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Applying for Grad School: A Short Guide

The first thing you have to consider is whether you want to go back into higher education. You should be asking yourself some practical questions: Do I enjoy the academic challenge of higher education? Will graduate study add value to an application for my desired career? Is the cost worth it?

Deciding where to study your desired graduate programme, or even whether you want to go back into higher education can be a difficult task. If you know what to look for, however, it makes the task much easier. In this short guide, I've outlined some of the factors you should consider when applying for a graduate programme. These considerations helped lead me to the perfect school and programme for me. So, whether International Relations is your thing, you want to further your interest in Biochemistry, or want to compete with the likes of Givenchy by taking a course in Fashion Design, this brief guide is for you.

The first thing you have to consider is whether you want to go back into higher education. You should be asking yourself some practical questions:

Do I enjoy the academic challenge of higher education? Will graduate study add value to an application for my desired career? Is the cost worth it?

Think about the time it will take to complete your graduate programme. A Master of Arts/Science traditionally lasts from one year, to two years full time; double that for part time study. A Master of Philosophy/Research is a more thesis and research methods intensive masters, and normally a stepping stone towards a doctorate, lasting between three years full time, and six years part time. Professional degrees such as the desirable Master of Business Administration can last from one to two years. Finally, the all-consuming Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D) traditionally lasts from three to four year's full time, and up to six years or more part time. For those interested in pursuing a Ph.D., there are some excellent words of advice on the Net from two recent Ph.Ds, and Professor Daniel Drezner, a seasoned admissions tutor. Whichever mode of study you choose they will be intensive so make sure you don't enter half-heartedly - you can imagine what the likely results will be for yourself. If you are thinking that grad study isn't worth the time, have a think about a professional qualification from a charted institute affiliated with your desired profession; it may prove more useful in the long run.

Before you begin your applications to grad schools, you may have concerns about funding. Many programmes in Britain such as an MA/MSc are below £10,000. If you are considering studying a professional degree like an MBA or MPA, or want to study abroad, be prepared to pay into the tens of thousands, particularly if you are considering the United States where fees are astronomical. But, remember there are options. If you were happy with studying in the university you got your bachelors from and they offer a course you are interested in, you may find they offer a percentage off fees for alumni. If you wanted to move on to another institution, there are other options too. Individual universities often offer their own bursaries or scholarships, from their own pocket or from generous donors, so apply, apply, apply! If you're struggling to find information on this issue then e-mail the course leaders directly and you'll find that they're usually very helpful. There are other ways of obtaining funding other than the school you want to apply to. Research councils, organisations like the Rotary Foundation, and scholarship programmes are there for budding post-grad students to apply to. There are a lot of options, so don't be deterred if you think you cannot afford the fees. Remember, if you are a British student in particular, there is no relying on The Student Loan Company after your undergraduate study! As a note to Ph.D. applicants, Professor Drezner cautions against considering taking on debt when applying for your chosen programme. In his sage words: "even a small amount of debt can be financially debilitating" - a useful maxim during this current recession. He also points to applicants for Ph.D programmes who state they need funding from the university, but haven't sought funding from outside organisations; this he argues is the sign of a lukewarm application and may count against you.

It is fair to want more out of a masters or doctoral course than a purely academic experience. Like many people taking post-grad study you probably want to do so to advance your career in both the academic and/or professional worlds. Before you apply to a course, get in touch with course leaders and ask them if there are any placement/internship schemes or networking opportunities in the programme. An issue you may have with finding a course that offers internship schemes is that they may be limited to where you're located; universities in London or Washington, D.C. will obviously be able to offer you greater access to internships than universities in Hull or Des Moines, so this is something to consider. There are of course exceptions to this rule. You may find that your desired programme or graduate school, whilst located outside of a major city, may have good links with organisations in your desired career area e.g. a marine conservation site or a local authority you are interested in.

Take a quick look at entry level jobs in the fields of work you want to work in, you'll see just how pivotal internship experience can prove when applying for a job. In certain fields, like international development, professional experience is essential, so obtaining relevant experience before you embark on your graduate studies, or during, is a worthy consideration. If you are able to find a programme that offers you the right knowledge and skills you need, and you can obtain some professional working experience through an internship, then you are one step ahead of the rest in an employer's eyes.

One thing you might not have thought of doing before is this: Ask prospective tutors what the age range of students on their course is; a more mixed age range is ideal for meeting potential contacts, and networking. This 'extra community' could prove useful in the longer term, and you may be able to call on these people in the future, wherever you find yourself landing. Contacts are so useful in this difficult job market. So, whilst this is not the most crucial consideration, it won't hurt to factor it into your decision.

Facilities are also important for a post-grad student. Find out whether there are separate IT or study facilities from undergraduate students, separate recreational areas, or even a stand-alone post-grad centre. If staff canteen facilities are open to you, even better! This gives you the opportunity to get to know your tutors better, ask them advice on your work, and even have informal tutorials. From a personal perspective, I have always found it important to be able to build a healthy working relationship with your tutors, particularly when doing large projects like a dissertation. Being able to bump into them in the uni café and touch base on a few issues of concern helps massively.

Finally, you should ask your prospective lecturers about contact hours, especially on taught masters. You could be paying a lot of money for your post-grad course so you should have access to plenty of contact time. That includes lectures, seminars, and tutorials. During the final year of my bachelors, my dissertation supervisor had a set of assigned hours per semester for tutorials, and these proved invaluable to getting high quality work done.

I haven't covered every possible angle in this guide, but I have covered many of the considerations that I took when researching my post-grad course. If you research and find the course that is perfect for you, it will hopefully take you into the direction you want to be going in professionally. If you have done your research well, I'm sure you will find post-grad study is a worthwhile investment. Good luck!

Jonathan Lima-Matthews is former Policy Analysis Intern for House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of United States Congress. He is going onto pursue a Masters in October of this year.

This has been adapted from an article originally posted on E-International Relations.

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