Choosing a graduate school and program of study should not be taken lightly. The area of interest and faculty expertise should guide the choice of schools, rather than the school itself (location, prestige, basketball team, etc.) driving the choice. Begin thinking about programs by considering whether the M.S. or Ph.D. is the better choice for you. Eventual goals are the real point of this analysis. If you have goals more suited for an M.S. degree, yet apply for the Ph.D., you decrease the likelihood of acceptance. Think about what the different degrees mean in your field of study and how those degrees fit into various career goals. You may need to view ads for jobs you would eventually be interested in to determine which program is the best fit for your goals.
There are a variety of tools that exist to support the basic grad school search. PhDs.org is an excellent site you can use to review ranking criteria for schools and programs focusing on science, math and engineering. Two other reputable sites that can help you locate programs are The Princeton Review and US News & World Report. Peterson's.com is another online resource for finding good graduate school options. You maximize your likelihood of acceptance by applying to an appropriate program. For example, if your class rank is 50th percentile, you have no chance of acceptance at Harvard or MIT except in very extenuating circumstances like you have 10 publications. If your class rank is 99th percentile, you have three summers of research experience, a publication, and have a presentation at a regional or national conference, Harvard and MIT are appropriate places to apply. Try to be focused when choosing and applying to schools. Budget your time, energy and resources on the schools and programs that you are most serious about. Choose appropriate schools to apply to, based on a personal assessment of academic credentials, characteristics of the current student population, reading between the lines of a recommendation request, and what you can offer.
True research into the grad school programs of interest begins with excellent literature searching or requesting references from faculty who work in the field. You must do a lot of reading to identify a few people to contact regarding their research and the program with which they are affiliated. Feel free to ask whether you would be a competitive applicant. It is maximizing your time and their time if only appropriate applications are submitted.
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