With more than 25,000 Master’s programmes on the market, offered by thousands of known and unknown schools worldwide, picking one might seem like a giant puzzle that no-one could solve. The choice of a particular programme is a hard-to-make decision that needs serious consideration of all the pros and cons of the different programmes.

It should be an informed decision and as such it needs to be based on in-depth research. Information may be gathered from various channels: school rankings, university websites, student and alumni testimonials, analytical articles published in business magazines, etc. The problem comes when all these sources tell you different things, making it hard to trust any of them completely. Then comes the question of which one to trust and how to make the best choice possible. The Master’s programme is a serious investment of money, time and energy, so it is important to choose the programme that best fits your educational needs and career plans.

Check all the information sources

It is perfectly natural to start by searching through the different information channels providing information about particular schools and programmes. These are rankings produced by different opinion makers such as leading business education magazines or institutions, accreditations by world-renowned agencies, expert analyses published in specialised editions, testimonials of alumni, first-hand stories by current students, school websites and presentations, etc. As these sources will often provide conflicting information, all prospective students should have first decided what exactly they want from the programme and then refract the information in the light of their own preferences.

Rankings, school websites and accreditations

Many consider that rankings and accreditations are the most objective sources of information about different programmes and that checking them first when looking for a Master’s is the most natural thing. Rankings do provide useful information to candidates as a general indication of quality of particular programmes. However, different rankings use different methodologies and selected criteria which may differ from your own criteria when selecting a programme. Therefore, rankings can be used as a tool to compare one’s choices but they should not be the key element in selecting a particular programme. Ranking can be important for reference, but prospective students should not place too much importance on them.

The same is valid for the information available through schools’ websites and presentations of their Master’s programmes. Schools try to present the programmes in the best way possible and attract students by using just a few “objective” criteria, suitable for many students, that cannot encompass all the factors for one’s own choice.

Savvy employers do not hire people just because they have a Master’s degree from a distinguished university, and when it comes to translating credentials into an occupation and a career, those potential employers are the only people whose attitudes matter. They will only care about what you know and what you can do, not where you got your degree.

However, checking a school's website is a must during thorough research. If something is missing from it, prospective students must not hesitate to contact admission officers and ask all pertinent questions. This is also a way to test schools’ admissions offices – if prospective students are treated poorly, how will they be treated once in the programme?

Accreditations such as AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB are an objective way of assessing a business school's quality. So, a school's accreditation should also be a substantial element when making the decision. To gain accreditation, a school must adhere to high-quality standards and must keep these standards to maintain the accreditation. However, as with rankings, this might tell you something quite different from your own preference. Still, it is better go to an accredited rather than an unaccredited institution, as future employers would pay scant attention to a diploma issued by a school with no accreditation at all.

First-hand impression

First-hand impressions are an invaluable source of information. These come from personal visits of graduate school campuses, talks with current students and alumni testimonials, talking to administrative and academic staff at the schools, reading blogs, gathering information through social networks, etc.

If you are mulling over attending an on-campus programme, visiting the campus will provide invaluable first-hand impressions. If you don’t want to be unpleasantly surprised when showing up for the orientation visit at your school of choice, it’s better to visit the campus before enrolling in the particular programme. As you will spend at least a year of your time at the school, it’s important to feel comfortable with its facilities and its physical and cultural environments. The physical facilities of graduate schools are an important factor for success as students need a library stocked with relevant books and reference materials, or labs equipped with appropriate tools for their studies.

Visiting the campus can be used as an informal channel to get into touch with professors and students and ask all the important questions. Talking to current students and alumni is an indispensable source of information. What prospective students hear from them might be surprising – both in a positive and a negative way, and certainly will be very helpful. What alumni have to tell won’t only show their own achievements but will be a testimonial to the school’s graduate programme.

Checking the school should include also a check of the school faculty and administrative staff. Professors, guest lecturers, graduate advisors and other faculty members should be an important topic in your search, as well as the programme content and career prospects.

Students in some disciplines will find hundreds, or even thousands, of schools offering programmes that lead to a Master’s degree. How should a person choose from all the options? The universal question is,“ Where to start when choosing a graduate school?” Dave Mumby, a blogger and author of the book “Graduate School: Winning Strategies For Getting In” advises prospective students to look beyond graduate school to the career the prospective student is looking forward to. Choosing a programme that matches students’ career goals is important. “Many people apply to what they believe are the best programmes or schools, without realising that, in most disciplines, there is no “best” programme or school. What is best for particular students depends entirely on their specific goals. The particular strengths of any programme will depend on the areas of expertise represented by its faculty members,” Mumby says.

Personal preferences first

“Predicating your graduate school choice largely on prestige and the recommendations of others is a mistake. There are a number of factors you need to consider. Therefore, apply due diligence and take the necessary time to find the programme that's best for you. After all, your graduate education is yours. It is your time, your effort, and your money,” says Don Martin, PhD, a higher education admissions expert, author, and former admissions dean at Columbia University,Northwestern University, Wheaton College and University of Chicago Booth School of Business. According to him there are some critical components to include in one’s research, and the school's ranking and word-of-mouth reputation are not among them.

Career information

As your preference should be the leading factor when choosing a particular programme, it is a good start to think of the career options the selected programme offers. You can ask school career centres for information about the professional development of recent graduates and alumni, the type of companies offering placements, and the various career events, in order to see if they match your needs. Schools usually provide statistics on the placement of graduates on the job market, on how long after graduation they got jobs, in what fields graduates started work, at what salaries, etc.

Programme content and quality

As the Master’s programme is a costly investment, and your preferred programme doesn’t change every semester, you should make sure that the programme will match your educational needs and career goals. The programme content and quality – the theoretical courses, case studies, group projects with other classmates, placements, possibility for multi-campus education offering international perspective –should all be considered and compared to your personal needs.

Thus, as with every individual choice, picking the right Master’s programme should mainly depend on the personal preferences and career goals of each student. Although it seems evident, the choice of a particular Master’s programme should be determined by what interests you.

“What you study must interest you because it will motivate you more, resulting in better grades and possible recommendations from your teachers. However, it may be entirely possible that what you are studying, although interesting, will not contribute to securing a good job,” advises Bernadett Csúsz, an expert in Master’s education.

Finding the balance between an interesting and a profitable major is the best concurrence of circumstances. However, if this balance can’t be achieved that easily and the major is not that interesting to you, you should try to motivate yourself, focusing on your ambition and future career goals.

Allow yourself enough time for the above – at least 3 months. You should not feel time-pressed when conducting your research and reviewing all information channels. As the Master’s programme is normally a requirement for entry-level employment or a prerequisite to advance in your career, costing you years of your time and a serious amount of money, it must be the subject of an informed decision after considering all available information channels and sources.

This article has been produced by Advent Group and featured in the 2015-2016 Access Masters Guide