Winning the Grad School Game

Jane F. deLeon, RN, MSN, considered herself a typical undergraduate nursing student. “When I was getting my bachelor’s degree, I wanted to finish up and find a job,” she recalls. “I thought I would never want to go back to school.”

Why, then, is she now a third-year doctoral student at the University of California at San Francisco? “After three or four years of nursing, I realized that there were problems in the field that I wanted to solve,” deLeon, who is Hispanic, explains. “I felt the only way I could change anything was to earn a graduate degree.”

Advanced degrees can definitely open doors for nurses who want to advance the profession of nursing. Post-graduate study can be a gateway to academia, research, advanced practice and hospital management. As more minority nurses earn graduate degrees, their voice in health care policy-making and minority health advocacy grows stronger.

Whether you’ve worked for a few years like deLeon or are just entering the senior year of your BSN program, graduate schools around the country are eager to talk to you.

Decisions, Decisions

Before you can apply to a graduate-level nursing program, you have to choose a school that best fits your particular interests and career goals. While this may sound simplistic, too many graduate students don’t devote enough time to this important first step, often selecting a university based solely on geographic location. An important factor to keep in mind when researching schools is where you want your graduate degree to take you in the field of nursing.

“The biggest mistake students make when choosing schools is not researching the full scope of the nursing profession,” says Ruth Johnson, RN, EdD, FAAN, professor and chair of the Department of Nursing at South Carolina State University, a historically black school. “They still view it as a profession where the only option is to work in hospitals.

“Today, nurses can work in any venue we desire: research, education, government,” continues Johnson, a former director of the Council of Baccalaureate and Higher Degree Programs for the National League of Nursing. “We can travel or even open our own practice with other health care professionals.”

Similarly, too few students considering graduate school have solid long-term goals for their nursing career, believes Kem Louie, RN, PhD, FAAN, an associate professor at William Paterson University in New Jersey and president of the Asian American/Pacific Islander Nurses Association.

“First, you must identify what your career goals are and what type of advanced practice you are interested in,” Louie advises. “Talk to other nurses already working in those areas to find out more about your choices.”

Other nursing educators agree. “The bottom line in choosing a graduate school is knowing what kind of education you want to receive,” says Karin Jones, RN, PhD, who is assistant dean at Grambling State University in Louisiana, another historically black university. “If, down the road, you want to be in research, you should go to a campus where there is extensive research. If you are interested in teaching, you should choose a program with an emphasis on education.”

The Faculty Factor

How do you find out what a particular nursing school’s emphasis is? The best way is to learn about its professors.

“Look at the faculty,” recommends Cornelia P. Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program of the American Nurses Association. “Make certain that there is at least one faculty member with the same research focus as yours or who has similar interests.”


When evaluating a graduate school’s academic focus, Porter suggests that nurses “not only examine the faculty, but also the productivity of the faculty. Are they actively engaged in research or publishing?” The number of grants funded to nursing faculty and the professional journals in which faculty members have been published can help you determine this.

If you’re looking for a career in teaching, check the credentials of the faculty. “If a university is strong in teaching, many of the faculty members will have doctorates in education,” Jones says. “Also, the curriculum will include courses in testing and evaluation.”

Of course, you can only attend one graduate school at a time, but that doesn’t mean you should apply to only one. Graduate school admissions can be highly competitive, so apply to at least two or three schools. But if you really have your heart set on one particular program, you may want to buck this traditional trend. After researching what was available in her area of interest—attracting more minorities into nursing—deLeon was so excited about the UCSF program that she did not apply anywhere else.

“UCSF was the right place at the right time,” says deLeon. “I had no doubt that this was the only school for me.” She has since narrowed her focus to cardiovascular disease and Hispanic women.

Finally, Jones reminds students not to overlook the obvious in their quest for the perfect graduate nursing program. Make sure it’s accredited by the National League for Nursing (NLN) and/or the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). You may also want to check out where former alumni are now. Are any of them national leaders in nursing? How many have risen to the top of their specialties?


