The Network, The Location, and Your Checkbook
It is that time of the year. Eager applicants are receiving word from university programs: admitted, waitlisted, or denied. This phase—preceded by the exhausting battery of applications and seemingly-endless waiting—will have thousands of applicants evaluating their options and deciding where, or whether, they will be heading to graduate school. Here’s what to consider when you are choosing between graduate school program offers.
Before we begin, I’ve been there, too.
For future students who are evaluating their admission choices—as well as the many students planning to pursue an advanced degree as we begin to turn the page on COVID-19—I thought to share my perspective, born from my own experiences and those of my peers. While this commentary might be applicable to various advanced-degrees, I focus my reflections on full-time, in-person graduate business and policy programs.
As a relatively recent graduate of the Michigan Ross MBA program and an earlier recipient of a Harvard Kennedy School MPP, I have run this gauntlet a few times. Over the preceding decade, I have been fortunate to counsel dozens of would-be business, policy, and other advanced-degree candidates on application strategy and the key factors they should be considering as they reflect on the next phase of their careers.
The three most important factors you should consider are:
- The network,
- the location, and
- your checkbook.
Of course, there are additional factors that come into the picture: partner or familial considerations, overall ranking and reputation, dual-degree goals, program areas of thematic strength, the teaching method and cohort size, among many others. General academic rigor is another one, though particularly difficult to objectively assess; amongst the top-tier programs, I do not believe the quality of your classroom experience will differ dramatically, as institutions use similar methods and topics. Even applied learning opportunities—historically a differentiating factor that remains a keystone strength for programs such as Michigan Ross—have become commoditized as universities strive to help students burnish their resume for competitive job markets by learning hands-on skills.
This is not an argument to completely discount these criteria. Ultimately, however, enrolling in a graduate program is a binary decision—you can only attend one institution—and so a difficult decision must be made. I believe the strength of the program’s network, its physical environment, and the financial impact of attendance should be the components weighed most heavily for your final decision.
#1 The Network: Relationships above all
The single most valuable component of your investment in a policy or business degree is the value of its network. This is potentially critical in the short-term to facilitate that internship or first role post-graduation. Like compounding interest, however, you are betting that your brand’s community and network will be ever-growing and nurturing. Look beyond the narrow job search effort by considering leadership and service opportunities or even unearthing a potential mentor (or mentee), and the impact of a strong network can be a life-changing proposition. Some dimensions you should be considering include:
- size (smaller programs may have fewer alumni, but those individuals may be fierce and ready advocates);
- geography (some programs may have a dense presence in one or a few regions, while others may disperse graduates widely);
- and industry niches.
Once upon a time, assessing the strength and reach of a network would have been hard to do, with the program’s overall brand perception considered an adequate analog to the value of its network.
Though that proposition may still hold water, a far more valuable tool exists today that will help you objectively assess a program’s network: LinkedIn. Set your program of interest (and its affiliated university) as a filter while searching organizations, geographies, and keywords of interest. Do you see the type of individuals that might help you achieve your short- and long-term goals? Serve as potential career advocates? What type of LinkedIn group activity do you see?
Certainly, seek out the counsel of mentors, peers, and others—but do not neglect the objective, quantitative perspective that LinkedIn can offer.
#2 The Location: Concrete, bricks, or underbrush
Close your eyes. Envision your future self: deposit paid, moving boxes unloaded, and clinking glasses with your new classmates. What type of campus do you see? Where will you be most inspired, engaged, and productive for your sojourn from the workforce?
Reflect on whether you are glimpsing a fast-paced, urban campus; you are hopping on a train to meet an alum or drop-in on a part-time gig. Perhaps your mind’s eye draws you to something more bucolic, a tight-knit community nestled among nature where you can unplug and truly immerse yourself in the subject material. Perhaps it is something more in the middle, resembling that quintessential, suburban American university campus.
Each format has distinct advantages and drawbacks that will define your experience to a foundational extent. The trade-offs are also not in stasis; while urban programs offer the richest array of opportunities for in-person engagement, COVID-19 has transformed how work gets done. Of course, as we all thrive to be close to one another again, cities and in-person exchange could well experience a renaissance in the coming years. It is your conclusion to make.
Where and how you will spend this time is both extraordinarily important and, in my experience, often overlooked by applicants. Spend time examining what type of experience will truly be right for you.
#3 Your Checkbook: An analysis based on economics, not emotion
A graduate degree is as much a financial transaction as it is anything else. Whether your ambition is a promotion, a professional pivot, or to learn new skills, your decision should be girded on the basis of a dispassionate assessment on the likely return of your investment.
As the sole proprietor of the business that is your career, I encourage you to evaluate your options with the same logic which any organization faces in forecasting its operations: quantify the inflows (i.e. post-graduate earnings, both in the short- and long-term) and outflows (i.e. cost of attendance and the cost of capital). Consider your financial reserves, comfort with debt, and—most importantly—your short-term career objective: the calculus should differ whether your goals have you managing a nonprofit or working the ranks at an investment bank.
Scrutinize your school’s career reports to understand median compensation outcomes, tinted by the conservative view that nothing in life is certain. Economic downturns—or once-in-a-century pandemics—can alter your planning in ways that the graduates of 2000, 2008, and 2020 can intimately appreciate.
Ultimately, you may determine that the higher-ranked program’s piddling financial aid represents a better proposition than a less-sterling university’s generous grant. If you are a young professional reading this, I hope you will be blessed with several decades of superior career outcomes and personal growth over which this higher initial expense is comfortably amortized.
Admire the beautifully-assembled ‘new admit’ packets, express gratitude for the outreach, and pat yourself on the back for traversing the taxing process that is applying to graduate school. But when it is time to decide, set it aside; do the math and trust your gut.
Once you have made a decision, it is important to keep in mind that this is only one step in your journey. Despite the stress over this choice, you truly have the ability to thrive and achieve your goals—at any institution—as long as you continue to invest in yourself and remain willing to work hard.
Ready to rake in all of the graduate school acceptances you can handle?
Whether you’ve already started or are just beginning to apply to business, policy, or other graduate programs, we can help you accelerate your process and start living your dreams faster. Just like we have for thousands of other applicants who have gotten into top programs and earned money to pay for them. Sign up for a free, 15-minute Quick Call with our team to learn how we can help you!