Choosing the Right Graduate School and the Right Program

Specialization. Different schools and departments are strong in different areas, so it is important that you begin to study your options and prepare early. Study graduate schools and gather documentation about the programs you are interested in. You need not narrow your focus before graduating from college, and as a matter of fact you can choose a M.A. program that is relatively general, and wait until the Ph.D. level to specialize. On the other hand, programs such as Public History are highly specialized. Some schools feature interdisciplinary programs that offer the opportunity to combine your major and minor undergraduate fields of study. Before choosing a school, visit it and ask to talk to the graduate director or to a member of the graduate faculty. Graduate study in History can be completed in any number and combination of fields and  subfields. These will lead you to a variety of careers that include, but are not limited to the world of the academe.


The Right Fit. The most important factor in your selection process is whether the school feels "right" and whether it is a good "fit." Important signs are the responses that you get from faculty, alumni/ae, current graduate students, and departmental staff. Consider all the variables below, ask questions of prospective graduate programs, talk to their students, rank the variables (A - excellent, B - good, C - average, U - unsatisfactory) and make a table comparing the various schools.


Program Requirements. Carefully study the graduate field. Consider each program's number of required courses and their emphasis, the number of seminars, and the structure of the program. How long does it take other graduate students to complete the M.A. requirements? How long before they take their comprehensive examinations? What is the reputation of the dissertations that are written in the program. How many have been published in article or book form, or shared as papers presented at professional conferences? Most graduate programs will put you in touch with their current or former students. Talking to them can help you make a better decision.


Location and Size. You might feel more comfortable in a smaller program or among a larger group of graduate students. Are you willing to relocate? Will it be too costly for you to leave home? You may choose to pursue an M.A. program close to home, especially if you are going to graduate school part-time. The area around UT Martin has a number of excellent graduate programs at Murray State University, Middle Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and University of Memphis. Then you can reevaluate your goals after earning the M.A.  A campus visit may make the difference between admission to and rejection from a graduate program. A campus visit gives you the chance to meet with faculty, grad students, perhaps even alumni/ae, and to check out the library and research facilities. Look up the number of enrolled graduate students, check the dissertations in progress.


Placement Record. Carefully examine the placement success of the programs where you are applying. How have other students fared coming out of these programs? Are they gainfully employed? How many in academe are on tenure-track jobs? Working for international organizations? Being museum curators, special collections directors, international businessmen, journalists, archivists? Studying this is another good way to learn about potentially interesting careers. You need to look at the general figures on graduate student placement rate, but also at the success rate of students in your specific program of choice. This may not be indicated in departmental statistics. Talking directly with program alumni and current graduate students will help you learn the whole story.


Reputation. You want to attend a school with an excellent graduate reputation. Check with professional associations and other accredited programs. Consult the sites below that rank graduate programs, such as US News and World Report. Talking with current students and alumni of a particular program can reveal a lot about the program's accomplishments and whether it will fulfill your expectations.


Faculty. You want to attend a university that has a strong reputation in your particular specialty. Some programs have leading professors in American history, but fewer professors in World history. Other programs may be on the cutting edge of methodological research and pay less attention to American history. You want a good match between your interests and skills and a graduate program. If you decide to choose a program based on the reputation of a certain professor, be sure that the professor will be around during your tenure as a graduate student. You want the faculty to be accessible and evaluate whether you can develop a relationship with the program’s faculty. 


Your Major Professor. Perhaps one of the most important factors in choosing a graduate school is choosing your major professor. While some universities have ample name recognition (such as Harvard or Princeton) that can aid graduates in their future careers, the reality is that most graduate students will not go to an Ivy League school. The alternative is to study under a well-respected professor in your chosen field. While graduate studies at the master’s level is not so mentor-oriented, students who seek to go onto a Ph.D. program or who enroll in a combined masters/doctoral program would do well to carefully consider who will be their lifetime mentor. Theoretically, your major professor will be your mentor in graduate school and in your career thereafter, and it is very beneficial to have an influential name in your field to direct your studies and dissertation and to support you in your future career.



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