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Cornell University

Choosing a Program

Choosing a Specialization and Researching Schools

One of the best general guides to graduate study is Peterson's searchable database. For each field of study, the database outlines academic programs and degrees, focus of faculty research, financial aid resources, cost of study, cost of living, student body, geographic area, and application requirements. Websites of graduate schools provide detailed information about their departments and programs.

 In addition to this resource, the Cornell Career Services Library in 103 Barnes has graduate school directories that are discipline-specific. They include guides for graduate programs in psychology as well as other social sciences, performing arts, and the sciences, to name a few. 

Talk to professors, advisors, and graduate students who are familiar with your area of interest. Ask their advice on emerging trends in the field, reputation of schools, the degree of competitiveness in admissions, and career opportunities. Faculty are in the best position to assess your chances for admission at the various schools and may even be willing to contact their colleagues at institutions of interest to you on your behalf.

To choose an appropriate school, you will want to be aware of publications being written on current research in the discipline. Your decision about a field of study may have developed out of your exposure to the literature during a substantial undergraduate program. Use Mann or Olin Library to find related professional journals, and research the specializations that appeal to you. Note the schools represented on editorial boards of these periodicals; this recognition usually reflects a department's strength in the discipline.

Being aware of who the top people are and where they are is important for several reasons.

  1. A graduate department's reputation rests heavily on members of the faculty, and, in some disciplines, it is more important to study under someone with a noted reputation than to study at a school with a prestigious name.
  2. Certain types of graduate funds are tied to specific research projects and, as a result, to working with particular people.
  3. Most PhD (and nonprofessional master's degree) candidates must pick faculty chairpersons and one or more committee members; this is often done during the first semester. These committees are frequently your major source of direction and are responsible for evaluating your work. These are crucial reasons for learning as much as possible about a school's faculty members.

Evaluating the Reputation of Graduate Programs

The Cornell Career Services Library has graduate program ratings and updates these rankings as the results of new surveys are published. Ratings of professional schools, including law, medicine, business, and engineering, are available as well as selected graduate programs.

Most rankings of graduate programs are done by "peer rating," that is, by asking respected scholars in the academic disciplines to rate the graduate departments in their fields. Many academicians feel that these rankings are too heavily based on traditional concepts of what constitutes quality and perpetuate the idea of a research-oriented department as the only model of excellence in graduate education. Therefore, more than one ranking should be consulted and rankings should be supplemented by other resources.

Faculty
Academic training; research activity; research productivity; teaching effectiveness; concern for student development; involvement in program affairs; group morale or "esprit de corps"

Students
Academic ability at entrance; achievements, knowledge, skills at time of degree completion; professional accomplishments of graduates; judgments on program quality; satisfaction with various aspects of program; group morale or "esprit de corps"

Resources
Library, financial support, laboratory and facilities, computer facilities.

Operations
Purposes of the program; financial support; course and program offerings, admission policies; faculty welfare; evaluation of student progress; program leadership and decision-making; job placement of graduates; advisement of students; student-faculty interaction ; internships, assistantships, and other opportunities for relevant student experiences; degree requirements; relationships with other graduate programs.

Once you have narrowed your list of schools, if possible, visit the schools and talk with current students. Write or call a week in advance of your visit to give those in charge of admissions a chance to set up appointments with faculty members and students. You may want to talk to the schools' alumni also, who may be found by writing to the departments for names of alumni in your geographic area. Often alumni may be found among Cornell's faculty members.