Applying to Graduate School

Researching

 
  1. Get organized.
    • Application Chart: University name, department, URL, required materials, deadline, GRE code, etc…

    • Application Checklist: Check off when you submit required materials (GRE code, mailed in materials, etc…) as well as when you fully submit every part of the application.

  2. Determine area of study and focus. 
    • Consider time period, methodology, region, etc… that you want to focus on. Make sure the school you are applying to not only has professors you can work with but also library and language resources to support your studies.

    • Consider what department will best support your career plans. If you want to go to the State Department, for example, International Relations could be a better fit than Asian Studies. If available, look at departmental job placement rate as well. 

  3. Consider different departments. 
    • Many professors share affiliations in multiple departments, and so it may be possible to work with preferred professors from one department despite being accepted to another.

    • Consider the methodological approach for what you want to study, the perspective from which you want to do your research, and what you want to do in the future. 

    • For those aiming at academic jobs, keep in mind that the department from which you are getting your degree can influence whether you are hired by certain departments.

  4. Be creative in your search.
    • See where your favorite researchers are working and where they did their studies. Check book covers and online resumes for more insight into their backgrounds and education.

    • Reach out to current professionals in your field and knowledgeable professors/advisors to ask for advice and feedback. 

    • Peer through relevant conference sessions to see if there are recent presenters whose talks match your current interests. Major associations may also have graduate school search programs and/or resources for current and potential graduate students.

  5. Focus on Fit. 
    • Ideally, there should be a compelling reason explaining why you want to attend that university and why professors will want to work with you. Usually that fit is on account of compatible research interests. 

    • In addition to the department, applicants should consider location, funding, research centers, library resources, cost of living, and future job potential. Keep in mind that this will be your home for at least 1 year for MA students and possibly up to 10 for PhD students.

  6. Consider prestige and job potential.
    • While you do not necessarily have to go to a top-ranking graduate program to be successful in your field, there are times when you will want the name recognition and resources of an especially renowned program or ​school. This is particularly the case with those aiming for a career in academia, where tenure-track jobs are increasingly rare and competitive. That said, going to an expensive or famous school is not a guarantee of future success. 

    • If you are applying for an MA program, especially one that is self-funded, carefully consider rates of job placement and acceptances to PhD programs. If your end goal is a PhD program, it may be preferable to go to a less expensive school for an MA, even if the prestige and resources are not as strong as others to which you have been accepted. 

  7. Consider funding.
    • Academic PhD programs (i.e., leading to careers in education) typically provide 4 or more years of full funding packages, or a mixture of funding and work-study. Some may require annual requests for the following year's funding or an annual report of what you have accomplished and how far you are to completion. These details may not become apparent until after you have already been accepted or even finished your first year of study, but it is worth inquiring into.​

    • Most MA programs and professional PhD programs (i.e., leading to jobs in the private sector) are either fully unfunded or provide limited fellowship opportunities. In some cases, you can line up an independent fellowship prior to applying. As these fellowships typically have deadlines well before graduate programs', you should research these long before you begin your graduate school applications. 

    • Especially for those applying for MA programs but ultimately intend to go into academic PhD programs in the US, consider applying to MA programs in other countries (particularly Canada or Europe). The costs will likely be significantly less than in the US or could be partially offset by a fellowship like Fulbright. If your research interests align with a non-English speaking country, consider a Master's program in that particular language to increase your competitiveness. 

Applying

 
  1. Know your schedule. 
    • Deadlines come up faster than you might think. Give yourself a decent cushion for materials to be received on time.

    • Get the easy stuff like transcripts and GRE scores sent in early so you don't have to worry about getting them in at the last minute. To avoid a backlog at the registrar’s, you may want to stockpile a stack of sealed, official transcripts that you will send to universities directly.

    • Avoid last-minute computer glitches or internet problems by submitting at least 48 hours before the deadline.

  2. Line up Letters of Reference (LOR). 
    • The earlier you approach letter writers, the better your chances of their agreeing. Offer to provide them with a Statement of Purpose draft in order that they can tailor their recommendation to match what you are saying. You may also want to give them an edited version of your application chart, in order that they can see which departments you’re applying to and upcoming deadlines. These documents should be provided no less than 2 weeks before the deadline.

    • If you have been out of school for a while or if you your letter writer is not very familiar with your research, provide them with an updated CV/resume. You may also want to provide each professor with a paper you wrote for a course you took with them - preferably WITH their comments.​​​

    • Letter writers do not have to be professors, but they should be individuals with some degree of awareness of and clout within the field of study. They should also be able to speak authoritatively about your prior work and potential for success within the program or future career. While they may speak of character traits that will support their argument for your suitability, this is not a character statement.

    • If selecting an employer as a letter writer, provide them with details about the program and your reasons for applying so that they can better speak about what traits and experience makes you a good match.

    • Letter writers can be notorious for ignoring or stretching submission deadlines. Quite often, this will not be a detriment to the applicant, but on occasion there is no extra time permitted for late supplemental materials. As such, it may be a good idea to give your letter writers earlier deadlines, but be sure to also increase the amount of time they have to prepare your letter, especially if it is the first one they have written for you.

  3. Contact potential advisors. 
    • It is not a bad idea to email potential advisors to introduce yourself, let them know that you are intending to apply, provide them with a CV, and ask if they are taking students for the upcoming year. 

    • If you are vacillating between applying to MA and PhD programs or different departments, potential advisors can provide key insights into how they see your application comparing with their standard accepted students as well as which environment seem to be the best fit for your interests. They can also provide you with helpful information regarding funding opportunities and availability. 

    • Contacting potential advisors can be a very helpful step in the application process, but it’s best to contact professors well before the application rush. Avoid the busiest times of the academic year (beginning and end of the semester), and keep in mind that professors may not be checking their emails regularly over the course of the summer.

