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Selecting a graduate school to attend

by Philip S. Mack, MSW
Director of Admissions & Student Affairs
University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work

The process of selecting a graduate school to attend can be one of the most difficult decisions an individual will ever have to make in their lifetime. Although difficult, the anxiety that results from having to select a graduate school to attend can be greatly reduced with the help of a decision making model.

My decision making model is grounded in the belief that "Selecting a Graduate School to Attend is as Simple as a, b, C." Please note that the emphasis is on C, and that is because there are six factors that you need to consider when selecting a graduate school to attend and each factor begins with the letter C. The factors are:

Credentials

The first factor that you need to consider in selecting a graduate school to attend is whether the university and/or program accredited. Reputable employers will only be looking to hire graduates of accredited programs. The U.S Department of Education recognizes accreditation agencies for the purpose of assessing the acceptable level of education standards and granting accreditation status to colleges and universities. For example, The University of Pittsburgh is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and their School of Social Work is accredited by the Council on Social Work Education. Many professional degrees such as medicine, law, nursing, and social work have national accreditation standards.

Curriculum

You need to make sure that the courses that are offered will enhance your knowledge and skills in your particular area of interest. For example, in social work if you are interested in working with abused parents and children then it would be in your best interest to consider schools that offer courses in crisis intervention and family therapy. Other important factors to be considered are: what percentage of the faculty have earned a Ph.D. in the field? What are their areas of research? Are the faculty practitioners as well? How large are the classes? What is the faculty:student ratio? Are classes available online or on evenings and weekends? Are there certificate or dual degree programs available? Programs such as these can enhance your knowledge and skills in a particular area.

Campus life

Refers to the regional location of the institution. Please note that most of us perform better academically when we are happy socially. Will you be comfortable in an urban, suburban, or rural environment? Does the campus have a diverse student and/or faculty population? Is there on-campus student housing, and if not, what is the housing like in the local community? Is it affordable? If you don't have access to private transportation what type(s) of public transportation is available? Remember, as a graduate student often you may be on campus late at night, so if you don't have access to private transportation, public transportation is extremely important. Are there student organizations on campus that are of interest to you and how do you go about participating in them? (Read more about the lifestyle changes grad school implies and the importance of a campus visit.)

Counseling

This really refers to student support services. What type of advising will you receive? Is there faculty and/or peer advising? Will you receive a mentor? If you have to do a practicum, what type of supervision will you receive? Does the program or school offer enrichment activities to enhance your professional development such as a writing, research, or computer lab and/or instruction? Does the university provide counseling services if needed. Often, life's unforeseen situations and circumstances can make it necessary to seek out professional help and guidance.

Costs

Although just about all colleges and universities provide financial aid, financial aid can vary greatly amongst colleges and universities. The bottom line is, how much will you have to pay for your education and how much will you need to borrow? Are there scholarships, grants, or assistantships available? If you do have to do a practicum can you receive a paid internship assignment? After combining your undergraduate student loans with your anticipated graduate student loan debt, how much is the sum total? What will your monthly student loan payment be and how long will it take to pay off your student loan obligation? Are there student loan forgiveness programs available based on the type of post-graduate work experience that you will be doing?

Career opportunities

Lastly, what type of employment will you be able to find? What is the average starting salary for graduates from your program in your field? Does the college/university provide assistance with your employment search? Does your program or school have a career center to assist you with your employment search? Please note that if your school or program does have a career center as compared to the university career center, it will be much more familiar with job opportunities in your field. Your school or program's career center can be of valuable assistance to you in helping you write your resume and enhancing your interviewing skills techniques for your first post graduate education employment experience.

Conclusion and further resources