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Key considerations for choosing graduate school

interstride logo by Interstride
June 26, 2023

Thinking about attending graduate school in the U.S.? Whether you have a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. or another country, you can apply to graduate school in the U.S. and get a student visa. Graduate school can be a great way to further develop your professional skills, knowledge, and connections in a specific industry to advance your career.

Some colleges in the U.S. only offer undergraduate degrees while large universities and research universities will have many different types of graduate programs to choose from. There are over 1,000 universities in the U.S. that offer graduate degrees and they vary considerably. Learn what to look for when choosing graduate schools as an international student.

Types of Graduate Degrees

DegreeTime CommitmentPre-requisites
Master’s degreeAbout two years of full-time school on averageBachelor’s degree
Doctoral degree (Ph.D., Postdoc)About six years of full-time school on averageBachelor’s degree and sometimes a master’s degree
Professional degree (MD, JD)About 3-4 years of full-time school on averageVaries by program, but a Bachelor’s degree is often required

1. Program Reputation

The reputation of a graduate degree program gives you insight into the quality of the program based on the experiences of previous students and faculty. A graduate degree program with a good reputation is likely to offer:

  • High-quality education
  • Faculty who are leaders in their fields
  • Connections to major employers
  • Cutting-edge facilities

To understand a program’s reputation even if you aren’t in the U.S. yet, network with alumni online and ask about their experiences in the program. You can also check the U.S. News Best Colleges Rankings to explore overall university rankings.

Important factors to look at when you are evaluating programs are the graduate class sizes, mentorship or advising opportunities, and internship or research opportunities. Smaller class sizes mean more one-on-one attention with faculty and a close-knit cohort. A great graduate program will typically offer academic and/or career advising and professional development opportunities.

2. Faculty Expertise

The expertise of the graduate school faculty will largely shape the type of support and connections they could provide if you were their student. In many graduate school programs, you will be expected to choose a specific focus and put together a committee of university faculty to support you in your research. Check the program’s web page for information on the faculties’ specializations to see if they align with your own interests and goals.

Assess faculty expertise by looking at their:

  • Published research in academic journals
  • Ongoing research
  • Activeness in professional organizations or within the industry

3. Location

The U.S. is a large, diverse country, and each region is unique. The location of the graduate school you choose will affect your experience. Urban areas of the U.S. tend to be more politically and socially progressive and more open to outsiders. Rural areas tend to have lower costs of living and a more tight knit community. Most parts of the U.S. do not have reliable public transportation, so you may need a car if you plan to live off campus. If you prefer public transportation, look at graduate schools in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco.

Keep in mind that different cities and regions of the U.S. are stronger in certain industries. For example, if you want to work in technology, consider a graduate school in San Francisco or Silicon Valley. Students interested in finance may want to look at schools in New York City. Attending school in an industry hub can help you build a relevant professional network in the U.S. through alumni connections, internships, and work-study positions.

4. Research or Fieldwork Opportunities

Graduate school should help prepare you for a career in a specific field with hands-on experience. That experience will look different depending on the field of study. Some graduate school courses include lab hours or fieldwork off-campus during class hours. Look for these kinds of opportunities in the school’s graduate course catalog. Make sure to find the most recent version as the course offerings may change each academic year.

For each university you are interested in, consider:

  • The research, fieldwork, and internship requirements for the program
  • Elective research and fieldwork opportunities with faculty
  • The school’s research facilities including the library and labs
  • On-campus job opportunities such as graduate research assistant or teaching assistant
  • The number of students on Optional Practical Training (OPT)

5. Funding

Graduate school in the U.S. is costly. It’s essential to plan ahead and budget properly to fund your graduate education. Make sure to consider:

  1. The total cost of the degree including tuition, visa fees, housing, living expenses, etc.
  2. How you will pay for school including what scholarships, grants, living stipends, and application waivers are available
  3. Whether the cost is worth the value of the education you will receive

Many graduate students in the U.S. work part-time or full-time while in school to help cover costs. International students on an F-1 visa can work legally and earn money under the Curricular Practical Training (CPT) or OPT during and after their studies. Institutional funding may be available but will depend on how many classes you are taking and whether you are a part-time or full-time student. Lastly, the type of graduate degree program – master’s or doctoral – will affect costs and funding options for international students.

Funding Differences Between Master’s VS Doctoral Degree Programs

Master’sDegree TypeDoctoral
Mainly loans and financial aid packagesFunding TypesMore research funding and assistantship opportunities
Usually, less funding is available compared to doctoral degreesAvailabilityMore funding is available because overall costs are higher since programs are longer
In addition to tuition and university fees, loans may cover some housing costs and living expensesFunding CoverageSome universities offer application fee waivers, tuition waivers, stipends, and other assistance to cover most living expenses while in school


6. Application Process and Requirements

Each graduate degree program has its application requirements even within the same university. Visit the university’s website for more information. Graduate school applications are not simple, so give yourself ample time to prepare. Make sure you can meet all the requirements by the application deadline.

Common application requirements:

  • 2 or more letters of recommendation
  • Test scores to prove English proficiency (such as TOEFL)
  • GRE or other required admissions test scores
  • A statement of purpose and/or research proposal

Each university will also have its own timeline for the application and admissions process. Generally, applications for graduate school in the U.S. are due in December or January. The deadline for international students may be different than the deadline for domestic students, so check the website carefully. You can expect to receive an admissions decision in March. This usually includes the offered financial aid package. Most schools ask you to reply by April 15th with whether or not you plan to enroll in the fall. Then, they will send you further instructions on how to register for classes.

Many graduate schools in the U.S. offer early decision or early action so that you can get a response earlier in the year. Learn more about these options from Interstride’s blog

7. Support Services for International Students

If you are studying in the U.S. for the first time as a graduate-level international student, the transition to living and going to school in a new country can be overwhelming. Some universities offer support services specifically for international students including guidance with:

  • Graduate school applications
  • Immigration processes
  • Networking in the U.S.
  • Job searches
  • Transitioning to a work visa after graduation

The level of support provided by university faculty and staff can vary greatly by the school and the program. The best way to understand the supports that are available and the quality of those supports is to talk to current and former international students. You can find them in alumni groups online, through student ambassador programs, or by visiting the campus.

Choosing the Right Graduate School as an International Student

In the U.S., graduate school is a chance to narrow your focus to a specific interest and gain skills and experience to propel your career. Look for graduate programs that offer hands-on experience in the form of fieldwork, practicums, internships, or similar opportunities. Find programs with faculty that are at the top of their field and have specializations that align with your interests. Research the location of the school, the application requirements, and the costs to fully prepare yourself for graduate school in another country. Make sure the school provides adequate financial aid for international students and continued support throughout their graduate school journey. If you consider all these factors, you can confidently select the right graduate program to fit your needs.