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Grad School: Read the Labels First

It's time to earn a graduate degree. You know what you want to study. You might do just fine attending that one school you know something about, or you could be a smart graduate degree shopper and make an educated choice. It just takes a little research and introspection.

First, you have to find all the schools you might want to attend and then eliminate most of them. This is the window-shopping before the intense investigation and soul-searching needed for a major purchase.

Priorities and Desires

Your priorities and desires define your choices. After identifying the schools offering the program you want, you can begin applying your own selection criteria. It's up to you to decide how to weigh these criteria in your decision.

* General program availability: Before paring down your options, you have to know what they are, and your choices may be limited. For example, according to Petersen's Grad Channel, an online graduate search tool, there are 12 graduate programs in hazardous materials management in the US. On the other hand, there are 1,010 graduate programs for general business administration and management.

* Geography: There may have been few restrictions on your choice of undergraduate college. Things may be more complicated now. Do you have kids to move? A spouse's career options to consider? Also think about where you want to be located after school. Graduate programs commonly have relationships with area businesses that make staying in your school's hometown a natural fit. Lastly, graduate school could take a long time. If you don't like living in the city, a great program in New York or LA may not be so great for you.

* Ranking: Student ratings of schools, such as the US News and World Report's list of the best graduate schools, will tell you which schools give students what they want. Rankings can help a school's name recognition and may get you more interviews. Still, while rankings encourage schools to compete, each also strives to carve out its own niche. You'll get greater benefit from a school that fits your learning and working needs than one with the ill-fitting but more prestigious sweatshirt.

* Size: Is a small, intimate campus good for you, or is it just too small? A larger school can be energetic and offer more choices, or it can feel chaotic and unsupportive.

A Bit More In-Depth

These are the easy criteria. Now you've got to do the research and take a closer look. Explore particular schools' Web sites and other materials.

* Concentrations and specialties: Lots of schools differentiate themselves by providing special concentrations alongside general graduate programs. For example, a general business administration program may offer a concentration in management for nonprofit organizations. Likewise, many schools have special opportunities. Kent State in Ohio has one of the few weaving programs that give students the opportunity to use a computerized jacquard loom. Tuskegee Institute in Alabama is one of two NASA-funded centers for research on food development in space. Dig into the department sites to learn what unique programs are offered.

* The rest of the school: Many graduate programs are flexible enough to let you take courses in other departments. Look over the rest of the school to see what's offered.

* That special feeling: Don't dismiss it. Feel free to browse the Web sites of schools in which you are interested. Read the mission statements and letters from the president. Read about events on campus. Look at the photos of the buildings. Does all this leave you feeling intrigued or out of place?

Your research should help you find schools you had never considered and eliminate superfluous options. However, these steps alone won't determine where you should go. Turn off the computer, put down the brochures and go talk to people who can give you information that will help you make the final decision.

Cost: The Ultimate Criteria

There are only a few possible generalizations about a graduate degree's price tag:

* In-state public schools typically cost less than out-of-state public and private schools.
* Longer programs typically cost more than shorter programs.
* The cost of living will vary depending on the school's location.

Loans, scholarships, financial aid and grad teaching possibilities are among the many factors that make costs hard to nail down. So don't limit yourself by price right away. Leave that until later in the process when you are closer to knowing what the real numbers might be.

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