What To Look For In a Graduate School
This is a guest post from Senior Student Recruitment Officer Yasmeen Awadh.
The beauty of digital media is that it attracts every type of person. From the toddler who started swiping a magazine because she thought it was an iPad to a starving painter who found work as a 2D artist for a game studio.
Because of this phenomenon, as a recruitment & admissions officer for the MDM program in the last 8 years I’ve pretty much seen it all (ok, I didn’t meet the toddler but I came close). I met a shoe designer who wanted to learn the digital process, musicians who wanted to create good audio, and a marketer who had absolutely no idea how to decipher Google analytics—to name a few. By the way, there are three completely different programs that can help meet these goals and—you guessed it—not all are graduate programs. If you’re reading this, you’re probably asking yourself what graduate program is best for you. The question is: where do you start?
This list is not exhaustive but a starting guide if you are considering graduate school.
Graduate School Tuition Costs: How Much Can You Afford?
Depending on the programs you’re looking at, the cost can be prohibitive. Ask yourself: how much can I afford? Ask admissions officers: if I’m a strong, competitive applicant, how much financial assistance can you offer me? A full-ride scholarship? Partial? If it’s full ride and you’re a superstar then you’re in luck. If the school can only offer partial financial assistance—or none—then ask yourself: what access to funding do I have? It’s ideal to say, "I don’t care how much it costs—it’s my top school and I’m going to go at all costs!" If you’re independently wealthy then yay! (your challenge now is to get in). Sadly, most are not in this position. So researching sources of funding is critical.
Admissions officers can answer questions about scholarships and financial aid—they work closely with committees and usually know how much funding your program is working with. If they can’t, they should be able to refer you to someone who can.
If funding is an issue, here are sources you can look into:
- University or program-specific scholarships
- Government scholarships
- Student loans
- Bank loans or lines of credit
- Personal savings
- Passive income
- Alimony (kidding on this one, but I met someone who had it as a source of financing)
I won’t discuss each one because this is not a financing article, but having worked with many grad students—these are usually the sources of income I see. Once you determine how much money you have to work with you can narrow down your list of schools.
For more information read this guide to funding your graduate studies.
Time Commitment: Full or Part-Time Programs?
This is an easy way to eliminate a bunch of programs. Are you working and can only take classes on evenings and weekends? Or are you free to take on a full-time course load? Not all graduate programs offer part-time options and if you’re not in a position to quit a job this narrows down your list.
Will your company approve a leave of absence? Also, if you’re freelance, can you refer your clients elsewhere or can you handle their demands while being in school? Ask admissions officers how many hours are realistically required from students before embarking on the journey.
Program Curriculum: What Structure Works For You?
Depending on the discipline, most graduate programs are focused on research. This means you take a bunch of classes and write a thesis to defend. But, this is not always the case. At MDM for example, students work in teams. They work with various real clients to create digital solutions in the space of a year and then go on internship for the last four months. Some graduate programs are all course-based.
What works for you? Do you hate working with people? Then don’t apply to a team-focused program. Do you have a business idea that you’re eager to develop and need access to certain resources? Look for a program that offers support for entrepreneurs. Doing your research takes some time but is an effective preventative measure to avoid selecting the wrong program.
I do not recommend that you blindly apply to programs because they have good reputations—especially if they cannot meet your goals. Instead, read the course descriptions, learning objectives and review the faculty who teach. Most of the information is available on the program websites.
Talk to Alumni
Any admissions officer will tell you that successful alumni are your best recruiters—nothing beats talking to someone who has done what you’re considering doing. Even the best recruiters-- charming and charismatic ones who can sell snow to the Eskimos--can only go so far. If you’re applying to a graduate program, talk to an alumnus. They will give you the good, the bad and everything in between. Set up a coffee date or a Skype session—it costs next to nothing to gain valuable insight. Word of caution: any grad school that isn’t willing to put you in touch with their alumni should be regarded with suspicion.
Wanting (Insert Desire) vs. Wanting To Learn
When I listen to prospective students, I’m always interested in why they want to do a Masters degree. For many, it’s straightforward—they want to do research (which we don’t really do at MDM by the way). Some want it because it’ll make them more competitive in the job market, some because of the prestige, and some simply want to get into the country. These are valid reasons if they’re important to you. But the real question is: what are you going to learn?
Here’s the worst kept secret in higher education and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you: having a degree no longer guarantees a job. A common question I get is “Yasmeen, is an MDM a well-known credential? If I have it on my resume people will be knocking on my door offering me six figure salaries?” No. And the same goes for most programs out there.
Here’s the worst kept secret in higher education and anyone who says otherwise is lying to you: having a degree no longer guarantees a job."
An ex-boyfriend of mine was a CTO for a development company. He’s one of the most successful and intelligent people I know. Why? Because every job he applied to, he asked himself: what can I learn in this job that will help my career? Adopting this mindset allowed him to gain skills to become successful on his own terms.
Ask yourself the same question when looking at grad schools. Do not ask yourself: will this get me a credential that will make finding a job easier? Instead, ask: what will I learn in the program that will make me attractive to employers or clients (or, for aspiring entrepreneurs, what will I learn that will allow me to create a successful business)? How do you figure this out? Look at the program structure and curriculum and talk to alumni.
Final Words of Wisdom
Applicants do or say what they need to in order to fit the criteria to be admitted. This is a good rule to follow. But, the biggest mistake I see applicants make is doing this at the expense of compromising their goals.
Case in point: we interviewed a student who wanted to become a top game designer. What he needed was a game design school (which MDM isn’t). So, he told us that he was open to working in teams and not taking level design; he told us could work on other people’s ideas, not mentioning that he wanted to build his own game throughout his entire studies at MDM (we offer the option to build your own game—but it has to be with a team and during the final term only).
What happened? We admitted him and he became challenging to work with, because his goals were not in line with what we offered as a program. As a result, he wasn’t happy, his teams weren’t happy and the program felt it failed him.
I recommend that you look for a program that can meet your needs, not one that can simply add letters after your name. Once you find the right program that can help you build your desired skill set, your road to success will be easier and a lot of fun! There is joy in learning—you just have to find the right classroom.
Applicants do or say what they need to in order to fit the criteria to be admitted...the biggest mistake I see applicants make is doing this at the expense of compromising their goals."
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in October 2017 and has been updated for accuracy.