Choosing the right graduate school and the program is a daunting task, make no mistake. Let’s imagine a dream scenario in which you’ve been accepted to your top 3 graduate school choices. You might be asking yourself all sorts of questions at this point. Do you want to attend a research-based university? How are you going to stand out in an extremely popular field like a business? Do I even want to go to graduate school at all? All these questions can be boiled down into a simple idea: quality of life.
What’s “quality of life” got to do with graduate school?
Chances are, you’ll be spending at least around a half decade, maybe more, at your school of choice, and maybe even longer. Being a graduate student is like living a double life: you’ve got to attend classes as a student, but you’re also slowly making your mark as a professional in your field. Graduate school is a transitional period in which you become an expert in your niche. During this process, living well should be high on your priority list; in fact, it should be right up there with your professional goals at this point. Do you want to live the next four to seven years in squalor, miserably writing alone, with no friends or things to do in and around your school?
Probably not, I assume. And you’ll definitely want to work on forming a healthy work-life balance to keep you sane. These are some key ideas you want to keep in mind while deciding which graduate school to attend. Let’s return to our dream scenario: acceptance from 3 of your favourite programs. Let’s also say that one school is very urban, one is much more rural, located far from the city, and the third is somewhere in the middle, offering you some convenience of the city, but some isolation of the countryside.
Location, Population, and Work-Life Balance
A university’s location is a good starting point for deciding what kind of life you want to live outside the office. In fact, I would recommend making a list of the pros and cons of each university of your choice based on these three metrics:
- Location (rural, urban, suburban)
- Population (students, surrounding areas, professors)
- Work-life balance (how much time you’ll spend in the office per week)
If you’re looking for convenience, don’t drive, or just want to be able to do your grocery shopping easier, an urban university, like The London School of Economics. However, if you’re looking to cloister yourself away and crave green space more than a convenient grocery store, maybe somewhere like the University of Edinburgh would be more suitable for you. Cost of living also factors into this decision; would you be willing and able to find accommodation around London if you choose the London School of Economics? Or would you rather save that money and avoid having to take out loans for housing?
Population: More than Just a Number
As for the “population,” I’m talking not only about the city itself, but the students and the professors, as well. A few important things my advisors have told me over the years is to dig deeper and find out what the basic rankings themselves don’t tell you: what the students think about the university they’re attending. The department at your university of choice should have a directory of both faculty and graduate students: take advantage of this!
So, firstly, take a look at your universities’ departmental web pages and simply reach out to some of the current graduate students. As a former graduate student myself, I’ll say that would have (and did) happily give my time to answer a few questions like:
- Do you have a good relationship with your professors?
- What kinds of class requirements do you have/do you have to take classes?
- What are the qualifying exams like?
The worst that can happen is that you don’t hear a response back- after all, graduate students are busy people. However, a simple email could give you the inside scoop on what your potential department is like. Also, seek out reviews and opinions from real students that can give you much more detail about everything from applying to living on campus.
Don’t just stick to student opinions, though- send out a few emails to professors you might be interested in working with and ask them similar questions to the ones I mentioned above. Again, the worst that can happen is that you receive no answer. But chances are, you may get a useful response, and, as an added bonus, show your initiative by reaching out to the department yourself!
Choose the Life (and the Career) You Want to Live
In short, do your research before making that big decision. You may be pumped to have all these choices at your fingertips, but make sure the choice you make will continue to make you happy for the next five or more years of your life. Remember:
- Think about where you want to live, and if you can afford it
- Gather as many student opinions as possible about your program
- Don’t be shy about reaching out to professors-it shows initiative!
When making your decision, you want to make sure that you’ll be living comfortably and within your means, and that the academic community you join is a good fit for you. This will mean that you’ll have to do a little extra research and maybe step outside your comfort zone by “cold calling” student and professors, but in the end, it’s worth it to know that you’ll be living an enjoyable life while you build your career as a graduate student.