Tips on Selecting Universities and Field of Study (Part 1)

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In life, there are many decisions that we have to make. We make decisions every single day. Some decisions are important while some others only require a little consideration. Choosing a university and a field of study are two huge life decisions. Why are they huge? That is because; 1) Tuition fees are high ($40,000-$60,000/year for US universities), 2) You will spend 4 years studying in that university (e.g. 4 years for Undergraduate, 1-2 years for Masters, or 3-6 years for Ph.D.), 3) Where you go and what you major in will have a tremendous impact on your career. These are only a few reasons why choosing the “right” university and field of study are very important. With these in mind, I’d like to share some considerations I had when I was selecting grad schools to apply to a few years ago. This is a very popular topic on Indonesian Mengglobal (IM) website but the ideas I will be sharing next will touch on things not mentioned before by the previous articles.

Figure 1. Selecting a university to attend and a field to major in are two big decisions in life and you should spend plenty of time gathering as much information as you can to make an informed decision. Research online, read articles, and talk to as many people ‘who have walked the path’ as you can. These two decisions will have tremendous impact on your life. The figure is taken from knowlondon.co.uk.
Figure 1. Selecting a university to attend and a field to major in are two big decisions in life and you should spend plenty of time gathering as much information as you can to make an informed decision. Research online, read articles and talk to as many people ‘who have walked the path’ as you can. These two decisions will have a tremendous impact on your life. The figure is taken from knowlondon.co.uk.

1) Quality and reputation of your target universities and your field of study.

When I was considering the universities to send my grad school applications to, the number one criteria I had was the universities’ quality and reputation in the field that I want to major in (we’ll get to choosing the field of study in part 2 of this article). Based on this line of thinking, I researched on university ranking, online reviews, comments on grad café and collegeconfidential.com, and all the online information about the best universities in my engineering area. While it may sound shallow and superficial, it is important to consider what is the first thing people think of when they hear university “X”.

Additionally, I connected with the professors in my universities and asked for their advice on my choices. Some of these professors were from my target universities, so they could give a very detailed answer based on their own personal experience. I would highly suggest you to go find these networks around you or in your current university (e.g. if you are applying for grad schools). Based on these sources, I composed a list of 10 universities.

2) Where do the alumni work at after graduation?

The second consideration I had when I was preparing my grad school applications was how good the workforce pipeline between the university and the industry/company is. A good way to forecast where you will be after your graduation from a university is to go to the university’s career page and research where their alumni work at. I am in no way promoting herd mentality, but by doing this you can get a “feel” where life will take you a few years down the road. Most universities put this information on their website along with expected salaries, job titles, and locations of the companies. By leveraging this, you can find out which companies have the most alumni from your university. These alumni networks are very important when job search comes along. I kept myself updated on my universities’ most recent career survey results throughout my grad school and that allowed me to plan for life and career after graduation.

Figure 2. Above is a university wide career survey. Some universities have career survey broken results down by departments (e.g. Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, etc), years (e.g. 2016, 2017, etc), and education levels (e.g. BSc, MSc, PhD). Figure was taken from Carnegie Mellon University career website.
Figure 2. Above is a university wide career survey. Some universities have career survey broken results down by departments (e.g. Computer Science, Electrical Engineering, etc), years (e.g. 2016, 2017, etc), and education levels (e.g. BSc, MSc, Ph.D.). The figure was taken from Carnegie Mellon University career website.

3) Local job markets.

The third point that you would need to consider when selecting universities is whether there are abundant job opportunities around the area where your university is located in. This is a hindsight that I only learned after I was actually in my graduate program. Looking back, I thought that this was a useful advice that I would like to share with those who are planning to embark on their study. While major companies will visit universities at their career fairs, by attending a university in a city with many job opportunities will put you at an advantage. Interviews are cheaper when the job candidates are local since companies do not have to pay for your accommodation and travel expenses. Also, some companies work closely with the local universities, creating some talent pipelines between the two. These are two of the many reasons why some companies tend to hire local graduates.

4) Living expenses and the monthly stipend.

After having these three considerations in my head, I started thinking about finance. My fourth consideration was the living expenses in the areas where my target universities are located in. You should research as much as you can on the living expenses for different locations and the amount of stipend or scholarship that you would be getting monthly (you can get info on stipends from various universities and programs from grad café or college confidential website).

Some US cities are very expensive (e.g. New York City, San Francisco, San Jose, Boston, etc), while some others are very affordable (e.g. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Austin, etc). From my personal experience, I spent $1,000-$1,200 monthly when I was in Pittsburgh. With living expenses this low, I could save up a significant portion of my $2,100 Ph.D. stipend every month and fly back home to Indonesia every year! You may not be able to save as much when you live in expensive cities and will probably have to find ways to keep your expenses low.

If you will be attending college on scholarship, check with the funding agency on how much stipend you will be getting for different cities your target universities are in. From my understanding, stipends are adjusted (disproportionately!) based on the cost of living in the local area. By doing a little research, you can get the approximate amount you will be able to save monthly during your study. You can find a lot of useful information about US cities in www.city-data.com.

Figure 3. The map above shows different US cities with vastly different cost of living. Big coastal areas are more likely to be expensive (e.g NYC, Boston, San Francisco), while more inland cities tend to be more affordable. The figure is taken from Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Figure 3. The map above shows different US cities with vastly different cost of living. Big coastal areas are more likely to be expensive (e.g NYC, Boston, San Francisco), while more inland cities tend to be more affordable. The figure is taken from Bureau of Economic Analysis.

5) How much does it cost to apply to 15 universities?

My last consideration is also related to money. And this is an important one. I was thinking about applying to as many universities as I could think of and just picked the best from the ones that I got offers from. However, I realized this tactic would require me to spend a lot of money. Keep in mind that application fee to US universities is generally $70-$120. TOEFL test cost is ~$200, GRE is ~$200, sending TOEFL/GRE result is $25/ per university. In total, applying to one university would cost $150 – $220. If you decide to apply to 15 universities, you will need to spend $2000-$3000! This amount can go up even further if you take multiple tests on your GRE, TOEFL, sign up for preparation course or buy the preparation books. My personal advice on this is to give yourself plenty of time to prepare well (I took 2 months for TOEFL, 3 months for GRE, few hours a day), get free preparation materials on the Internet, and try to ace the tests so you do not need to retake them.

With these five considerations in mind, you should be able to come up with your own list of target schools. If you notice, the five points I talked about in this article are all about career after graduation and financial wellbeing. To me, these are extremely important. I would not suggest going to a university, studying hard, doing your best, and seeing what happens. Do not be out of bound with your application costs thinking that you will be able to cover these huge expenses when you work. We have to be proactive and plan far ahead for the future. Your plans will change along the way but, like heat seeking missile, you will eventually hit your target.

You can find more information on college applications from the Internet. Websites such as gradcafe, collegeconfidential, and Indonesian Mengglobal are great resources. Also remember that Google is your best friend in getting information, inspiration and ideas for your college applications. If you are looking for an education consultancy company that offers everything related to college applications; from university and major selection, resume, cover letter writing to recommendation letter and interview preparation, GRE, TOEFL courses, I would recommend All-inedu (http://all-inedu.com/).

Photos are provided by the author.

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Michael Kurniawan
Michael has a BSc from Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and a PhD from Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh, USA). He is currently a Design Engineer at GlobalFoundries in New York, USA. Michael is passionate in mentoring students and believes in the importance of education and mentorship in unlocking someone’s true potential. If you have any further questions regarding college applications, feel free to email Michael at Kurniawan.michael.mike@gmail.com.
  • Meong

    ditunggu part 2 nya :)