When it comes to choosing graduate program, I like to believe there are three important categories to consider.
FIT, FUNDING and FEASIBILITY
While there is no foolproof way of boiling down the multitude of factors that go into choosing a graduate program into a science, if a school fails in any one of the above categories, chances are it is not worth applying to.
First, let’s have “the talk” about FIT. When I first came up with a list of graduate programs, I’ll admit I didn’t have a clear idea of how to approach the idea of program fit. If you haven’t had the talk, then someone needs to sit you down fast and explain that getting into a funded PhD program is not like getting into your undergraduate institution. You can have a 4.0 college GPA, graduate with honors and a 90th percentile and still not get into a program if the admissions committee does not see your interests as a proper fit for your program. Getting into a funded PhD program is subjective, like getting a scholarship. Even if you have top credentials, there’s no doubt that fit is one of the most important things to consider when considering graduate programs.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get down to the reality about fit. The tricky thing about program fit is that it is not always something that you can riddle out at the time you are applying. You could find a school that, based on your internet research, is the perfect fit for you, but unbeknownst to you the faculty member you are interested in working with is looking to leave the university to pursue another position. You could also be entirely convinced that you are going to write your dissertation on [very specific and scholarly subject] and think it is only worthwhile to apply to a short list of programs that you believe are your “perfect academic fit.” In reality, you don’t know your interests quite as well as you thought you did and you just missed out on the opportunity to increase your odds by applying to a broader range of programs in your field.
Ultimately, you are not the arbitrator of “fit.” The admissions committees are – and you cannot always predict what they are thinking to a degree of accuracy. Here’s what you CAN do:
– If you can, get in contact with faculty and graduate students. Worst case scenario, they do not respond or give you a lukewarm response. Best case scenario, they can give you a better idea if you would like the atmosphere at the school and whether your faculty member of interest is taking on new students.
– Realize that your personal statement and writing sample are not meant to pigeonhole you into a narrow topic within your concentration, but rather to serve as an exercise in your ability to articulate a set of interests appropriate to study at the graduate level and execute that type of thinking in an academic writing sample.
– Use internet research to make broad assumptions, but not very specific ones. For examples, if you are interested in American literature and a school has very few Americanists, chances are it’s not the best fit for you. On the other hand, I wouldn’t try and read the minds of the admissions committees and then figuratively put all your of your eggs in the basket of a few schools.
Next, you have to consider FUNDING. There’s a sheet in which people report their funding offers from various school on The Grad Cafe, but I can’t find it right now. However, it’s important to consider before you go spending the money on applications: how much money are you will to spend (or go into debt) for your degree? If you don’t get into a PhD program, are you willing to pay for an MA? Does the school offer competitive funding packages that are reasonable for the cost of living? If you are an international student, it is even more important to look into what funding is available for international students. It’s also possible that applying to more schools that that offer good funding package could put you in a position to barter for more funding if yo get into more than one program. Even if you get accepted to your top program, you won’t have any room to ask for more money if you get no other offers with higher funding packages.
Finally, there is FEASIBILITY. Feasibility is twofold: can you reasonably get accepted to this school? and if you were accepted, would you be willing to live and study there for the duration of the program? If you have a B- GPA and a 65th percentile GRE score, rejections aren’t guaranteed, but it might be advisable to seriously consider whether spending the money and time on applications is a worthwhile endeavor. If you would be unhappy moving to the location of the school, maybe that $100 application fee would be better spent elsewhere. If you have a spouse or family to consider, take their opinions into consideration if the relationships are important to you. Applying to “top programs” that really aren’t feasible is a waste of your time and money. You wouldn’t apply to a job that comes with a 5-7 year contract at a place where you would not want to live, won’t offer you enough money, and doesn’t fit your credentials. Consider the same with graduate schools!