To Be or Ph.D.? Where do I apply to graduate school?

As of three weeks ago, I reacquainted myself with my campus office and professional wardrobe.  It was nice to have a couple months to write at a local coffee shop in lieu of my office and the incessant meeting reminders, winking email notifications, and appointments.  Although I miss working in my yoga pants and baseball cap, it feels good to be back on campus. Perhaps it is the proximity of Rosh Hashanah, but the onset of the first semester of the year always feels to like New Year’s Eve should but rarely does. Full of promise, suffuse with potential and rife with all of the good intentions that I tell myself each year – “this year, I am going to learn R, I will apply for that grant, and I will submit that book proposal…or two.”  And in the first week of the semester, I believe it.

Students too are brimming with hope and shiny-faced idealism.  They have already begun making their way to my door with graduate school inquiries and internship possibilities.

“I need to start thinking about graduate school this year…where do you think I should apply?”

“How do I find relevant graduate programs?”

“How do I know which graduate program is right for me?”

Yes, I missed this. I am not sure where else but academics you can be perceived both as Yoda by your students and yet C3PO among your colleagues.  At the risk of overstretching the tired Star Wars references,

“Ready are you? What know you of ready?”    Yoda

If you are thinking about graduate programs, perhaps ready you are.  There are a couple things you might want to consider before you start shopping for graduate programs.  These are both practical considerations, like for example:

                 What is the average salary for the career you’re aspiring to establish?  

 This may seem like a superficial question, but this is an important and relevant consideration.  How much debt have you incurred in college?  How will you pay it off? What kind of salary do you believe will support the lifestyle you plan to have? What is the cost of living in the area you hope to establish a career? How long can you realistically tolerate continuing on in your education?  There was an interesting discussion on National Public Radio’s Planet Money program about what college graduates make once they leave college and which majors proves to be the most financially lucrative. Here is the link:

If you feel you have found your career niche, then it is in fact time to consider which graduate program will offer you the most for your time, energy, money and resources.  But again, another meaningful question to ask yourself before applying to programs is this:

How will you pay for graduate school?

If you are hoping to earn a teaching assistantship to help offset tuition, then you can eliminate those programs that do not offer teaching or research assistantships.  This usually means you will be looking at larger graduate programs.  You will want to look at websites carefully to see if Teaching or Research Assistantships are listed as possible options for graduate students. Often these assistantships will provide tuition waivers, others may provide financial support and still others might offer both financial support and tuition waivers.  It is important to be aware however, that just because a program has assistantships, does not mean that they go to all of their students. Graduate students still have to apply to theses assistantships.

Here are a couple of examples of programs that I know of that offer teaching assistantships, there are many, many more that you can find on your own.  But this provides you with an idea of where to look when you start checking on programs.

The University of Montana, Missoula:

University of Oregon, Eugene:


Now that we have dispensed with the financial concerns,

How do I find programs relevant to me?

Here are some websites that provide program catalogues for you to surf:

After students select a few programs that are in their area of interest, the next reasonable step is determining how many programs to apply to.  There is no straightforward answer to this question.  There are many different approaches to this, but again I tend to recommend that students consider their budgets and weigh the competitiveness of their portfolio against the cost of applications.

The average application will cost about $45/school.  The Graduate Record Exam Office will send your GRE scores to four schools for free, but beyond that, you can expect to incur additional fees in the way of $25/recipient.

I typically recommend that students submit applications to 8 schools if they are serious about attending graduate school in the upcoming year.  The math comes out to about $460. But of course, this number may vary depending on where you apply.

When you have made a list of places you are interested in applying, your work is not finished.  You also need to consider the mentor, which professor do you hope to mentor with?  Is that professor accepting graduate students for the year you are applying?  You may need to email them to find this out (do not send an email longer than a paragraph).

Typically, Emeritus faculty do not have full-time graduate students, so this may be one way to cull programs as well.  You may also want to consider the location. Is the graduate program seated in a place that you feel you can live for 2 – 4 years? Do they have placements or support for students once they finish their programs?  Most do not, but some do, so this is worth checking as well.

This should be enough information to get you started, be mindful of application deadlines and GRE dates while you are making these decisions.

Happy hunting!


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