Finding Your Comfort Zone

Looking for a graduate school that is the perfect fit raises many questions for the minority nursing student. Do you want to pursue your graduate degree at a historically minority university where you will be surrounded by students who share your same racial or ethnic background? Should you attend a majority school where you could turn out to be the only person of color in your class? And more generally, do you prefer a large school or a small one?

“Students have to decide what type of environment would make them feel most comfortable,” Jones notes. “Then, they need to look at the other students on campus. Do they come from big cities or small towns? Above all, do you feel that this a place where you can learn?”

While Porter, who is African American, feels that finding a graduate school with a diverse student population can be important, she stresses that such considerations shouldn’t interfere with obtaining the best education possible.

“Sometimes, [minorities] suffer from the ‘one alone’ syndrome,” she explains. “I think it’s nice if you can see people on campus who look like you, but that shouldn’t be a major factor in your decision.”

She offers this advice for minority students who choose to attend a majority school: “If you are going to be one alone, you need to make sure you find support networks, both on campus and in the community, to help you through the tough and lonely times.”

To increase your chances of finding that support, examine the university’s commitment to diversity—not just in words, but in actions. Graduate program guidebooks and university Web sites can provide helpful statistical information on the racial and ethnic make-up of a school’s student population.

But looking at the percentage of minority students at a given school is just the beginning. Examine what the university is doing to promote multiculturalism and diversity on campus. Do they have diversity days? Do they sponsor workshops? How is diversity reflected in the curriculum? Is the faculty varied in its ethnic and racial background?

After earning her MSN from the University of Utah, deLeon accepted a teaching position there, and for 10 years she was the nursing program’s only minority faculty member. Today, she appreciates the diversity offered at UCSF, citing the opportunities to interact not only with other Hispanic students but also with classmates and colleagues from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. “I love to meet people from different countries and learn about nursing in other parts of the world,” she says.

Taking a campus tour helped deLeon realize that UCSF offered the highly diverse learning environment she was looking for. “It’s important to visit the school,” she advises. “Take a look at the campus. Meet the faculty. Are they going to be supportive? Will there be opportunities for you to expand and interact with more than just nursing students?”

Many schools will offset the cost of campus visits for prospective students. UCSF, for example, is one of several colleges throughout the country that offer two-week on-campus courses in applying for graduate school.

The Mentor Connection

Dr. Maria Warda, RN, assistant dean of UCSF’s nursing program, agrees that faculty support plays a vital role in helping students make the most of their graduate school experience. She suggests that students look at faculty availability when considering where to apply. An active mentorship program, backed by strong faculty commitment, can greatly improve a student’s chances of succeeding.

Should graduate students of color specifically seek out minority mentors? Not necessarily, says Warda. “If the mentor and student are members of the same racial or ethnic group, that would be ideal, but it’s not necessary. It’s more important to look at the faculty’s dedication to helping students succeed.”

Look for mentorship committees, Warda advises. Meet with faculty members and assess their availability and their attitude toward students.

“Meet with students who are currently in the program,” adds Jones. “Get the inside story on the type of interaction, assistance and support you will receive.”

APPLY YOURSELF: How to Give Your Grad School Application Its Best Chance for Success

Choosing the graduate nursing program that’s right for you is only half the battle. Now you have to face the next hurdle: applying to your top-choice schools…and getting your application accepted.

Applying to graduate school can be a complex process. The application package varies by university, but most graduate programs require a goal statement (also known as a personal mission statement), GRE scores, references (at least three), evidence of community service, undergraduate transcripts and listings of honors and awards.

After spending so much time and research to find your ideal graduate school, how can you make sure you’ll actually get in? By knowing what graduate admission committees are looking for and by following these simple dos and don’ts, you’ll maximize your chances of being accepted by the program you really want.

Put It in Writing

Graduate school admission decisions are almost always paper-based. The committee that makes the decision to accept or decline your application will never meet you in person or talk with you directly. Therefore, your written goal statement may be your only chance to sell yourself.

