Exploring Graduate and Professional Schools
If you are thinking about attending graduate or professional school, it is essential to explore your options carefully. The decision to go to graduate or professional school requires planning, including knowing deadlines for admission tests and submission of application materials.
The difference between graduate and professional school programs is generally the focus:
- Graduate programs focus primarily on mastering a particular field of study or discipline for which there may be a variety of career options.
- Professional programs focus directly on training for a specific career requiring knowledge of the practices and standards leading to licensure in the particular field.
- Master's degree programs (e.g., MA, MS, MEd) are offered in a wide variety of fields and can be either academic and research focused or professional and practitioner training focused.
- The highest degree offered in graduate school is the Doctorate (e.g., PhD, EdD, PsyD). Obtaining a Doctoral degree usually requires the pursuit of original research. It may not be necessary to obtain a Master's degree before entering a Doctoral program.
- Professional school emphasizes the clinical application of knowledge and skills and the degrees reflect the specific career focus (e.g., J.D. for law school, M.D. for medical school).
Before making the decision to attend graduate or professional school, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I have a career objective which requires an advanced degree?
- Am I aware of the career areas for which an advanced degree will prepare me, and the employment outlook for these fields?
- Have I talked with professionals currently working in my intended career area to get answers to some of these questions?
- Have I discussed my plans with academic advisers, professors and/or counselors?
- What are the entrance requirements for admission to the graduate or professional programs of my choice?
Attending graduate or professional school can be a tremendous benefit when:
- Further education is necessary to attain a career objective.
- An advanced degree will create additional career opportunities.
- Learning is enjoyable and provides personal satisfaction.
Attending graduate or professional school may be a mistake if the purpose is to:
- Postpone making a career decision and entering the job market.
- Avoid leaving the familiar atmosphere of school.
Graduate and professional school requires an intense commitment of time and money. If you're not sure you are ready, then it may be best to wait.
Researching Programs and Schools
When should you begin researching programs?
Start early! You will need to apply 1-1 ½ years before you want to attend. You need to give yourself time to study and complete admissions tests to ensure test scores arrive before the application deadline. You will also need to give your references time to write their recommendation letters.
Application deadlines for assistantships, scholarships and other financial aid may be different from the deadlines for program application materials.
Timeline for researching and applying
Many students begin researching graduate programs in their junior year or earlier in order to complete applications during the fall of their senior year. Most graduate school application deadlines are between December and April for fall admission but some may be as early as November.
Application deadlines for professional programs are typically earlier than graduate school application deadlines. Many professional school applications require the use of a centralized application service, often referred to as a “CAS.” Check the CAS opening date and deadlines in your professional area interest.
How do you research programs?
- Attend preview or visit days at the schools you are considering. If there are no scheduled preview days, schedule your own visit. Set up appointments ahead of time to talk with faculty, current students and graduate or professional school coordinators to gather information and tour the campus and facilities.
- Use graduate school search websites (e.g., Petersons, Graduate Schools, University Library at the University of Illinois or CAS systems to search for schools and programs.
- Evaluate your findings by using a spreadsheet (Excel). Modify the spreadsheet based on your needs.
- Attend graduate and professional school fairs and workshops.
- Talk with your faculty adviser and other faculty or staff.
- Seek out professionals currently working in your desired field.
- Connect with current graduate students, and follow career or departmental offices, through social media. Join LinkedIn groups associated with the school and area of study.
Criteria for evaluating programs:
- Strong academic program in your area of interest
- Degree(s) offered
- Faculty and their areas of expertise, reputation, and credentials
- Cost and financial aid available including assistantships, fellowships, and scholarships
- Location and surrounding community
- Career planning and job search assistance
- Culture of the program, school, community
- Physical facilities, equipment, labs, libraries, and practicum/clinical opportunities
- Any other criteria that is important or necessary for you to succeed