Saturday, April 2, 2011

Applying to Graduate Schools

Another Formspring Question! Yay!
The question is edited for grammar.
Hi, since u got into a PhD program without a masters, can u plz give some advice on how that was possible? I'm a sophomore in college now, but I was told a masters is required before PhD. Also what about personal statements? how can we make it strong? Thankx.
Thank you for the question, seeker-of-important-information! Good thing I'd written on this elsewhere, and so, much of what I'm saying here is being pasted from there. But parts, I'm adding now.

Before anything, I'm no one to be giving anyone any guidance or advice on this. I myself am new at it, and I don't know why or how I got admission into the program I got into. But thank you for trusting me to give you some tips :) Those who know better than I do are requested to correct me where I may be wrong.

Now, whenever someone tells you something--anything--about anything, verify it for yourself. And this is for everything, not just regarding graduate and other professional schools. Just in life in general, you wanna believe that nothing people are telling you is over 40% true, and so you thank them for what they're telling you, but then go check it yourself. And for grad school, you'll get different information from everyone, depending on who you talk to.

I can only speak on humanities (and social sciences), nothing else.
Yes, I don't have a Master's, and I don't plan to get one. I, too, originally thought you were required to have an MA/MS before going for a PhD, but my teachers told me that that's not the case with all programs. The Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Program at Indiana University, for example, requires that all PhD applicants have a Master's; Indiana University's Religious Studies program, however, doesn't require it (they say that they'll give you the MA on the way to your PhD). So you see how different the requirements can be for the exact same school but in different departments? Of course, they'll always bear an exception here and there: If you're exceptionally good and needed in the field, then they'll forgive you for not having a Master's. But this is rare. Like really rare.

Most people will recommend you get an MA before going for a PhD, for obvious reasons: If you're studying something that requires a deep knowledge of a certain language, then you can gain that through your MA; you get more experience and more knowledge in your field(s); you get to increase your GRE score; you build a stronger and larger network of scholars and students in your field(s); and so on.

In a future post, I'll talk about personal statements (though, again, you don't wanna turn to me on tips for this!), because that's rrrrrrrrrrreally important. But for now, I'll make this only how to select the school that best fits you and your interests.

1. Have a strong group of advisers to guide you in the right direction. Make sure you have at least one professor during your undergraduate career who knows you well enough to recommend who you should talk to, help you build your network, suggest ideas for your proposal and potential research, and so on. I realized only now how important that was. Had I not had this one particular teacher of mine, I don't think I'd be anywhere where I am today. And he knows me both personally and academically, so that helped a lot. Any time he meets a new scholar in my field, he gives me her/his contact information and says, "Tell them I told you to write to them." They can also help you decide which schools to apply to and which ones to avoid (they tend to know the inside information that you're unlikely to get otherwise); for some programs, there are tons of schools you can apply to, and it can be frustrating figuring out which ones are best for you. Since your teachers love you and want the best for you, they'd never lie to you or give you wrong advice on purpose. Ultimately, however, the decision is only yours to make.

2. You choose your school not for its name/prestige but for at least ONE person who can work with you there. You have to have a certain research goal for a strong proposal, and you NEED to choose a school that has the resources to help you pursue that particular topic. If the school doesn't have the faculty to meet your interests/needs, then you are not going to get accepted, even if your application receives the highest ranking.

3. Make sure that you start your research long before you start your applications. I'd suggest, from personal experiences, something like perhaps a year in advance. This means you should contact the departments of the schools you're interested in, contact the faculty (if their research/academic interests aren't available on their website, email them and ask them what they do), tell them what YOUR interests are and ask them to refer you to someone in that school who does what you wanna do. It's okay if you email more than necessary -- that way, when they get your application, they won't go, "Hm, who's this person?" (Chances are, if they recognize your name, they might give your application more time. Or so I've heard.)

4. Remember that you don't have to apply directly to the department through which you'd like your degree in. For instance, if you wanna do something like Islamic Studies, you don't necessarily have to apply to the Religious Studies department of all schools; you might find that the Arabic Studies department is stronger and has a better faculty who meets your research needs, OR maybe the Anthropology Department is even better. You'd just have to explain it very, very clearly what exactly the connection between your potential research and the program you're applying to is so they know that you know why you applied there.

5. Some schools offer a combination of a Master's and PhD in some departments -- in the exact same amount of time as a regular PhD would take (~ 5 years). If you're interested in getting two degrees through one application and in one go, check with your potential school.

6. Be sure to let your recommenders know WAY ahead of time that they'll be writing your recommendation letters (I mean, ask them, of course, not tell them; it's more polite and appreciated). Set deadlines for yourself. The deadline for most PhD applications are on or around Dec. 15th of each year. IMPORTANT: Some schools have this policy that your recommenders won't be able to write/submit your letter until AFTER you have submitted your application! This can be dangerous, especially if you wait till the last minute to submit your application. So be sure to let your recommenders know if this is the case with any of the schools you're applying to, and discuss with them your timing so that they can have ample time to write your letter.
More later, especially on personal statements and proposals.


  1. All good advice. Just a few additional comments (from someone on the admitting side of Ph.D. admissions):

    Re #3. I wouldn't recommend writing to professors to see what research they do. Find that out on your own. Use the library or article databases to figure out what they work on, and then, if you want to know more you can ask them what they are working on right now. But don't try to force your project to fit someone else's work. Instead, describe your project and then mention how their areas of expertise will help you to do your project. It is true that you are more likely to get accepted if you have already had some positive communication with the people you want to work with. On the flip side, don't leave out anyone who's research might fit yours (but don't go overboard either). This year we had an applicant in my dept who wanted to work with Prof X because he's a big name in the field but her topic was actually closer to my interests. Prof X wasn't interested in her, and I wasn't as interested as I might have been because I was offended that she didn't mention wanting to work with me.

    Re: #4, I get what you mean but note that your 'degree' (the title that is listed on your diploma and that you will list on your CV) will usually be determined by the department, regardless of what your research is. You might be interested in Islamic Studies but if your department is Anthro your degree will be in Anthropology.

  2. Thanks for your wonderful insight, Zuhura! I was hoping you'd comment and offer some useful suggestions/advice in addition to correcting me here and there. Thank you!

    Ahhh - that was not expressed well on my part! I certainly didn't intend to suggest that they write to professors and ask what they do without doing your own research about them first and becoming familiar with their works and contributions first. I contacted mine once I developed a good few specific questions to ask them about their research and had some comments to make about it. That way, they had a reason to respond.

    You know, your point on the "flip side" may seem common sense, but many, many of my teachers warned me about that, and I can see how applicants can easily neglect to think about it. And that's why we are (I was) advised to start looking at the kinds of people I'd wanna work with, why them and not someone else, how my research would be relevant to theirs, and so on long, LONG before I was to apply to grad school.

    For #4, thanks for the clarification! I meant to say so that they know that you're capable of explaining how your goals are connected to the particular program you're applying for. (In my case, I still can't explain to someone what my potential dissertation will be about :D See why I can't understand how in heavens I got in? LOL.)


Dare to opine :)

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