“Most institutions cannot interview candidates in person, because of the volume of applications they receive. The only way an applicant can communicate to the admissions committee is through the goal statement,” explains Maria Warda, RN, PhD, assistant dean of the graduate nursing program at the University of California at San Francisco. She is one of many academic professionals who believe that most students fail to take full advantage of the opportunities inherent in their goal statement. Here are some of Warda’s recommendations on writing a standout mission statement:

DO be specific. “The goal statement should explain any unique aspect of the student’s background. It should help the screening committee be able to determine if the student is applying for a particular nursing specialty,” Warda advises. “Be sure to let the committee know why you have chosen that particular specialty. Demonstrate your knowledge in that area and show us how you intend to use your education when you graduate from the program.”

DON’T get too personal. Many would-be grad students make the mistake of rambling on about their personal lives for two pages without ever touching on their professional goals or career interests.

DO ask for feedback. To make sure your goal statement is on track, ask your mentor or a trusted faculty member to review it. It’s especially helpful to have your statement critiqued by someone who knows what your target school will be looking for.

Once Jane deLeon decided to apply to the doctoral program at UCSF, her colleagues and friends began referring her to people with connections to that school—a friend who had just been accepted, a relative who had earned a doctorate there, etc. “I didn’t know these people very well,” she says, “but I emailed them and asked if they would read my goal statement. I asked them to be honest and I used their feedback to improve my statement.”

Letting Others Speak For You

Letters of reference are a crucial part of your graduate school application. Most graduate applications require at least three references and may accept more. Some schools require reference letters to be included as part of your application packet, while others want letters mailed directly to the school or provide reference forms to be completed. Keep these tips in mind when preparing your references:

DON’T be “damned by faint praise.” “Many applicants don’t realize that graduate references must be strong,” Warda emphasizes. “They cannot be lukewarm.”

A reference that says you have great leadership potential won’t be enough to impress most schools. Instead, says Warda, your references should give concrete examples and details about how you have used your leadership skills. In other words, your references need to make the committee feel as though they will be missing out on someone special if they don’t accept you.

DO choose references who know you. “Many nurses think, ‘I have to find impressive people,’” says deLeon. “But it’s better to find people who know you and recognize the strengths you can bring to graduate school.”

Adds Karin Jones, RN, PhD, assistant dean at Grambling State University, “If your [undergraduate] school has a mentoring program, you should seek out a mentor who can serve as a reference because they know you both professionally and personally. Choose a clinical area where you excelled and find a faculty member who can comment on how well you did.”

DON’T wait till the last minute. “Most undergraduate seniors who are applying to grad school wait until the end of the year and try to get all their references at once,” says Jones. “I advise students to collect references as they go.”

DO capitalize on “big name” references if you have them. “If you are applying to a graduate program at a top university, one letter of reference from a faculty member who is recognized nationally is good to include,” Warda recommends. “Screening committees do respond to names they know.”

Presenting Your Grades

While a high GPA may seem like the most important factor to the would-be graduate student, it’s certainly not the only aspect looked at during the selection process, experts say.

“When a student’s application package is reviewed, it is reviewed in its totality,” explains Cornelia Porter, RN, PhD, FAAN, director of the American Nurses Association’s Ethnic Minority Fellowship Program. “Grades are just one item. GRE scores, a goal statement, awards and honors—all of the factors become one package. One thing is not singled out over another.” Therefore:

DON’T count yourself out if your grades aren’t stellar. Graduate schools require a minimum GPA of 2.8 (out of 4.0), and most require a 3.0 average. But while higher GPAs make you more competitive, lower ones do not necessarily rule you out.

“Even if the applicant does not have a great GPA, there may be strong indicators in other areas that the student is able to be successful,” says Porter. “If that’s the case, the grades alone wouldn’t rule you out. If the committee feels you have potential, they may admit you on a probationary status. Schools have lots of ways to work with somebody if they want to give that student a chance.”

DO prepare thoroughly for your GRE. Many students fret over how well they will perform on the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations), a standardized test required for admission to almost all graduate schools in every field. A combined score of 1,000 is considered competitive at top universities. Certain minimum lower scores are required at second-tier schools.

DeLeon not only studied a GRE review book and but also paid for a class on how to take the exam. She feels it was money well spent. The GRE Web site ( is another helpful resource.

