This page has advice on how to think through the admissions process to grad school. This is stuff I wish I had known when I applied to Ph.D. programs in the United States. It applies to political science, may apply to other social sciences, perhaps less so to the humanities and bench sciences.
Should I go to grad school?
This is certainly the most important and perhaps the toughest question you will face throughout the application process. I have a simple set of rules that I encourage everybody who is considering grad school to think through.
If you’re considering a Ph.D. program, the rules are simple. First, the only reason you should pursue a Ph.D. in political science is if you cannot see a reasonably good chance of living a happy, productive life doing anything other than being a political science professor. Period. You should not consider a Ph.D. program because you dread the prospect of entering the job market, or the prospect of having a nine-to-five job, or whatever. You should also not consider a Ph.D. program to advance any professional goal other than being a professor. If you want to do something else, consider an M.A., which is a professionalizing degree; not a Ph.D. There are at least three reasons for this:
- First, Ph.D. programs are very competitive to get in to and even more competitive to get out from. The top schools admit probably less than 10% of their applicants. Of all the students who start a Ph.D. program in political science, I’d say a ballpark number of around 50% finish it. (The rest fall through the cracks, mostly after completing all their course work and exams, at which point no one will be on your case to prod you along.) Of all those who actually manage to get through the Ph.D. program, only a small percentage end up in the jobs everyone dreams of getting. So even if you end up being admitted to a top program, this does not in any way mean you will have guaranteed a top job at the end of your Ph.D.
- Second, Ph.D. programs have a strong socialization component that makes it harder to be happy at anything else once you’ve been through them. In other words, Ph.D. programs are environments in which you are socialized into thinking that nothing else but cutting-edge research counts as a fulfilling professional life. This has steep human costs if you fail to come out on top. (Well, it may also have steep human costs even if you come out on top, but that’s an entirely different matter…)
- Finally, a Ph.D. program is a wasteful way of advancing any professional career that does not require a Ph.D., and the only one that does (at least in political science) is an academic career. If you’d like to work for the government, or for an international organization, an NGO, etc., you’ll be much better off doing an M.A. and entering the work force rather than doing a Ph.D. You will advance faster, so that by the time you would be finishing the Ph.D. and joining the work force, you would be entering at a level (on average) lower than the one you would have were you to have taken an M.A. only. (Exceptions to this are people who pursue an academic career after the Ph.D. and then join the government — or quasi-governmental organizations — as well established academics, entering at the top. But this means you’d have to be planning on having an academic career after the Ph.D., which brings us back to point one above.)
But enough doom and gloom!
The Ph.D. versus the M.A.
If you want to pursue a non-academic career or if you have doubts about whether academia is for you, then the answer is clear: you should do an M.A. In my field of specialization — international relations — there are two types of M.A. programs:
- The first, and by far the best known, is the policy-oriented M.A. The top schools for this type of program are the usual suspects (which I am ordering alphabetically, for two reasons: (i) the rankings are subjective and (ii) you should apply widely): American (SIS), Chicago (Harris School), Columbia (SIPA), George Washington (Elliott School), Georgetown (Walsh School), Harvard (Kennedy School), Johns Hopkins (SAIS), Princeton (Wilson School), Tufts (Fletcher School), Syracuse (Maxwell School), UCSD (SIRPS), Yale (Jackson Institute), etc. These programs vary in size and feel quite significantly. The largest among them are to academia what factory-farming is to meat production: efficient, large-scale operations that produce graduates with the set of core policy analysis skills the market wants. The smaller ones like the Princeton and Yale programs will have a much more intimate feel. All these programs will also give you top-notch policy training and ample opportunities to interact with policymakers and policy wonks.
- The second, much more boutique, type, is the academically-oriented M.A. Only one school comes to mind offering this type of program: Chicago (CIR). This program is very different from type 1 programs. You can more or less tailor your program to your tastes. If you want to have a policy-heavy program, you can. But if you want to have a much more diversified experience, taking courses in anthropology, business, economics, history, political science, religion, sociology, etc., this program will allow you to do so and, in doing so, will allow you to have an experience (and acquire credentials) very similar to that of a Ph.D. program — and that of being a professor. As opposed to students in professional schools (policy, law, medicine), graduate students in the social sciences (including this kind of M.A.) do basically the same thing professors do. They read and write. So this M.A. (and its sister program MAPSS for the social sciences more broadly) are perfect for figuring out whether you want to take a Ph.D. and become an academic.
So, to summarize, if you are certain you want a professional policy career, take a policy M.A. If, however, academia is an option you consider, you may want to check out a more flexible program.
Getting into a graduate program
And now for the more technical part: how to get into a good Ph.D. or M.A. program (of the second type). A few guidelines:
- First of all, apply broadly. Ten, maybe fifteen schools. This will be quite a bit of work, but there’s a good rationale for doing so. The quality of your application will determine whether you will end up in the batch of strong applications from which departments decide whom to offer admission. But it is hard to control whether a particular department will actually offer you admission, because this often depends on imponderables like matching faculty and student interests, preferences for research style, who is in the admissions committee, etc. So you want to maximize your odds by applying to any school to which you’d be willing to go. Furthermore, compared with the potential impact on your future, the cost in time and money of applying to fifteen instead of five schools is ridiculously small.
