Graduate school is often the next route people take after they complete their undergraduate program. While some do it immediately after their undergraduate program, others often do so after some industry experience, or much later in their careers, depending on their career goals and other circumstances.
For me, I began my journey of going to grad school around November 2019. I had worked for about a year and had just abruptly decided that I wanted to do grad school, so I began applying then to schools for Fall 2020. I applied to schools in the UK, one in the USA, and one in Canada. I also applied for some scholarships. I got offers from some schools in the UK and the US, all without full funding. The fees were a lot for me so I couldn’t take up those offers that year. I decided to plan better for the next academic year, begin preparations earlier, and apply more strategically the next year to begin Fall 2021. Which is what I did.
In this article, I will be sharing what I considered when choosing a grad program, how I was able to decide the schools I applied to, my timeline, as well as a template sheet I used to keep track of my findings.
What is grad school?
Grad school (short form for graduate school) is advanced education in a formal institution after the first degree. Typically, grad school refers to Master’s, Ph.D., or post-graduate diploma programs. Each of these could be full-time or part-time—which one can do while still working at the same time. The requirements and durations for these programs differ greatly by country, educational system, school, and even course of study. Ph.D. programs are typically more advanced, have a longer duration (about 3-7 years on average), and are more research-focused. Master’s programs, on the other hand, are usually about 1-3 years long and could be taught Master’s (coursework only, or with a dissertation or capstone project) or thesis-based Master’s (with research). Post-graduate diplomas are usually shorter, spanning from a few months to about a year.
What to consider when searching for grad schools
The choice of what to consider when searching for grad schools depends on what is important to you at that point in your life, or not. It is important to think about this carefully and personally. You want to choose a place where you will thrive and be your best. You can speak to people around you or people you know in different places to get their perspectives, and opinions, and learn about their experiences. This can help you make more informed decisions, but the final decision still lies in your hands, not because someone has an opinion or said something on social media.
Everyone does not have the same goals, personality, values, or behavior. Making the move is not an easy feat, you want to make a deliberate decision that will make you feel most supported. While making my decision of what grad schools to apply to, I considered many things. I will go ahead to share them and give my reasons.
Eight things I considered when searching for grad schools abroad
- Course of study
- Funding options
- School ranking and reputability in your field
- Potential future opportunities
- Cost of living and fees
- Course curriculum
- Research interests of the faculty
- Course of study: Initially, I wanted to do a Master’s in Artificial Intelligence or Data Science, but then I had a rethink and I decided to opt for a Master’s in Computer Science with a more specialized research focus. I decided on this because I did not want to limit my advanced degree to any specialty just yet, I wanted a generic/more rounded education experience in a more advanced country, and to also give myself more time to grow technically breadth-wise. After making this decision, I started looking for schools that offered my desired program in different countries. I believe the course of study is the first thing that determines what programs, schools, or even countries you should consider. I mean, that’s your primary aim of doing grad school.
- Funding options: Schooling abroad in most countries is typically expensive, especially considering the foreign exchange rate. This is why funding was very important to me. My ideal situation was a tuition-free education, with an additional stipend for my daily expenses and other fees–which is exactly what I got. However, not every program offers full funding with stipends; some could offer partial funding, others, tuition waivers, etc. You should carefully consider what the options are, understand what the financial implications are, and decide which you can carry comfortably; keeping in mind your savings and any other sources of income, family, and people that can support you financially, possible loans, or payment installment plans, etc.
- Location: Some location-based factors that people consider are the language spoken, immigration laws and naturalization pathways of the country, access to that city by checking the nearest big airports, the presence of a community from your home country or tribe in that area, distance from where you call home, the climate, timezone differences, personal safety, etc. Some of these factors might not be important to you but might be a big deal for someone else. This is a personal decision, and while it can be influenced or motivated by others’ opinions, it should not be made by solely copying someone else.
- School ranking and reputability in your field: Grad school is an investment, both personal and career-wise; and with every other investment, we hope for a positive Return On Investment (ROI). Choosing a school with a good reputation in your field yields a positive ROI in diverse ways. First is that you can trust the curriculum to be updated with new technologies, have state-of-the-art facilities, and the networking possibilities with your coursemates, professors, as well as visitors. It can also be a nice ice-breaker at a social work event. Not everyone will get into an Ivy league, not everyone even desires this; however, if this is something you’re open to, one strategy is to split the schools you apply to into tiers. If you are planning to apply to five schools, you can apply to two that are very reputable in your field, two that are right in the middle and you meet their requirements, and then a school that you exceed their requirements. It is a way to not waste your chances but still dream big. However, this is just an opinion, and not a hard rule, because things work differently for people.
- Potential future opportunities: As I mentioned previously, going to grad school is an investment. One thing to consider is the possible future opportunities from each of these schools. This could be their employability rates, alumni network, the support offered in finding a job, etc. It depends on what is most important to you and how you feel best supported.
