Finding Courses and Schools: Where to Look
There are reference books and websites available to help you find out what courses are available and where. Peterson's Guide to Graduate and Professional Programs, for example, offers a comprehensive list of accredited graduate programs in the U.S., including deadlines, entrance requirements and more (try CAS 120, the Careers Center or any library for this and other guides). Commercial websites with helpful search tools (note that they have paying sponsors whose entries may appear first) include Peterson's Guide , GradSchools.com , Graduate Guide , and Yahoo! Education ; there's also Council of Graduate Schools , which includes some other resources for applicants.
Many disciplines have a professional society that publishes a directory of graduate departments, including details about faculty and what they research.
Faculty (at USC and at other institutions) who teach in the field you are interested in are an excellent resource (probably the best, in fact). They can give you information and suggestions about good programs for you. They might be able to suggest people who would make good thesis advisors for you, and possibly even put you in touch with them.
Almost all universities and programs have a website. You can find out a great deal online about courses, faculty, admissions requirements and procedures, student life and more. Some sites will tell you who to contact for additional information; most have all their information and brochures posted on their websites or available to download. If you have questions not addressed on the website, or want more details, it is a good idea to contact the program directly.
If you cannot access a school's catalogue through its website, you can access more than 25,000 catalogues (US and international) through CollegeSource , a database that USC subscribes to.
You can find out a lot from informational interviews with graduate students already in the programs you're interested in, with faculty in those programs, and with professionals already in the field you are pursuing. You may also find it helpful to read professional and academic journals related to your area of interest. Look to see where notable scholars in your field teach - they could be potential thesis advisors.
Don't reject schools immediately on the grounds that they are too expensive - wealthier schools may be able to offer more financial aid (and if they don't, you can always decide against them later).
Things to Consider
Check to make sure that you meet (or will meet) the admissions requirements for the specific program you are interested in.
Interests and Reputation of Faculty
What are the research and teaching specialties of the faculty, and do they match with your interests? Especially for Ph.D. programs, you should look for potential mentors with shared research interests. Who has written interesting work in your area? Be warned that it is risky to choose a department because of one famous faculty member who may be extremely busy or unhelpful to students, or might even leave when you get there (though it is not unheard of for professors to take Ph.D. students with them). Ask your faculty - and anyone else who knows, including, ideally, their graduate students - about such a person's reputation, and verify that they are still at the institution, not going to be on sabbatical at a crucial time for you, and so forth. (You might contact your potential advisors, if you have read some of their work and have well-informed questions about their work and the department.) It is a good idea to find a program that has a variety of faculty who interest you.
What kinds of courses are offered? Do they suit your interests and professional goals? What courses are required, and how much choice will you have? How often are the courses offered that are of most interest to you? Can you take courses outside of the department if you want to?
What is the size of classes? What is the educational approach (is there any particular methodological bias)? What is the ratio of teachers to students? What do you need to do in order to graduate (number of courses, exams, dissertation)? What is the format of exams? What percentage of students graduate (and what is the attrition policy)? How many years do students usually spend in the program? Are extracurricular learning opportunities available, such as internships? What placement assistance does the program offer?
Hopefully you will have some kind of a life beyond your studies--will you enjoy living in the place you are applying to? Will living in certain places or kinds of places help you professionally or personally?
What is the quality of the libraries, computer labs, or other research facilities at the institution?
What sources of financial aid are available through the program (such as fellowships, assistantships, or scholarships)? What percentage of students are funded? For how many years is funding guaranteed? Are dissertation-year fellowships available (if applicable)? Are there any sources of summer funding?