Researching Programs: An Introduction
When selecting an undergraduate program, students often consider such factors as location, cost, campus culture, availability of majors, tradition, and the school's general reputation. While these are all important considerations, the decision of which graduate program to attend requires that you ask more complicated questions. Choosing a graduate program is not merely a question of where and how you want to spend the next two to ten years of your life; it is also a choice of how you will establish your professional networks, what area(s) of expertise you will have, and what research resources you will have access to.
This resource provides a guide of what to look for and what to consider when selecting a graduate program. It starts with outlining some of the pragmatic considerations that may affect whether or not you will be able to complete your degree. A degree may open the door, but what is learned while earning that degree is what defines a professional. One needs to know not only what they want to specialize in, but also where that specific subset fits into the larger body of scholarship in a particular field. Finally, this resource explores how to write up profiles of the important faculty in a program to which one might apply. We suggest creating written profiles, because trying to keep it all in your head would be overwhelming. However, the more one understands how each of these factors might impact their future, both in the short term and in the long term, the better equipped they will be to choose the right program.
Please note, that these resources focus on applying to graduate studies programs in the United States. The information contained in these resources may or may not be appropriate to other contexts.
Researching Programs: Practical Considerations
Applying to graduate school is a very intensive process. And researching the potential graduate programs that you plan on applying to is a puzzle with a great many pieces. Keep in mind that you are not merely choosing an institution at which to get your education; you are also choosing how you will live for the next several years. In order to make an informed decision about what programs to apply to, you need to make sure that your research the program as thoroughly as you can before making any final decisions.
Your community in graduate school will be a combination of the community on-campus and the community off-campus. As a graduate student you are far more likely to live off-campus and make connections in the community beyond the university. You may want to consider whether or not you will be able to find services that matter to you such as: religious organizations, access to sports venues, specialty groceries, music venues, volunteer opportunities, or others?
The on-campus community is also an important consideration. You'll want to consider both the culture of your specific program and the campus-wide community. Get in touch with a few graduate students at the school and try to get a sense of the social scene. Be thinking about the following questions: Are there reading and study groups? Do the faculty have formal or casual relationships with their graduate students? Do graduate students tend to present at conferences together? Are there frequent social gatherings? Who organizes them?
Additional Certificates and Interdisciplinary Opportunities
Keeping in mind that finding the right program for graduate study requires a great deal of research, you may also want to consider what other certification opportunities might exist in the programs to which you are applying. For many of graduate students, professional development will necessarily flow over traditional disciplinary boundaries. Different schools and colleges within a university can find ways of making those skills official and measurable through graduate certificates and graduate minors. Look at the requirements for professional certificates and graduate minors. Also, consider the access you will have to faculty and graduate students in other fields of interest that may intersect in your own research.
Thinking about funding is not simply a matter of comparing the monthly stipends of different programs. You'll want to consider both the full benefits package, which includes the stipend, student fees, travel funds, health care, childcare, as well as optional costs such as parking fees or the cost of a gym membership if the student facilities are inadequate. These considerations should then be compared with the cost of living factors, the number of years you are guaranteed funding, and/or the likelihood of funding if your program awards it on a competitive basis. Many programs also offer additional funding opportunities such as: additional work appointment/increased workload, employment outside the program, and the chance to apply for research grants.
Funding packages also vary greatly in terms of what work you will be expected to perform. You may be expected to teach, tutor, grade, work in a lab, log research hours on a faculty member’s project, transcribe notes or interviews, staff a library or center, organize events, help the administrative staff, or even be a research subject yourself. While looking for a lighter workload may seem important in the short term, your long-term consideration should be to make sure that the professional experience you gain fits in with your professional goals. Some programs will require relatively little work outside of classes, but when you complete your degree, you will not have much experience. Other programs will require a workload that does not develop the skill set that you need, like having you grade as a teaching assistant when you have no interest in being an educator after you finish your degree. Some programs will have workloads that, in the end, will better prepare you for your career than your course load. In weighing these options, remember that many skills are transferable and most employers in today's economy expect a range of skills.
Research costs money, and programs range greatly in the amount of those cost that will be covered. Be sure to look into what research support resources will be available to your at the programs to which you are applying. For example, the library and the Interlibrary Loan (ILL) can save you thousands in journal subscriptions. The existence, or non-existence, of labs and expensive computer software can drastically affect what kind of research you have access to and the kind of research you can carry out. Are there special archives located nearby that will benefit your research? If so, this may save you thousands in travel expenses or weeks of applying for grants. Make sure that the programs that you are applying to have labs that can handle your research needs and have access to the major journals in your field. Many departments may have research sharing programs with other universities.
Profiling Programs and Statements of Purpose
Profiling potential graduate programs is meaningful activity because it helps you to ensure that you're making an informed decision about what programs to apply to, and it aids in making that final decision should you be accepted to any of the programs to which you are applying. However, profiling programs can also serve to inform your statement of purpose. Using the information gained while profiling a program, you can better highlight the ways in which you and the program are best fits. By showcasing these areas of "best fit," you can make yourself stand out from among the other applicants in the pool.
Researching Programs: Profiling Your Research Interests
Another piece of the graduate school application puzzle, and of picking the right schools/programs for you, is knowing your own research interests. It's important to have a grasp of your own research interests and to be able to talk about them with others in some meaningful way. One way to do this is to create a profile of your own research interests.