THE COUNTDOWN: Checklist for Preparing and Submitting Your Graduate School Application

Applications are usually due in the fall or the spring before the semester in which you plan to start your program. If you have already decided on a school and are ready to start applying now, the time frame may be a little tight, but you could still meet the deadline for spring 2002. Kem Louie, RN, PhD, who teaches at William Paterson University, recommends that you begin planning for the application process at least six months in advance.

Here’s a 12-month guideline for a fall due date. Of course, you can adjust this calendar depending on the actual month your application is due.

September—Finalize your decision about what you want to accomplish with your graduate studies. Begin a notebook of possible thoughts to be included in your goal statement. Keep working on this throughout the year. Also begin to think about people who could write letters of recommendation for you.

October—Begin researching schools and select 10 that match your interests.

November—Talk to your current undergraduate faculty about your goals and the schools you have selected.

December—Figure out how much money you will need and begin to look at possible sources for scholarships and financial aid. Find out the spring GRE schedule and get a review book to help you prepare for the exam. Also look into attending a GRE workshop to help you get the best

score possible.

January—Contact your target schools for information. Ask to speak to faculty members in your area of interest. Request catalogs, admissions forms and financial aid information. Ask specific questions that will help you determine if the school is a good fit for your comfort zone. Reserve a slot for your preferred GRE testing date.

February—Narrow your choices down to three to five schools. Plan campus visits.

March—Contact organizations and companies connected with your chosen specialty (such as hospitals) to see if they offer scholarships or financial aid opportunities.

April—Choose your three references and talk to them about your goals and the areas you see as your strengths.

May—Finalize your goal statement and begin to seek feedback on it.

June, July, August—Make campus visits. Evaluate the nursing program, the campus and housing and employment opportunities.

September—Finalize and submit your application packet. Submit scholarship forms and applications for graduate assistantships.

Where to Start

Here are some resources to get you started on your road to graduate school. Most of them should be available at your campus library or local public library.

The National League of Nursing’s Official Guide to Graduate Nursing Schools. Published by Jones and Bartlett.

Nursing Programs: Peterson’s Guide to Nursing Programs. Published by Peterson’s Guides.

Guide to Undergraduate and Graduate Health Programs in the USA. Published by Education International Publishing.

NLN’s Guide to Scholarships and Loans for Nursing Education. Published by Jones and Bartlett.

Fed Start

For many minority nurses, completing a graduate degree is just the first step in planning their future career advancement. You may be considering a career in teaching or a higher-level position with your current employer. But don’t overlook career options in government service.

In the aftermath of 9/11, public health concerns about the bird flu epidemic and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the need for health care professionals with strong clinical backgrounds, innovative ideas and concern for the lasting effects of public policy decisions has never been more important in the management ranks of government. It is important for nurses of color to realize that their skills and experience can be used to develop federal health policy and strategy, just like they can be used to help patients.

Paid government internship programs are a little-known but highly effective option for getting into government on a fast track to senior management positions. The most prestigious of these federal internships is the Presidential Management Fellows (PMF) Program, which is administered by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM).

For nearly 30 years, the Presidential Management Fellows Program and its predecessor, the Presidential Management Internship Program, have been used as a recruiting tool to attract, hire and develop graduate students earning master’s, professional and doctoral degrees in all disciplines into high-paying, rewarding careers in the federal government. The program is perfect for master’s or doctoral students who have recently completed their degree or will complete their degree in the next 12 months.

The PMF Program provides Fellows with an opportunity to apply the knowledge gained in their graduate study by working on paid two-year internship assignments. These internships could involve national security affairs, health administration, nursing, public health, public policy, program management and many other areas that support the government.

Federal agencies that hire Presidential Management Fellows include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the National Science Foundation, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of Veterans Affairs and numerous others. After completing their two-year assignments, Fellows are offered permanent jobs at their agency or have the option to explore a permanent position at any other agency that participates in the program.

During their internships, Fellows are paid starting salaries based on their work experience and education level. Salaries can range from $38,000 (GS-9 level) to $71,000 (GS-12 level). In addition, many of the agencies offer benefits such as student loan repayment up to $60,000 ($10,000 a year) and financial support for earning an additional degree at the doctoral level.

