La Profesora Abstraída

Weblog of Michelle Dion, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, at McMaster University. My blog has moved to Visit my other website.

Monday, July 24, 2006

So you want to get a Ph.D.? Part III

Earlier posts covered reasons for getting a Ph.D. and why it matters where you get your Ph.D.

How to figure out which program may be right for you.

Come up with a list of the types of research questions that interest you most. Is your interest in American government? European politics? International relations? List your favorite undergraduate classes and topics. What about them interested you? What would you like to learn more about?

Armed with this list of your interests, do some research on the top programs (use any of the ranking tools, though none are perfect and some are outdated). Look at the department websites. See if you recognize faculty names from things you've read in your upper-level classes. Poke around. Find the names of faculty working on the area(s) that you are interested in. Look at the description of the graduate program.

Put together a list of 10 programs that you think might be good for you. List the names of the people working in 'your' area of interest at each school. List what you like/don't like about the Ph.D. program description (too many/few fields required, funding?, placement).

Then, talk to as many faculty members in your current institution as will give you time [during office hours] to get feedback on your first list. Show them your list of schools and list of names. Ask if they would add any schools to your list. Double check with more than one faculty member to make sure they are not biased. There should be good overlap between professors in the same area in the same department.

They know more than you do and may be willing to share. For instance, I was trying to decide between a particular top 10 program with no funding and a top 20 program with full funding. I talked to one of my undergrad advisors who told me that the primary Latin Americanist at the top 10 place had a reputation for being strange, arbitrary, and a bit uneven. They may also know about people who have recently moved or who are about to retire.

Your advisors may also be able to point out differences between two places that might not otherwise be apparent. For instance, both UC-Berkeley and UC-San Diego have excellent Ph.D. programs and a number of people studying Latin America. They are, however, worlds apart in certain respects. Depending on a student's interests, quantitative inclinations, etc. one might be better than the other.

That's why it's important, once you've narrowed your selection to five/six schools that you do a little research on the types of research being done by the faculty in the area you wish to study. [If you can't be bothered to do that much research, then how would you ever hope to finish a Ph.D.?]

Get the faculty names from the department webpage and use Google Scholar to look up their work. Usually, you can read the abstracts of the articles for free (if you're not currently in school), and that will at least give you an idea of the types of things they study and how often they seem to publish.

After you've narrowed it down, go back to your undergraduate faculty advisor (during office hours) and show them your new list.

Questions I think all students should be able to answer about the programs to which they are submitting applications:
Are all students admitted funded, or do students have to scramble/compete for funding once they arrive?

How competitive is admission?

Where have recent Ph.D.s been placed, particularly in your field of interest?

What are the degree requirements? Do students seem to finish in a timely fashion?

Are there enough faculty in your field and other secondary fields of interest?

Do those faculty train graduate students? [You can look up Ph.D. dissertations online by advisor through Dissertation Abstracts.]

Naturally, I didn't have the answers to all of these questions when I applied for a Ph.D. and most of them I didn't even think to ask. But, they are things I wish I had known. I'm not sure I would have made any different choices, but I got lucky.

Maybe later in the fall I'll post about application essays and funding.

posted by Michelle @ 9:55 PM,


At 7/25/2006 4:48 PM, Blogger Chris Lawrence said...

One other point on funding prospective students should ask: how long is your funding guaranteed for?

At 7/25/2006 6:30 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

True. And I also advise students to give added consideration to places that fund ALL students for 4 years b/c it provides for a more collegial/less cutthroat environment. Many of the 'top' programs don't fund 100% and students wihtout funding often find academic side jobs, but IMHO it better be a really top (say top 5) program to be worth the risk of having to pay out of pocket or wait tables while getting your Ph.D.

At 7/26/2006 1:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As somebody who just went through the application process and went to 4 top 5 recruitment weekends, my impression is that all the top programs now fund fully for 5 years. At least that's the package I and every other person I met got.

At 7/26/2006 12:46 PM, Blogger Chris Lawrence said...

I can see the argument for possibly going out of pocket while at a "top 5" school.

That said, I think the preferred strategy for a marginal candidate who can't get guaranteed funding at a "top 5" school would be to go elsewhere for an MA (while on the PhD track) and try to go "top 5" for the PhD. The downside is that you'll probably waste a year in additional coursework (but repeating a few grad seminars as the one student in the room who already knows the literature probably isn't the worst position in the world to be in). The upside is that if you're good enough transfer into the top 5 program, they'll probably fund you for 3-4 years.

At 7/26/2006 8:03 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Anonymous, that's good to hear. I understood that Berkeley and UCLA, for instance, don't fund 100% of students for 4 years. Duke hasn't always funded all students. Columbia didn't fund 100% either.

Now, most students are probably able to find on-campus jobs, sometimes as RAs/TAs in other departments, even at these places, but that's not the same as training within your home department. It requires more hustle and means that you'll have to divide your energies between your studies in PS and whatever work you get on campus. It also means students will be even more competitive in class if unfunded students are trying to get your funding.

I also understand that many places won't guarantee funding the first year, but if you make it through the first year, you have a better chance of getting funding.

Also, many students don't realize that if they are accepted into more than one program, they may be able to bargain for more. For instance, I was trying to decide between 2 and talked to the graduate director of the one that was offering a smaller stipend. He said he could get me a summer TAship that would give me a more comparable package and summer $. But all that is for the next series of posts. :) Of course, you don't want to be ugly or a hard ass about it.

At 7/26/2006 8:03 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Good points, Chris. That would be my advice, exactly--assuming a student wants to maximize their post-PhD job options.

At 7/27/2006 6:33 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Berkeley still doesn't fund everybody for four years and neither does Columbia. I recently was offered funding for years 2,3 and 4 at Berkeley but only fees and tuition for the first year. As a non-citizen (a poor one) who can't get loans I couldn't take them up on it and am starting fully funded at a 'tier II' place in september.

At 7/27/2006 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Duke funds over 95% of all its students. Rarely if ever will they offer admission to someone if they are not willing to pay for him/her.

Isn't UNC the one that doesn't fund all of its students?


At 8/11/2006 10:21 PM, Blogger Michelle said...

Sorry for the delay. At UNC, when I attended, all students were offered 4 years of funding, though some students 'lost' funding if they didn't meet certain milestones according to schedule.

Duke may fund most students, but I knew several who TA'd for other departments and pieced together jobs outside of poli sci.

At 10/10/2006 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may want to update your info on how UNC currently treats graduates. Things have clearly changed.


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