Advice for Ph.D. Applicants, Part II, How do I find a program?


If you are returning to this series my assumption is that you’ve already thought carefully about embarking on a life-path as some sort of researcher, and are thus certain that you want to find a Ph.D. program that suits you.  If you have not, please consider reading Part I before moving on to this next step.  In this post, I will outline some of the most important considerations for identifying a program to which to apply. This is a long and fully packed post – so I hope you have a good reader or are willing to print it out.  I also hope, however, that it contains valuable and helpful advice.

Again, my goal is to share all the things I wish I had known years ago, but my advice here is rooted in my particular experiences, and is thus most appropriate to the social sciences or education.

Where do your interests lie?

Ph.D. students are typically accepted once per year, and applications have hard deadlines – usually in December.  The process takes some time, and I recommend that interested applicants take six months to a year to identify a program and assemble the applications. As was seen in Part I, a Ph.D. is always about research, so your first task is figuring out what sort of research you want to do. This is not an easy task, but no one else can do it for you. Not infrequently, I receive a note from someone I have never met, that reads something like the following:

My name is X. Here are three lines about jobs I’ve had. Here is one interesting observation about education. I’ve attached a resume – should I apply to the Ph.D. program in Education, Culture, and Society?

Although I appreciate the note, except in the most obvious cases, I cannot answer this question. You have to do the work of identifying some research traditions, narrowing in on important intellectual questions, and so forth.  I cannot tell you what your interests are or should be, and I cannot tell how it will line up with our faculty. Competitive, research-focused, undergrad programs, or academic master’s programs prepare some folks for this sort of thing, but not everyone has those experiences.

Where to start? A Ph.D. will make you an expert in one narrow field through research.  The core question is in what do you want to be an expert? (For my academic audience, I’d be happy to tangle with what precisely being an “expert” or “authority” entails, but that is a post for another time).

I suggest starting with reading in the areas you are initially interested in. Without going into too much detail, I suggest working on some generative lists to brainstorm which things are of central interest to you.  These may be intellectual questions (How do schools contribute to inequality), or elements of your life path (why was the schooling experience so different in these different places I lived), or commitments to particular communities (undocumented Latinx students), academic disciplines (sociology, anthropology), or methodological approaches (ethnography or large data sets?). You may start broad with something like:

I am interested in equity in education.

While important, this is not helpful here because almost every educational researcher I have ever met is interested in it. See if you can bring this down to a more specific but concise statement. Perhaps you come to something like:

I want to become a researcher to better understand how undocumented, Latinx students in the U.S. struggle in schools, and how those struggles serve to further marginalize them in America. I’m also interested in the fact that there are kids like this in both rural and urban settings, and that seems significant. My research will likely be qualitative, and is informed by sociology and anthropology.

This is a good place to start. It suggests a place to direct your efforts, books to read, people to talk to.  Then your next step is in finding a program that will help you become an expert in the above. It may be that there is no “perfect” program, and so you may need to decide which of these things are priorities for you – which things are most central, and which things are less so.  This will position you for the next part of the search.

The Ph.D. as Apprenticeship: Who is doing the kind of work that excites you?

Doctoral study and doctoral admission processes are unlike undergraduate or even master’s programs: at the heart, you are looking for an advisor.  Doctoral study is an apprenticeship, where you will learn a craft under the tutelage of particular people.  As already mentioned, doctoral study takes a long time, but it also includes labor (acting as a research assistant, teaching assistant, or even lecturer).  Faculty are looking for a protege who will both contribute to their own research projects, but also (eventually) push them to re-think their own work in creative or innovative ways.  They expect to train you, but they are also preparing you to be a future colleague; you are someone they may co-publish with, share a lab with, or invite to an editorial board. In the best cases, you may form a life-long friendship with your advisor.

In my experience, looking at descriptions of doctoral programs in the social sciences or education is practically a distraction. My top advice is to look for people.  Look for scholars who are authorities in the areas that you want to be expert in and then find where they are – with which universities or programs are they affiliated?  Read through faculty profiles and their lists of publications and consider how they do their work. If you find someone who looks interesting, try to pick up their articles or book and read through it.  Look for someone who is intellectually exciting to you.  After you find the scholars, look at the programs with which they are affiliated and read through the descriptions.  Hopefully there are multiple scholars affiliated  with the one you’ve identified.

