How to Choose a Graduate Program

Graduate school can be an exciting pursuit. Deciding on grad school involves consideration of cost, program, location, and time.

portrait of Juliann Scholl, Ph.D.
by Juliann Scholl, Ph.D.

Published June 7, 2022

Edited by Kristina Beek
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How to Choose a Graduate Program
Image Credit: Geber86 / E+ / Getty Images


The number of college graduates seeking advanced degrees has increased over the years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, over 13% of U.S. adults hold a graduate degree, an 8.6% increase since 2000. The number of master's and doctoral diplomas has doubled since 2000 to 21 million and 4.5 million, respectively.

Although the admissions processes for undergraduate and graduate degrees might seem similar, some graduate programs request previous research or work experience. Departments offering a master's or doctorate also tend to admit fewer students, providing more personalized mentorship and academic advising. Also, graduate students should expect more rigorous evaluations of their work, and they typically receive applied training in leadership and research.

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Master's and doctoral students generally gain extensive training in theoretical development and criticism. They also get more exposure to the research process, including data collection, analysis, and interpretation. Most master's students acquire leadership and applied skills in their chosen fields. Many doctoral students gain practical experience in planning and carrying out research projects.

Even if their occupations do not require advanced degrees, pursuing a master's or doctorate can position individuals for expanded job opportunities and higher salaries. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), professionals with master's degrees earned a median of $1,550 per week in 2020, compared to $1,300 for people with bachelor's degrees. Doctoral graduates made a weekly median of $1,890 in the same year.

Understand What Graduate Programs Are Available

For some graduates from bachelor’s programs, a master's degree represents the next step in higher education. Master's programs offer more specialized training. Students wondering how long master's programs are should prepare to take 30-45 credits of coursework, which typically takes 1-2 years to complete.

Individuals can pursue a master of arts (MA), master of science (MS), master of business administration (MBA), or another specialized master's degree to qualify for managerial positions or high-level occupations in their fields.

Some people who hold master's degrees pursue a doctorate to acquire advanced knowledge in their fields. Doctoral students typically need about four years to graduate, including taking classes and writing a dissertation. Some individuals pursue a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.), preparing them for academic and research work. Students can also earn professional degrees like a doctor of education (Ed.D.), a nursing doctorate (DNP), or a doctor of pharmacy (Pharm.D.).

Graduate certificates reflect options for professionals who do not desire or require a graduate degree. These certificates enable people to make a career change or gain advanced skills to become more competitive in the job market. Individuals should consider certificate programs that prepare them for managerial and leadership roles.

Determine What Prerequisites You'll Need

Graduate Program Prerequisites
Master Programs Ph.D. Programs
  • Minimum GPA of 2.5
  • Bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited school
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation
  • One or more years of relevant work experience
  • GRE or GMAT Scores, depending on the school; IELTS or TOEFL for non-native English speakers
  • Minimum GPA of 3.0
  • Bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited school
  • 2-3 letters of recommendation
  • 2-3 years of research, applied leadership, or teaching experience
  • GRE scores, depending on the school; IELTS or TOEFL for non-native English speakers

A grad school applicant should submit 2-3 recommendation letters from teachers, mentors, or employers. Recommenders should know the applicant well enough to speak to their character, academic or professional achievements, and readiness for graduate study. Students should start requesting letters early, allowing letter writers enough time to write and submit before application deadlines.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it challenging for prospective graduate students to take entrance exams like the GRE or GMAT. For this reason, some schools have waived entrance exam requirements. Nevertheless, students who can do so safely should consider taking their exams and submitting their scores, enhancing their application package.

Decide on the Area of Study You Want to Pursue

A bachelor's degree helps many graduates gain access to entry-level jobs. Still, they might need an advanced degree to earn higher pay or work in managerial positions. More occupations need a master's or higher, prompting many people to advance their education beyond a four-year degree. People in career tracks that do not require a master's or doctorate might not need to pursue advanced education.

Even if a career choice does not represent the motivation for advanced study, individuals deciding on graduate school should prepare for extensive reading and writing, which graduate study typically requires. Also, because advanced degrees involve more in-depth disciplinary learning, people who possess an interest and passion in their field tend to be more successful.

Not all graduate programs offer the same academic quality or rigor. The more competitive a school, the more difficult it might be to gain acceptance. Institutions that require higher GPAs and entrance exam scores include nationally recognized programs. Those that employ more accomplished faculty tend to accept fewer students than other schools.

Students applying to competitive programs can plan ahead by taking classes beyond minimum requirements and acquiring relevant work experience.

