So here in the Graduate School forum, we get the same questions very frequently! Questions are - of course - always encouraged, but I thought I would start an FAQ just to address some of the ones that pop up very frequently.
Everyone feel free to add additional ones and additional nuance/detail/dissenting opinions!
I don’t know what I want to do for a career. Can you help me pick a graduate program?
Really, if you don’t know what you want to do, don’t go to graduate school. Graduate school is expensive: master’s programs usually are actually financially expensive, requiring and outlay of money (and loans). PhD programs may not require money outright, but you are paying in time: a lower income for 5-6+ years plus less time to save for retirement (two words: compound interest) plus all the stress that comes with it! More importantly, graduate school is not designed for you to figure out what you want to do. It’s designed to train you for a specific career or set of careers. It would be terrible to think you wanted an MA in art history, spend 2 years and $120,000 paying for it, only to realize that what you really needed was an MPA or an MA in Japanese pedagogy or whatever.
So if you don’t know what you want to do…go find a job! Graduate school will always be there, waiting, when you’re ready to return.
Here are my stats. Can you tell me my chances?
No, not really. Chances are an inexact art even in undergraduate admissions. Graduate admissions are much less numbers-driven and rely more on the holistic entity of your application package (statement, fit with the department, work/research/internship experience, GPA, rigor of your program, letters of recommendation, GRE scores). They also rely on a lot of factors outside of your control - such as who you are competing with that year in the application pool; the state of funding in the department; the future plans of professors to retire/move to a different university/apply for grants; and other things. So we can’t tell you your chances.
What someone could comment on is, broadly, how competitive an applicant you are within their field (or others they’re familiar with) and perhaps for some specific programs or tier of programs. But, for that, you really need to provide more than your GPA and GRE scores - you should also give some general indication of the quality of elements I mentioned above. For example, how many years of work/research/internship experience do you have? What were you doing?
What’s the best program in [field]/Can you suggest programs for me in [field]?
There’s no one best program. For example, if you asked what the best program in psychology is, I’d have to ask you what subfield. Social? Developmental? Cognitive? Even that’s not enough, because the best social psychology program for a person who wanted to study intergroup relations is going to be different from the best one for someone who wants to study romantic relationships and attachment. And even if you specified that, there are other factors. So you are unlikely to get a really good answer to this question unless you provide very specific information about your wants AND there is someone intimately familiar with that field who browses these forums.
Suggesting programs is also very difficult. The person would have to be in your field - and honestly, in the same or a very closely related research area, or at least familiar with the area. For example, I could suggest some good programs to study stereotyping and prejudice in social psychology, but I couldn’t really suggest the best places to study memory and emotion in cognitive psychology, much less good places for social stratification (or anything) in sociology or particle physics. The best answer to this question is honestly doing a lot of your own Internet research and asking some trusted mentors in your home department. This takes a lot of time, but it’s really the only way to get good ideas about where to go.
How much does my undergraduate school matter for graduate admissions?
This is a tricky question to answer, and opinions are going to vary a bit. The general consensus seems to be “Some, maybe a lot, but what you do in undergrad is way more important than where you go.”
Let’s be honest - professors, like most people, can be swayed by prestige. But it’s not the sparkliness of the name; it’s the familiarity with the department, the faculty, and the work and rigor that go into that program. If your field has excellent departments at Wisconsin and Duke and Michigan and Stanford, then if you come out of one of those universities the professors at your graduate schools know that you had good training at the department. They know the faculty members there - maybe they went to grad school together, or collaborated on past projects, or were postdocs together - and they trust their word in letters of recommendation. They know that the cutting-edge research is coming out of so-and-so’s lab, which just happens to be where you did your RA job. So when your application crosses their desk, a lot of the things you discuss are known quantities.
However, this does not mean that if you go to East Carolina University, Cal State Northridge, UNC-Wilmington or Loyola Marymount that you have worse choices of getting into graduate school. This also does not mean that “a 3.3 at Stanford is the same/better than a 3.7 at CSUN.” This also doesn’t mean that you should go deep into debt to attend a more prestigious school, or transfer away from your current undergrad. It’s simply a data point - one that’s taken into consideration. There are lots and lots of people who go to excellent graduate schools from these schools and other smaller regional publics and lesser-known privates. What’s more important is what you do. So get involved in research (yes, there is research going on at places like these), form relationships with professors (yes, they still count even if they don’t know Professor Fancypants at Harvard), try to do a summer research internship at a different university, and take the most rigorous courseload you can (consider taking graduate courses if you are able).
Should I go straight to graduate school after undergrad, or should I take some time off in between?
Seriously, there’s really no one answer to this question. It depends on your needs and desires and wishes. Personally, I advise taking a couple years off, simply because I feel like one is in a better position to decide what one really wants to do with one’s career when one has a bit of work experience. But others might accurately say that’s a somewhat hypocritical stance, since I went straight to graduate school after college. (I would counter and say it is because I did so that I would advise others not to do the same thing.) If you don’t know what you want to do, see #1.
There are some exceptions. If you want to get a professional master’s (MPP, MPA, MIA, MPH, etc.) then you probably should take some time between college and grad school to gain experience because these programs value work experience. The average age at these types of programs tends to be 24-26, indicating 2-4 years of work experience. Another reason is to gain competency - like if you want an MIA but don’t know another language, taking some time to learn one is a good idea.