1. Does the structure of this program fit my personal academic style?
Are you good at taking tests, or would you rather be graded on papers? Do you like a lot of formal class time, or do you prefer individualized tutorials? Do you want a structured curriculum with lots of required classes, or do you want more electives that fit your interests? Do you look forward to student teaching, or do you want a research assistant post? Do you want to choose a sub-specialization early on in the program, or not? Check the program requirements carefully, and ask lots of questions. You want a graduate program that is tailored to your needs. You should also be aware that many programs expect you to write reasonably well, so brush up on your expository writing skills before you start graduate school.
2. Do I have study skills appropriate to this program’s level of difficulty?
Most graduate programs require a massive amount of study. So if you aren’t good at hitting the books for several hours each day, day after day for an extended period of time, you might not be ready for this kind of program.
If you are the type of student who starts studying for a class the night before the final exam, here is my suggestion: take an intense self-study course and see how long you take to complete it. Or enroll in a rigorous class that covers a lot of material over a period of several months and see how well you do. If you have enough motivation and self-discipline to successfully finish one of these “programs,” you might be able to succeed at graduate school if you focus on your studies.
3. Do I have the appropriate level of social skills and self-confidence needed to succeed in this program?
Graduate school is not for the timid at heart. It is not a remedial program where you are coddled and slowly taught step by step in order to master any personal or professional deficiencies you may have. The staff may not care if you succeed, or even want you to succeed. So you must start from a position of relative strength, exuding confidence and focused purpose till you earn your degree.
Are you comfortable with your own personality and learning style? Can you get along with many types of people? Can you put on a professional, non-emotional façade even when you are feeling upset? Are you able to project an air of confidence in front of people who are critical of your efforts, or hostile, or deprecatory? Are you able to keep your problems and concerns to yourself, sharing them only with a few selected, preferably non-departmental confidantes who are unable to hurt you professionally?
Professors do exist who are truly helpful, compassionate, and desirous of their students’ success. In fact, most departments have at least a few of these. But most are also filled with teachers who take a sink-or-swim attitude toward the success of their students. And most graduate students have at least one crisis of faith in their abilities. So if you aren’t political, if you aren’t self-confident, if you can’t put on an act when necessary to hide your feelings, learn these skills or watch out!
4. Is my state of intellectual development advanced enough to succeed in this program?
Many graduate programs demand a higher intellectual level from their students than undergraduate programs do. You will be asked to master the material you learn on a deeper level than you are accustomed to. Your professors will expect you to understand the implications of complicated theoretical problems in your field, synthesize other people’s work to solve those problems or offer new solutions of your own, and ask new questions. You will thus need not only to acquire higher-level knowledge, but also to attain an advanced understanding of your coursework as you progress through your years as a graduate student.
You can prepare somewhat for this academic culture shock by taking undergraduate classes that demand higher-level thinking. Take courses that teach you how to do research in your field, that ask you to summarize and synthesize advanced or theoretical material. If you can, do some original research at whatever level you have obtained. The object here is to learn to think for yourself while you are an undergraduate; if you do so, you will have a much easier time of it in graduate school. Graduate school professors want your creative analysis and argument, not your regurgitation.
5. When I met the professors, were there some that would be good advisors?
You probably won’t be able to deal with this question until after you start the program. What it boils down to is this: Choose your advisors carefully! They may make or break you. It’s best to find someone in your specialization who you both personally like and professionally admire; if you can’t, choose someone who you have high regard for professionally, and who you can tolerate personally. You don’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be best friends with your advisor. Mutual respect and civility are what’s necessary.
As you choose an advisor for that all-important master’s thesis or the like, ask yourself the following questions about each professor you are interested in: Do you and other students whose judgment you trust believe this person to be professionally competent and knowledgeable in the field? Do you and the others believe him/her to be a good teacher, able to explain problems well and help students improve their work? If you can’t answer both questions positively for the person in question, choose someone else. Your choice may decide the course of your academic career.