Applying for a PhD


Every year a lot of prospective students ask me about how applications to grad school work. This page describes the kinds of responses I tend to give. These are not official answers of any kind, just my advice… They mostly are based on the Columbia process and so advice here mightn’t work for everywhere

Is the right program for me?

  1. How long does it take? PhDs in political science in in the US take about 6 years to complete; so they take a long time and require commitment and flexibility. One reason they take such a long time is that the first two (and sometimes three) years are spent doing classwork. There is really no way around doing coursework and so if you want a shorter program or feel that you are ready to start writing a dissertation, you could look to a program such as many in the UK that do not require classwork.

  2. Who is it for? PhDs at US schools are really geared towards people who want to go on to careers in research and teaching in universities. If you want to go on to work with international organizations or do more field work you might find that masters degrees such as MPAs or even MBAs will be more helpful. With that said many do go on and do great work in all kinds of fields and always with full support of the faculty!

  3. Do not choose a university on the basis of one person you want to work with. Chances are that over the course of a dissertation your interests and approaches will change a lot and the people you wanted to work with coming in might not be the people you want to work with later. Instead focus on the broader collection of faculty in a program; the problem with focusing on just one person whose work you like is that you might find that once you come you find them hard to work with or gone.

  4. Is it too expensive? PhD students in many US PhD programs get full funding so for the “typical” student funding is not an issue. However, if you are an advanced student “full funding” could be substantially less than what you are earning in the private sector and is likely not enough to support a family.

Do you have advice on the applications?

  1. Apply broadly; these processes are very unpredictable and excellent applications get turned down by excellent places so you want to be sure of a few options at the end of the process

  2. All applications go through the formal process (applications are due beginning of December). There are to my knowledge no exceptions to this

  3. You do not need to have identified an advisor before you start; in fact that typically happens only in the third year of the program (and even then unlike many European programs you will likely have multiple advisors)

  4. The statement of purpose is extremely important; you should use it to show that you can think like a scholar (and not, as many do, to show that you are passionate about politics); so for this you should identify one or two puzzles you care about, say why they are interesting to you and how you might want to answer them. You can draw on literature but the point is not to show that you already know the literature and have all the skills you need, but that you are thinking clearly about the issues. There is no need to put a lot of time tailoring your statement to particular universities (especially there is no need to use space saying how great the place is or how good the fit would be; the readers will make that assessment from the content)
  5. Letters of reference are important and especially if you are getting them from professors outside the US they should know that the norm in the US is for substantial letters, normally more than one page in length, that describe you and how you think, not just whether you show up to class (some are like that)
  6. The GREs sadly are used quite heavily in many universities; people who get in are normally in the top 10 percentile or so and often in the top 1 or 2. You can train especially for these and you should.

What other faculty members should I contact before I apply?

  1. My general sense is that you shouldn’t spend much (any!) time contacting faculty members before you apply. A lot of people do this but I think there is not that much real value in it. Typically contacts with faculty are not likely to help your application succeed since in most places most faculty are not on admissions committees and even if they are, the decisions are based on the file and on the reading of multiple readers and not on extra knowledge that individual faculty members have. Also typically they are not substantively helpful contacts either; discussing what universities are the best fit is a little abstract when there are not yet any actual options on the table and so these conversations often revolve around asking questions for which you can find answers on line anyway which many faculty often find a bit frustrating. However if you still are convinced that contacts will raise your profile then I suggest it is enough to send a note describing your interests and perhaps giving a link to some of your work
  2. Individual faculty typically cannot (or will not) tell you whether your chances of getting in are low or high
  3. Make contact once you have choices. If faculty can be distant before the applications process, once accepted you will likely find a real role reversal and that faculty can have a lot of time to help you think through your options

That’s it; it’s all very general advice so if you have questions that you are not finding answers to here do drop me a note