- Peruse the websites of the schools to which you’re applying to determine whether they are a good fit. Do not apply blindly based on rankings — matching your research interests to those of the department is vital not only for admission but also for your quality of life during the Ph.D.
- Focus a lot of time on the three basic features of your application: GPA, GRE scores, and letters of recommendation. These are the parts of your file people will look at first. As a rule of thumb, two out of these three have to be good for your application to deserve thorough consideration and a good chance of success. At the top schools, it’s more like three out of three.
- By the time you decide to apply to grad school, there won’t be much you can do about your GPA, so I hope you have taken care of that throughout college. If you happen to be applying from outside the United States and your GPA is not on a 4.0 scale (or if your institution has a tradition of not granting grades above a certain bar), do add a statement explaining what the GPA means. Try to get a distribution of GPAs from the registrar at your college, so faculty can evaluate your performance relative to your colleagues.
- Then study long and hard for the GRE. The verbal scores are important to the extent that a low score, say, below 160, will make people wonder whether you can actually understand and express yourself in english. But this usually also comes across in other parts of your application. The math score is very important, and anything below 165 is not a plus. (Anything below 160 is bad; between 160-164 it’s okay but not a plus, so if you want to compensate for a low GPA or lukewarm letters, you’ll need higher, at least 165.) Schools differ in the importance they attribute to the analytic score. Some don’t care. If they do — as many of the top schools do — anything below a 5.5 is not a plus; and anything below a 5.0 is a red flag. If you do significantly below these levels the first time, take the test again. If you do consistently below what you think your capabilities are, add a statement to your application indicating you typically don’t do well in standardized tests. It may help.
- Finally, get good recommendation letters. (You may want to read my advice on this topic.) Most schools ask for three letters. Do not send more. Choose the three advisors whom you think can write you the strongest letters and ask them. Be candid and ask them to reciprocate. Letters are evaluated based on their content but also on who writes them — not necessarily whether the recommender is a distinguished personage in their field, but rather how well they seem to know you and how well they identify the skills you need to succeed in grad school. Admissions committees prefer letters from faculty — and this means letters from faculty they know can (in principle) be trusted with their judgment of what it takes to be a successful Ph.D. student in the United States. In other words, if you are applying from overseas, you should get letters from faculty in a U.S. university or, if this proves impossible, letters from faculty who are well known in the United States or faculty who were trained in a U.S. graduate program themselves. Unless you find yourself unable to get three good letters from faculty who know you well, there is no point in sending in letters from non-faculty. Letters from employers (the President, Senator, or IT tycoon you worked for) will generally not count for much. Academics tend to believe that only other academics can accurately judge your potential for grad school — and for the most part this is true — so non-academic letters tend to be discounted, if not entirely discarded. If you’ve been out of school for a while and can’t find three faculty to write you letters, then one letter from your current or last employer is acceptable. It will most likely be a neutral component of your application but that’s the best you can do under the circumstances.
- Once you’re done with “the basic three,” work furiously on your personal statement. Start this early and revise often. Schools usually look for two things here. First, a personal narrative of growth — about how you got to develop the interests you have now. Avoid florid prose. (While stories about how you discovered your love for IR at age five riding the back of a pick-up packed with goats in Guatemala during a first-grade-honors-roll volunteer trip you organized, or standing on the great wall of China during a selective kindergarten exchange program, or whatever, may be true, you don’t necessarily want to share them.) Second, an idea of your area of interest. Note that schools are not interested in your dissertation plans. In fact, too narrow an area of interests may count against you, as you may seem too pre-formatted, and not willing or able to grow in grad school. Mention a few ideas, a broad theme or two, questions that interest you, arguments you’d like to try out, books that nag you, that sort of stuff. If you know the work of some faculty in the department you’re applying to, mention them as people you’d like to work with. (But double-check they are still there, as websites are often outdated, and a faux pas on this particular front may cost you dearly.) Highlight any methods skills you have. But the general point to keep in mind is that personal statements are, except for any facts you choose to mention, exercises in fiction. No one will hold you accountable if you decide to change your research interests while in school. In fact, I know of very few people who ended up studying what they were interested in when they were admitted. (Hey, I went into my Ph.D. program determined to study the concept of privacy in the philosophical works of Richard Rorty…) So feel free to be exploratory about your interests. It’s good to think about what they are, but don’t let yourself be put-off by indecisiveness here.
- Finally, get a good writing sample together. This does not have to be on your topics of interest. It often is not even a political science paper. Admissions committees are not generally looking for your mastery of a particular topic. They’re looking for your ability to take an issue, pick an argument or a side, and run with it. Make a logically sound, empirically substantiated argument, and show how your argument relates to, or departs from, other arguments. It should be a piece of critical thinking, no matter what it is about. Here, students from the Anglo-Saxon world are at an advantage, as most other places emphasize memorization over critical thinking in the way they school people in college. Fifteen pages is good. Few will read more.
- Once you’re done, edit everything. Then proofread. Then edit and proofread again. Typos are not acceptable.
I hope this is helpful. Feel free to comment below. Also, don’t forget to check my posts under the advising category.