Choosing a Graduate Degree

Choosing a Graduate Degree

QS Staff Writer

Updated February 21, 2023 Updated February 21

Preparing for graduate study but not sure what, where or why? Higher education experts share their top tips for prospective graduate students, to ensure you choose the right course and location to suit you.

"At a fundamental level, a graduate degree in law enables students to gain additional knowledge beyond the first law degree," says Elizabeth Dalferes, Assistant Director of Admission and Graduate Program Administration at the Tulane Law School in the US.

"Beyond this fundamental benefit, a graduate degree provides opportunities to explore special areas of interest and expand professional networks. Students are more self-sufficient at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level, and they have a baseline understanding when they embark on a graduate degree.

"Students who pursue a graduate degree can engage in research, participate in advanced coursework, and collaborate with faculty in ways that might not have been available to them on the undergraduate level. These opportunities help students build their resumes and prepare for their careers as they move into the professional arena."

Graduate degrees and career development

A graduate degree also appeals to seasoned professionals, she says, as it provides them with the opportunity to build on previous knowledge and develop expertise in a particular area of scholarly or professional interest.

"Beyond the opportunity for intellectual stimulation and personal enrichment, most students are drawn to a graduate program for professional reasons," says Kristin S. Williams, Executive Director of Graduate Student Enrollment Management at the George Washington University.

"For some students, a graduate degree is the entry-level qualification for the profession; for others, it provides greater job mobility and compensation. Many pursue a graduate program to keep up with new advances, strengthening both their work performance and job security."

A graduate degree can also be a stepping stone to a new career, she continues. "A profession that seemed a good fit in undergraduate school may not prove to be the best match in real life, or one's personal interests, life goals, and/or financial needs may have changed. In either case, graduate study can facilitate a transition to new opportunities and greater job fulfilment."

Increased employability with a graduate degree

She believes that whatever the motivation, a graduate degree generally provides increased employability and therefore earning potential. "Actual statistics vary by region, country, and academic discipline, but can be remarkable. For example, in the United States, people with a master's degree earn an average of 20% more than those with only a bachelor's degree, and doctoral degree holders earn almost 68% more.

"Further, because graduates become researchers, entrepreneurs, teachers, and leaders within their professions and communities, graduate programs also provide long-term benefits to society as well."

For Williams an applicant's motive - or motives - for pursuing a graduate program not only affects the decision about where and when to enroll, but can also impact success in applying for admission and in graduating.

"Applicants who are thoughtful, informed, and confident about why they want to go to graduate school usually submit stronger, more focused applications for admission, and successfully complete the degree.

"Students with clearly defined goals tend to remain committed, persist in their studies, and successfully complete the degree," she concludes.

Finding a clear focus for your graduate degree

Choosing a course and institution for your postgraduate degree can seem like a daunting task, but it needn't be. Veronica Boulton, Faculty Business Director at Bond University in Australia, identifies some of the key factors to consider when choosing your program:

- How well does the program fit with your own individual interests and ambitions?

- Assess the institution, including international reputation, quality of teaching, course content, class size and location. Also, look at what kind of candidates the institution may be looking for.

- Flexibility and diversity within the course. Can you bring in subjects from other disciplines or undertake a research component?

- Time and money. How long will it take and what kind of return on investment can you expect?

- Additional features which will add value to your experience. For example, will the institution connect you with professionals in your chosen field? Are there services such as language-learning support or opportunities to travel?

Boulton suggests prospective students should "always keep an open mind. Be prepared to consider other options and look for alternatives that offer different strengths - such as smaller classes, or a strong leadership focus, or an international location. 

"Overall it is important to find a program that meets your needs and brings your ambition to life. Students with clearly-defined goals tend to remain committed, persist in their studies, and successfully complete the degree."

Multiple factors to consider

Also from Australia, Tracy McCabe, Director of Newcastle International at the University of Newcastle, says that university and course choice will be affected by many different factors.

"In my experience students select institutions for a whole range of reasons and seek different information based on a wide range of factors. Some students select on the basis of location - they have family in Newcastle; want to be in Australia; on the coast but not in a big city; want to live on campus or live by the beach, and so on.

"Some students want to study with a particular academic, in a particular research team so we would talk to them about these aspects of the university. Some students get recommendations from family, alumni, agents or embassies."

She adds that some students make their decision based on cost or whether they have the qualifications to get into the particular course that they want. 

"When we talk to students considering Newcastle, we talk about the lifestyle in the city - a smaller city, on the coast, mild weather, a bit cheaper than Sydney but close enough to experience all the excitement if you want it.

