How to find the perfect graduate program

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, writer, program officer, and member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of NYC Eleanor Whitney shares her experiences finding the right graduate degree program.

by Eleanor Whitney

I’ll admit it: I dreaded the process of finding a graduate program. I knew that graduate school would be an important investment in my career and myself, but the finding the right program felt like a chore. I’ve built my career working in museums and nonprofit arts organizations and saw that universities were rapidly expanding their graduate program offerings in specializations related to my field, but was unsure if that was the kind of program I wanted.

Starting my research

I began my research process informally by talking to the people I worked with about their graduate school experiences. I took careful note about their career path before, during and after they completed their degree. I asked them about their classes, classmates, opportunities and, as politely as I could, the price. From these conversations I started asking myself what I wanted out of graduate school.

I had gotten my bachelor’s degree from a small, private liberal arts college and wanted to go to a large, diverse public university as a contrast; Because I worked in the arts I did not need a specialized program that introduced me to the art world, but a program to teach me quantitative skills I could not learn on my own; I was not sure I wanted to stay working in arts nonprofits, so I wanted a degree that could apply to a wide range of fields; Finally, I could not go into debt to go to graduate school or stop working full time, because I met many people who had done so found it difficult to find another job upon completing their program and felt stifled by the loans they had taken out.

Talking with people, including friends, colleagues, and school representatives can help you make the right decision about grad school (Photo Credit: Julia S./Staff Photo)

Selecting the right program

With these criteria, choosing a program became simple. When I found Baruch College’s Master’s in Public Administration program that was designed for working students I knew I had found the program for me. It enabled me to go to school part-time and work full-time, had a focus on quantitative skills like statistics, budgeting and economics, and a diverse student population working in all types of public, nonprofit and corporate agencies.

(Want to learn more about this program? Visit Baruch and other schools at our upcoming Grad Fairs.)

It took me four years between completing my bachelor’s degree and beginning my master’s, but taking that time helped me hone in on the right program. From my experience, I wanted to offer advice about how to find a program that is the best fit for your interests and needs. Instead of pouring through overwhelming options, spend time to clarify what you want to get out of graduate school. Knowing the end result that you want can help you focus on the program that is right for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you begin to research graduate programs:

  • What is your end goal? Think big and dare to imagine yourself in your dream job. What is it? What did you need to know to get there? You want to make sure that the program you choose will serve as a stepping-stone to realizing your career vision.
  • What specific skills do you want to learn? Are there skills your profession requires you to know or that you feel you need to further develop? Does the program offer classes and opportunities to learn and hone those skills? Are the classes and methods up-to-date with the latest thinking and technology? You want to make sure you invest in developing skills you will actually use.
  • What connections do you want to build? Are the professors respected experts in the field you are interested in? Will the program give you access to internship and professional networking opportunities with high-level professionals in your field of interest?
  • What specific degree does the program grant? Some graduate degrees, such as a Masters of Social Work or a Master’s in Education, prepare you to work in a specific field. Other degrees, such as a Master’s of Public Administration, are more general and give a wide range of skills that could be applicable across professions. If you decide to change jobs will your degree still be relevant? Idealist produced a series of podcasts explaining different master’s degrees to help you decide which one is right for you.
  • How much does the program cost? Graduate school is a smart long-term investment, but it can be a pricey one. When considering how much you can pay for graduate school think carefully about the cost of a program versus the benefits you will receive. Research average salaries for your field and consider how much can you reasonably expect to make once you have your degree. Will that offset the cost of paying for graduate school, especially if you need to take out loans? Also consider the cost of living where the program is located and whether you will be able to have a full or part time job while you are in school.

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and make a note of your answers. When you are clear on the skills you need to learn, the professionals you want to work with, the type of degree you want and your price range you will have a great list of criteria by which you can evaluate graduate programs and find the right fit for you.

Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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Comments (3)


  1. Rebecca writes:
    September 13, 2012 at 1:27 am

    Dear Eleanor,
    I don’t necessarily expect you will read this comment, but if you do, I’d like to thank you for this article. It will be a total of 4 years after graduating with my BA in Psychology that I begin (or hope to begin!) graduate school. I have been searching for the “perfect fit” for me by looking into various degrees offered at local and not as local Public Health schools. Your tips on how to go about this search sound very helpful and I will be sure to use them. It is absolutely overwhelming being in this position, as the current economic state seems to have caused me to be exceptionally discouraged. However I am determined to plow forward and am constantly reminding myself of all my accomplishments and capabilities. Thank you again, and I hope to be able to look back at this experience and speak about it as you have.


  2. Eleanor W. writes:
    September 13, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    Rebecca, thank you so much for your comment and for reading! I’m so glad that you found this article helpful for your search. It can a difficult and overwhelming process and I agree that the economic conditions make it even more challenging. Good luck and I am sure that you will find the right fit for you!


  3. […] first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school and our second post on finding the perfect graduate degree program. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad […]


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