Most graduate programs are distinguished by their research focus – the area (or areas) within your field in which they specialize. This brings us to an important "a-ha!" moment. The best ranked schools in your field may not be the best in terms of the subfields or research approaches that interest you. In other words, the world of academia isn't as black and white as you might think.
The best way to learn about each school's characteristics and strengths is to visit their web site. Read about their intellectual approach. Examine their coursework. Learn about the faculty's interests. All of these crumbs of information will add up to a picture of what makes each school unique.
Now, this process can be fairly nuanced and difficult, but you don't have to do it alone. Your professors can be a great resource. Chances are they'll be plugged in to what's good and what's not, so don't be shy about enlisting their aid.
To help you conduct this detective work, we've put together a list of factors that you should consider. Make it your mission to learn as much as you can about each graduate school's research focus!
What's the Department "Known For"
In the same way that an elephant is known for its memory, a department will be known for something. Or, if nothing, then for its mediocrity. The idea is to pinpoint what automatically pops into peoples' heads when they hear the name of such-and-such department. More often than not, it will be strengths in research areas or the reputation of certain faculty. For example, an archaeology department might be known for Minoan studies, while a marine biology department might be known for bioluminescent fish research. So the sooner you figure out what those things are, the sooner you'll know if they correspond with your interests.
What Courses are Offered
Reviewing a department's course offering can be very revealing. By reading through the course descriptions and syllabi, you'll learn about the school's capabilities, focus and theoretical bent. In some cases, faculty teach courses in the same areas that they research, so you can align yourself accordingly. In other cases, a school may not have any faculty in a certain subfield, leading to knowledge gaps.
Who are the Faculty
A school is only as good as its professors, and the faculty will play a pivotal role in your experience. So hop onto the Internet and locate the bios of your department's faculty members. Look for things like: where were they educated? What have they published? What are their research foci? What courses do they teach? What field work have they conducted? Do this, and you'll get a feel for your educators...and whether you'd enjoy learning from them.
Is the Focus on Theory or Fieldwork?
If you're going to study a field that involves fieldwork, you'll need to decide how important it is to you. Depending on your preferences, you may prefer theory over fieldwork. And the same is true for professors. Say, for example, that you want to study Archeology and work in Mongolia excavation sites. Now, if none of the faculty has done field work, you may not mesh with your instructors. Plus, you'll have a harder time finding field work, since your professors won't be able to take you on as an assistant (or pet) for their projects. So think carefully about graduate schools' research focus.