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Picking the right graduate program

Updated: Jun 10

Before I became as infatuated with financial planning apps as I currently am, I remember scribbling numbers on a piece of paper to compare offers from various grad schools. I wanted to get my PhD in German, but I also wanted to make financially-wise decisions, knowing that this field of study would not be as lucrative as the aftermath of going to medical school. Back in 2017, I had an offer for 33k from Georgetown University, one for 26k from The University of California Irvine, and one for 20k from Indiana University. In addition to considering the strengths and weaknesses of each program, I spent a lot of time researching the cost of living in making my decision.

It's probably bad universal advice to recommend attending graduate school in the Midwest, but it can be a great choice for many seeking higher education.I There is a lot of great research in this part of the country alongside relatively low-cost housing. It should surprise no one that I chose Indiana over California and Washington DC if I was trying to make a wise financial decision.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself in picking a program:

  • What goals do I have in obtaining this degree?

  • Is there a specific kind of employment or training I need for these goals?

  • Is there a person I want to work with or a program with great resources that would be really beneficial in getting me to those goals?

  • If I'm comfortable going into debt, how much?

  • Would I like to exit my program with more money than I started with? How important is this in relation to the other factors I'm considering?

After being accepted to funded programs (or as part of the interview), you might be flown out to the university to see if it would be a good fit. On this visit, you get to talk not only with professors but other graduate students as well. If you’re not invited to a campus visit with your acceptance for whatever reason, ask to set up a Zoom call with some of the current graduate students! Ask graduate students how far they feel their stipends go, how much they pay for ren or a mortgage, whether they split rent, if they have cars (or think you need one). You should go into graduate school with both eyes open and information gathering around what the compensation looks like.

Here are some other important questions as you pick your program — how many courses do you take? How much flexibility is there in courses? What is a typical timeline? Is there a possibility for extended funding if you need longer than is contracted? If you think you might have kids, does the university offer maternity leave for graduate students, or does your department offer any flexibility/accommodations here? What is the teaching load? What advising structures are in place? What kind of work do their graduates do after completing their PhD? What kind of career prep or networking exists? How social are the graduate students? What is the culture of the department like?

You never have more power as a graduate student than before you’ve signed anything, so some of the negotiation strategies for typical jobs might be appropriate here. Especially if you have multiple offers, you might ask for a slightly higher stipend, guaranteed summer funding, or more research money.

Graduate school can be a time where you thrive. Choosing the right program and place is important in setting yourself up for success.

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