Another benefit of the program is that Presidential Management Fellows receive guaranteed promotions over the two years of their internship. While the vast majority of PMF intern assignments are based in Washington, D.C., there are many opportunities for selected Fellows to work in other locations across the United States.

As members of the baby boomer generation continue to hit retirement age, a growing number of senior-level leadership positions will open up in government. At some federal agencies, 60% of the senior leadership is eligible to retire in the next three to five years. As these management positions open, former Presidential Management Fellows will be logical choices to fill them.

The Application Process

The application period for the Presidential Management Fellows Program is September to early October of each year. Specific deadlines are announced in the “How to Apply” section of the PMF Web site, As of this writing, the start date for applying to the PMF Class of 2008 is expected to be on or around September 1, 2007, with the closing deadline still to be announced.

There are several key things an applicant must know before preparing to apply for the program. First and foremost, the resume that one might use for a corporate job is different from the resume used for a federal government job–or in this case, a federal internship. In the corporate world, the maximum length for a resume is two to three pages. A federal resume should be much longer and more detailed, much like a curriculum vitae (CV) one would use in applying for an academic position. A federal resume should include such items as a job objective, professional awards, names of graduate courses completed and years of management experience.

If you have never applied for a federal job or prepared a federal resume before, an excellent resource is a book titled Government Job Applications and Federal Resumes: Federal Resumes, KSAs, Forms 171 and 612, and Postal Applications by Anne McKinney. This book, which should be easily available at your local bookstore or online, is a valuable tool that will help you learn the resume writing techniques and other skills that are critical for applying to the Presidential Management Fellows Program.

Options Abound: Other Federal Internship Programs Worth Exploring Emerging Leaders Program (ELP)
Department of Health and Human Services
NIH Management Intern Program
National Institutes of Health USAID Fellows Program
U.S. Agency for International Development

The first stage of the PMF application process involves filling out an online application. A key requirement is that you must identify a core faculty member or graduate advisor who will fill out an online nomination form to nominate you for the PMF program. When filling out your application, you must include the email address of the person you have asked to nominate you. Be sure to choose someone who can respond quickly with an endorsement once the Office of Personnel Management emails him or her to request the nomination.

Your online application will also require you to attach your federal resume and answer three questions relating to situations where you have demonstrated skills in teamwork, leadership and customer service. It is important to answer these questions in detail and provide an example of an actual work or academic situation that was complex, unique and challenging.

After your application has been submitted, the second stage of the selection process involves coming to Washington, D.C. for an assessment interview. You will be expected to wear professional business attire at the interview. This stage includes a formal interview process where candidates are asked to respond to three separate employee or organizational case studies–one in writing, one verbally and one in a group environment. The goal is to assess the candidate’s problem-solving, writing and public speaking skills as well as his or her ability to be a leader, follower and team player.

The Final Round

Candidates who qualify for the third stage are considered finalists and are invited to attend a government job fair, again in Washington. Being a finalist does not guarantee you will get a job. If you are selected as a finalist, you will receive a notification email that includes a list of the names, email addresses and phone numbers of all the agency representatives who will be interviewing candidates at the job fair. It is important to email them a resume and a cover letter requesting a PMF job interview, even before the job fair. Once you become a finalist, your goal is to get multiple PMF job offers to choose from.

Different government agencies have different levels of funding, which means some agencies have more flexibility than others in offering higher starting salaries, payment for relocation, student loan repayment and financial assistance for doctoral study. When you interview with an agency, be sure to ask about the availability of those benefits.

Once you are offered a PMF internship opportunity, there is one final hurdle to clear: the background and clearance process. Review your credit report in advance and make every effort to resolve any outstanding debts that could negatively impact your chances of getting an internship job offer. All government agencies will check a candidate’s credit with TransUnion and run a police record background check with the FBI. Charge-offs, credit accounts more than 90 days delinquent and unpaid judgments of more than $3,500 on a candidate’s credit report could stop him or her from passing the clearance process, which would make the candidate ineligible to participate in the PMF Program.

To learn more about opportunities available through the Presidential Management Fellows Program, visit

Is Graduate School for You?

