Selecting the ‘best fit’ graduate program: Some big questions

11/27/2011  |  STEVE D. THOMPSON, Ph.D.
Selecting the Right Graduate Program

The search for the best school to meet personal and professional needs is often a daunting task. Many times, apprehension and fear permeate this decision. Sometimes circular logic contributes to the cognitive dissonance related to the question. Recriminations fester. A litany of questions related to one’s interior musings often emerge, including: Do I have the time? Will I have the money? What am I going to do with this degree? What will this get me in the end? What sort of sacrifice will I have to really make? Who do I listen to regarding the best advice?

Simply put, it is often hard to know what you don’t know about something new, and when the decision is as big of a resource commitment as school, terror related to uncertainty pervades. Ultimately, how can anyone ever really know how something like a graduate program will help in an uncertain future? The most personal question, though, remains: what does a degree really mean to me anyway?

Depending on how obsessive and introspective one becomes when questions emerge and spiral, there are always myriad mitigating factors related to the decision to contribute countless hours and a significant amount of money and personal energy to a degree program. The mere fact of a two to four year commitment is the most obvious. Who knows what course the future will take in two to four weeks, let alone years from now? Of course, there are also the practical questions of quality instruction, rigor, and school ranking and the overall concern related to what benefits, if any, graduates will appreciate once all of the personal sacrifices are over. There are so many other personal options in the world that may lead to fulfillment and happiness outside the realm of professionalization and work-related success. Severely curtailing activities at home with family, hobbies, and other personal interests or cutting back on simple down-time with the hope of a giant “MAYBE” in the future contributes to the indecision and uncertainty of making a choice to move forward into academia.

One Size Fits All

Despite what schools market to prospective students, the concept of “one size fits all” is a fallacy. In actual fact, specific programs designed to meet students’ needs based on geography, subject-area content, professional connections, research, and other dimensions may all have enticing elements. However, the primary concern of how best to meet individual needs and, more importantly, to think in terms of applicability to one’s professional and personal goals becomes far trickier. Quantitative measures such as school rankings, graduation rates, number of alumni superintendents, completion time, retention, and school size by enrollments, among other concerns, are one way of broaching the problem.

Qualitative considerations, though grounded in a specific time and place by their very nature, are often more enticing, as they can often relate to school culture, faculty efficacy, climate, and other aspects distilled from student participants. Neither though, ever completes the entire picture of what the essence of the experience will be like and whether one is a good fit. Word of mouth from the successful graduate, typically the most likely conduit of reliable information, provides a much clearer image of the truth about an organization, as opposed to marketing materials cleverly crafted for web, print, fliers, e-mail, texting, radio, television, bus benches, and billboards. The university’s brand may suggest that it is a “one size fits all” establishment, but the nature of this claim is dubious on its face and slightly intellectually dishonest in its true application.

Schools as Service Centers

Simply put, a school is not a retail establishment designed for the student customer to purchase an experience, though this is the way that most schools are sold to prospective students. While businesses operate with the sub-textual maxim of caveat emptor, the pervasiveness of academics in teaching, support, and administrative roles helps to circumvent, or at least mitigate, this pursuit of the bottom line and of the commoditization of education where learning translates to a purchased product. Instead, it really is a provided service, as schools are service establishments. The best schools teach students to think critically, to write at a professional level, and to apply learned skills to the vast array of professional responsibilities awaiting the graduate.


The current financial climate, though, has forced more and more institutions to pursue the bottom line. The ranks of faculty in the trenches and the teams of administrators and support staff required to maintain a university’s operation often cringe at the notion that financial considerations and business decision impact classroom instruction. Often, this is still a good thing, and it is practiced in many places along the not-for-profit, private and state school spectrum. The higher education field still tends to draw many of the most idealistic in our society who see pursuit of profit as a problem and improving student learning as part of the solution.

When a caring, engaged faculty work with students as partners in their individual learning, the effects are no short of miraculous. Considering an investment in education as a true, untouchable lifestyle, regardless of degree prestige, is connected to the notion of improving one’s interaction with the world, while experiencing it with a higher level of interaction and a greater, more enhanced level of discourse.

Vision and Mission Driven Schools

There has been a great deal of concern regarding the difference between the for profit and not-for-profit sector. One oft considered line of demarcation falls along the contrast of vision and mission-driven schools on behalf of student learning and those that allude to corporate profit and self-perpetuation.

Private, not-for-profit institutions that offer a diverse array of innovative academic programs at the undergraduate, graduate, and professional levels seem to fit the “one size fits all” holding, but the actual fact of a graduate student fitting into the overall university model and leveraging all that a university has to offer in both social and academic spheres makes for better marketing copy than it does real value. Aside from an enhanced skill set and practical application of new learning, most graduate students are looking for professional networking, affiliations with professional organizations, or conduits with which one can pursue professional goals with like-minded students and similarly-minded faculty. It pays to find an environment that really stands for something other than for its own self-interest or for the pleasure of the board of trustees and for future donor prospects.

Many graduate schools tout on-campus educational opportunities and resources with accessible distance learning programs, but the method or learning conduits are often irrelevant to fostering intellectual inquiry, leadership, and commitment to community learning through student engagement with dynamic faculty. Again, cutting through the marketing copy and finding the crux of commitment to life-long learning in a professionally-enhancing environment comes to the fore. Asking one’s self about personal values and values of the institution seems logical and the best first step. Asking questions such as “am I good fit at a school that, let’s say, publishes its student-centered goals as: academic excellence, integrity, innovation, opportunity, scholarship/ research, diversity, and community of importance?” If not, then this begs the question of what is truly missing in that litany?

Finding a school that is dedicated to the enhancement and continuing support of teachers, administrators, trainers, and others working in related helping professions throughout the world may have a special resonance. If a school fulfills its commitment to the advancement of education by serving as a resource for practitioners, both novice and experienced, and by supporting them in the professional self-development, then one may want to consider how this development fits with one’s specific career and life goals.

The School for You

So, how does one ever know if a school is the right fit? If an institution and its representatives are sensitive to the professional and life balances and are willing to offer the flexibility required to be successful in both spheres, then this is a good starting point. If you hear from other students or gather from their discussion that the level of discourse is to your satisfaction and forces you to stretch, then this may be a good fit. If you feel that a program will expand your present skill set and offer you a window through which you may view the world from a different perspective, then you may have found where you belong, and if the degree means more to you personally than it does to all of the detractors in your life and in your workplace, then you may be ready.

The commitment though is a serious one, and it is not for everyone. One should expect countless hours of study and self-reflection as well as sacrifices of time and money. The happiness and joy derived from the completion of finding the right fit within the organization is key. There is often no way to test this empirically or experimentally, so you will simply have to trust that an institution with values and with a mission close to your own will help you through one of life’s most difficult challenges.

Steve D. Thompson, Ph.D., is Executive Director, Marketing and Communications at Nova Southeastern University’s Fischler School of Education and Human Services and a Program Professor in the Educational Leadership department. A former administrator at University of Miami, a professional and trade acquisitions and development editor for Wiley/ Jossey-Bass, an assistant professor of education at Barry University, and a secondary school language arts teacher and department chairperson, Dr. Thompson has edited numerous K-12 educational books and several academic articles. For more information, visit
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