It’s a big commitment — financially, professionally and personally. How do you make the right choice?

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You’re ready to take the plunge and apply to graduate school. It’s a big commitment — financially, professionally and personally. How do you make the right choice?

“Choosing a graduate school is so unlike choosing where to get your bachelor’s degree that it’s difficult to identify hard and fast rules of ‘fitness,’ ” says Michael C. Barr, associate dean at the Western Washington University Graduate School.

Undergrad school decisions might hinge on elements like the school’s size, program breadth, access to athletics and graduation rates. Not so for graduate school.

“You don’t go to graduate school to get a generalist masters in chemistry or biology,” Barr says. “You go to study a specific area of research and build your academic portfolio. So, if you want to study sortase enzymes or geomorphic and paleoclimatic alpine glaciation or marine geomicrobiology — you need to identify if there are faculty who have expertise in your area and can support you.”

However, choosing a field and an advanced program can become a chicken-and-egg situation. It doesn’t hurt to gently pursue both, while keeping an open mind, particularly about your intended field of study.

“Students grow and mature so much,” says Bob Dannenhold, a Seattle-area college admissions expert at Collegeology. “They think they want to do one thing, but after they’ve worked in a field for a while, they see other opportunities.” While in school or right out, students may even have conflicting goals and desires — preparing to get an MBA, but actually wishing for a career in social work.

Take a year or two off college before sending in applications, he suggests. But start researching options now. Experts agree: There’s no rush to apply, so it pays to thoroughly investigate options.

“In undergraduate, you can switch majors, but in graduate school, you’re signing on the dotted line,” Dannenhold says.

Taste the real world first

Generally, professional schools — medicine, law and business — want students who have taken a few years off to gain experience. A bonus for the potential student: the opportunity to meet people within the field who can recommend graduate schools and programs.

“Talk to people in the programs you’re interested in and ask, ‘What kind of job would position me to get in here?’ so you’re lining up work in a more intentional way,” says Katy DeRosier, director of program development at the University of Washington’s graduate school.

Take the time to explore

Mine faculty resources at your undergraduate school to turn up golden recommendations. Look for the faculty office hours of someone distinguished in your desired subject field or someone in the field you like and trust. Tell that person you think you know what you want to do, and would love to get their advice and insights.

“Often these faculty say, ‘I went to this graduate program, look into it. Here’s a professor you’ll want to email and talk to,’ ” Dannenhold says.

Some programs are more focused on acquiring skills that prepare a student for a subject field, while others groom a student to work in academia or in research institutions. “Look within the programs to see what they actually teach and who’s teaching, and if they match what you’re hoping to do when you get out,” DeRosier says.

Imagine a day in the life

During your exploration stage, start off with a school’s quarterly or annual information session as a sampler of what’s to come, suggests Steve Weir, the director of admissions and enrollment at Antioch University Seattle.

Read about at the courses offered or try imagining what your schedule might look like. “Ask yourself, ‘Does that really excite me?’ or do you fall asleep reading the course names?” DeRosier says. “Those are good indicators.”

Often, many graduate programs’ core coursework is established by state licensing boards, Weir says. “But we add our own spin on how we teach psychology, for example,” Weir says, by offering an accredited creative arts therapy and drama therapy options.

However, check how the professional accreditation works within your degree program — will the advanced degree you earn in Washington port to other states, if you’re thinking of moving in the future? When a degree is accredited by a professional national organization, it’s more likely to be recognized with less hassle, according to Weir.

When meeting with a faculty member, ask if there are students who share your circumstances. If you are a single parent, for example, can the faculty connect you to someone like you? “You want to talk to people in same situation to see how they made it work,” DeRosier says. “They can give you a leg up, and you’ll have an ally in that program.”

Ask about internships, as well, Weir suggests. Specifically, you might ask where students are being placed, which agencies the school works with, and whether the school assists with placement, as well as how much support is provided during the internship. Antioch, for example, has pre-existing relationships with many agencies and school districts, which eases the student internship search if gaining a graduate degree in psychology or education.

Where will it all lead?

As for after-college career options, UW’s DeRosier points out that it’s good to check out employers in your graduate school’s area. “Talk to the graduate programs and ask where have students gone to work, and what kinds of jobs are they getting,” she says. If you have a chance to talk to program alumni, ask what they learned that made them successful today.

Networking can also vary by school, with some schools offering mixers with alumni or potential employers; other schools may help connect you with mentors during your graduate experience.

Realistic priorities have their place, too. Ask yourself whether you have the ability or interest in relocating, DeRosier says. Ask questions about total cost and how the tuition model works. Is there any support? How many years does the program take?

College rankings don’t matter as much as whether the program is recommended, respected and in a region you’ll consider, Dannenhold says. “Don’t limit yourself by geography, “ he says. “There are great schools all over the world.”

Even in medicine, ranking doesn’t matter as much as some think it does, he says. “You’ll go through such incredible hands-on training in all areas of your residency, plus your individual milestones to get where you want to go,” he says.

“By the time you leave your medical program, you’re well-trained. There’s a need for doctors, so you’ll get plenty of jobs and good offers,” he says.

A good fit by anyone’s standards.