You’ve decided on a career in allied health, but how do you get from where you are now to the career or your dreams? Figuring out where you’re headed is a great start, but it is only the beginning. Now you need to create a plan and set a course of action to reach your goals.

If graduate school is part of the picture, you will need to find out which schools offer the allied health degree you seek.

During the search for the perfect school to continue your education, don’t overlook Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). They provide an invaluable environment for learning, networking and embracing heritage.

If you are interested in attending an HBCU, there are many allied health graduate degree programs available. HBCUs range from sprawling universities to compact urban campuses, with schools scattered throughout the country, and they grant advanced degrees ranging from pharmaceutical science to rehabilitation counseling.

Deciding on a graduate program can seem like a daunting task, but research can help organize the process. Following are some key points to keep in mind as you consider various HBCUs.


Geographical location is a big consideration, so it’s vital that you figure out where you want to live and study for the next several years. Ask yourself: Do you prefer rural or urban environments? Is it imperative that you’re close to family and friends?

You should also delve deeper into campus life and student satisfaction. If possible, visit the campus and talk to current students to gain a first-hand perspective about the campus environment and program pros and cons. If an on-site visit is impossible, the admissions office may be able to set up a conversation with a current student via telephone or email.


How do you plan to finance your graduate education? Clearly, this is a crucial factor and will play an important role in your program selection. Options may include any combination of grants, scholarships, loans, financial aid, family contribution and employer reimbursement. Examine the different programs offering the degree you seek and determine their tuition costs. Factor in available financial aid, such as teaching assistantships and work-study positions.

Job Opportunities

Graduate school is a valuable step in your career planning, but it is not the end of the road. Your goal should be to land a top job in your field upon graduation. Consider what types of job opportunities are available to graduates at each program. View career center Web sites and find out if schools offer placement assistance and career counseling, such as job fairs, recruiting programs, individual appointments and workshops.


Graduate school gives you an opportunity to really focus on your area of interest and become an expert. Therefore, the academic program you select should reflect your specialty area and learning goals. Ask yourself: Are you looking for a rigorous academic challenge? Is a school’s reputation important to you? Consider the professors and their research interests to find the best fit. Furthermore, even graduate programs in the same subject often vary in terms of requirements. Examine the specializations available and what courses you find most interesting.

Make a Choice

In order to make an informed decision, there are several methods you can use to assist you with selecting a program. It can be useful to make a list of the pros and cons of the various schools where you’ve been accepted in order to compare and contrast them. Use the above categories as a way to analyze their offerings.

It is also helpful to get feedback from as many people as possible, especially those familiar with HBCUs: family, friends, colleagues, professors, advisors. Those who are directly removed from the situation can often provide a valuable perspective.

Finally, figure out what feels right to you and, ultimately, go with your gut instinct. Take a week and spend each day pretending you’ve decided to attend a different program. You may be surprised at your reactions.

No matter what field you choose within allied health and which HBCU you decide to attend, your degree is your first step to achieving your career goals. Research potential programs carefully and you’ll find your best fit for successful professional training and personal growth.

Picking an HBCU

For a comprehensive listing of HBCUs with advanced degree programs, the Web site is a good place to start. Here is just a sampling of some of the diverse possibilities you will find:

Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, Fla.
Looking for a large university? Florida A&M has a total enrollment of over 12,000 students. With 36 master’s degree programs with 56 majors/tracks, two professional degrees, and eleven Ph.D. degree programs, there is a lot to choose from. Florida A&M has a School of Allied Health Sciences that offers programs in physical therapy, occupational therapy and health sciences, as well as a College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Science.

Fort Valley State University, Fort Valley, Ga.
If helping people cope with difficult situations is your interest, Fort Valley State offers master’s degree programs in mental health counseling and rehabilitation counseling. A land-grant state university with an enrollment near 2,500 and boasting over 70 student organizations, Fort Valley State provides one-on-one learning, as well as a commitment to the community and the greater world.

Meharry Medical College, Nashville, Tenn.
This unique program includes a School of Allied Health Professions that offers master’s degrees in physical therapy, speech pathology and audiology. Since the other schools at Meharry are also in the field of health—medicine, dentistry, public health and biomedical science—you will study with an array of health profession students.

