In the United States alone, the number of tertiary institutions is simply mind blowing; Wikipedia says it is currently at 5,758. What makes this number even more intriguing is the fact that most of these institutions can actually provide you with world-class education. From my experience, you will learn the same thing if you choose to attend any of these institutions. What may differ is the job opportunities you can access, and the network you can build from each school. It goes without saying that a Harvard University graduate will be able to access a lot more opportunities than a graduate from some Tier 3 state college.
So if any institution can provide the quality education that you seek, where should you go? When I was making my decision, I looked at a couple of things:
- Rankings: Rankings are a very big deal in most developed countries, especially the United States. Typically, what happens is that an institution like US News or Princeton Review administer surveys involving university students and faculty, and use the results of these surveys, in addition to other factors like graduate salaries and standardized test scores, to rank institutions against one another. During my application process, I was a staunch believer in rankings, and believed that going to the highest-ranked school was a sure way to guarantee my success in the US labor market. I later realized that I was wrong.
- School Website: This sounds ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight, but I honestly used the look and feel of a school’s website to determine if it was worth my attention or not. Considering the fact that I was an international applicant, doing my research from another part of the world, websites were pretty much all I had to go on. Till date, my best school website is still UC Berkeley’s ISchool (I still really love that program by the way). However, I now know that the look and feel, as well as information on a school’s website, might actually be a misleading indicator of whether that school is right for you.
- Current Students: This was my best source of information by far. As expected, most people will tell you what’s nice about their school, and may be reluctant to tell you what needs improvement. However, if you are persistent, and talk to enough people, you will ultimately arrive at a balanced perspective.
The process of choosing a graduate degree program is quite personal; I understand that now more than ever. What I mean is, don’t choose the right degree program or institution. Rather, choose a school or program that is right for you, considering your unique needs such as your current financial position, academic and professional credentials, and future career goals. These are some of the criteria I think you should consider:
- Rankings: As much as I hate to admit it, rankings are still important, and will remain so for the forseeable future. Some school names like Stanford, NYU, MIT, Columbia, and Yale will continue to command respect and open doors all over the world. However, rankings are not a Holy Grail, and I believe the best way to work with them is to see them as just one part of your entire decision making framework. Other factors like funding, and location are just as important.
- Location: This is one factor that international students know so little about, and is really a BIG deal. Everyone now knows that we had a global economic recession about 3 years ago. What most international students do not know is that the impact of this recession is remarkably different as you move from one state to another within the US. Also, a number of industry sectors like technology, automobiles and healthcare, are very regional in the US. Therefore, your school’s geographical location, and closeness to specific industries, play a big role in determining what job opportunities you can access. For example, if you are thinking about a career in technology, you probably want to be in states like Washington, California, Boston, or Texas. While I was applying to schools, I didn’t know this either, and I choose an institution in the “Great State of Texas”, which has been very resillient economically, by pure luck. I now understand that other states, such as Michigan, aren’t doing as well. Does this mean that going to the top-ranked University of Michigan Ann Arbor is a bad move? By no means. All I’m saying is: understand the issues before making your decision.
- Funding: So you get a fully funded admissions offer from a school ranked no. 15, and another admissions offer with no funding from the school ranked no. 10. Which do you choose? With what I now know, and holding all other variables like location constant, I would choose the funded option in a heartbeat. Why? Getting a job after graduation is not solely dependent on the reputation of your school. On the other hand, paying for a graduate degree without funding is solely dependent on you!
- Current Students: I cannot stress this point enough. Talk to current students, and talk to all types of students; international students, domestic students, first year, second year, the entire range. This exercise will give you a balanced perspective of the target institution, and if it is right for you. How do you get in touch with these people? Well, most schools do not publish the contact information of current students on their website, but some (like UC Berkeley which I love) do. If they don’t, a creative combination of tools like Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the all-mighty Google will give you what you seek. Most people are friendly enough to reply from my experience. However, remember to be respectful of people’s privacy. No spamming… 🙂