Grad School Decision Time – What Questions to Ask Yourself

By: Zaena TessemaGlobal Epidemiology

When I first got accepted into Emory, I couldn’t believe it. It was the first decision I had received from a school out of ALL my applications, and the fact that it was from Rollins was just icing on the cake. After receiving the initial email, I remember taking a screen shot of it and sending it around to my friends and family, just to make sure that I was reading it correctly. At that point in my life, I had been out of school for about 4.5 years with an undergrad GPA I would describe as average, so I wasn’t sure if I was going to be getting in to ANY grad program, let alone a top ten school (now top 5!).

During the following weeks, however, I received more and more acceptances, which was all very exciting…until I realized that meant I was going to have to make a decision. If you are like me, decision making doesn’t come easy, especially for such a major life decision as this. Whichever school I chose was going to come with a 2 year commitment, and that wasn’t something to be taken lightly. There were so many things I had to consider, and I had no idea where to even start. What eventually helped me decide was a series of questions I began asking myself:

  1. Would I want to live in that city for the next 2 years?

Although this question has nothing to do with the actual academic program itself, it is still a fair one. If a program would require moving to a new place, you want to make sure it is a place you believe you will be happy. whether that happiness means proximity to family or what the weather is like. Is public transportation accessible? Is it close to a major metropolitan area? Is there enough greenery and opportunities to do outdoor activities? Is there an art or music scene I can explore? Will I feel safe living alone?

  1. Is there flexibility in the program?

While you may have an idea of what you want to study when you apply to a program, once you enroll and gain exposure on the different specialties under the public health umbrella, that idea may change.  Does the program you’re in allow for some customization, whether it be in the form of certificates or concentrations, electives, research groups, taking classes outside of your department or major? If you wanted to take a business course, could you? How about if you wanted to satisfy pre-med requirements? Is that something that this program could help you achieve?

  1. Can I afford it?

Probably one of the most important questions out there in determining whether a program is feasible for you. How are you planning on paying for it? Once you receive your financial aid offers, do they meet your need? If not, are you ok in taking out loans, either federal or private? Do you need to apply for scholarships or look for part time work? Does the school help with that? Are there affordable housing options? Can you maintain your current lifestyle, or will you need to make some sacrifices? Are you ok with that?

  1. Do I feel supported?

If you have a chance to visit the schools or interact with current faculty, staff or students, see how they talk about their program. Is there a sense of community? Are there systems in place for guidance or mentoring, both professionally and academically? How do you go about accessing them? Are current students happy with their decision? Is the faculty to student ratio important to you? Or the average class size? Does support continue after graduation for alumni? What does that support look like?

  1. How important is prestige to me?

Is going to a school that is well known or prestigious important to you? Is it the most important thing? Are you willing to sacrifice other areas of the student experience for the sake of going to a higher-ranking program? Are there other programs you have been accepted to that can provide the same level of recognition that is stronger in other areas, such as support networks or work-life balance?

There is no clear cut, right or wrong way to choose what program is best for you. The process is different from person to person. Thinking through things like these will help you weigh the pros and cons of each program and allow you to see how each program might impact your life holistically.

I asked myself these same questions a little under two years ago, and my answers led me to Rollins, as an MPH Global Epidemiology candidate pursuing a certificate in humanitarian emergencies and working at the CDC, and I haven’t regretted it for a single second. Figure out what questions are important for you and ask them honestly, openly and shamelessly. There is no such thing as a wrong decision, so long as you are happy!