What to consider when choosing a graduate program

11/27/2011  |  DIANA PEAKS
Selecting the Right Graduate Program
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Dr. Stephanie James, assistant professor of Educational Leadership and director of Leadership Programs at Jacksonville University.

Greater earning capability, career enhancement and promotional opportunities are just a few of the reasons for continuing your education by earning a graduate degree. Depending upon the type of graduate program, whether campus-based, online or hybrid, learning to balance work, family, and studies can be challenging, but not impossible if you take the time to properly research and plan before beginning your degree program.

Some of the primary points to consider when choosing a graduate program include:

  • Accreditation
  • Faculty Qualifications
  • Campus Environment
  • Career Services

 

Accreditation

According to the U.S. Department of Education website, the goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets acceptable levels of quality. Institutions and/or programs that earn accreditation confirm their commitment to quality and continuous improvement through a rigorous and comprehensive peer review process.

There are many different types of accreditation and varying organizations that grant it. It can be confusing and misleading, so you should research what type of accreditation your prospective school has earned and from what organization they received it. That way, you’ll ensure that you’re earning your degree from a reputable institution. This will be important so that once the degree has been conferred it will be respected and you can utilize it toward future degrees and career advancement.

Commonly, regional accreditation is the most recognized and accepted type of accreditation in the U.S. Other regionally accredited colleges or universities generally accept college credits or degrees received from those institutions.

There are six geographic regions of the U.S. with an agency that accredits college and university higher education programs: the Middle States, New England, North Central, Northwest, Southern and Western. Each area has its own Associations of Colleges and Schools. Finding a school’s proper accreditation information could be difficult. You can learn if the school you are interested in has earned their marks by visiting the website for that area and looking them up directly.

Faculty Qualifications

Seeking out institutions where the full-time faculty are also scholars and practitioners in their fields ensures they’ll be familiar with skills and knowledge essential for you to succeed in today’s environment. A faculty with dedication to student success also provides an environment where you will gain the critical thinking skills necessary to advance in your career.

Finding out if the faculty are research based or focused on developing programs will help in determining how effective the program may be for your needs.

“The research interests of the faculty are important to consider,” according to Dr. Stephanie James, assistant professor of Educational Leadership and director of Leadership Programs at Jacksonville University. “These are the people who will be guiding your education, so it will help you to know what areas they may specialize in or are currently studying themselves.”

Are they involved in the community? This may increase your own network of internship and job opportunities. Are they terminally degreed? You’ll want your professors to have the highest degree and level of competence in their fields of study. All of these elements come into play.

Class size is another element that may help guide your choice of school as it affects how much interaction you’ll have with the faculty and how many students you’ll work with, as well as if there are graduate assistants teaching classes rather than professors. James recommends considering the faculty-student ratio.

Campus Environment

Comparing the atmosphere on campus and the style of the program will also help you determine which program is right for you. Some programs are offered in a structured format, while others are available on an individual basis.

“Consider whether or not you would prefer a cohort format in which you start and finish the program with the same group of people, or if you’d prefer an open enrollment program format, in which you take classes that are part of your program of study at the pace that you wish,” James said. “Turn inward, internalize the options and decide if your life is set up to allow for the time commitment you’ll have to devote to studying and that will point you to the style that is best for you.”

There may be classes offered online or even in a hybrid of online and on campus formats. Think about how you enjoy learning and what methods are most effective for you. Is personal contact a priority for you or would a virtual classroom suit your learning approach? These components should each be considered to find what fits you and your lifestyle the best.

“When I decided to seek my master’s degree the first consideration was to choose a school that would respect my need to work full time and raise a family. Secondly, I wanted the classroom experience. I am very much an extrovert and wanted to collaborate with others in person,” said Chief Greg Burton of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, who earned his master of education in leadership and learning from Jacksonville University earlier this year. “Thirdly, I wanted a reputable school with strong academic programs. And finally, because of my hectic schedule I needed the administrative aspects of school to be as simple as possible. I found all of this and more at JU.”

 

Chief Greg Burton of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, earned his master of education in leadership and learning from Jacksonville University.

Take the time to visit your top choices and talk to current students to learn about their perspective. They will be your best resource to understand about the day-to-day reality of the program and what is expected.

“Search out student testimonials, look closely at the curriculum — review the classes to see if the content resonates with you and your goals,” said James.

Career Services

A crucial aspect of any institution is the services they offer to their students. Some of the services to look for include one-on-one career development services, internship and student chapter opportunities with local businesses as well as personal financial aid counseling. Many programs offer career development counseling and may have information on job opportunities that may not be easily accessed elsewhere.

Exploring what previous graduates of the program have done will help you determine if a particular program will get you in place to get you where you want to go.

“Ask about the stated outcomes for graduates of the program and what the completion rate is,” advises James. “Take into account what the job outlook is for your chosen field.”

There are programs available in any interest area, cost level, geographic area and even online. Be careful and thorough in your research and you’ll discover the one that is the best fit for you.

“Generally, you should choose a university based on the reputation of the institution, the location, the cost, etc.,” said James. “If you investigate all of these points and consider the philosophy of the program and/or guiding principles and find they are right for you, you’ll earn your degree and reap the benefits of your hard work.”

Diana Peaks is the executive director for the Center for Professional Studies at Jacksonville University. She is also an adjunct professor with more than thirty years of practical experience in corporate management, with an emphasis on organizational design, change management and leadership. She earned her bachelor’s from JU and her master’s in management from Regis University. For more information, visit www.ju.edu/cps.
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