By Jenn Oribello
This blog details how staying organized, thinking critically about what was important, and reaching out to faculty and students helped make the process rewarding and productive for me as I was looking out to find the right school.
First Stop: The Internet
I’m sure it will surprise no one when I say that the Internet was one of the most helpful tools in researching graduate programs in HRD. There is a wealth of information available at your fingertips from a variety of sources and points of view. Of course, the easiest places to start are the websites associated with specific universities and programs. And now, students researching both undergraduate and graduate programs can benefit from ASTD’s new L&D Degree Directory, a resource I wished I could have taken advantage of a year ago.
Beyond those websites, one can find information via commentary from colleagues and groups on LinkedIn, student- driven resources from schools such as Facebook pages and student blogs, and online school reviews from websites like US News and World Report (although many in the higher ed community dispute the value of these rankings, it can be a useful place to help you consider what criteria is most important to you). On the downside, this mass of information can be tedious to comb through and organize. Much like the academic research you’ll end up doing once you’re a student, it’s important to consider how current the information is and what biases may influence the perspective of the source.
Staying Organized: How to Keep Track of It All
To help me keep track of basic information from each program, I created a spreadsheet with each school on a separate tab. I included information, such as
- part-time vs. full-time options
- courses (required and electives)
- application requirements like minimum gpas
- application deadlines
- notable faculty and research
- financial aid stats
- contact information for admissions and faculty
- upcoming events or information sessions the program was hosting.
One lesson I learned is that schools seem to have varying levels of web support. As a result, I often found conflicting or outdated information. I recommend looking to see if there is an “updated on X date” notation at the bottom of websites and calling the program contacts to clarify information.
Tracking information in this way allowed be to quickly compare schools based on a variety of criteria. Outside of my master spreadsheet, I also kept file folders with brochures and handouts, and created a Google calendar to keep track of information session dates and meetings with program faculty, students or staff.
The Details Are Important, But so Is the BIG Picture
As I researched programs, I also made note of how the program described itself. For example, one program made a point to play up the emphasis of technology in its coursework. Another program noted its value of balancing a solid foundation of theory with practical application in the workplace. Others made strong note of their diversity of faculty and students.
It is easy to glaze over such language on program websites, but I found that the descriptions gave me insight to the theoretical priorities and culture of the programs. Being informed about this kind of “big picture” information in addition to the smaller details helped me prepare to talk with faculty, students, and alum.
Get Out There and Talk to People
Talking with faculty, current students, and alum was the most helpful part of the process for me. Most programs offer information session in-person or online, and are also very willing to connect you with current students, alumni and faculty via email, in person, or over the phone. (And if they’re not willing or able to, I’d take that as a red flag!).
I attended information sessions in the same mindset that I might approach a job interview and made a point to introduce myself in that light. To prepare for these conversations, I developed questions that most likely couldn’t be answered on a program website. I focused my questions on some of the criteria that I determined would be most important in my decisions about which programs to apply. For example, one criterion that was important to me was being in class with others who had a similar level of professional work experience. Because I was strongly considering a part-time program, I asked about the amount of time students spent reading, writing and researching outside of the classroom.
Information sessions are also one of the best ways to make a great first impression with someone who may play a role in the decision-making process about applicants—especially if any faculty are present. When you show up in a confident manner and it’s clear that you’ve already done some research, I believe it conveys the seriousness with which I was considering my studies and choice of schools. Additionally, the amount of time I had to ask questions was often limited by the number of other students present, so making sure that the questions I asked were insightful and unique helped make a positive impression.
When talking to current students, alums, and faculty, I asked questions that either corroborated or conflicted with what I was told during information sessions or online. I asked what they liked most and least about the program and what met their expectations versus what didn’t. I also asked what they perceived to be the greatest strengths of the program, how they felt their program had adapted to the impact of technology, and how they felt their program prepared students for the HRD job market upon graduation.
Deciding What Is Most Important to You
Everyone has their own way of making decisions, and I am of the tried-and-true pro/con list camp. Looking through the roughly 10 programs I researched, I decided that a program located in a medium to large city was important to networking opportunities and my life outside of school. I also decided that going to school with other practicing professionals was critical to my learning experience, especially as someone with substantial transferable but not direct experience in the HRD field. Programs with professional cohorts or those populated with students with at least three years of work experience made the cut from there.
In the end I followed the commonly dispensed advice to apply to a range of safety and reach schools—four programs in all. Ultimately, I accepted admission to The George Washington University’s HRD program in Alexandria, Virginia. I felt strongly about continuing to build my local professional network during school, and the cost and time associated with moving was unattractive to me. More important, in addition to location, the program met my interests in terms of the coursework I was seeking, as well as my desire to engage with professionals who had a similar amount of work experience.
About the Author
Jenn Oribello is a 2003 graduate of James Madison University with a B.S in Communication Studies and minor in Political Science. Devoted to education, she has worked in a variety of roles and organizations dedicated to learning. As a facilitator of academic enrichment programs for AVID (Achievement Via Individual Determination) she worked with middle school students to enhance their academic skills and plan activities associated with college readiness, career exploration and life skills. She also implemented conflict resolution workshops for elementary school students with Hampton Virginia’s Health Families Partnership.
She spent seven years working for Envision EMI, as a facilitator and manager for a variety of student leadership development programs. Her experiences developing and facilitating staff training served as the catalyst for her decision to pursue graduate studies in HRD. Currently, Jenn works for The George Washington University and recently began pursuing her M.A in Education with a concentration in Human Resource Development.