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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Podcast: Is nonprofit management the grad degree for you?

By Amy Potthast.

Right this minute, our Idealist Grad Fair season is kicking off in New York City. To celebrate, we’ve got a fresh podcast for you: a look at nonprofit management programs through the eyes of three friendly admissions counselors. The podcast comes in three bite-sized installments. Click here to learn more and listen.


With a plethora of graduate disciplines available to you—MBA, MPA, Social Work—you may be wondering, why might I go for a specialized degree in nonprofit management?

We hope this show might help answer this question. Topics include:

Special thanks to our panelists:

Edward Grice is the Associate Dean of the MBA program in nonprofit management at the American Jewish University. Chris Nicholson is the Director of Graduate Admissions at North Park University in Chicago, home of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management. And Rebecca Zirm is the Director of Recruitment at the Mandel Center for Nonprofit Organization and Case Western Reserve University.

Links to learn more:

If you listen to the podcast, I’d love to hear what you think!

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

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Summer to-do list for grad students-to-be

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at


Two of our favorite recruiters at the Idealist Grad Fair in DC last Thursday. (Photo: Julia Smith)

As summer gets underway, and our summer grad fair tour comes to an end (shameless plug: tonight only, 5-8 pm, at Roosevelt University in Chicago), future grad students can turn their energies toward getting ready for fall classes. Here are some things to think about:


From Alamosbasement on Flickr

Visit campus (again)

Since campus is relatively quiet, summer can be an ideal time for a first or second campus visit. While you may not have as many courses to choose from to observe, you will benefit from the slower pace of office life and more quality time with staff and faculty.

In addition to the campus tour, and financial aid and department office visits, you might take the time to orient yourself to the library (home away from home for many in grad school), and take a current student or two out for coffee to get the inside scoop on professors, funding, and coursework.

Read more about visiting campus in our Grad School Resource Center.

Get the inside scoop on financial aid and scholarships

Use your campus visit to meet with your financial aid office, if you haven’t already, to make sure you are making the best choices regarding your student loans, and so that you can get the skinny on scholarships. While you should have been looking for scholarships all along, it’s never too late to search for funding for next year and experts in the financial aid office or your department’s office should have some pointers for you. If you haven’t already put your name in the hat for a graduate assistantship in your department or another, this is a good time to do so.

Read more about funding your graduate education in our Grad School Resource Center.

Take pre-requisite classes

From T.Young on Flickr

Finally, use the summer to take care of pre-requisite courses you need to complete before you can bite into your graduate-level work.

If you are required to take a class before you can enroll, find out if the school has specific restrictions about where you can take the class. Ask the admissions office for course approval before you pay for it and take it. Also find out if you need to earn a minimum grade in the class for it to count.

If you are deficient in a foreign language, or another skill that will take a longer time to master, talk with the admissions office about your options. Your best bet may be to wait another year before applying.

Finally, if you are not starting school this fall, check out this 12-month to-do list for prospective grad students.

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This Wednesday: Two invitations for NYC-area Idealists




In NYC? Come meet friendly people from grad programs around the world! (Staff photo/Julia Smith)


This Wednesday, June 22, is a big one for our team in New York City. Come hang out!

  • Idealist Grad Fair, 5:00-8:00pm: Thinking about going to graduate school? Join us at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus for this free event! Meet recruiters from 60+ grad degree programs from nonprofit management to education to urban planning. From 6:00-7:00 youcan also sit in on a Q&A session and learn more about admissions and financial aid. Learn more, sign up, and help us spread the word:
  • Focus group for people who think Idealist should be more mobile phone-friendly, 4:00-5:00pm: Do you have a smartphone? Do you wish you could browse Idealist more easily via your phone? Do you like snacks? If so, join us just before the Grad Fair for some treats and idea-sharing. Learn more and sign up here:


    Last year the fair was the night of the NYC tornados! Hopefully this Wednesday will be calmer...but mingling with admissions recruiters in a huge, strong building is a pretty great way to wait out a storm. (Photo: Anthony Quintano.)

