How To Choose The Right Graduate School Program

This is a guest blog by  Dave Mumby, Ph.D. from

Applying to a graduate school program is a mysterious process for many students. Fraught with all sorts of ambiguities and uncertainties, the process is different from any other, and most people who go through it experience significant anxiety at some point or another.

You have done your research, talked to experienced graduate students and heard all you need to know before starting in graduate school. You have decided that grad school is for you.

There are many steps to take and choices to make, but one of the first up will be the decision about which graduate schools or programs to apply to.

Students in some disciplines will find hundreds, or even thousands, of schools offering programs that lead to a master’s or Ph.D. How should a person choose from all the options?

So many programs to choose from. Should you go for reputation? Should you go for the scientific output? Should you go for the quality of the cheerleaders’ team?

Where to start when choosing a graduate school?

Start With The End Of Graduate School In Mind

The purpose behind graduate school is to help promising students become experts in some domain. The particular degree obtained, however, tends to obscure the specialized nature of the competence that a person acquires along the way.

What career do you want to eventually have?

Choosing a program that matches your goals is important. Before you can choose an appropriate graduate school program you need to decide what kind of career you want to eventually have. It is beyond the scope of this article to offer detailed advice on how to go about making those decisions.

Apart from getting on the Web and doing some research on the careers available to someone with an advanced degree in your field, the best way to learn about career options is from faculty members or career counselors at your school. Visit one or more of your professors to find out what graduate school in your field involves, and what kinds of career options are available.

What area do you want to specialize in?

Graduate programs that offer the same degree are different in terms of the types of training they offer and the type of specialist they can help you become.

If one is thinking of pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, it is necessary to first decide what area of psychology you want to specialize in. There is no Ph.D. in general psychology. Just as there is no Ph.D. in general biochemistry, or general environmental studies, or general history, or general economics, and so on.

When choosing where to apply for a doctoral program, therefore, it is important to understand at the outset that a particular school will offer specialized training in only a specific range of sub-disciplines.

One graduate program in Economics might offer expertise in econometrics, microeconomics, macroeconomics, economic development and planning, and financial and monetary economics. Other program might have its strengths in areas of labor economics, environmental and natural resources economics, public economics, and industrial organization. A doctoral student in either program would specialize in just one area.

Success in actually getting into grad school can depend to a large extent on whether an applicant picks the right schools and programs, based on his or her particular career goals.

The match between what an individual is looking for and what the program has to offer is an important consideration of most admissions committees. Recruiters reject applicants who fail to show that the match is right, no matter how strong their academic credentials, standardized test scores, and letters of recommendation.

Choose Graduate School Program

The Myth Of “The Best Grad School Program”

Most students will choose their graduate school program based on less-relevant factors, such as geographical location, or the general reputation of the university.

If you simply must live in a particular city for strong personal reasons, then you may have only one, or a few, universities to choose from. Even if there are programs offering the degree you want, maybe these don’t offer the particular specialization you want. If you cannot go elsewhere for graduate school, at least understand that you may not find exactly what you are looking for at any particular university.

Many people apply to what they believe are the best programs or schools, without realizing that in most disciplines, there is no “best” program or school. What is best for particular students depends entirely on their specific goals. The particular strengths of any program will depend on the areas of expertise represented by its faculty members.

In short, if no one in the department is an expert in the particular subfield in which you want to specialize, then this program probably will not help you reach your goals.

Should you go for an Ivy League graduate school program?

It is a common misconception that a Ph.D. from a high-profile university, such as

Harvard, Yale, or some other Ivy League school, will give someone a significant advantage in the job market. In reality, however, it seldom actually works that way.

Having a Ph.D. from a high-profile school might give you certain bragging rights that impress your parents, your neighbors, or other people who meet you. But, don’t expect the benefits to go farther than that.

Savvy employers do not hire people just because they have a Ph.D. from a distinguished university, and when it comes to translating your credentials into an occupation and a career, those potential employers are the only people whose attitudes matter. They will care only about what you know and what you can do, not where you got your degree.

There is no doubt that some programs are much more competitive than others. But it is a mistake to assume that you will receive inferior training and education in a lower-profile, less competitive graduate program.

Some programs attract huge numbers of highly qualified applicants each year. Others attract fewer students or students with somewhat weaker credentials. Why are some programs much more competitive than others? As with many other things governed by supply and demand, the prestige of a program is unrelated to the real value of what it has to offer.

