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Choosing a School

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By Matt Zwolinski




Most prospective graduate students know the importance of choosing a “good” graduate school, but few fully appreciate the variety of considerations which can go into making a school a good one. Academic ratings such as those found in U.S. News and World Report provide information that is easy to obtain and understand. However, as in most important decisions in life, one should not expect wisdom and insight into this field to come easily. Determining which graduate school is right for you requires balancing both quantitative and qualitative data, as well as possessing a clarity and self-awareness about one’s long-range goals that can be difficult to achieve.


Why Do You Want to Go?


Without a doubt, the most important question to ask before applying to graduate school is, “Why do you want to go?” Do you want to work at a research university where you will be expected to publish regularly in top-quality journals and supervise graduate students? Or, would you prefer a job at a liberal arts college, where publishing expectations will be less demanding but where you will be expected to teach a greater number of courses? Or do you want to work at a university at all? Perhaps, you want to work at a think-tank, or become involved in public policy or legal advocacy.


If your goal in going to graduate school is to end up with a job, then you need to think carefully about how well each program will prepare you for that job. Do some research. How many positions are typically available for the kind of job you’re interested in, and how many applicants do those positions draw? How many students has your prospective graduate school sent into that line of work? How many has the person you are considering as an advisor sent? Many careers, such as the types described above, are extremely competitive, and you owe it to yourself to find out how well-placed in that competition you will be before investing your time and money in grad school.


Keep in mind also that the careers listed above (think tanks, public policy, legal advocacy) are very different. The training that is best for one is not necessarily best for another. If you want to teach at a research university, it is crucial to go to a program rated among the best in its field. If, however, you prefer a career in public policy research, you might be better off choosing your program on the basis of the match between your policy interests and those of the faculty, or on the connections between the university or particular faculty and the research institute in which you are interested.


It’s hard to know for sure as a college senior what kind of career you want to pursue, or even if you’ll enjoy graduate study at all. For this reason, you might want to consider starting off in a terminal master’s program. It is often easier to gain admission into a top master’s program than to a top doctoral program, and once in, you can use your time there to decide what interests you in terms of research and career goals. Moreover, if you use the resources available to you wisely, you will be able to make contacts in your field, refine your skills in research and perhaps teaching, and generally develop a more impressive portfolio. This will put you in an excellent position to win admittance to a top program should you decide to pursue a Ph.D. – quite possibly a better one than you could have achieved had you applied to such programs as an undergraduate.


Which School is Best for You?




If you are planning for an academic career, it is important to try to attend a program well-regarded by those working in the field you wish to enter. Whatever knowledge you have about the strength of a university in general will probably do you little good here. Good schools usually have some good graduate programs, but not always in the subject you wish to study, and very often schools which are not as good overall will have excellent programs in specific fields of study. Look around to see how programs are rated in your subject area. This is much more important than the overall quality of the school.


Even within subject areas, graduate programs will vary in their strength in various subfields. A doctoral program in philosophy which is only in the top fifty overall, for instance, might be in the top five for political philosophy. If you know the subfield in which you want to work, this can be important information. However, there are two caveats.


First, while you can expect those in major research universities to know your program’s reputation in your particular subfield, the same is not necessarily true of those in small liberal arts colleges. Hiring committees who have not kept up on the latest faculty moves and developments in the field might not know that your school is more impressive in your specific area than Harvard – but they’ll certainly know that Harvard has an overall reputation for excellence.


Second, people very often change their mind about what they want to study in graduate school. If you attend a program that is excellent in only one particular subfield, this could make things very difficult for you if you later decide that subfield is not for you. There is much to be said, then, in favor of a program that is strong across a broad range of areas.


Match with Faculty Interests


Even if a school is the best in your field, it might still not be best for you. After gaining admission to graduate school you will have to find a faculty mentor. This is someone who will guide you in the construction of a dissertation topic, oversee your writing of it, help direct you toward publishing opportunities and, ultimately, help you find a job. You want this to be someone who is, at the very least, interested in the same kinds of questions that you are, and, if possible, someone who is at least partially sympathetic to the position you take on those issues.


This latter criterion can sometimes be difficult to meet for students who consider themselves classical liberals or libertarians. There are almost certainly more sympathetic faculty in the academy now than there were ten years ago, but they are still a minority, especially in certain disciplines such as English or History. How important is it, then, to go to a program with classical liberals on the faculty, or to select a mentor who is sympathetic to classical liberalism?


My short answer is that it is great if you can get it, but that sympathy toward classical liberalism is only one factor among many to be balanced in selecting a program or mentor. To be sure, you want to make certain that the faculty with whom you will work are open-minded toward your position, and that you will not suffer because you hold unpopular political beliefs. Thankfully, this kind of open-mindedness is the rule rather than the exception among academics. There is variance (sometimes significant) among academic disciplines. However, most professors are willing to support students whose beliefs differ from theirs, as long as they believe7 the student is able to provide a reasonable defense of those beliefs, and discuss them cordially and evenhandedly with others.


Don’t forget, you will always have opportunities to network with other classical liberals outside of your university through the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS). During my own graduate career, I met a number of students from a variety of academic disciplines through IHS’s programs, many of whom I am in contact with today. And, IHS can steer you toward faculty mentors at other universities who can assist you with questions about your research, teaching, or the academic job market. With long-distance communication being as easy as it is today, there is no reason to limit your network to those within your geographical community. Take advantage of IHS.


Quality of Life


It is important to go to a school that is academically challenging and will lead to a good job. But it is also important to be happy. Not only because being happy will make you a more productive student, but because life is too short to live in a place that makes you miserable. You will be in graduate school for several years depending on what field or program you pursue: earning a J.D. from law school takes at least three years, and earning a doctoral degree can take more than five.


