Higher Education > Advanced Advice

Does Size Matter?

What size grad school is right for you?

By Robert Kallick

Choosing a graduate program can be a challenging experience for those about to graduate college. There are a number of factors that go into making this decision-especially for those who are studying computers, engineering or any other technical field. In these fields, students benefit from close contact with professors like they would get at a small university, and they can also benefit from the vast array of students and professors that make up a large graduate school.

"A smaller college may offer a greater sense of community, more emphasis on teaching and the opportunity to have more personalized contact with professors. This can result in developing closer relationships that result in strong recommendations when applying for jobs after graduation."

Department Size: Pros and Cons

Students should be sure to focus on the department, rather than the school as a whole, when choosing a graduate school. "All of a student's academic grad life is likely to be spent in a particular department or program, so that's really the most important thing to look at when you look at graduate schools," says Barbara Traister, an associate dean for research and graduate studies for Lehigh University's College of Arts and Sciences in Bethlehem, Pa.

"In graduate school, it is the graduate program which is important. Insofar as small grad schools often have small programs-fewer students and fewer faculty-and larger grad schools large programs-more students and faculty. Size does make some difference." Traister adds that large universities tend to have more facilities, especially in the sciences. "Small universities often have greater community among students and faculty; they all know one another better," she says. "Close faculty mentoring relationships take place at all sizes of universities, but in a large department a student is likely to know only a small percentage of the faculty, whereas in a smaller department, he or she is likely to know almost everyone."

Department size makes a big difference when choosing a graduate program because course selection is a huge part of what can make a program good or bad for the student. "Larger departments usually have more course offerings, allowing students to specialize and focus deeply on a particular area of their specialty," says Traister. "Small departments have fewer courses and a student is likely to study a broader area of the specialty in somewhat less depth, at least until thesis or dissertation stage when tight focus becomes mandatory."

More Than Just a Number

The camaraderie amongst students and faculty is a huge part of the graduate school experience-finding someone who shares the same passion as you can make it even more fulfilling. "Some of the advantages of large graduate schools are that you are likely to have several graduate student colleagues interested in the same area of research you are, and likewise faculty, which can make it a very intense learning experience," says Nancy Stamp, vice provost and dean of Binghamton University's Graduate School in Binghamton, N.Y.

"For example, the laboratory group might be two or three times as large, so it becomes the core group for interactions both professionally and often socially, rather than the department with its wider array of sub-disciplines."

Abby Griffeth is the assistant director of graduate admissions at Shenandoah University, a small graduate school of only 1,500 students in Winchester, Va. She says through her experience, the best advantage of a small graduate school is the personal attention the students receive from the school and faculty.

"It's been in my experience recruiting students that faculty are always heavily involved in the process," she says. "Many times students ask me specific program related questions that I can't answer, but the faculty are always quick to respond and help out. Our applicants really love receiving emails and phone calls from faculty responding to their questions and showing an interest in their education."

Griffeth adds that students at Shenandoah appreciate being more than just a student ID number. "They're able to speak up, voice opinions and ask questions without having to compete with 300 other students," she says. "The student/professor relationship is able to significantly develop and the student leaves graduate school, not just with an education, but with professional contacts and a solid network."

Additionally, a smaller school is able to offer more flexibility in class offerings and schedules. "We have two campuses and students can pick and choose which campus they attend," says Griffeth. "Our programs that are geared towards working adults offer classes which work well for a busy adult schedule."

While size does matter, Stamp adds that it is only one of many important factors to consider when choosing a graduate school. "In the end, the size of the school should be one of many things to consider-the most important being that you see yourself fitting in!"

Robert Kallick is a free-lance writer and career expert living in Chicago.

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Higher Education > Advanced Advice