Sunday, March 11, 2012

If At First You Do Not Succeed

Lots of posts these days about whether to go to grad school for a PhD, including by Dan DreznerDrew Herrick has a nice post that not only presents his views but heaps of links to past posts by various folks (including myself) on this topic.  What these blogs have largely omitted is any discussion of what happens to the aspirants who do not get in or who get in but without funding (which most folks then say "run away!").

When I was applying to grad school in a galaxy far away, in a time long ago, I didn't get into several schools, and those were the ones that notified me the most quickly.  So, I remember the panic that ensued.  The first bit of consolation is this: about half of the folks who got in (or more) will not be finishing.  So, if you choose to end the quest now, you will be saving time and stress far sooner than those who go and then do not finish. 

Okay, not much consolation there.  The good news is that there are many ways to pursue your interest in poli sci and/or IR even if you do not get a PhD.  I had friends who got into the CIA and State pretty much out of college.  They might be exceptions, but there are government jobs that will engage that curiosity and interest in ways that writing heaps of seminar papers will not.  Likewise, there are think tanks, lobbying groups, non-profits and all the rest.  And the good news is that if you can find a good job, it will probably be in a place where your partner/spouse/whatever will be more likely to find a job (unless they are an academic).  As I always harp on, the best way to lose control over where you live is to get a Phd and become a professor.  So, if you do not end up being a prof, you may end up having more control over the rest of your life.  The bright side of globalization is that more and more firms have an interest in that stuff over there, so they will need to hire folks who have an interest in that stuff. 
An MA might be a good idea as that might open doors into the policy world, journalism, and alternative careers.

If you are really committed to getting a Phd, check out this site.  Ok, you are back--has that changed your mind?  While the profession is not chock full of horrible people, they often do occupy key nodes and serve to make people miserable.  Job security often means for the horrible people a license to do damage and for the people nearby a lifetime of enduring.  There are real penalties for working a career with limited mobility.

Ok, let's imagine that I have not persuaded you that you are better off not going to grad school for a PhD in political science/IR.  What should you do to get into grad school?  Good question.  I guess the obvious stuff still makes some sense: figure out the weaknesses in your application:

  • If your grades were low or you didn't have much poli sci in college, then an MA might be the thing you need to re-set your grades, demonstrate competency, and get a new set of potential letter-writers.  This is a big, big investment, but if your undergrad grades are lousy, this is the only way to change their impact.  There is enough competition that someone else who has demonstrated an ability to do poli sci well is a less risky bet.  
    • Don't expect the MA to reduce the number of courses you take for your PhD or the time to complete it (this is all written for North American programs).
  • If your test scores are low, then work on improving them.   Seems obvious, right?  Well, changing your GRE scores is a whole lot easier than changing whatever your grade point average is.  You can re-take the GREs, but you cannot re-take college.  Some places really care about GREs, others less so, but you can work on test-taking and you can work on the math and the rest.  
  • Work on the letters of recommendation: if you do not have any profs/employers who know you well, then work on the relationships so that they can put a bit more time in your letter.  And no, I don't know you well, so don't ask me, please.  Oy, what I am doing? 
    • Give them more info about your plans, your strengths and examples of those strengths so that they can more easily make the letter more personalized.
    • The standard stuff also applies--give your letter writers more time--a rushed letter is not a good letter.  
    • Don't over-tax the letter-writers.  If you apply to 20 programs, the chances that all of your letter-writers are going to take care of all of the letters declines.  You can even ask the letter-writers where you should apply.  They might tell you to apply to places where they know people.
  • Have your friends and letter-writers read your existing proposal, sample and whatever else you send in.  The one or two page research statement is one of the few things you can control at this point (your grades are mostly fixed, the test scores will be whatever they end up being).  
    • Make sure it is well-written, concise, interesting.  That it demonstrates that you have a creative mind and the ability to think theoretically.  Not that you have to demonstrate you have a paradigm you love, but that you are interested in developing and extending generalizable theories.  The funny thing is I wrote something about studying arms racing even though I didn't know much about it and they (UCSD) had no one who did such stuff at the time.  I have no clue why they admitted me.  
    • Do your research on where you are applying so that you fit the program.  Saying you want to do field research but not numbers at a place that is known for producing quantitative scholars is probably not a wise thing. 
  • Which speaks to the big issue--apply carefully.  Figure out programs, not individuals, as my experience is that individuals do not make admissions decisions but committees do.  So, figure out where your profile would play best, where you would excel the most.  If you write your app to fit a certain strength of a program, be sure it is still a strength.  For instance, don't apply to McGill next year hoping to do the IR of ethnic conflict or civ-mil stuff as I am not going to be at McGill.  There is some movement, but places do not update their websites that quickly.  So, do take care and research as much as you can.  
  • Update: I didn't include the following advice: get policy experience.  This was an unintentional oversight but was reminded of this by a tweet this morning.  Getting some really cool experience somewhere might help, but if you are getting a really cool experience, I would suggest sticking with that.  Anyhow, I am not sure how committees view such experiences as they go through hundreds of files. I would assume that such experiences matter more to policy schools.  Dan Drezner will be posting later this week on getting into grad school so his experience/perspective might be different.
  • Update 2: One strategy to take is to gamble. Apply to a program that you think is underrated but is on an upward trajectory.  This is, indeed, a gamble since places may not actually get a better reputation or improve their training.  I think this partially answers my own personal mystery--that I got into UCSD when it was rising.  I highly doubt that my record from 1988 would get me into UCSD in 2012. Rely on your advisers to help you figure out where you might have a better chance but proceed with caution.
This is just my take.  I have not been on the admissions committee for a couple of years, and the process, like grading, causes brain damage.  So, tell me if I am wrong, tell me what I am forgetting.