A lot of how happy you will be in a program depends on where that program is located. Do you like the climate? Is it in a big city or a small one? Is it close to friends and family? How affordable is housing? It’s easy to forget about these ordinary, human concerns when choosing a graduate program. But don’t. You are, after all, going to be living in this place for a number of years.


Other aspects of your quality of life will depend on factors more specific to your status as a graduate student. Most graduate programs are fairly small – my own program in philosophy typically had only thirty to forty active graduate students at any one time. These are people with whom, at a minimum, you will spend a lot of time in classes and department events. Do they get along with each other? Do they socialize with each other regularly outside of classes? Is there much gossip or competitiveness in the department? What about the faculty? Are they accessible? Do they come to graduate student parties, or do they keep mostly to themselves? Do they hang around the department outside of office hours? Do people like talking about your subject outside of classes, or do they “leave it at the office”?


Some of these factors are the product of institutional structures. Programs in which funding is awarded competitively, for instance, tend to foster a more competitive atmosphere among graduate students. Programs that have a large attrition rate due to extremely difficult exams tend to create worried, nervous students who perceive themselves as unable to devote time to enjoying themselves. Without a doubt, the best way to learn about a program is by talking with people familiar with it, and I will say more about this later. But you can often gain valuable information just by looking at how a program is set up, and at the outputs it produces.


What Makes a Good Application?


Long before you ever decide which particular schools you want to apply to, you need to give careful thought to the question of how you are going to construct your application. Typically, an application will require that you submit standardized test scores (GRE or LSAT), some evidence of your research capability (often a sample of your written work), a statement of purpose describing your plan of study, and several letters of recommendation. The relative importance of these items can vary quite a bit from program to program. In philosophy, for instance, the writing sample is generally given the most weight, followed very closely by the letters of recommendation. The statement of purpose, GRE scores, and even undergraduate GPA are weighed far less heavily. For law school, however, the situation is reversed. Here your LSAT and GPA together count for close to everything, while writing samples and letters of recommendation are of relatively minor importance. It pays to learn early what’s most important for the program you want to apply to, so that you can spend the time preparing. Writing samples, especially, should go through several revisions before being sent off in your application.


Things like writing samples, standardized tests and, of course, your GPA need to be worked on early. But some things have to wait until you have more information about the specific schools to which you will be applying. Your statement of purpose, for instance, should be customized for each department to which you apply. It’s fine to start early on a template for this letter – think about how you want to describe the research interests you would like to pursue while in graduate school, and how you want to tell the story of your love of your discipline, or your strengths as a scholar, etc. But it’s important to “spin” this basic information to suit the particular departments to which you apply. Is there a faculty member there with whom you share research interests? Say so! Did you read an article by one of the faculty members that helped shape your position on some subject? Is there some particular reason you’re attracted to the university in which the program resides – perhaps connections to family or friends? Tailoring your statement shows the program that you have a special interest in them, and that gives them a reason to take a special interest in you. You can do this with your writing sample, too, if you have more than one paper of sufficient quality, and one paper “fits” the interests of a particular department better than another.


Acquiring Information


I have talked about the sort of information you ought to seek before applying to a graduate school. But how should you go about acquiring this information?


In general, the more specialized and recent the source, the better. General rating systems provided by U.S. News and World Report are less useful than more specific sources such as (in philosophy) The Philosophical Gourmet Report. Often, your professional association offers guides as well. The more specific rating scales are typically devised by people who are experts in the field of study in question, and who have an insiders’ knowledge of both the criteria that go into making an excellent graduate program and the most recent developments which are likely to affect a program’s ability to meet those criteria.


While ratings systems can be useful for summarizing and amalgamating large quantities of data, they are no substitute for first-hand experience. A lot of the information you need – about the collegiality of a department, or about its success in consistently funding students – might not be reflected in the ranking schema. Often, the only way to get this kind of information is to talk to people who are intimately familiar with the program.


Find out where the professors in your undergraduate program went to graduate school. They might be able to give you useful information about their program, and perhaps even put in a good word for you with someone on the admissions committee. Be careful, though, in relying on information from anyone who has been out of graduate school for more than ten years. Graduate programs can change a lot in a relatively short period of time. So, you cannot assume that your mentor’s program that was excellent fifteen years ago is excellent still.


The best way to get current information about a program is to talk to people who are either still involved in that program, or who have just recently left. Most programs maintain a list of current graduate students on their web site. Look for a student with interests or a background9 similar to yours and email them with your questions. Most students will understand your position and be very helpful in their response. (If they don’t respond, move down to the next student on the list – copy, paste, and send. What’s the cost?) Graduate students have little to gain by over-hyping their program to undergraduates, and so can be a good source of candid information.


If you’re really interested in a program, it’s a good idea to talk to several students who are at different stages of their graduate career. Talk to a student in their first several years of taking classes. Talk to someone just beginning his dissertation. And talk to someone nearing the completion of his dissertation and beginning to market himself for the kind of career you’re interested in pursuing as well. Information on students no longer involved in the department might be harder to get, but if you can, track down students who have recently graduated and students who have left without graduating. The more intimately and recently acquainted your sources, and the more diverse in terms of their experience with your prospective institution, the better suited you will be to make your decision.


Again, don’t forget to take advantage of IHS’s help at this stage! Ask them if they know anyone who is currently or was recently at one of the graduate programs you’re interested in – either faculty or students. They can put you in touch with someone who has inside information, and who will likely be sympathetic to your concerns as a classical liberal. IHS and its network of faculty are here to help students exactly like you. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of that help.


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