Howard University, Washington, D.C.
If you are considering pursuing a Ph.D. in an allied health field, check out Howard University. Located in our nation’s capital, Howard is a private, comprehensive, research-oriented university with a strong academic reputation and a rich history as an HBCU. With a graduate student enrollment of more than 1,200, Howard offers a Ph.D. in human nutrition and pharmaceutical science, in addition to a number of master’s degrees within its College of Pharmacy, Nursing and Allied Health Sciences.

Surviving Graduate School

You did it! Not only did you make it through your undergraduate degree with flying colors, but you also worked your way through graduate school’s required hardships, like the grueling application process, entrance exams, ascertaining letters of recommendation and more. And now the road to your career is welcoming you like a red carpet, and it seems as if the hard part is over. Or has it only just begun?

The hoops you need to jump through to get into grad school can distract you from the reality of the hard work ahead. But graduate school doesn’t have to be intimidating. Remember when you thought college was scary? Now, as a seasoned student, you are ready to tackle a new challenge with ease. Relax and you might even enjoy yourself. Here are some tips to make the most of your new venture and smooth the transition from undergrad to graduate school.

Get Involved

Graduate school is about more than just academics. In order to feel connected and part of your campus, explore the different extracurricular activities that interest you. There are a vast number of choices, ranging from groups that are university-wide to those for graduate students only. Join a mountain biking club, participate in a pre-professional society or run for student government. These experiences will help you to meet other graduate students while doing things that you enjoy. And they won’t hurt your resume either.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Making new friends is part of what graduate school is all about. Meeting people and socializing is not only a great way to unwind, but it also helps you forge relationships like those you will have with future colleagues. However, while everyone loves a party, make sure that your social life doesn’t affect your grades. Your courses should always be your number one priority. Don’t pick up the bad habits of skipping class, oversleeping, or turning in late assignments. Reward yourself with fun outings after all your homework and studying is complete.

Create a Time and Money Budget

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by so many conflicting demands. As a graduate student, you may face more personal and professional responsibilities than you had as an undergraduate, such as work or family. Make a schedule and calculate your available hours per week, including school as well as outside obligations. Then divide up these hours for study, rest, entertainment, etc. Once you’ve laid out your schedule on paper, it will be easier to see where your time is going and how you can use it more efficiently. Additionally, money might be more of an issue now, especially if you have taken out loans to finance your education. Similar to the time schedule, listing your monthly expenses will also help you to be aware of your spending habits and highlight areas where you can possibly cut costs.

Forge Your Career Path With Experience

Graduate school is a time for you to solidify your career goals, and your courses are more specific to your field of study than they were in your undergrad years. Whether you are already clear about your ultimate goals or not, explore your interests through electives and internships. If your program doesn’t have required fieldwork built in, create your own opportunities. Get to know your professors and the career services staff. Many campuses offer services such as career fairs, recruiting programs and counseling appointments. Visit the career center early to make sure you don’t miss out on anything. Join professional associations in order to network within your industry. Take advantage of the resource you have in your classmates as well. Many of them may be working professionals who are attending school part time or have worked for several years before going back to school. Their valuable industry insight and contacts can help you to get your foot in the door.

Be Confident


Receiving your bachelor’s degree proves you can be a successful student. Don’t doubt your abilities in graduate school even if the work seems more difficult and the expectations higher. Remember, the students around you are all in the same boat, facing the same fears, whether they are fresh out of college or returning to school after working. It is helpful to form study groups and to attend help sessions. Don’t be afraid to enlist tutoring if necessary. Make a list of your accomplishments and post it above your desk to remind yourself of how far you’ve come and how much you can accomplish.

Don’t Forget to Have Fun!

Before entering the so-called “real world,” reap the benefits of student life. At what other time in your life will you have exposure to a world-class learning environment, as well as a pool of people roughly your own age with similar interests? So sign up for that extra course, spend a few more minutes playing ultimate Frisbee on a sunny afternoon, and give yourself a break. You’ve worked hard and you deserve it!

