This post is part one in our three part series on the #SAGrad search for #CSAM18. Check back here next Wednesday for part two in our installment: “You’re In! Now What?”
Once you’ve determined that you’re pursuing a Master’s Degree, you have to find a program! As you begin your search, I suggest utilizing NASPA’s Graduate Program Directory because it allows you to filter your search based on locations, options to defray costs, GRE requirements, and other helpful criteria. In addition, ask your mentors if they know of any programs that seem interesting or like a good fit. Chances are, they know people who are connected to these programs, and you could gain knowledge about whether the program is a possibility for you.
I don’t use the word “perfect,” because sometimes discomfort due to unfamiliar environments, new people, or cultural climates different than what you’re used to can make you grow. No matter what program you end up in, you have more agency than you think. By learning to view challenges as an opportunity for growth and asking the questions you wish were being asked in your program or field, you can really shape your experience. There are, some things, however, that you should keep in mind as you look for a program.
Consider the communities that you are currently part of and the ones you wish existed for you. My own undergraduate experience was in Minnesota, and while I was able to find a good community of color both on and off campus, I felt a lack of connection to a Japanese community (or access to good Japanese food!). Choosing to move to San Francisco for graduate school meant a higher likelihood of finding a Japanese community! In addition to communities built around social identities, think about activities, sports, and/or hobbies that are important to you. While the content of your program will be a significant part of your experience, the communities you find outside of your program will be just as important for sustaining your well-being and ability to engage in your program. It might sound cheesy, but over time I’ve learned that community can solve most problems and be a source of joy and resilience.
Family/Folks You Know
The most challenging aspect of my program is that I’m so far away from my partner and my close friends from undergrad. As a person who grew up moving every 2 years, I was so used to losing friends that I eventually became desensitized to it. So when I chose to move to the University of San Francisco from Macalester College where I had been for a whole 4 years, I barely considered the impact it would have on me. I don’t regret my decision to move here, but I absolutely do miss my people more than I ever expected to. While I don’t discourage moving to a completely new place, I’ll definitely emphasize the significance of considering who might be nearby. Will there be family or friends that you can turn to when things get challenging? Is your intention to branch out on your own? What kind of people do you need near you in order to succeed?
Insurance, Food, Housing, General Expenses
For many folks, access to medication, counseling, physicians, or other health services are absolutely necessary. If you have insurance, consider how your geographic location might determine the access and coverage you will have, as well as if the physical structure of the campus is accessible to begin with. Make sure to also look into whether the institution offers a health plan or a choice to opt-out of their insurance plan.
Most programs don’t require you to live on campus, but if you are considering living on campus or applying for a housing position, look into the benefits and drawbacks of it. For me, securing a position that provided housing in the Bay Area was necessary for me to afford moving here. Because of this, I suggest comparing the cost of living in different areas using sites such as SalaryExpert.com or NerdWallet.com so that you can compare the cost of housing, food, transportation, and other factors of the locations you’re considering. Finally, creating and using a budget can be extremely helpful in keeping track of how you are using your money, and planning how you could be using and saving it. Graduate school can be a great source of fun, but fun doesn’t necessarily mean losing money—especially if you’re able to budget responsibly and find other sources of joy that don’t require spending.
What about your program motivates you?
Although I mentioned that the program you end up in won’t dictate your whole experience, I do believe that the following questions might help you reflect on your own intentions within the field.
- What do the program’s graduates go on to do? (If a graduate of your prospective program has your “dream job,” ask them about the program!)
- Does the program have a specific focus, such as social justice, that motivates you?
- What kind of research have the program’s faculty done? Are you passionate about similar topics or interested in gaining passions?
- How would a cohort-based program (or non-cohort model) help you in your learning?
How to get started
Collecting all of this information can be pretty exhausting. Something that might help is making a spreadsheet! Use it to organize information about application deadlines, interview days, assistantship/internship options, and program preferences. While the size and type of institution might help you navigate this search, hold your needs and values just as close. If you do this, you’ll most likely end up in a program where you can take risks, with the knowledge that you have access to the communities and the resources you need to support yourself holistically. The grad search isn’t an easy one, but it can be a lot of fun to consider where you might end up and all the people you might meet! Know that ultimately, other folks (even your mentors) shouldn’t decide the programs you apply to or enroll in, because you know yourself best and you have the knowledge to make a great decision and the agency to shape a valuable experience for yourself. Start early, don’t dismiss “unlikely” options, and have fun with your grad search!