- Cost of living and fees: Whether you are fully funded, have partial funding or are self-funding yourself through school, you should also consider the cost of living in the area and any additional fees to be incurred. To avoid getting stranded, you should make sure that your savings, stipend, or whatever source of income you will have will be sufficient for you. What are your plans for accommodation? How much is the average rent? Taxes, student fees, and health insurance deductible, among other basic things?
- Course curriculum: It is also important to check the proposed course curriculum for each school. This could very well determine your success in grad school. You want a program that offers courses where you have a good understanding of the fundamentals or can pick up easily, and/or a program that will support you with adequate knowledge for your research if your program is research-focused, and most importantly, after graduation, will actually provide you with marketable skills.
- Research interests of the faculty: This applies if it is a research program. You want to choose a program with adequate support for your research. You can find this out by checking the websites and papers published by the Faculty, and the different labs/research groups in the program.
There are other factors that might be important to you as a human being that I might not have included/considered. Some other factors are the ability to transfer credits, STEM classification, duration of the program, etc.
However, these listed above are what I personally considered majorly. I filled in for each of the schools in a Google Sheet which I’ll be sharing as a template with you as well. Here is the sample template I used to keep track of the schools I was considering. This isn’t an extensive list, so feel free to take out or add whatever is most important to you. Also, you may not find a program that perfectly ticks all the boxes. This is where it becomes essential to separate your negotiable factors from the non-negotiables. Negotiable factors are what you can actually survive without, more like preferences; whereas non-negotiable factors are stronger opinions, without which you will not go ahead at all.
What to do after selecting schools?
After choosing your preferred schools and programs based on factors most important to you, what next?
- Check the eligibility and requirements.
- Take note of timelines and deadlines.
- Begin preparing your application package way in advance e.g getting your first-degree transcript, writing any required examinations, working on essays, and contacting your potential referees.
- Find students or alumni of the program on LinkedIn and try to connect with them if you need that. They could help by giving their honest opinion about a school or program, recommending Professors for you, and just giving you tips for scaling through the applications.
- Start raising funds or saving as much as you can. To apply for a US student visa, most schools expect you to show proof of funds up to the estimated cost of tuition fees and other living expenses for a year. While other countries might be different, most times, a certain percentage of your fees and living expenses is expected. Also, in most countries, rent is paid on a monthly basis. Even if you are fully funded with a stipend and did not need to show personal proof of funds to get a visa, you might not get paid immediately after you resume school, so you should have some money saved up to take care of your bills and expenses in the meantime.
- Send in applications as early as possible. Don’t wait until a day before the deadline to start your applications. You want to put your best foot forward in every application. You should aim to apply in the two to four weeks of applications opening, and give yourself some time to review your application before submitting it. This also ensures that your referees have ample time to write your recommendation letters and submit them. You don’t want to miss out on a great opportunity because you missed the deadline, your recommendation letter was not sent in time, or you tried applying on the last day and ran into issues that could not be solved immediately.
- Reach out to professors if it is a research-based program. It helps to start conversations with professors before beginning the program to make sure that there is sufficient faculty to support your research during grad school, and it could also increase your chances of getting admitted or receiving funding from the department.
- Also, feel free to email the grad school admission committee, and the department chair at any point to ask questions or get clarifications. I know some people send emails asking for application fee waivers and get a partial or full waiver, which is great and saves them a lot of money.
I have also included a template worksheet of my application checklist which I used to keep track of everything I had to do for applying to each school. You can duplicate the rows and customize them based on the number of schools you’re applying to and their requirements. The last worksheet in the template was what I used to keep track of each professor I reached out to in the different schools for my research programs. I hope this is helpful to you in your application process in some way.
My grad school application timeline
Personally, here is how my timeline for applying to grad school went:
- May 2020 – Began a personal project in Natural Language Processing (NLP) to gain relevant research experience.
- July 2020 – Reached out to my potential referees to inform them of my plans, and took an NLP online specialization course.
- August 2020 – Requested for my undergraduate transcript from my University, paid for WES evaluation of my transcript, registered for, and began studying for Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).
- September 2020 – Began reaching out to Professors at potential schools.
- October 2020 – Wrote GRE, and applied to one school.
- November 2020 – Applied to a second school.
- December 2020 – Applied to the third and fourth schools.
- January 2021 – Had virtual interviews with two schools.
- February 2021 – Received my admission from the University of Denver.
- April – May 2021 – Had interviews with Professors and potential supervisors.
- June 2021- Received my funding and assistantship offer.
- August 2021 – Got my US student visa and traveled.
School application season is upon us already, as most programs receive applications between August – December for the Fall session of the next year. I hope this article helps give you clarity on how to approach the entire process.
I wish you all the success and I pray that your dreams materialize. If there’s any other aspect of grad school and applications that you’d like for me to write about, please drop a comment below or shoot me an email at: contactaniekan at gmail dot com.
Thank you for reading.