  4. Strategize your statement of purpose. 
    • The statement of purpose is your opportunity to demonstrate your voice, your focus, your fit, and your suitability for the program. Consider the type of “tone” you want to convey. Consider also what you want a reader to come away knowing about you and make sure your statement clearly conveys that. Anticipate going through multiple revisions, as this is one of the most important parts of the application.

    • Do not focus entirely upon your past experience or how you came to be in this field. Professors are often looking for students who demonstrate the ability to pose interesting research questions that are applicable to their general field. Past experience and unique qualifications can be used as supporting evidence that you can carry out the proposed research project (note: this is more of an exercise in demonstrating your research interests and skills than a promise to research this precise topic; you CAN change your mind and focus).

    • See also the page on writing statements of purpose.

  5. Take the GRE (or other standardized tests). 
    • Whether or not a program requires the GRE or other standardized tests should not be a factor in deciding where to apply. A GRE score in and of itself should not be the ultimate deciding factor about whether you are accepted or not; consider it as a necessary checkmark to get out of the way. 

    • That said, do not blow off the GRE. In schools where funding may be tight, the GRE may be the only common factor amongst potential students from multiple departments who are all competing for the same university funding packages. 

  6. Pick your writing sample. 
    • Your writing sample should reflect both your writing and research skills in your area of study. If your best piece of writing is in an unrelated or only tangentially related topic, send that if you have nothing else. Ideally, your writing sample should demonstrate your awareness of the field and your ability to analyze relevant information.

    • If you do not have a piece of writing that is long enough for page requirements, most programs permit you to submit multiple, shorter papers. 

  7. Follow the directions. 
    • While some places may not care if you go beyond page limits or include extra letters of recommendation, it is better to just follow directions and not risk coming across as someone to whom the rules do not apply or who thinks that they merit more attention than other applicants.

    • If the directions seem to be advocating unnecessary busy work, go ahead and do the extra work. Keep in mind that it will likely take you much longer to put together an application than it will take someone to read it. Even if directions seem redundant (like writing out classes already listed in your transcript), do what they say. 

  8. Keep your application.
    • Upon submitting your application, download a PDF or make screenshots of your application. Having your application on hand will help you review an answer later on, duplicate details for future applications, ​and keep a record of the claims and information you made at the time of applying.

    • Having your application is particularly useful if you have an interview. You will want to review everything you told the reviewing committee prior to the interview, as that is likely what they will use as a basis to frame questions. 

Selecting

 
  1. Comparing packages. 
    • Funding is not the only factor that should influence your decision, but it will certainly be one of them. Compare the number of years funding is guaranteed for, whether there is summer funding provided and for how many years, and your TA or RA requirements.

    • Speak with other graduate students and your potential advisor about the possibility for future funding after your guaranteed funding runs out. Look also to see if there are research centers and organizations related to your area that may have funding to cover future years of study.

  2. Fit with professors.
    • If you do not get along with your potential advisor or if there is not an available advisor with whom you can work, this will probably be a difficult school for you to attend. Try to get a read for professors' availability both via email and in person to see if this is a positive fit.

    • Ideally, there should be multiple professors for you to work with. That way, you will not end up as a departmental orphan if your advisor retires, dies, becomes ill, goes on sabbatical, or changes universities. Having multiple professors with whom you can work can also help years later when you are building your committee.

    • Talk to current students. They have nothing to gain or lose if you do or do not attend the program, and they can give you a good understanding of what it is like to work with a particular professor. That said, they may be under pressure to sell the program, so you may want to talk to them privately and encourage them to be honest as you weigh your options. Keep in mind that some students may be jaded, burned out, or just have a particularly positive or negative working relationship with their professors, so you may want to ask multiple students for their insights.

  3. Consider placement rate.
    • This information is not always available, but you should at least be able to ask the average number number of years between matriculation and graduation. If possible, also find out what the job placement rate is, how many graduate students from each new class end up dropping out or stagnating, and some of the universities or businesses to which recent graduates have gone.

    • Talk to others in your field (especially trusted professors or advisors) to get a read on a current school. A new program is not necessarily a bad option if the professors and school are strong, especially as you are more likely to have focused attention and resources.

  4. Visit the campus.
    • Many universities have accepted student visitation days or will help offset costs and/or arrange for visits. As this will be your home for at least one and potentially several years, you should know what it would feel like to live and study there.

    • Consider the town or city’s cost of living and whether or not the lifestyle there is a good fit for you. If you have a spouse or children, consider what their lives would be like there.

    • Look at available facilities and supporting resources. Whether you need a first-class library and inter-library loan program or a top-of-the-line research lab, you need to be sure that you can do the work you need to do in order to complete your program.

    • If you cannot visit all of the campuses in which you are interested, try at least to go to a major annual conference to meet with potential professors and classmates. Schools often have social gatherings for current students and alumni in the evenings, to which you would hopefully also be invited.

  5. Make decisions as you go.
    • As soon as you have your favorites set, politely turn the others down. There may be fellow applicants in alternate limbo just waiting for you to make your mind up and release your spot (or your funding).

    • If you are deciding between two programs and funding is part of the issue, you may be able to negotiate a better funding package (depending upon the university). This can be delicate, so you may want to confer with a trusted advisor before attempting it. 

Disclaimer: Advice and suggestions are based upon personal experience as a student, applicant, and administrator. Listed content may not be fully comprehensive or applicable to all situations or circumstances. All content is original, but it is not necessarily unique and may bear similarities with others' suggestions. Content will also grow and adapt as I gain more experience.

Anyone making use of the resources and suggestions listed here are encouraged to seek out additional recommendations to build their own personalized approaches to navigating the often intimidating world of academia.

©2020 by Abigail I. MacBain