6 Considerations for Deciding on Grad School

Programs, professors and opportunities are all extremely important, but should not be the only considerations for deciding on which grad school to attend.  Here are 6 other considerations for making your decision:

Cost of living

Say you get fairly equal financial offers from two institutions in two very different parts of the country.  You’d be happy to attend either, but funding is going to be the ultimate deciding factor. You may want to do a little research on the cost of living in those two regions. Lower cost of living means lower apartment rental fees, food, and energy costs.  A seemingly “equal” offer may get stretched further where the cost of living is lower.

Size of graduate student population

If you are one of 30 instrumental conducting students in a program, will there be enough ensembles and professors for each of you to receive adequate podium and one-on-one time?  Conversely, a school with a very small graduate population may not dedicate sufficient resources towards its programs to provide an eclectic mix of electives and opportunities.

Pay cut

If you are leaving a full-time job to go back and get a graduate degree, start mentally and financially preparing yourself for the pay cut.  If you’re able, start putting some money from each pay check aside while you’re still working, to act as a cushion for when you’re pursuing your degree. Some assistantships pay well and include reduced or free tuition, but stipends are not usually a substitute for full-time employment.

Assistantships vs. tuition discounts

There are pros and cons to both assistantships and tuition discounts. Assistantships generally come with stipends and a tuition reduction. On the surface this sounds like a better deal than the tuition discount alone, and in many ways it is.

Beside the extra money, students gain valuable experience through organizational tasks, leadership roles, and as teaching assistants for relevant courses. This means that you agree up front to do a certain amount of work (usually 10-20 hours a week) in conjunction with getting your degree.

If you want the flexibility in grad school to hone your craft, then mandated time outside the practice room may not be as ideal for you. A tuition discount alone may be just as valuable.

Opportunities to continue playing your instrument

Most students initially decide to go into an undergraduate degree in music because they love to sing or play their instrument. Surprisingly, though, as you move up the ladder of your education, those opportunities sometimes slip away.

If you have applied to be a performance major, then of course you will continue to perform. But graduate music education students, conducting students, and composition students sometimes find themselves hunting for extracurricular options to play or sing because at some institutions, doing so is not a mandated part of the curriculum.

If this is important to you, ask to see the advising sheet for your major, and ask about the school’s stance on performing opportunities for non-performance majors.

Research resources

A graduate-level education, no matter the major, requires scholarly research. Talk to a current graduate student at an institution you’re considering. It can help you get a feel for the environment, a sense of how things work, and is especially helpful for getting a handle on the research resources at the institution.

You will want to find out what kinds of materials exist on campus, if the institution has access to relevant online journals and databases, and what (if any) means they have of getting you off-campus materials.

Find out if the school has a dedicated music librarian. These invaluable and knowledgeable human resources shepherd many first-time researchers through the stacks to successful papers.


Amy Mertz is assistant director for marketing and communications for military and veteran enrollment at Syracuse University. Previously, she worked in admissions and community programs at the Syracuse University Setnor School of Music. She guided both undergraduate and graduate applicants through the admissions process, and also directed the Setnor Community Music Division.

Photo Credit: Syracuse University Setnor School of Music

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