First, talk to faculty at your current school. They may have the same research interest as you, or they will know colleagues at other schools (remember, they were graduate students once!) who have interests similar to yours. Either way, faculty members are a great source for information about and contacts at the graduate school(s) in which you may be interested. Above all, you want to enroll in a school with faculty who can best assist you with your research program or academic goals.
Second, speak with graduate students you know who have come from other universities (especially doctoral students who may have done a master's degree elsewhere). As graduate students, they are another good source of information regarding the graduate experience they had at their previous school. Just as important is the information they may provide about schools to avoid.
Third, use Web sites, such as GradView.com, to find newly established programs that may be of interest to you. New graduate program areas, such as those in homeland security or bioinformatics, are being developed every year to respond to the academic marketplace. Faculty and graduate students you spoke with may not be aware of these new programs. On the flip side, graduate schools revise or discontinue programs as faculty retire or new faculty are hired. So, use as many sources as possible to find what is available to you.
Finally, consider geographic/demographic location when trying to find a graduate school. If you are a confirmed urbanite, you may not be comfortable attending a school in a rural setting. If you want to live in a more temperate climate, consider graduate schools in the southeast and southwest. When possible, visit the school(s) you are considering before you expend the effort to apply there. Be sure you can "see" yourself on that campus and with those faculty.
While your quest in finding graduate schools to place at the top of your list may seem daunting and exhausting, following these steps should assist you in seeking out the best program and fit for you. Use as many sources as you can and the end result will be a positive one.
Mark J Schaefermeyer, PhD, is the director of recruitment and admissions in the Graduate School at Virginia Commonwealth University.