Making the Right Choice

When you choose your allied health graduate program, you want to make sure you get a great education and solid professional training. But let’s face it, you also want to make sure you get the most bang for your buck. With graduate school costs on the rise, your investment has to pay off in the long run. Each grad program offers different pros and cons, including varying tuition prices, teaching assistantships, financial aid packages, faculty, rankings and more. So how do you decide on both which program is best for you, and how it will affect your starting salary upon graduation?

There are many factors that impact one’s initial earnings. As you consider these points, always keep in mind the big picture. Remember that your starting salary is only the beginning and not necessarily an indication of your future earnings in the field.

Geographic Location

Where do you see yourself living and working during your professional career? Many people choose to look for jobs in the same region as where they attend graduate school. This often provides a leg up for job opportunities, since local recruiters tend to visit schools in their immediate area. Also, most programs require students to complete fieldwork and internships, and this will help you to build professional contacts that may lead to future job offers. These experiences are some of the best ways to make contacts that will lead to employment. If you are unsure about where you want to settle, consider schools that are more nationally known, rather than regional schools that only have employment contacts and alumni within that state or city.

Supply and Demand

It’s a basic law of economics: when supply goes down, demand goes up. Let’s say there is a region of the country that is short on physical therapists, where clients have to wait several weeks or even months to get an appointment. You can virtually guarantee that physical therapists will command higher salaries in that area as employers try to lure them to the location. Similarly, what do you think will happen in a city that is glutted with dieticians? Employers won’t recruit dieticians or offer higher starting salaries since they already have as many or more than needed to satisfy the population. Logically, starting salaries tend to be higher in regions that are short on specific allied health professionals to meet the needs of their residents.

Cost of Living

Not all starting salaries are created equal. The reality is that $40,000 in Boise, Idaho goes a lot further than it does in San Francisco. Numbers that seem low can be relative when you factor in the costs required for basic survival. Before getting discouraged, research the cost of living in each region. Determine what your average expenses will be including rent, utilities, food, transportation and entertainment. Utilize salary calculators to see what your offer translates to nationwide. Try the links at Home Fair and Best Places.

Experience/Personal Qualities

Just like all starting salaries are not created equal, neither are all new graduates. Allied health professionals enter graduate school with a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Some have worked for several years before applying; others come right from their undergraduate studies, and still others transition from one field to another with lengthy professional careers behind them. Grades, internships, volunteer work and the general impression made on the interviewer add up to a candidate’s overall value. As employers review resumes, interview candidates, proffer offers and put together new hire packages, they take the total composite of each candidate into consideration. There is usually a salary range set for each position, but often this range can vary by as much as $10,000 – $20,000. Whether you will be on the high or low end of that spectrum will depend in a large part on your prior experience and what unique personal qualities you bring to the table.

Reputation of Program


Rankings are not always an accurate way to determine which school is best for you, but they can give you insight into how programs may be viewed by employers.

Characteristics are rated such as faculty-to-student ratio and career placement. In some fields and some cities, rankings matter more than others. As you consider various graduate school programs, speak to professionals in your field to gain their perspective. Sometimes foregoing a big name school for one that will offer more personalized attention and a greater financial aid package can be beneficial. Ask yourself if you would rather graduate with a potentially higher salary, but greater debt. However, in other situations, a more competitive program may offer you access to more opportunities, such as networking with successful and well-connected alumni. Click here for more information.

Industry/Work Setting
Think about your professional goals. In what type of setting do you wish to work? Salaries will vary whether a hospital, private practice, clinic, public health agency or university employs you. Speak to professionals and professors to determine the typical ranges for each employment setting. Look at job listings to see if they list salary information. Professional associations are also an excellent way to determine starting salaries for each field. Useful salary links for allied health include the AMA, and

The Big Picture

Be sure to consider the whole picture as you make your graduate school decisions. There is no one overriding factor when it comes to predicting starting salary. Rather, a combination of aspects will determine which is the best choice for your future, as well as your wallet. Each graduate school offers different benefits that will make your experience worthwhile both personally and professionally. Just the same, each job has advantages that go beyond simply the numbers on your paycheck, including health insurance, vacation time, continuing education reimbursement and more. If you view each position as a stepping-stone on the ladder of your future, you can see your starting salary in the context of your career.