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Coming up: Idealist Grad Fairs in LA and San Francisco

It’s that time of year again! This summer we’re hosting five Idealist Grad Fairs:


Nothing warms our hearts like the chance to connect you with the program of your dreams. (Staff photo/Julia Smith)

If you join us…

You can meet representatives from 50+ graduate degree programs from across the country and attend a Q&A session about admissions and financial aid. All of the fairs are free, wheelchair accessible, and open to the public (but we do ask that you RSVP on those pages above).

Whether you kinda-maybe-sorta want to consider investing in grad school, or you’re 100% clear on which degree you want to pursue, this is a chance to enjoy a friendly, relaxed conversations with recruiters. And they love meeting members of the Idealist community.

If you’re not in one of those five cities…

  • Keep in mind that we’re bringing fairs to 18 more cities this fall, from Ann Arbor to New Orleans.
  • You can RSVP very early for any of those fall fairs, or like us on Facebook and local events will appear in your feed as the dates get closer.
  • If you know people who live in LA, San Francisco, NYC, DC, or Chicago and who might be considering grad school, please consider sharing this information with them.

Thanks, and we hope to see you at the fairs!

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What should you learn in grad school?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at


From Flickr user killfile (Creative Commons)

People debating whether or not to go back to school for a master’s degree — or debating when is the best time to do so — may appreciate a new framework for understanding the qualifications a master’s degree student should have upon graduating.

And current students may find the framework helpful in talking about the impact of their education with potential employers.

Recently the Lumina Foundation for Education published The Degree Qualifications Profile to describe the intellectual, civic, knowledge, and applied-learning outcomes students should demonstrate by the end of the associate, bachelor’s and master’s levels of schooling.

The idea of the project isn’t to comprehensively define what each field of study needs to include in its curriculum by any means. But it does offer some useful distinctions that highlight the relative complexity of training that, according to the authors, should signify a master’s degree versus a bachelor’s.

For example, in one category of learning, civic learning, a student at the bachelor’s level should (among other things) be able to develop and justify “a position on a public issue” and relate their position “to alternative views within the community/policy environment.” Meanwhile, a master’s student should assess and develop “a position on a public policy question with significance in the student’s own field, taking into account both scholarship and published positions and narratives of relevant interest groups.”

Other stated benefits of the Degree Profile for future and current students could include:

  • Offering a road map for navigating higher education options by giving students a framework for their educational plan if it’s not already determined for them.
  • Giving students a yardstick against which to measure their growth in “crosscutting competencies” or transferable skills – abilities that students can rely on regardless of changing careers or industries.

While the Degree Profile is non-binding, a few regional accrediting bodies and school associations have agreed to test the framework which will help flesh out the details of the document (by bringing critical feedback as well as examples).

In the meantime, I am going to share the framework with classmates in my grad school cohort. We’re developing portfolios right now and the outcomes detailed in the Profile may prove valuable categories for sharing our skills and abilities, even if our program wasn’t designed with these outcomes in mind.

To learn more about grad school, explore Idealist’s Grad School Resource Center.

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Giant win: peanuts, crackerjacks, and grad school

When we scheduled our season of graduate degree fairs many months ago, we planned our stop in San Francisco for November 1. Who knew that the Giants would also be cruising to victory in Game Five of the World Series last night?


From Gary Stevens (Creative Commons)

Luckily, Idealists are nothing if not multitaskers. 600 fans streamed into the Hall of Flowers, scrawled name tags in orange marker (“Giants pride!”), and talked with representatives from 116 degree programs while root-root-rooting for the home team. At one point, the entire Hall of Flowers erupted in applause as cars honked outside in celebration.

We have just two fairs left this season: one tonight in Los Angeles, CA, and one this Thursday in Atlanta, GA. There’s no telling if they’ll be quite as eventful (though with tonight’s election returns, you never know). But I hope they are festive and that if you go, you connect with the school of your dreams.

And if you see Chris Machuca, the manager of the grad fairs, give him a wave. He’s wrapping up quite a season himself, having run events in 16 cities over the past three months. Home run, Chris.

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Why attend a grad fair?