One thing to keep in mind--the odds of getting in these days are against you.  McGill would get 100 apps for eight spots (and spread out among the subfields relatively evenly).  So, this may seem depressing, but you should also realize that it is not so much about you but about others who fit better.  And, of course, committees get things wrong--just as some team will draft the wrong player despite investing millions of dollars in scouting, departments may admit lesser candidates because their file played particularly well for a particular committee member. 

1 comment:

Mike Tierney said...


Very good advice.

A few additions and quibbles from someone who has never sat on a PhD Admissions Committee, but who has sent many students to PhD land.

1. If you want to get a PhD, do real research as an undergraduate. Struggling with an honors thesis for a whole year will tell you whether you are good at research and will tell you whether you like research. In my limited experience, the drop out/don't finish rate is very low among students who have done real research. They know what they are getting into and are thus a much safer bet to finish. As a means to an end, this is a very strong signal to admissions committees. If you have worked on NSF funded projects, done field research in a foreign language, collected data, analyzed data, presented research at a conference, etc... then you are a leg up on everyone else who is applying. Undergraduate research at most universities is an afterthought, so if you can do it, you distinguish yourself.

2. GRE scores are a very important screen at most top programs and they are quite manipulable if you are willing to study the math and the vocabulary word lists. I have had students increase scores by 200+ points. So, this means that the GRE test is likely a terrible screen for whether someone will do well in grad school, but since grad programs use them, you are an idiot for not studying and memorizing useless geometry that you forgot after leaving 10th grade.

3. The "get policy experience" runs counter to everything I have heard from my colleagues at top 10 programs. To paraphrase Neal Beck, "We don't want diplomats or political consultants, we want really good students. We know you are a good student because you have done well in school."

4. I'll continue with your tortured NFL draft analogy. Totally agree on the point that "teams sometimes fail to draft the best player." One of the best students I have ever had was not accepted by any top 10 program, but he is now playing on a Mid-West team with a chip on his shoulder and is on the way to the pro bowl.

5. Since the admissions process is variable and programs accept few applicants, you should apply broadly. I have had students get rejected from Northwestern, Chicago, Berkeley, and Michigan, but get into Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. Apply broadly.