MPSA Professional Development Roundtable Preview
In advance of this year’s MPSA conference (April 4-7, 2019 in Chicago), we asked panelists from the upcoming “Tips on Applying to Graduate School” to share a few of their best tips. Responses varied based on personal experience, but all of those responding agree that it’s best to understand how you will potentially fit into the department’s culture before you perfect your personal statement. Read on for more tips:
Kevin Gerald Lorentz, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Wayne State University: Do your research. Yes, you should consult program websites and other accouterments, but I highly recommend consulting directly with program faculty and, if possible, current students. Graduate directors and prospective faculty mentors are the best sources of information when it comes to choosing the best graduate school for you. For instance, a few times during my own search I discovered that my preferred faculty mentor was leaving the institution, was nearing retirement, and/or our research interests didn’t align. Other times, I was able to speak with current graduate students (at either graduate open houses, conferences, etc.) and get a “feel” for the program’s culture. These conversations ultimately helped make my graduate school search more efficient and fruitful.
Paula Armendariz, Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: Research, research, research… I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to “sell” yourself as someone who not only is a good fit for the department, but also someone who is going to bring something novel to it.
Joan Ricart-Huguet, Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Yale University: Reach out to professors by email whenever there is a good reason. A score in the top decile of the GRE is important in general and necessary for top 10 programs, your statement of purpose is central, good letters are a must, etc. But should you email professors in departments to which you are applying? My advice is to reach out by email (attaching a brief CV) to professors whenever there is a good reason, usually some overlap in research interests or a very good fit with the program more generally. Professors want the best graduate students to improve the program and to work with them on projects, so a sound email can help you. If you email a professor whose work has nothing to do with your statement of purpose, your email will probably be ignored unless you seem like an outstanding student or a good fit in that department for other reasons. The email may not hurt your chances to enter that Ph.D. program, but an unwarranted email will hardly help. A superior option is to ask your trusted professors to date (including your letter writers) to email professors they know or have worked with in departments where you want to gain admission. A strong email of support from a trusted colleague can carry more weight than yours and make a big difference. Make sure you ask the favor tactfully and politely to your professors since they have competing pressures on their time, they may not be inclined to write (yet) another extra email, and they may already be writing you a letter of recommendation.
Armendariz: Get someone who is or has served as Director of Graduate Studies to read and correct your personal statement. I learned that this is the “interview” that you will not get with departments and so I had to try to communicate why was I a good fit for the department(s).
Ricart-Huguet: Introspection before you apply. A Ph.D. is a serious time commitment (5+ years) and you are likely foregoing a more reasonable work schedule and a higher salary elsewhere (even top Ph.D. programs pay around $30k/year). So why enroll in a Ph.D. program given the high opportunity cost? There are at least two important reasons: (a) passion for an area of study and (b) instrumental reasons. (a) Ideally, you just love your field/subfield (or perhaps the social sciences more generally), learning, teaching, and conducting research. To many, this alone is central to their decision-making. The intellectual growth a Ph.D. program can afford is very valuable in itself and the delayed financial gratification can be compensated by immediate intellectual gratification. (b) Others may think more instrumentally. You need a Ph.D. to be an academic, but a Ph.D. in political science can open the door to careers in governments, think tanks, international organizations, non-profits, and even the private sector – especially if you are a quantitative social scientist. Hence, a Ph.D. can make sense even if you don’t see yourself as a professor down the road.
Lorentz: Start your preparation early. Personal statements, letters of recommendation, and the dreaded GRE all require several months of groundwork. As such, make sure that you leave yourself time to draft, revise, and re-draft (you get the idea!) your personal statement, soliciting feedback from trusted friends and mentors. For letters of recommendation, I suggest giving your recommenders a good one-to-two months to prepare their letters (and do give them copies of your CV, personal statements, and other application materials that may help their composing!). Finally, you should plan on taking the GRE early enough to leave ample opportunity to re-test if so desired. (Although, you may elect to not do this depending on how programs treat multiple GRE attempts.) Regardless, don’t plan on taking the GRE without at least six or more months of preparation. For myself, I needed the extra time just to brush up on knowledge and skills that were a little rusty, while also mentally preparing. You can be successful in your graduate school search, so long as you prepare!
About the Panelists: Kevin Lorentz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Wayne State University, Paula Armendariz is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, and Joan Ricart-Huguet is a Postdoctoral Associate and Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. Their MPSA professional development roundtable “STUDENTS: Tips for Applying to Graduate School” will be held Fri, April 5, 2019 (1:15 to 2:45pm) at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago.
The views and opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Midwest Political Science Association, MPSA staff, and/or other site contributors.