The memory of your graduate student experience will linger long after you receive your Masters diploma, so you should ensure that the experience is the best it can be. How? The answer lies in thorough analysis and careful consideration.
How to ensure a great student experience
When deciding on a graduate school, typical factors to compare are things like the reputation of the university, quality of the faculty, and content of the programme. While these are indeed important, do not make the mistake of overlooking the quality of life you will experience during your studies. In many cases, this can be just as important, if not more so, than the actual degree obtained.
A Masters degree is the continuation of a lifetime of education, during which one spends an abundance of time on subject analysis and nonstop assignments. Despite this, many students make the mistake of missing one of the most important opportunities to discover how research pays off when they make a graduate school decision.
So even though it’s not an official task that will be assigned and graded by a faculty member, consider this your assignment: take the universities and B-schools you are considering and rank them. Create your list not based on the typical ranking criteria like faculty-to-student ratios or starting salaries upon graduation, but based on less quantifiable factors like geography and weather, surrounding culture, or campus amenities.
This personal ranking system begins with your own priorities and preferences. Ask yourself what makes you happy apart from learning and engaging in your field of study. What sorts of hobbies or activities do you enjoy, and does the school you are considering provide access to those? What sort of weather affects your mood, either positively or negatively? How important to you is the social aspect of university life, like student clubs or campus functions? What do you consider a safe, welcoming environment?
Your Masters’ studies will not be confined to a classroom and dormitory, so make the environment one that is aesthetically pleasing and comfortable for you, and one which will add to your overall happiness while on campus.
Student experience factors to consider
As with anything in life, proper planning is a key ingredient for success. Most people have heard of a return on investment (ROI), which is a quantifiable amount of money or other asset you receive in exchange for an investment of your time, money or other resource. Less well-known, but arguably just as important, is the return in happiness (RIH) you can receive from an investment.
Return in Happiness
RIH is a simple concept that you practise every time you pay money at a cinema or visit a bowling alley. You invest your money to get a (hopefully) high RIH from the experience. Though RIH is typically not quantifiable, one example of how to attempt to measure it comes from the Times Higher Education Student Experience Survey 2017. The ranking factors give a good indication of those aspects of the university experience that are important to most students: academic experience, university facilities, societal experience, student welfare, accommodation, industry connections, security, and overall recommendation.
This survey was limited in our purposes because it gathered responses only from undergraduates and the geography was limited to schools in the UK, but it does reveal that student experience can be just as important as the quality of a school or its programme, and that student experience alone is worthy of its own ranking.
Are they interested in your welfare as a student?
One way to tell how interested a university or B-school is in your own student welfare is to look at its website. Does it have a section on student life? Does it reveal anything about its contribution to your overall quality of life while you attend? For some schools, it is very easy to tell if they give student experience high priority. For example, on the website of the University of Western Australia, student life is prominently featured and the site declares the following: “UWA is more than a university; it’s a community.”
You may have difficulty finding the sort of research that informed the above-mentioned survey, but alumni questionnaires are given all the time, mostly by universities grading themselves. Education is big business, and schools are constantly evaluating their performance for the purposes of marketing or other improvements. They may or may not publicise the results (ask anyway), but the mere fact that an institution is regularly asking for feedback on topics like security and happiness is a good indication it is interested in improving its processes, and that is always a good sign. It means it is interested in a student’s experience apart from the quality of the education itself.
The typical university or B-school ranking looks at the quality of the degree using specific, measurable criteria, so one would think that the educational benefits of a particular programme would be covered under that umbrella. But there are other educational benefits that are more difficult to rank, but just as important, running the gamut from technology to relationships. For example, if the technology on campus is not up-to-date or the faculty members seem disinterested or unavailable, your education could suffer. It does not matter how many times professors have been published in a journal if they do not invest time or energy in the experience you have in their class.
In this category, you would rank a school’s structures, accommodations, dining halls, pools, athletic and exercise facilities, security, and many other aspects of campus life. You might be able to glean much of this from a school’s website, but if a campus visit is a feasible option, that would reveal so much more.
Society and support
The exposure to a new culture may be very enticing to you, or you may prefer the familiar. You may be seeking a temporary destination, or you may want to establish roots in your grad school’s community. Societal and environmental factors such as these can improve or diminish your happiness quite significantly, and they cannot be overlooked.
For example, the International University of Monaco’s website boasts that “32,000 people call Monaco home” in an area roughly two square kilometres, and that it is located near the coast of the French Riviera. Contrast this location with Whitman College (US) in the landlocked and relatively remote location of Walla Walla in Washington State. The city of Walla Walla also represents about 32,000 people, but in an area over 15 times as large as Monaco. Both have high-quality Masters programmes, but the setting of each would likely appeal to two completely different personalities.
If you do not plan on living in the same community after graduate school, then issues like the availability of permanent employment may not be much of a factor for you, but they could be to someone else. For example, the UK encourages you to stay and become a permanent member of their society by making Post-Study Work Visas available.
Many have compared the story of one’s life to a book, with every major event being its own chapter. If you could write the story of your life and choose the setting for one of the most important phases in it – your Masters education – what kind of backdrop would you choose? You are deciding where to set the stage for the next chapter of your life, so invest the time to analyse both yourself and your options, and equip yourself with the knowledge you need to make a well-informed – and critical – decision about your future.