Maybe you can get a degree for pennies in Europe. But to get an American degree or credential, you pay several years of your life and money.
If it’s a selective school, they may want only the fanciest students—and the pressure may be high and funding low.
If you go somewhere that admits most qualified applicants, they may produce too many graduates and flood the market with people willing to work for cheap (cough, cough, library schools), just to keep the lights on.
So whether you aim high or accessible, don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. You want something right for you, not just for the school.
And this means asking hard questions at an open house, in meetings with admissions, or when sitting down with a professor, student, or advisor.
(I mean, be reasonable. Don’t be that person who emails a new question every day for six months (!)). But you should be confident, in a group or individually, asking for honest answers about the program, it’s strengths and challenges, and the likely outcomes. This is your chance to interview them.
Below are some questions I’ve both brainstormed and culled from online:
Questions About the Faculty and Fellow Students:
- Do you hire adjuncts or contract faculty? Do they teach at many campuses–or do you pay them enough to focus and invest in students?
- How many students is one professor or advisor responsible for? How much time can I expect for guidance to succeed in this program?
- Do professors have time for individual students, or are they under pressure to research, get grants, or teach lots of classes?
- Can I do research, a practicum, a rotation, fieldwork, or a project with a professor that gives me real mentoring and career experience?
- Who will be my community of practice as I learn this field: other students? professors? An academic advisor? How can I meet them?
- If this is an online program, how will I connect deeply with faculty and students?
- How do students build trust and shared experience together, for lifelong connection?
Questions About the Program Itself:
- Is this university and program licensed or accredited by the major accrediting body in your field?
- Is this a nonprofit institution? Is it ranked in my academic field? If it’s a professional degree, it is respected by high-status or desirable employers?
- What do you look for in a student for this program?
- What do students come here expecting to learn? What are good or bad reasons to attend?
- Will I spent most of my time researching, writing, doing group projects, attending class, doing practicums, preparing for exams, etc?
- Is it hard to get into core classes? How flexible is the curriculum?
- Besides professors, who has time to support students: advisors, a writing center, peer reading groups, librarians?
- What are the rough points? When and why do students most often fail to complete the program?
- Beyond core requirements, what will give me the best chance of getting a good job in the field?
- How many of your grads are employed full time in this field right after graduation? What happens to the others?
- Do you place students in internships or work experience? What happens to those who don’t get experience before they graduate?
- Why do students leave this program? Can you give me specifics?
- What jobs will I be competitive, marketable, and desirable for? How is the job market in this field? Who will have an advantage over me, even with my degree?
- Why should I attend this program vs. a similar one at another institution?
Advice: Of course, you can’t ask these all at once, so bring the list and highlight 5-10 that are most important for you.
Be friendly and positive, but willing to push them for specifics.
Build trust, and ask if there’s anything you should know, but they feel like they can’t say.
Try to speak to or email with multiple people, if you can do it without being too much of a pain: a current student, a recent graduate, a program officer, and/or a faculty member.
For instance, I contacted three grad students at Indiana before turning down their Ph.D.–the students helped me get a sense of the program and its complete lack of funding. I met with two professors and sat in on a grad class at Ohio State, which gave me a sense that it was a good program. Texas A&M flew me down for a weekend, where I met individually with two professors and three grad students; that helped me decide to go there. My contacts at Monash weren’t responsive to questions, and it’s a big reason I didn’t go there. Several library programs answered questions as I considered my best option for an all-online asynchronous MLIS program from abroad—and the responsiveness from Kent State ultimately helped me to go there.
The lesson: don’t be afraid to ask your top few questions—and listen closely to what you hear!
But before you attend, it’s time to take a look at funding…