This is Julio writing now

I agree with Dave’s point of view that having a diploma from a famous school does not get you immediately a job. At the same time it does not mean that every graduate from a prestigious school is a good scientists or professional.

On the other hand, I think that you have more chances of finding quality students in such schools.

Think about it. These schools have tougher admission criteria. There is more competition to get a place on board. They have more funding, facilities and more exposure, which attracts better scientists and teachers.

The truth is applications overwhelm recruiters from industry and academia. If you have a pile of 50 cv to check, how are you going filter them and select those you are going to invite for an interview?

You need to use some fast way to smell quality in a cv, and a prestigious diploma is one of those criteria.

Other criteria? You have some little scientific output as an undergrad, like a publication or a poster. Your previous supervisor is well-known in his field.

As you see, prestige can help you pass the first rounds of a hiring process. But at a certain stage, you have to prove how good you are.

I’m going to let Dave tell us more about choosing a good supervisor.

Focus on potential supervisors, instead of on the schools

In many fields, making choices based on one’s specific interests and objectives goes beyond selecting the right graduate school program. Many graduate school programs within the sciences the social sciences require students to do a considerable amount of research, culminating with a written thesis, or dissertation. In most such programs, an individual faculty member guides and supervises each student’s work.

Graduate school programs in such fields will only admit an exceptional applicant if that person matches with a faculty member who is willing to be the graduate supervisor. This matching is done on the basis of common research interests and no matter how impressive their qualifications are.

Choose Graduate School Program 2

How to know if a graduate school program is right for you?

Look at the specific research activities and interests of its faculty members.

The current interests of your graduate supervisor will play the most significant role in determining what you end up studying in graduate school — maybe not the courses you take, but definitely the nature of your thesis and other research. Typically, a student must indicate at the time of application who he or she wants for a supervisor.

The importance of choosing the right graduate school program, and when applicable, the right graduate supervisor, means that you must first establish your career objectives or research interests. Once you have done that, you will need to research the programs that are available, and the faculty members in those programs, so you can make the right choices.

Most students begin the search for a graduate advisor by visiting the departmental websites at a number of candidate universities, and scanning the list of faculty members and research areas, until they come up with a reasonable match with their own interests. This method can work sometimes, but it tends to be rather capricious, and most students end up “settling” on a prospective graduate advisor, when there may be even better matches out there.

Finding the best supervisor for grad school

Picking a good mentor is important. Start by finding out who is doing what it is that interests you the most, and then find out where those people are, and not beginning with a university and finding out what people there are doing.

Don’t try to find an adequate advisor at a particular university — find the most suitable supervisors (based on area of expertise), and apply to the universities depending on their location.

This approach will turn up the best opportunities, and the closest matches between your interests and those of your potential graduate advisors. To get this process started, look through recent publications (books, journal articles, etc.) in your field of interest. Take note of the authors with university affiliations. Chances are, many of them are professors, and in some cases, their graduate students.

Go to the relevant university websites and you will probably be able to find out a great deal more about the research interests of these people, and how to contact them. You can also find out about available graduate programs, at the same time.

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Dave Mumby, Ph.D. is currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University and a blogger for He is also author of the book Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In, which covers every aspect of the graduate school application process.


Want To Know More About Graduate School?

This is Julio writing again

If you want to know more about joining graduate school or if graduate school is a good choice for you, you should first get Dave’s book Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In and his blog.

You can also check previous posts in Next Scientist on graduate school advice series:



  1. PoliSci PhD says:

    As an academic I can confidently say that this advice is 100% WRONG. It certainly matters where you get your PhD and in this market anyone with a PhD from a mediocre school can only expect to be an adjunct, instructor or have a heavy teaching load. The better the institution the more likely you are to get the job that you want, period. These are the institutions that train the best PhDs and anyone who tells you getting a PhD from Harvard is only good for your parents and bragging rights is giving terrible advice. Shame on this author!

    • Academicus says:

      You probably don’t have a PhD from Harvard yourself, or you’d know that the advice given above is spot on.

  2. Very well written and a through advice for selecting a graduate school program for higher education.

  3. Thanks for writing such great posts. I am a foreign medical graduate living in USA. It took me a while to get done with USMLE exams (due to family reasons). So by the time I got myself an MD certification, most of medical residency program not willing to take since I have been out of med school for a while. My question is if I want to do PhD do I have to do Masters first or can apply to PhD programs? Thank you very much.


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