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The ultimate guide to applying to a graduate program: Part 2. Decide what type of degree will be the best fit

When I was applying to doctorate programs, I had two goals in mind. First, the program must have been in the US. Second, I had to get funding for the entire length of the program: loans have never been an option for me.

The reason why I gave up on looking for Master’s programs was simple: getting funded in that realm is akin to coming across a magic unicorn in the middle of Times Square. Masters’ students bring in much needed money for the department; more people are willing to get this level of education than a doctoral degree because of the shorter time commitment (1-2 years vs 4-6 years), shorter time out of the workforce, presumably lower cost and (also presumably) future career prospects. Doctoral students, in contrast, have more opportunities to aid the program/department to bring in research funding (grants), develop research agendas, support the scholarship of professors and serve as a relatively cheap workforce (including teaching, research support and sometimes administrative tasks). Getting funded as a doctoral student is, thus, much more feasible (although not guaranteed).

But funding is not necessarily a deciding factor for everyone. Here are some questions you might want to consider when making your choice.

What are my financial constraints?

Master’s programs are expensive (think $20,000 - 60,000 a year and up). Can you shell out that much? Are you willing to take loans to cover it? Doctorate programs without funding are even more expensive but with funding they can be completed basically for free.

And then think about this: will getting a degree without funding eventually pay off? Meaning, if you spend over $100,000 on your degree, will you earn it back through a better job? Will you be able to do it fast enough? Will it take years? 

What will my financial situation look like during my graduate program?

If the program is not funded: 

  • Can you make money while studying? Is it possible to work full-time or part-time while studying? How much money will you need to cover the living costs in the area?

  • For international students: What are your legal options for working in the US while studying? From my experience, you won’t have tons of opportunities, and working full-time on a student visa is not legal. Consider it carefully.

If the program is funded:

  • How much will you get paid? Is the entire year covered or only some semesters? How many years will be covered?
  • Will your stipend be enough to live in the area based on your standard of living? Will you have to sacrifice something or change your financial habits? Will you have to work on the side to make ends meet? (International students - once again, it is more complicated for us).
  • What are your chances to get full funding?
  • What will you do if you don’t get funding at least one of the years while your are in the program?

What will my life look like during my graduate program?

  • Will you like doing this type of work?
    • Master’s programs tend to be less researchy and more coursework-oriented; in some schools they also offer more opportunities for practice.
    • Doctoral programs tend to be research-focused, meaning you will mostly be trained to be an academic and a researcher. Are you okay with doing a lot of research work? Do you have any idea about what an academic world is like? 
  • How will your life change over the course of your program?
    • Are you okay with spending 4-6 years (potentially) out of workforce (for a doctoral degree)?
    • If you are an international student, can you spend 4-6 years away from home? Living in the US for that long means that you will build a lot of connections and (most likely) integrate in its societal structure. Will it be hard to go back and start all over again? Will you consider staying in the US?
  • Will doing this program make you happy? If yes, what do you think will make you happy?
    • Connections and meeting new people?
    • Expanding your knowledge and gaining a new perspective?
    • Enjoying the learning process?
    • (For international students) Learning the language and understanding the new culture?

What will my future look like?

  • How will this degree benefit you in the long run? Consider multiple sides: financial and time-commitment vs. future financial returns; your predicted level of satisfaction and happiness during the program; the options that open up (or close) as a result of getting this degree.
  • What are your options once you get the degree? Are you willing to go into the academic world? Will you have to go into a lower-level position to work in the desired area? (For international students) Will you be able/willing to stay in the US? Go back to your country?

This list of questions is not exhaustive but it will get you thinking about the big picture before you get into the specifics.

You might not have the answers immediately, and that’s okay. That said, I strongly suggest you revisit these questions every now and then to see if you’re on track of getting where you want to be in the long run.

For me, the financial considerations and the desire to improve the language and dive into the new culture outweighed everything else. I was not keen on the idea of doing lots of research work or going into academia afterwards but I found a way to make it work. I was also fine being away from my home country for a long time (I only visited it once since I started my degree) and it was okay for me to give up immediate career prospects (and better financial prospects with a stable job) to get this degree. Hence, my choice was a doctorate program. YMMV.

Unfortunately, I can’t speak from experience about what to expect from Professional and Specialists degrees. In my understanding, most of them are practical in nature and highly specialized based on the field of choice. You need these degrees to start your own practice or to get into the job that requires this level of education.

I hope these questions can help you make a sound choice of the type of program you'd like to be in. 

Next up - we'll talk about the specifics of crafting your grad school application. Read on, my fellow future PhD students!

Other posts of the series: