An Online Guide to Graduate Schools:How to Choose a Program, Get in and Graduate

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Graduate school gives students of all kinds a tremendous opportunity to grow academically, professionally and financially. The following guide explores the graduate school landscape, from the wealth of degree options to the rise of online programs. Learn what's out there, what it takes and what to do next.

Meet the Expert

Greg Beatty has over two decades of experience in higher education and has taught traditional, online and hybrid courses at the master’s level in various disciplines. Greg has developed curricula for several colleges, winning grants for course development and awards for teaching. He has also served on a range of committees and advisory boards. Greg holds a PhD in English from the University of Iowa.

Meet the Author

Gabby Hyman is a journalist covering higher education issues. A former English professor, he has written extensively about graduate school programs and online learning over the last ten years. He holds an MFA from the University of Alabama.


Although experts have argued both for and against getting a graduate degree, many studies have shown that earning an advanced degree can lead to higher pay and better job opportunities over the course of one’s lifetime. Yet going to grad school thinking you can earn a higher salary, and knowing how to apply your graduate degree in order to get a higher salary, are two completely different things. Reaping the benefits of graduate school, online or traditional, requires a lot of research, planning and preparation.

The following guide helps prospective students better understand the world of graduate school. It reviews the types of graduate degrees available in traditional and online formats, as well as details on the most-popular online graduate degree programs, the grad school admissions process, and degree requirements. Finally, a list of resources and scholarships is provided to encourage students to do additional research before making the grad school leap.

Should You Go to Graduate School?

There is no easy yes/no or right/wrong answer. Mulling over the decision to go to graduate school can be agonizing. After all, grad school isn’t for casual learners—it often comes with a two to seven year time commitment, hefty tuition and advanced-level coursework that taxes intellectual and emotional resources. Furthermore, unlike undergraduate degree programs, master’s and doctorate degrees offer little room for learning outside the major field. Many programs also come with time-consuming requirements such as internships, lengthy dissertations and research projects.

In short, students considering the endeavor should know precisely why they’re going, why they prefer the degree program at a particular school, and what they intend to do with the degree after graduation.

Decision-making Tips:

  • Carefully assess prospective colleges, including faculty members, accreditation, graduation rate, post-grad employment statistics, availability of financial aid, and how coursework corresponds with your educational/career goals. Usually, you can find this information on the school’s website or through sources such as U.S. News & World Report, but you can also contact someone at a school’s admissions or financial aid office for more information.
  • Interview employers and career experts, university faculty members, and financial aid officers to learn about all the options available to you.
  • Talk to friends, family and colleagues who have gone the grad school route and learn from their experiences (or mistakes).
  • Talk to your company’s HR department to see if your current employer has a tuition assistance program. Some companies will help cover the cost of graduate school if you’re pursing a degree that is relevant to the field.
  • Find out if you’re eligible to receive tax credits or deductions and if so, what you need to do to claim them. Examples of potential credits and deductions include the Lifetime Learning Credit, Graduate School Loan Interest Tax Deduction, Tuition and Fees Deduction and Educational Expense Tax Deduction. You can visit or speak with a tax professional for more information.
  • Evaluate whether an online graduate degree program suits your current commitments to work and family. Accredited online colleges typically offer the same educational quality and content as traditional campus-based programs, but provide more flexibility and convenience.
The Benefits of Graduate School

For some careers — law, education, health care and social work, for example -graduate degrees are not optional; they’re required. Other industries may base promotions and other career advancement on academic achievement. Adults returning to college after spending time in the workplace may choose a graduate degree to boost earning power, grow their career, and move upwards in rank or professional status. Some of the key benefits can include:

Greater employment opportunities. Earning a graduate degree can potentially increase students’ job opportunities by preparing them for employment in a different sector of the economy. It can also provide them with the advanced skills necessary to take on more responsibilities. In some cases, the degree may be required to gain and keep employment. For example, according to The College Board, during economic downturns between 1999-2012, workers with undergraduate and advanced degrees experienced half the layoffs that fell upon workers with only a high school diploma.

Greater career advancement. A graduate degree may be a means to cross the line separating entry-level and management roles in a profession. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that employers look favorably on employees that return to college for advanced degrees, professional certificates and continuing education. The employee’s commitment to academic work, professional development and advanced core knowledge often goes hand-in-hand with promotions to leadership roles within an organization. Some job entry or promotion requirements are pegged to the completion of a graduate degree. In fact, the greatest job growth from 2012-2022, according to the BLS, will be in positions requiring applicants to hold a master’s degree.

Increased earnings potential. According to the Pew Research Center, the earnings disparity between young adults with and without a college degree is much higher than in previous years. Data showed that those with just a high school diploma earned median annual wages of $28,000 in 2013, while those with a bachelor’s degree or higher earned $45,000. In 1965, a high school grad earned $31,384, while a college grad earned $38,833. The BLS also reported that a college degree could significantly impact weekly earnings. In 2013, median weekly earnings for high school graduates were $651. Master’s and doctoral degree holders earned $1,329 and $1,623 a week, respectively. Professional degree holders had the highest weekly earnings at $1,714.

Achievement, expertise and credibility. In addition to learning advanced skills and knowledge, graduate students also gain invaluable experience collaborating with top researchers in their field, all of which enhances one’s credibility and expertise. Furthermore, just being called “doctor” can add a tangible level of recognition and distinction to a PhD holder. Enrollment in a graduate degree program also opens doors to funding for research, internships and fellowships with major corporate or governmental agencies, and memberships with professional associations.

Types of Graduate Degrees

Graduate schools offer programs leading to research or professional degrees at the master’s and doctoral levels. Coursework and research is considerably more challenging than in undergraduate studies and focuses more directly on a specialized discipline. Master’s degrees typically take two years to complete, while doctoral degrees may take from four to eight years. Class sizes are usually smaller compared to undergraduate programs and require a considerable amount of independent research. Grad students may finance their studies in part through student teaching, or through loans, grants and scholarships.

Professional Master’s Degree

Whether online or campus-based, professional master’s degree programs are often considered terminal degrees for certain careers in business, government and non-profit sectors. Some popular professional master’s degrees include the Master of Fine Arts (MFA), Master of Social Work (MSW), Master of Business Administration (MBA), Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT), Master of Health Administration (MHA), Master of Public Administration (MPA) and Master of Public Health (MPH). Professional master’s degree programs generally take one to two years to complete, depending on the school and format. Accelerated online professional master’s degrees, for instance, can shorten the time to graduation. Like their traditional counterparts, online professional master’s degree programs may require internships and collaborative research projects. Students communicate with peers online (via chat, email, or discussion board) to coordinate joint work. Online colleges and universities typically have partnerships with businesses, hospitals and non-profit organizations in various locations, allowing online students to pursue internship opportunities close to home.

Academic or Research Master’s Degree

An academic or research master’s degree is designed to provide intellectual growth and advanced experience in research and theory. Many working adults return to school to earn this type of degree and bolster their credentials. An academic or research master’s degree is usually comprised of two to three years of required courses, laboratory or library research, between 30 to 54 semester credits, and a related practicum or internship. Depending on the program, students may sit for comprehensive examinations or complete a master’s thesis to meet graduation requirements. Second-year master’s students may declare a research focus and work with an academic mentor to complete degree requirements or transition to a doctoral program within the department.

The most-common academic and research master’s degrees are the Master of Arts (MA) and Master of Science (MS). Unlike undergraduate study, the curriculum at the master’s degree level is focused entirely on the field of study and specialties within it. The degree may also qualify graduates as post-secondary teachers in the major field.

Professional Doctoral Degree

This type of degree emphasizes practical application of knowledge and skills in a specific area. It often represents the culmination of specialized training for entry into advanced careers in fields such as education, law, medicine and psychology.

Online education doctorates (EdD) are among the most popular distance learning programs. Other examples of popular professional doctorates include the Doctor of Business Administration (DBA), Doctor of Medicine (MD), Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD), Juris Doctor (JD) and Doctorate of Psychology (PsyD). Professional doctorate degrees are also offered in the fields of dentistry, chiropractic, physical therapy, veterinary medicine, advanced practice nursing and the ministry. It takes three to seven years following completion of a bachelor’s degree to complete a professional doctoral degree, depending on the chosen field, program requirements and the student’s abilities. Self-paced and accelerated online degree programs can shorten time to graduation; however, not all professional doctorates are offered fully online because of the intensive laboratory and clinical components of the degree. For example, no fully online law degrees are currently accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA); however the ABA approved a hybrid (blend of on-campus and online) law degree in 2014.

Research Doctorate

Colleges and universities across the nation offer Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degrees. The PhD represents the pinnacle of formal education. It takes approximately seven to eight years to complete a research doctoral degree following the completion of undergraduate education. Some doctorate programs require the minimum completion of a master’s degree for admittance. Many colleges, however, offer dual programs where bachelor’s degree holders can work towards a master’s and PhD simultaneously. Doctoral graduation requirements usually include completion of four semesters of intensive study, comprehensive qualifying examinations, and completion and defense of a research thesis or dissertation. The dissertation defense is presented before a committee of academic specialists in the student’s field. For online students, dissertations can be defended using video conferencing applications, including the school’s digital programs such as Blackboard Collaborate or Skype.

Joint Degree Programs

A joint, or concurrent, degree program allows graduate students to earn two graduate-level degrees simultaneously. These interdisciplinary degrees are especially useful for students who want to apply one area of expertise into a different career sector. For example, a business major may want to include a specialization in global health care, or an environmental science major may want to combine studies in sustainable engineering. One benefit is that most schools do not charge additional tuition for joint degrees. According to Stanford University, some 20 percent of their MBA students pursue a joint degree. However, students should be aware that the course load in a joint degree program may increase completion time. Many joint master’s degree students include summer school sessions to finish their degrees on time. Online joint degree programs vary by institution, but students can finish one degree first as part of the requirements, adding up to 20 credits to earn the second degree.

Examples of common joint degrees include JD/MA, JD/MBA, MBA/MSW and the MA/MFS.

Online Graduate Schools

Colleges, universities and professional schools offer online graduate degrees designed specifically to meet the needs of busy working adults and students with families. Master’s and doctoral degree programs may be delivered entirely online or as hybrid programs that combine traditional campus degree work with online components.

Online courses can be delivered in synchronous or asynchronous formats, and include multimedia presentations, chat discussions, video and voice conferencing and email. Distance learning students also have access to university libraries, special collections and departmental resources. For graduate programs that require internships or laboratory hours, online colleges usually partner with businesses and institutions in various locations so that students can find relevant opportunities, regardless of their location.

Below is a sampling of some of the most-popular online graduate degrees, including information on admission and graduation requirements, and core academic elements:

Online Masters in Business Administration (MBA)

Online MBA degrees have grown in popularity among students who wish to enhance their credentials and move into management. Admission requirements typically include completion of an undergraduate degree, successful scores on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) or Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT), professional references and submission of all college transcripts. Some schools also require a statement of purpose and online or in-person interview, as well as two years of professional experience in a relevant field. It generally takes two years to complete an online MBA, depending on the depth of the program and the student’s ability to keep pace. Online MBA degrees can be full or part-time and some schools offer accelerated programs that can be completed in less time. In addition to core business administration curriculum, students can specialize in a particular area. Common MBA concentrations include technology, health care, entrepreneurship, marketing, finance and supply chain management.

Online PhD in Education (Curriculum and Instruction)

An online PhD in education is designed for working education professionals who want to deepen their knowledge of administration in curriculum assessment, development and leadership. Accelerated three-year PhD programs allow educators to apply learning directly to the workplace. Applicants usually need a master’s degree to apply, and must submit all previous transcripts, GRE scores, letters of recommendation and demonstrated professional experience.

To graduate, candidates must complete a minimum of 68 credits comprised of coursework and field experience along with the completion and defense of a scholarly dissertation for graduation. Blended or hybrid elements of the degree include up to two weeks of campus residency and/or laboratory hours to be arranged within their parent school districts. Coursework includes studies in developmental and learning theory, instructional leadership, social and economic contexts and qualitative case studies.

Online Master’s Degree in Social Work (MSW)

One of the most popular online degrees, the M.S. in Social Work is a common minimal state requirement for career licensing in the social services fields. Many applicants already work in educational and public assistance settings, but need the additional degree to assume roles such as school counselor, social worker, substance abuse counselor and program administrator. Applicants need a bachelor’s degree and, in some cases, demonstrated social work experience and reference letters from former teachers and current employers. This self-paced academic program typically takes three years to complete, including 1,200 hours of field internships arranged in the student’s community. Coursework includes studies in social welfare policy, human behavior, cultural diversity and special populations, alcoholism and drug abuse, family therapy, mental health policy, professional ethics and clinical practice. Depending on the school, graduation requirements may include a comprehensive exam and completion of a master’s research project.

Online Master of Science in Electrical Engineering

This two-year intensive, self-paced online master’s degree is designed to meet the educational needs for professionals entering specialized engineering roles or for career advancement into leadership positions. Master’s students need to complete 25 to 30 units in graduate courses with at least 18 units in electrical engineering, deliver a major research project and pass a comprehensive examination. To apply, candidates must have an undergraduate degree in math, engineering or a related hard science and provide transcripts of undergraduate work, letters of recommendation and scores from the GRE. Major areas of study include computer networks and systems, nanotechnology, very-large-scale integration, telecommunications theory and architecture, circuits and controls design, power systems, optics and signal processing.

Online Master of Science in Nursing

One of the fastest-growing online degrees in the health care sector is the Masters of Science in Nursing (MSN). Working registered nurses have found that online advanced practice degrees can provide the shortest routes to progression in the field. Online MSN programs can include specialized options that allow nurses to concentrate on management, health informatics and health care leadership. To apply to this two-year, self-paced program, nurses must have a baccalaureate nursing degree and hold a valid state nursing license, as well as at least two years of direct professional nursing experience. Coursework includes advanced studies in financial and human resource management, population-focused health care practice, nursing education programs and curriculum, legal and ethical health care issues, planning and performance assessment, and health policy. To graduate, students must also complete two advanced nursing practicums and related research projects. Online nursing degree programs are designed to dovetail with student’s employment obligations, and practical assignments may be integrated within the current workplace.

Graduate School Application Process

Graduate schools may use different assessment methods to choose incoming students, but almost all of the graduate colleges and universities in the country, online and campus-based, require the follow components from applicants:

  • Official application
  • Relevant graduate school examination scores
  • Personal essays and/or interviews
  • Official college transcripts
  • Letters of recommendation

Each item in an application packet can take time to round up, so students should begin the process as early as possible to meet the application deadlines at target schools. Most schools set a December deadline for graduate applications for the following fall. That means students should actually begin the process in the spring before the deadline, leaving time to take the graduate exams more than once if necessary and to round up other materials. Some online degree programs, particularly those that are self-paced, may have rolling application deadlines.


Formal college application forms can be ordered or downloaded from prospective schools. Many allow graduate students to begin the process online by setting up an account and password. The school may also allow students to upload resumes, vitas, and initial statements of interest. The form announces all deadlines and application requirements. Some schools notify students by email throughout the process, keeping them apprised of their status. If the application packet is being mailed, it should be addressed to the appropriate graduate department of the prospective university. Students interested in financial aid should begin that process at the same time.

Grad School Exams

Students applying to graduate school—particularly to programs in business, medicine, and law—will need to take standardized examinations and have the testing organizations report their scores to prospective colleges. More and more universities, however, have begun to accept a few different test options or have adopted test-optional policies so be sure to check with prospective schools for exact details.

Below are four common graduate examinations and what they measure:

  • Graduate School – Graduate Record Exam (GRE) – The GRE contains verbal, quantitative, and analytical (written) exam sections. The exam measures student’s reading and comprehension skills, math and problem-solving aptitude, and ability to create a focused written analysis. A school may also ask for student’s results from a GRE Subject Test that measures specific knowledge in an art or science. GRE exams are offered year round.

  • Business School – Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) – The GMAT is one way colleges can assess an applicant’s readiness for business school. The examination measures a student’s verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. Questions examine student aptitude in problem solving, and wraps up with two timed analytical writing assignments. Students can take the GMAT year round.

  • Medical School – Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) – Most experts advise that students take the MCAT a year before they intend to enter medical school. The comprehensive, four-part MCAT measures verbal reasoning, knowledge of physical and biological sciences, and includes a written essay. Exam dates vary from January through September each year.

  • Law School – Law School Admission Test (LSAT) – The LSAT is a comprehensive pre-law exam that measures a student’s logical skills, reading comprehension and verbal reasoning skills. The exam includes five sets of multiple-choice questions and a 30-minute written examination. The LSAT is offered four times a year at selected test centers.

Personal Essays and Interviews

For some applicants, the personal essay is the toughest part. Students have little space and time to capture their audience and convince decision-makers that they’re right for the school. The essay should match all given instructions and guidelines, of course. For instance, some schools want a statement of purpose—an explanation of why the school is important to the student’s growth and future. In this case, applicants should discuss their qualities as well as specific research interests, what they bring to the table, and why this school program is a perfect match. Other schools may want the applicant to write a response to specific prompt, for example, “Tell us about an accomplishment that you are proud of and how it relates to who are you”.

In addition to the personal essay, some schools also require entrance interviews. This is a time when students have an opportunity to sway administrators as well as demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. Students should expect to answer probing questions about the major, their career aspirations, experience, research goals, and why the school, department and faculty in particular appeals to them.


Grad schools will want the official transcripts of previous college work completed by the applicant. Since the registrar offices at all colleges and universities can have a backlog of transcript requests, applicants should request them as early in the process as possible. Transcripts must be mailed to prospective graduate schools by the former college, include the college seal, and arrive unopened to be considered official. Many colleges have automated their transcript request and payment systems online.


Graduate students seeking scholarships to offset the cost of their degree program and living expenses will find scholarships and research fellowships that can help cover costs for anywhere from one year to an entire degree program. There are scholarships dedicated to most fields and are granted by federal and state governmental agencies, professional organizations, trade associations, and independent endowments and foundations. Criteria may be based on financial need, academic achievement, race and gender, or a combination of factors.

Here is a sample list of scholarships for graduate students, along with eligibility and application information:

U.S. Department of Defense National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate FellowshipAmount: Up to $90,000Eligibility: Graduate students pursuing a doctoral degree in science fields that benefit national security, including biotechnology, chemistry, computational technology, engineering, and geosciences.More info:  American Association of University Women FellowshipsAmount: Varies, to support living expensesEligibility: Open to all students working on dissertations in any field except engineering. Technology and gender studies majors encouraged to apply.More info:  Jack Kent Cooke Foundation Graduate Arts Award Amount: Up to $50,000Eligibility: Open to graduating seniors or college graduates with a minimum 3.20 GPA, demonstrated financial need, and exceptional artistic promise. More info:  National Black MBA AssociationAmount: $1,000-$10,000Eligibility: African American graduate and doctoral students with 3.0 or above GPA and demonstrated leadership potential.More info:  Microsoft Research PhD FellowshipAmount: $28,000, plus full tuition paymentEligibility: Students enrolled in their second or third year of a PhD program in computer science, electrical engineering, or mathematics. Must be nominated by professors.More info:  The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Merit-Based FellowshipAmount: Pays full tuition and fees for two years of study for MBA studentsEligibility: Open to African American, Native American or Hispanic Americans enrolled in one of six member graduate business programs. Some 70 percent of applicants receive aid upon admission to the schools.More info:  Department of Energy Office of Science Graduate FellowshipAmount: Varies, supports tuition and living expenses.Eligibility: Open to students engaged in full-time graduate study and thesis/dissertation research in chemistry, computer sciences, engineering, and environmental sciences, mathematics, physics and related fields.More info:  Woodrow Wilson MBA Fellowship in Education LeadershipAmount: $50,000Eligibility: Candidates must be willing to attend participating MBA programs and serve as principals for at least three years following graduation. By nomination More info:


There are a number of online resources for graduate students and grad school applicants. The following list contains contact information for governmental and non-profit organizations that provide details on schools, financial aid, degree ROI, online degrees, school rankings, and more:

College Navigator (National Center for Education Statistics)

This guide from the U.S. Department of Education provides tools to assist students in choosing a grad school based on location, degree type, tuition and other criteria for export to a side-by-side comparison spreadsheet.

U.S. Department of Education

This handily pamphlet from the DOE contains a comprehensive rundown on applications, eligibility and specific programs for federal student financial aid for graduate students.


The Council of Graduate Schools has sponsored tools on this site to help students assess the potential value of their degree and to calculate loan repayments based on a choice of financial strategies.

FinAid is a non-profit organizational clearinghouse of information on grants, loans, scholarships, and military educational benefits. The site includes a college-cost projection tool and sections for graduate students seeking degrees at law, business, and medical schools.

U.S. News & World Report

Every year, U.S. News updates rankings of the nation’s graduate school programs in fields of business, education, engineering, law, medical, science, library and information studies, the humanities and social sciences, health, public affairs, fine arts, and as of recently, online degrees and colleges.

Modern Language Association (MLA)

The MLA style guide is the bible for graduate school scholarly papers, research and dissertations. Site includes information on the guides and a job list for graduates seeking positions in English and language fields.

National Association of Graduate-Professional Students (NAGPS)

NAGPS provides resources and networking opportunities for members, including a job board, guidelines for creating effective applications, dissertation assistance, legislative news and financial aid information.

Online Learning Consortium (OLC)

The OLC, formerly the Sloan Consortium, is the nation’s largest professional association dedicated to the advancement of online learning. The site offers free downloads of comprehensive research and statistics on online learning and Sloan’s eLearnng Landscape blog. Studies include mapping the growth and trends in online degrees and employer acceptance.