In the example above, the applicant was interested in Latinx kids in schools.  So to which program should they apply?  Well, the question should be: with whom do they want to study? An expert in these areas may be found anywhere.  The perfect mentor might be in a sociology program, a graduate school for education, an ethnic studies program, an American studies program, an urban studies program or something seemingly random (maybe urban planning?).  I suggest that applicants search wide to identify the best fits for them. If you are coming out of a relevant undergraduate or master’s experience, ask your old faculty about who does interesting work in this area.

Some applicants are dedicated to a particular discipline (sociology, economics, or whatnot).  For some this is rooted in a real intellectual commitment, but sometimes I find the connection is thin.  Someone wants to study sociology because they had a great instructor in undergrad; someone wants to avoid political science because they had a terrible and boring professor in undergrad.  I recommend keeping an open mind at this stage – don’t give up that connection, but don’t necessarily discard other options.  (Of course this may be particularly different in the natural sciences where chemistry and particle physics are fundamentally different.  I do think, however, that the focus on the faculty and their work is a good idea even in that setting).

Most likely, you will not find someone that hits every mark here – and that’s ok.  You just want to be sure that this person will serve as a guide for you in this process – you don’t have to be an intellectual clone.  But it may mean that you have to think about priorities and make compromises. Think about topical alignments, theoretical/philosophical alignments and methodological alignments.

For example, the fictional applicant above decides that the Latinx experience is central, but some other things are more open, and finds four potential advisors.

The first (a) is in a sociology department studying the experiences of undocumented, Latinx people in the U.S.  She does work with large data sets in an attempt to capture what is going on with this population nationally, and has a whole article comparing urban to rural differences.  She seems more interested in labor than schools, and doesn’t really do any qualitative work, but seems open to mixed methods.

The second potential advisor (b) works in an Ed School’s urban studies program, and does extensive work with how Puerto Rican girls are marginalized in urban schools in Newark, NJ.  Xe has not done any work on rural settings and Boricua girls (of course) can’t really be undocumented.  But this scholar has pushed on issues of intersectionality that the applicant finds fascinating.

Let’s imagine that there are a (c) and (d) as well – equally compelling in different ways.

Which of these is the right choice?  On to the next steps.

The funding/selectivity/prestige conundrum.

In the spirit of open frankness about things with which I don’t necessarily agree, it is time to turn to institutional inequality. For various reasons, institutional standing has big consequence at the doctoral level.  Generally speaking, doctoral applicants often aim for large, heavily-resourced, research-rich universities for their training.  This is not only about the quality of experience, but also about the prestige and funding available.  I find it unfair, but a recent study revealed how hierarchical academia is:

The data revealed that just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in these three fields. Just 18 elite universities produce half of all computer science professors, 16 schools produce half of all business professors, and eight schools account for half of all history professors. (see more here).

Of course there are competitive individuals from other institutions, and as this study revealed, they are often trained by scholars from the top ranked institutions themselves (and thus logically, the quality of experience must be high).  Furthermore, many of the colleagues that I personally and intellectually value are not all trained in the same alma mater – but you do need a sense of what you are walking into.

Also unfortunately, funding and competition go hand in hand. I often describe the competition as either “front-loaded” or “back-loaded.”  Feel free to help me out with a better term, as these are not exactly catchy.  What do I mean here?

“Front-loaded” competition means that it is very difficult to get in, but funding is either guaranteed, or easy to come by through various means.  “Back-loaded” competition means its relatively easy to get in, the cohorts are much larger, but students compete during the program for various resources.

“Back-loaded”  programs may also expect that not all students will finish, and may have specific plans for pushing people out – i.e. systematically dismissing 25% of students by the second year and offering them a master’s degree as a consolation prize.  No one will advertise this, and it may be hard to get someone to talk about, but there are certainly programs where this happens.  Students may rely on loans for the bulk of their studies. It may also be that there is limited funding, but it needs to be patch-worked together each year, and students may be in competition with one another, making politics complicated. There are always those who thrive in a “back-loaded” program, but it is not for everyone.

For the fictive applicant above, although four faculty may be equally compelling in their research, they may work in places with very different funding packages and be afforded different degrees of respect in the field. These are all important considerations.  When you are down to your final list, always ask how funding works; faculty can be extremely helpful on funding, but insights from financial aid staff and current students are also crucial. Speaking of which . . .

Talk to Students.

Getting a Ph.D. does not make you a good person. Faculty have Ph.D.’s, but they are deeply human, with every idiosyncrasy you can imagine.

