What to Consider When Applying to Graduate School

By Kyle Webb
Co-chair of IMA’s Young Professionals Committee
North American Production Operations Accountant, Marathon Oil Company, Houston, TX 

“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” I believe this quote by Aristotle aptly describes the attitude young professionals have toward furthering their education, whether through certification, graduate school, CPE or some other avenue. However, the rewards of furthering one’s knowledge base are often sufficient to justify the “pain” of advanced education. 

Motivations for Attending Graduate School 

One motivation is the fruit that is hopefully attained at the end of graduate school - a higher salary and greater job security. On the other hand, there are some (like myself) who thoroughly enjoy learning, and advanced education is an exciting opportunity. Nerd, weird, abnormal - call us what you like, but we aren’t necessarily motivated by the fruits of the advanced education, but from the process of learning itself. 

However, there are numerous reasons for pursuing an advanced degree. Perhaps you want to specialize in a particular job function or acquire broader business and leadership skills via an MBA. Another motivation to attend graduate school is to make a career change because you are not satisfied with your current job, or because you simply need a change. Finally, in these challenging economic times, you may not be able to find a job and attending graduate school is the option that makes the most sense at the time. 

Factors to Consider in Choosing a Graduate Program 

Once you have reflected on your motivations for continuing your education, there are several factors you will need to evaluate before proceeding. 

I hate to be a downer, but the first factor that you need to consider is cost. You may find the perfect program, but if it’s double what you can afford, it simply is out of reach. This evaluation relies heavily on a cost analysis. 

Consider all costs, including entrance exams, living expenses, insurance, books, tuition, etc. Remember that you will have little or no income for one to two years if you plan on attending full time. Know what you can afford  when you start looking at schools so you can rule out those that are too expensive. And if you plan on working while attending graduate school, check into your employer’s continuing education program to see what costs will be reimbursed. This evaluation will stretch your personal finance skills in order to capture all the necessary data. 

On the other hand, there is hope if you find the perfect program and it appears too expensive at first glance. Many schools offer aid e.g. scholarships, grants, fellowships, etc. that will reduce the cost of the program. I am not talking about loans, because those you will have to pay back.   

Geography also plays a factor. This can open or close a lot of doors for you in finding the right program. If you are willing to relocate, your options are endless. Do not forget to consider programs overseas if living abroad is not an issue, as there are a number of quality schools all over the world.   

Furthermore, you need to evaluate the nuances of the program. Examine the reputation of the college within the university, not the university itself. Some average universities have top-ranked business schools. On the flip side, some top-ranked schools might have concentrations or degrees that are merely average.   

Faculty expertise is also important. Make sure there are professors who are experts in the field that is going to advance your career goals, because these professors will likely serve as mentors throughout the program. Lastly, don’t forget about the “little” things that mean a lot - class size, friendliness of the school staff and students, career management, alumni loyalty, facilities, etc. 

Consider the Big Picture 

Finally, begin thinking about your career goals (if you haven’t already) and what you want to get out of the program. Will graduate school help you achieve your career goals, and if so, what does the program need to have in order to do that?

In thinking through these factors, you are setting yourself up for success in your admissions essay and interview. The more you know about each particular program, whether it is a right fit for you and how it can help you achieve your career goals, the better equipped you will be to “sell” the admissions committee on why they should admit you. Having just gone through this process, I can tell you that it works.

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The IMA Young Accounting Pros Blog features the insights of IMA's Young Professionals Committee. Committee members share advice and experiences on careers, continuing education, work/life balance, and other issues affecting young accounting and finance professionals.

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