From our NYC fair

A photo from our NYC fair

Next week our annual grad fair tour will take us to…

If you’re near one of those cities, we hope you’ll join us. You’ll have a chance to meet recruiters from 60-80 graduate degree programs ranging from conflict resolution to law to social work to journalism.

A prospective doctoral student recently wrote to ask whether he should travel to one of our fairs. He was curious what to expect and wondered: W hat is the value of attending a grad fair?

Amy Potthast, our Director of Service and Graduate Programs, offered her take:

Each fair takes place in a large room where each school staffs a table with more information, and where representatives chat with prospective students.

One value of a grad fair is that you can potentially build rapport with an admissions staffer at your prospective schools. You’ll then have the name of someone with whom you can follow up, ask questions, and meet on campus. You can make an initial in-person impression with a school representative — which is more powerful than over the phone.

Another value of the event is that you will learn more about schools you’d like to apply for and you find other programs you hadn’t set your sights on yet.

You can also ask basic questions and weed out other programs that aren’t going to be the best fit for your goals — saving you time and money.

We’ll have a Q&A panel where a number of recruiters will offer frank advice about admissions and financial aid so you can hear from a range of admissions experts at once.

On-campus visits are also a good idea, and we have an article on our site where you can learn more about how to plan for campus visits.

Learn more about grad school in our Public Service Graduate Education Resources Center.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Minneapolis, Chicago, and Ann Arbor: Want to go to grad school?

Hello, Midwest.

I hear you’ve been thinking a lot about your career path. A little bird told me you’re wondering if graduate school might be a good next step.

I have great news, Midwest. My colleague Chris is coming to visit next week, along with recruiters from 100+ grad degree programs. They’re hosting meet-and-greets (otherwise known as Graduate Degree Fairs for the Public Good) just for you. You can meet them all, ask questions about financial aid, and learn the ins and outs of admissions.

From the NYC fair

All the cool kids came out to our fair in NYC.

Intrigued? You can learn more about the three fairs and RSVP by clicking these links:

Hope you can make it. (Psst: if you can’t, you can find tons of resources at


p.s. You look great today. Is that a new shirt?

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Launching or furthering a teaching career? Alternative ways to move forward

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at


From isafmedia (Flickr/Creative Commons)

A week after our graduate degree fair season started this fall, I went back to grad school myself—a part-time, low-residency Masters in Education program focused on adult learning and education (rather than K-12) from Oregon State. I’m a mother to two young kids and a program director at Idealist, and beginning this program has made me realize how crucial alternative format grad school options are for people at mid-career, with families and full-time jobs.

Here are some other programs worth highlighting:

Online programs
Some for-profit schools have made people leery of online education. But reputable nonprofit and public universities are offering more online opportunities all the time. For example, our host at tonight’s Washington, D.C. grad fair—George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development—offers five different online masters programs, ranging from masters programs in Bilingual Special Education, to Educational Technology Leadership. For people who don’t need the masters degree right now, the school offers a slew of online certificate programs.

Teacher residencies
Other programs around the U.S. enable people to attend graduate school for education while they teach full time in public schools. Mississippi Teacher Corps brings people from all over the country to work as teachers throughout Mississippi while earning a tuition-free Masters degrees in Curriculum and Instruction at University of Mississippi. Boston Teacher Residency and NYC Teaching Fellows offer similar programs (though the fine print varies).

Re-careering support
For established professionals from any background, programs like EnCorps Teachers Program in California can be a lifeline for starting a brand-new teaching career later in life – and putting skills in math and science to work, helping new generations of students. EnCorps is a public-private partnership dedicated to increasing the number of critically-needed STEM teachers in public middle and high schools. Teach For America, famous for recruiting top recent college grads, also enlists older professionals in the movement to end education inequity; TFA is sponsoring tonight’s grad fair and hosting a special networking event after the fair.

More resources
If you’re thinking about a graduate degree or other career transition into the education field, you might enjoy our Education Graduate Degree Overview or a visit to one of our graduate degree fairs. Tonight’s is from 5:00-8:00 p.m. in Washington, DC.

[This blog entry first appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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