You may find online classes or alternate class schedules work best for you. 

Program Qualifications and Requirements 

Once you’ve identified some graduate programs that interest you, you’ll need to research whether you meet the qualifications for admissions. You’ll also want to know exactly what requirements you’ll need to meet to graduate.

Some programs, for example, may require you to take an entrance exam; others, like Harvard Extension School, may require that you successfully complete a course or two.

Most graduate programs will have both admissions qualifications and graduation requirements listed on their websites. You can also contact each school’s graduate admissions office directly for more clarity. 

Having a range of options when applying can also be beneficial in providing you greater choice later on in the process. 

Resources for Support 

Reach out to the individual graduate schools for more information about resources such as internship and research opportunities, academic support and tutoring, networking outlets, career services, and childcare options if you’re a parent.

Location and Cost of Living 

If you’re not able to move to attend school in person, or if the location is simply financially inaccessible, find out if the graduate program offers online degrees. 

Some online graduate programs may require that you take some percentage of your courses on campus. Be sure to verify whether there is a residency requirement and, if there is, whether you will realistically be able to complete it.

Tuition and Financial Aid Options 

Graduate school is a hefty investment, so take your time to understand the full cost of the program and how it fits into your budget. You’ll want to find program options that are comfortable for you.

As Julie Lonergan, associate director of pre-degree advising and admissions of Harvard Extension School advises, “Research your options for financial aid, grants and loans, and ask your employer about tuition reimbursement opportunities. Be creative when you search for scholarships and fellowships, as you may find ones associated with your field of study, your geographic location, your industry, and more.” 

Educating yourself about financial aid options is also an important piece of the puzzle.

How do you determine the quality of a good graduate program?

Deciding what to prioritize when selecting a graduate school is a process that is individual to each graduate student, but there are several common factors to take into account. 

Quality of Faculty and Instructors 

“Whatever your ultimate goal may be, learning from faculty at the top of their fields or with extensive academic and research experience will help set you up for success,” says Lonergan.

Graduate faculty and instructors should teach a curriculum that is up-to-date and provides you with the knowledge you need to be successful on your next steps.

Students Access to Faculty/Resources 

Contact graduate schools to find information about the average class size, as well as information on what resources each grad school provides to help graduate students succeed, such as career support, mentorship opportunities, professional development, and advising. Most graduate schools will also have this information posted on their websites.

On-Campus Facilities   

For answers about facilities, reach out to those who had the opportunities to use them the most: current graduate students or recent alumni.

Social media groups are also a good source for honest insights into campus life and facilities, such as libraries, research labs, classrooms, and online spaces.

Social Environment 

Look up the demographics of the graduate student population, faculty members, and administration, which can often be found on school websites. Speaking with current grad students or alumni is also an opportunity to find out what kind of student tends to be attracted to each particular graduate school or program.

Alumni Career Paths 

Peters suggests finding alumni via platforms like LinkedIn to find out their trajectories post-graduation. If their stories inspire you, that’s a positive sign the graduate program may be a good fit for you as well. 

School websites will also often include profiles on current grad students and alumni, which can give you a sense of their academic experiences and career outcomes. 

Many alums are eager to share their experiences. Don’t hesitate to reach out to alumni in your prospective field as part of your research into a specific graduate program.

Is support available to help students choose the right graduate program?

One thing prospective graduate students should know is they are not alone. There is a large range of sources from which to gain insight into how to choose a graduate program and help you narrow down your search. 

Professional associations, alumni associations, current students and faculty, school admissions offices, and industry newsletters are all great resources to find out more about the programs you’re researching.  

Enrollment coaches are also specifically and uniquely positioned to help throughout the journey of how to choose a graduate program and to ensure that you get the most out of your experience.

“Learning is about inquiry, in all its forms, so as a student whose job it is to learn, seek answers and ask for help,” says Parke. “If there’s one place where you’re expected to do that, it’s at a school!”

How do I know if grad school is right for me?

Pursuing a graduate degree program is an incredible undertaking, but one that has the potential to launch a new career trajectory, connect you with fellow like-minded students, faculty, and alumni who are rooting for your success, and help you discover who you are — and who you’re going to be.