There are faculty who serve as warm and delightful mentors, invite you to their homes, offer you co-authorship to get your work out there, and become life-long friends.  There are also faculty members who sexually harass you, make you walk their dog, steal your ideas and pass them off as their own, and do everything possible to break you.  Realistically, the vast majority are in the middle – just doing the best they can to hold it all together.  Talk to current students who work with the professor you are interested in – just because their work is exciting does not mean that they will be a great person to work with. But also, keep your expectations reasonable – but more on this in Part V (coming soon).

And even if the faculty member is great the broader department or campus climate might be complicated.  Its not a great situation if your advisor is amazing, but everyone else in the department is a misanthrope.  Again, talk to current students just to get a sense.

How do you reach out to scholars you are interested in?

Many applicants know they are supposed to reach out, but not much beyond that. When I was an applicant more than ten years ago, I recall sending notes to professors without a clear sense of what I was supposed to achieve.  I even recall meeting with one, not knowing precisely what I was supposed to talk about.  Thankfully, I am fairly certain that that scholar does not in any way recollect our awkward conversation.

Reach out to faculty that you have already done your homework on – never reach out and ask someone to explain their work to you.  Also, never reach out to simply “request” to be their student.  They cannot make that decision based upon an e-mail, and so that rings pretty awkwardly.  Instead, my recommendation is to reach out to faculty that you are interested in with a concise but thoughtful note where you try to start a conversation.

Dear Professor B,

I am a recent graduate from (institution) with a background in sociology and real dedication to understanding the struggles of Latinx kids in schools.  Your work on Boricua girls really struck home for me, and I would love the opportunity to learn more about it.  Your work really highlighted for me how all sorts of identities intersect on the ground.

In my own emerging work, I am thinking about undocumented students.  I know this is a bit different, but I was wondering if you’ve thought about the implications for other Latinx kids who are also struggling with their legal status on top of everything else? I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Respectfully yours,

It is perfectly appropriate to send a note like the one above. Faculty generally want to talk about their work with someone who is interested in it; you might exchange some notes, or at best, be invited to visit in an office or go out for coffee. However, it is also possible that you will not get a response. Faculty can be extraordinarily busy and may receive dozens of e-mails a day – they may not be able to respond. Or they may be on a research project, trying to get a grant proposal in, trying to grade forty papers, traveling to see a sick friend, assemble a tenure package, or who knows what else.  Do not take their silence personally.

I think if you do not get a response a couple of weeks after the first note, you can send a follow up note just to inquire.  If you do not get a response to that one, I suggest leaving it alone.  Its ok to send a note, but don’t stray into hounding or harassing someone.

Revision 6/6/18: Some faculty see this as an opportunity to get to know someone better.  There are some disciplines or fields, however, that discourage applicants from connecting with faculty.  There are also some faculty who find it inappropriate – as somehow clouding up the process. In many cases, faculty will either (a) not respond, or (b) inform you that they have a policy against connecting.  Generally, however, I do not think that reaching out will harm applicant’s chances – I would just caution against being too assertive.

When are you sure?

Is this it?  Is this the program to apply to?  Do you really want to be a researcher? a scholar?  Do you want to move to Chicago?  or Boston? Do you have what it takes? A quick word on decision-making in life, and those who seem to endlessly weigh every possible variable.  Like every big decision in life, most of us are not blessed with an epiphany; the clouds will not part and a ray of light will not shine down on one program to let you know that this is the right decision for you.

There is only so much you can do in preparation to buy a house, find a marriage partner, or have a child.  Of course you do your homework, you test the waters, you weigh the pros and cons, you compare, and you talk to people so that you know what you are getting into. But you really will not know if being a parent is for you until you actually have a child.  Like anything else in life, there are no guarantees and no simple answers.  At some point, you have to make a decision, roll the dice, and do the best with what you get. There is both anxiety and excitement in that dice roll – but no one can tell you ahead of time if it will work out for you in the long run.

Your experience will be driven by intellectual ideas, but also by the people with whom you share those intellectual ideas. Some people will end up slipping into the academic lifestyle more easily, and some will struggle. And I think a good deal of that transition is related to various forms of privilege and to having supportive people in your life. And yet, I think most of us struggle in grad school – even those who appear not to. But this is a topic to which I will return in Part V, What is life like as a Ph.D. student? (coming soon).  For now, let’s assume you are committed enough to give it a go and you’ve found some strong potential fits.  It is time to tackle the application itself (Part III).

In the meantime, again, if you have questions, you can ask them below.


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