"We talk about the quality reputation the university has in Australia (top 10) and around the world, and if necessary the rank of our specific disciplines - top 100 in engineering, bio-med sciences and computer sciences."

McCabe also highlights the support that they provide, particularly to international students: "We let them know about about our family support programs, an accredited English language centre, laptops and special funding to PhD students for example.

"And we might discuss who we have links with in Australia (the Innovative Research Universities group) and overseas - such as Beijing Foreign Studies University, Harbin University of Technology - depending on where the student comes from.

"We might also talk about the flexible programs we offer - graduate programs online, a range of programs delivered in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. And we'll also mention professional recognition of programs if it's relevant."

What are graduate students looking for?

Gan Eng Khoon is Deputy Director in the Office of Admissions at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He emphasizes the importance of the decision: "Deciding on a university and the course to pursue is one of the more important decisions a student will have to make and will require careful thought.

"Generally, students are looking out for a university with a high international standing, excellent academic record, and state-of-the-art facilities. This is understandable. However, a truly top-rate university provides more than just these."

He says that potential students need to ask themselves whether the university they are planning on going to will prepare them for the intense competition of the working world.

He believes NUS does this. "We prepare our students for the challenges of life and lay the foundation for a successful career. Our faculties offer an exciting range of courses that combine both breadth and depth. For those who relish the challenge, there are our double degrees, double majors and joint degrees."

How important is international diversity?

Gan Eng Khoon also says NUS provides a truly global education, which is another very important criteria for potential students: "The NUS community is one that is diverse, colorful and multi-layered. Indeed, NUS is the point of convergence of some of the best talents: students come not just from Singapore but from more than 80 countries around the world, and we have dedicated faculty who are among the best in their field.

"Together they bring a certain life and energy to the campus, and a truly global education. There will be countless opportunities to forge valuable relationships and sharpen our students' skills so that they are able to hold their own in the global marketplace.

"Our Student Exchange Program, for example, provides an avenue to experience the world, and deepen our students' understanding of diverse cultures. The NUS Overseas Colleges create an invaluable opportunity for our students to learn first hand from peers the energy and dynamism needed to be an entrepreneur."

He says that other facilities, other than academic ones, at the university should be taken into account: "Whether it is sports, arts or social activities, our students will find that their interests will be catered for by the various student clubs, hostels and the exciting events at the university.

"The NUS Centre for Arts and the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music have made a name for themselves as not just a meeting place for budding performers but also as the home of some of the best cultural events in Singapore."

Is a graduate degree worth traveling for?

Norhanom Abdul Wahab of the University of Malaysia says: "You normally choose a country or university that you perceive to offer better postgraduate programs than your home institution.

"The experience of studying abroad is also good to improve one's outlook towards achieving academic excellence. A student should look for a university with a good reputation and also one that is praised by its alumni in terms of providing the conducive environment for international students."

He also offers advice on how to make sure you succeed in your graduate studies: "Students should focus on their studies and be prepared in terms of ability to cope with the program. Be prepared also with language requirements and financial support."

Dee Roach, Group Manager, European Marketing for the Navitas Education Group, emphasizes the importance of speaking to past or current students: "The best thing you can do is try and talk to people who have studied abroad to find out what they thought of the experience."

She also recommends that you follow the same approach when choosing an institution as you would if you were choosing one at home: "Think of the factors which are important to you. Do you want to live on a campus? Do you want to go somewhere where you already know people? How important are the facilities to you? Find out about the possibility of work placements and internships.

"If you are worried that you will not understand the classes at university abroad, rest assured that an increasing number of universities around the world offer courses which are taught in English.

"Also, in some of the more popular areas for studying abroad - such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the US - English is the first language. Obviously the language difference will be a great advantage if you are actually studying that language because you are immersing yourself in it."

Be realistic about your expectations

Roach also thinks that you need to be realistic about how homesick you might become when deciding how far you should travel to your university: "London and Sydney are 10,500 miles apart - with a large time difference, which makes instantaneous communication much more difficult."

Finally, she points out that finances play a major part in the decision-making process. "Check with the institution you are applying to for their fees and also ask about details of bursaries and scholarships. And remember to take into account travel, accommodation and living costs when you are calculating your total spend."

Doreen Gough of UNISA in South Africa says that whatever you decide to do, you should choose for your own reasons: "The first step is to ensure that you choose a field of study for which you are suited. Don't choose on the basis of what someone you admire is doing."

Try out our new course matching tool to find the right program for you. 

This article was originally published in October 2012 . It was last updated in January 2020

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