Profiling Research Interests
One's research interests are generally a combination of two factors: what is studied (subject and data) and how it is studied (methodology and theory). As an undergraduate, choosing the right subject is often enough. In choosing a graduate program, however, you need to recognize that some theoretical approaches methodologies will interest you more than others. You want to choose a program that is not only knowledgeable in your chosen field, but also one that is invested in the theories and methodologies that allow you to ask the questions you think are most important. For example, almost any English literature program will have a scholar who specializes in Shakespeare. However, Shakespearean scholars might be interested in the ways Shakespeare treats gender and sexuality, or in the ways that Shakespeare treats issues of class. Some scholars see Shakespeare as an insightful social critic and will explore topics that are still relevant to our world today. Others will see him as the product of a specific historic time and place and will therefore research his biography and the politics of Edwardian England.
Most journals are partial to some methodologies over others. That means that you need to read articles from different journals, not just articles on different topics. You also want to look for special editions, which will help you see the many sub-fields that develop in every topic.
As you read, keep a columned list of scholars’ names and key terms from your readings. It might also be helpful to keep track of some of the following questions:
- Who studies topics that interest you?
- What kinds of questions are they asking and what kinds of arguments are they making?
- Are there people who study the right topics but seem to be asking the wrong questions?
- Are there people who ask interesting questions even though you don't find their subjects that interesting? Read the footnotes and citations.
- Who are the influential scholars in the field?
Also keep a look out for controversies. They may not always be obvious, but the more you read, the more you'll see lines being drawn and authors picking sides. Understanding the state of the field, and knowing where particular scholars fall, can give you some idea as the attitudes that a particular graduate program might hold towards possibly contentious issues in a field of study. However, keep in mind that programs often have a number of faculty, some with disparate opinions.
Researching Programs: Profiling Faculty
Understanding the Importance of Faculty
An important part of profiling a program is looking at the faculty that make up that program. As a graduate student, you will certainly have access to a number of qualified and engaging professors, but you will also be expected to forge a mentor/mentee relationship with a specific faculty member quite early on. This person will be central to determining what kind of research you will do, what kind of funding you may receive, and even to a degree, what your working habits will be; all factors which can drastically influence your chances of successfully completing your degree.
Because the relationship between graduate students and faculty members is so integral to a graduate education, your research of specific faculty members may not only help you to choose a program; it may also significantly influence a graduate program's decision of whether or not to accept you. Including an argument for why you should work with specific faculty members in your personal statement will not only impress an admissions committee, it will help them to see how you might fit into their program. For more information on writing personal statements for graduate school applications, see Writing Personal Statements for Graduate School Applications on the Purdue OWL.
Researching faculty is not easy. You can't simply got to a website like Rate My Professor and see if they give easy A's—in many graduate programs, you will be expected to get A's in every class. Much of what you need to learn about a faculty member has to be pieced together from what little data is available. Consider the following resources to help you learn more about the faculty in the programs to which you might apply:
Professor's Curriculum Vita
The Curriculum Vita (CV) is an academic resume and should be the first step in researching a faculty member. The CV provides a list of the professor's publications, appointments, and professional service. Most professors post their CV on the department faculty page or on a personal website.
This specialized search engine has a feature that tells you how often each source is cited in other sources. This can help to gauge just how influential a given scholar is within a field. Keep in mind, though, that some people are cited as much for their infamy as for their contributions. It doesn't hurt to look at some of the sources that cite your scholar and see what it is they're saying.
Sending an email to a professor to ask them about their research can be an intimidating task, and not without reason. However, it is unlikely that a professor will resent an honest inquiry. Keep in mind that professors know graduate students are still learning; they don't expect potential graduate students to know everything. As long as your email was worded professionally and warmly, your name will be remembered as that of an engaged junior scholar.
Here are some things to consider that may tell you more about a particular faculty member and what working with them may be like:
- Research this person’s position within the department
- Are they an associate professor, and endowed chair or a department head? Endowed chairs tend to be the ones who are engaged in innovative research. Departmental heads and chairs of programs may be rather busy. You may come across other titles. Adjunct professors and visiting professors may be on limited appointments and may, therefore, leave before you finish your degree. Also, consider that assistant professors are usually not yet tenured. Untenured faculty may be young and exciting, but there may be department regulations that prevent them from working extensively with graduate students. They will also be working to earn tenure and may not be able to give you as much of their attention as someone with tenure.
- Does this person have a lab, journal, conference or project that you might want to be a part of? Professors do more than teach classes. Whether it be professional service or research, there is usually plenty of work to share with an eager graduate student. You should look for faculty who will connect you to the right opportunities and if you find a good fit, it probably wouldn't hurt to mention your interest in your cover letter.
- How much of their time is spent researching, teaching, in administrative service, etc.? Different programs emphasize teaching and research differently. This is also true of individual professors. A quick glance at a CV can show where each professor places their emphasis. You should consider whether this matches your professional goals, but also whether this is someone who will be able to provide you with the support you need.
- Using the CV, identify at least one recent article or publication this person has contributed to the field. Read it. It is important that you know what this person is working on currently
- Familiarize yourself with each of the research interests listed on the CV and any other keywords that come up in the titles of publications listed
In choosing a faculty member, consider the following factors:
- Why do you want to work with this faculty member?
- What does this faculty member research and which of those interests correspond with your own?
- What have been this faculty member's most important contributions to the field?
- What can this faculty member offer you in terms of professional development, funding, mentoring, and intellectual growth?
- What current connections do you have to this faculty member and how do you plan on developing those connections?
- Why is this program a better fit for you than another comparable program?