Suggestions for Choosing a Graduate Program

Try to clarify for yourself what’s important to you with respect to choosing a school, for example, your intellectual and professional goals (e.g., what your research interests are, what kind of work you’re interested in doing when you finish your degree) and your personal values/preferences (e.g., what kind of mentoring you’d like to have, what kind of environment you prefer to live in).

Now think about these things in relation to particular programs and think about which will be a good match. Some things you’ll likely want to gather information about and consider:


  • Are there faculty at this institution whose interests connect to yours? (View research  interests of mathematics education faculty at MSU here.) Are these faculty likely to be around until you’re done with your degree (e.g., is anyone thinking about leaving or going to be retiring soon)? Also consider that your interests may change over time, as you take courses and accomplish program goals. Are the interests of the various faculty members diverse enough that you’ll still have options if your interests change over time?
  • What are faculty members' research perspectives - individually and across the program? In addition to considering individual faculty members’ specific research interests, you may want to think about the faculty’s research perspectives as a whole (e.g., do the faculty have varied perspectives or do they all tend to focus on one area, say, aspects of individual student cognition or classroom discourse?). How does this fit with your interests?
  • How available and approachable are the faculty? How will this affect your experience? (For example, it may not matter if a professor has a “big” name if you won’t have much contact with him or her.)
  • How are advisors chosen? Students’ experiences vary even within a single program, and advisors play a key role in one’s experience. If you have a sense of whom you might want as an advisor, ask people what that person is like as a mentor. Has that person been successful in helping students complete their degrees? If it’s possible to visit, talk with this person and think about whether this is someone who’d be a good match for you personally as well as professionally.
  • What other departments might I be working with? Not all of the courses you take will focus on mathematics education, and you’re going to interact with students and faculty in other areas. Thus, in addition to thinking specifically about the math education faculty and program, you may want to think more holistically about the strength of the department(s) in which you’ll be taking courses and the graduate students in these departments.

Program Requirements and Coursework

  • What do you want to study? Is there a way to study those things in the programs you’re thinking about? What are the requirements, and what do they imply about what the program thinks you should understand before you graduate? Are there required courses that don’t seem to fit your interests at all? (Note: if you’re enrolled at any Big Ten school, you can take a few courses at other Big Ten universities. Because of the proximity of MSU to the University of Michigan, this is easier than it is elsewhere; in fact, recently there have been efforts to run joint graduate courses in education.)
  • What expectations does the program have about the knowledge of mathematics (or other content knowledge) you should have? about your knowledge of educational policy, history, etc.? about your teaching experience? How do these expectations match your goals? This will likely be influenced by your academic and professional background as well as by the kind of work you want to do when you’re done (e.g., whether you want to work on undergraduate mathematics education or K-12 education, whether you’re interested in classroom research or policy). Are opportunities to deepen your knowledge about these things even if they’re not required? Are there efforts to make connections across different perspectives (e.g., viewing issues in math education from the perspective of the discipline, educational history, school practice, etc.)?
  • How long does the program take on average? How long does the school say they expect it to take?

Assistantships and Funding

  • Assistantships are often an important site for your learning. What kinds of assistantships are available and what is there for you to learn from the different kinds of assistantships? What kind of mentoring are you likely to get? (This often varies with the professor who supervises your assistantship.)
  • What kind of funding are you being offered: assistantships alone or some combination of assistantships and fellowship? (Note: If you are awarded a Distinguished Fellowship and have also received fellowship offers from other schools, one thing that may be different about the Distinguished Fellowship is that you have fellowship support during your last year of graduate work, while writing your dissertation; this is often more useful than fellowship support earlier, since assistantships are important contexts for learning.)
  • What’s the cost of living relative to what you’ll be making as a graduate student? Can you afford to live on an assistantship or fellowship, or will you have to take out loans or take on extra work?  Our graduate students would be glad to give you insight on this from their perspective.

Other Considerations

  • How strong is the program’s connection to practice in schools? to teacher education? How important are these (or other specific arenas of educational work) to you?
  • What do the current students and faculty have to say about the strengths and weaknesses of the program? Are the students happy overall? What do people outside the program think the strengths and weaknesses of the program are?
  • Is there a sense of community among the graduate students? between students and faculty? among faculty?
  • Do the current graduate students feel they are treated respectfully? If you’ve been able to visit, did you feel respected during your visit for the experience you are bringing with you?
  • Ask whether there are particular projects, initiatives, etc. that are relevant to your interests or that might effect your experience (e.g., research projects, a new Center, research fellowships). Note that some initiatives are funded for a limited period of time. You want to know whether they will be around while you’re engaged in relevant parts of your studies, so ask how long they are likely to have funding for.
  • Lifestyle features? Graduate students’ time is mostly taken up with their studies. Nonetheless, the overall environment and the pace of living in the city surrounding the school may be important to you. Think about whether there are any lifestyle features that are essential for you, and ask students in particular programs how they’ve adjusted to the lifestyle in that location.
  • How active is The Graduate School at the university? MSU has one of the top Graduate Schools in the nation. PREP is the MSU Graduate School career and professional development model, designed to help you plan for a successful doctoral and postdoc experience and a smooth transition into your future role in academia, government, industry, corporations, or agencies. The acronym PREP foregrounds four professional skills that are key to your doctoral and professional career: Planning, Resilience, Engagement, and Professionalism.


In addition to looking at a program’s written materials, you’ll probably find it helpful to talk with faculty and graduate students in the programs you’re considering and with colleagues who know about doctoral programs in mathematics education. Use the program’s web site and/or materials to identify faculty you want to talk with.

You may also want to ask the doctoral program coordinator (if there is one) whether there are particular faculty or graduate students with whom it would be useful to speak. Think about visiting the institutions you’ve applied to or are thinking of applying to. Sometimes institutions have funds available to help defray your costs; ask about that.

View suggestions for things you may want to do during a visit to MSU here (these suggestions may also be applicable to other institutions to which you are applying).