In-Demand Graduate Programs

Master's in Business Administration (MBA)

People desiring high-level finance or corporate leadership positions might consider an MBA. Curricular requirements typically include 30-40 credit hours of financial analysis, corporate finance, investment analysis, financial leadership, and a master's thesis.

Mean Total Cost of Program: $66,300


Master's in Marketing

This master's program teaches students how to create sophisticated marketing campaigns and reach target audiences. A master of marketing qualifies professionals to work as SEO strategists, communications directors, brand managers, and marketing directors.

Mean Total Cost of Program: $66,340


Master of Education (M.Ed.)

In addition to courses on classroom management and curriculum and planning, a master of education prepares individuals for leadership development. Most students also choose a concentration like special education, early childhood development, or language arts, or science.

Mean Total Cost of Program: $55,200


Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Psychology

Psychologists with doctorates can work as therapists in counseling or clinical settings. Others teach and conduct academic research in higher education. Competitive Ph.D. programs in this subject area can be found across the country at some of the best-known schools in the nation.

Mean Total Cost of Program: $98,800


Master's in Healthcare Administration (MHA)

An MHA suits many individuals who desire managerial roles in hospitals and other healthcare settings. Students take classes in strategic planning, health informatics, healthcare economics, and business administration.

Mean Total Cost of Program: $66,340


Consider the Logistics

Program Cost

Master's degrees and doctoral degrees can average $66,340 and $98,800, respectively, depending on location, program, and school. Private schools typically charge even more. Students can defray some costs by obtaining financial aid or applying for teaching or research assistantships.

Application Requirements

In general, grad schools do not use standard online application platforms like the Common Application. Instead, master's and doctoral programs typically generate online application portals where individuals submit application essays, transcripts, and other documents. Prospective students typically pay between $50-$85 per grad school application. Individuals showing financial hardship might get an application fee waiver.

Program Length

Most master's programs take two years to complete. Students in doctoral programs typically need 4-6 years to graduate. Working professionals wanting to graduate in less time might consider enrolling in online classes, some of which offer accelerated schedules that allow for finishing in less time.

Program Format

The desire to enroll as full- or part-time can inform how someone chooses a grad school. Many programs offer flexible courses that can fit in with work schedules and personal demands. Many online graduate programs provide asynchronous classes that allow students to progress through assignments and tests at their pace.

Seek Student and Alumni Perspectives

Getting advice from current students and graduates can help prospective applicants make informed decisions about how to choose a master's or doctoral program. Before applying to a school, individuals can ask current students about program rigor, student support services, and other important considerations.

Individuals contemplating graduate school should also consult alumni to ask about what they gained from their programs and what jobs they now hold. Schools typically keep rosters of their graduates, and students can ask an admissions representative for a way to connect with an alum. Individuals can also use social networks like LinkedIn and search for users who graduate from a specific school.

Frequently Asked Questions About Graduate Programs

What is the easiest graduate program to get into?

Individuals can do an online search for a school's acceptance rate. The higher the rate, the less competitive the school. Choosing a master's or doctoral program should not simply be based on which program has the most considerable acceptance rate. Nevertheless, individuals with low GPAs or a lack of work experience might apply to programs that are more likely to accept them.

How many graduate programs should I apply to?

Most graduate schools charge an application fee, so applying to several grad programs can get expensive. However, most applicants should consider applying to at least four institutions. Doing so will increase their chances of acceptance into at least one program. Students with their sights on more competitive schools might send out up to 10 applications.

What is the highest paying graduate degree?

The investment of time, effort, and money that a graduation education requires can lead to significant returns. Graduate degrees in aerospace engineering, anesthesiology, engineering management, biochemistry, computer and information systems management, computer engineering, dentistry, and medicine pay some of the highest salaries in the workforce. In addition to increased earning potential, an advanced degree provides paths to more challenging, fulfilling work.

Should I take a gap year before grad school?

People have various reasons for taking a year off between graduating college and beginning graduate school. Taking a gap year does not necessarily present a disadvantage when applying to master's programs. On the contrary, doing so allows individuals to accumulate work or volunteer experience, which they might initially lack. Using that time wisely also enables applicants to build skills or study for entrance exams, making them more competitive when applying to grad school.

Can I go straight into a Ph.D. program after undergrad?

While some doctoral programs require both a bachelor's and master's degree, other programs accept students with just an undergraduate education. Some healthcare programs, such as those offering nursing and occupational therapy doctorates, accept applicants without master's degrees.

Some students can enroll in doctoral programs that take longer but allow learners to earn the equivalent of a master's and doctorate. However, getting a master's first represents the more common approach.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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