Tips on applying for a US social science PhD

A row of six people dressed in graduation caps and gowns.  It is a mixed group of men and women, who are black and white(Image via Essence)

I’ve received a number of emails recently asking for advice on navigating the PhD application process in the US.  I’ll share some of my general thoughts here, with the caveat that I did my applications more than five years ago, and can speak most specifically to social science PhDs, particularly in political science.  If you have any other recommendations to add, please do let me know!

Clarify why you’re interested in doing a PhD.  In the US, a doctorate is regarded primarily (if not exclusively, in some fields) as preparation for an academic career.  Personally, I find this frustrating, since the research skills, subject area knowledge, and capacity for critical thought which you build during a PhD are excellent assets in many different jobs.  But there are some powerful institutional incentives which explain this professional focus on academic careers.  Most saliently, the tuition grants and stipends which PhD students receive make doctoral programs a cost center for universities.  Spending money on PhD students primarily makes sense if it’s viewed as an investment in an ongoing supply of future faculty.  It is possible to do a doctorate and then pursue a career outside of academia, but you should be aware that if you enroll in a PhD program, all the professional development and networking you receive will be aimed at helping you find an academic job.  Some departments even refuse to admit applicants who state that they don’t want to go into academia.  If you really don’t want to go into academia, consider whether you could do an MA, or get additional work experience, in order to build the skills you need to continue your desired career.

Choose a concrete, detailed research question to discuss in your application.  Admissions committees are primarily interested in seeing whether you appear to have intellectual merit — a base of curiosity, knowledge, and critical thinking skills which can be further sharpened with the training of your discipline.  They are not particularly interested in your personal life or previous work experience, unless either of these speaks to the research that you plan to do.  Of course, you can and should discuss your background briefly in your application, but it should build up to the research questions that you’d like to study.

A strong application will show that you’ve done a fair amount of reading in your discipline already, and identified a gap in the literature that interests you. You should also try to draw a specific and detailed research question out of this literature, rather than simply discussing a research topic.  By way of example, “ethnic politics in Kenya” is a research topic.  “How did the recent devolution reforms affect the political representation of minority groups in Kenya?” is a research question.  The purpose of selecting a question like this is not to set your research direction for the rest of your PhD, as you’ll almost certainly change or at least refine your question with further study.  Instead, it’s to demonstrate that you are at least broadly familiar with your field, and can identify a promising direction for future research.

Select universities and departments which are a good fit for your research interests.  There are several factors which affect whether a department is a good fit for you.  An obvious one is your subject area — are there any faculty members who specialize in the geographic region or topic that interests you?  Another is your preference for research methods.  Some political science departments focus heavily on the use of quantitative methods, while others are open to qualitative research or mixed methods.  If you have a general sense of the research questions which interest you, this will help you determine whether you want to seek out training in specific types of research methods.  A third factor is the tenure timelines of the faculty you might want to work with.   Assistant professors are generally given a decision on whether they will receive tenure after several years working at the university.  If they don’t receive tenure, they’ll generally look for a job at another university. This means that if you find a non-tenured advisor who looks like a great fit for your work, there is a small but non-zero risk that they will have to leave halfway through your PhD if they don’t receive tenure. 

The best way to get answers to the questions above is to speak with current graduate students at the departments to which you plan to apply.  Most department websites will list the contact information for current students, and I’ve had excellent luck with cold contacting current students.  (I’m also happy to speak to anyone who’s interested in the political science PhD at Berkeley.)  Current students can give you information that’s not available on the department website, such as which professors are supportive mentors to their students, and which ones are coming up for tenure soon. 

Once you have identified departments which seem like a good fit for you, make sure you mention the reasons why you feel like it’s a good fit in your application.  This shows the admissions committee that you are serious in your interest in the program, and more likely to attend if you are admitted.  You don’t necessarily have to mention that “Rachel Strohm said this professor is fantastic,” but you should be able to connect your research interests to those of two or three professors who you might like to work with.  You should also mention other university resources which seem relevant to your work, such as a rigorous training sequence in quantitative methods, or the presence of an African studies center which will allow you to connect to students working on African issues across various disciplines. 

Consider finances seriously.  Many US universities will offer admitted PhD students a multi-year funding package, which includes grants for the cost of tuition (essentially a tuition waiver), and a stipend for the cost of living.  The stipend is often paid as a salary for work as a teaching assistant (TA) for undergraduate courses.  If a university admits you but does not offer you a tuition grant or a stipend, do not attend.  The cost of higher education in the US is astronomical, and if you take out student loans to cover the cost of a five-year PhD (which is the minimum time commitment for most programs), you could easily end up with $200,000 worth of debt.  The academic job market in the US is very challenging, and many PhD holders who stay in academia end up on poorly paid adjunct contracts, with salaries which would make it very difficult to repay debt of that amount. 

If you do receive an offer with tuition grants and a stipend, it’s absolutely all right to negotiate for a higher stipend.  I did this for a scholarship package I received for my MA program, and for my PhD stipend, and in both cases was offered several thousand dollars more per year.  It may seem selfish, but that extra money can make a significant difference in your quality of life as a graduate student, and the additional cost is negligible to the university.  (Also, the department has already admitted you at this point, so the worst thing they can do is to say no!) 

There are several ways to make negotiating less stressful.  First, prepare your case.  At minimum, you can make a budget capturing the cost of living near the university and any other debt (student loans or otherwise) that you may have to pay, and demonstrate that it would be difficult for you to get by on the amount that was offered.  If you have a better stipend offer from another university, this is also a great negotiating tool.  Second, frame the conversation as a discussion about how to help you be a more productive member of the university community.  You’ll be better able to focus on your research and engage with the department if you don’t have to work an outside job in order to pay your rent.  Third, try to find allies within the department, or elsewhere on campus.  If you’ve already spoken to the faculty member who will be your advisor, or have found another faculty member or an administrator with whom you got on well, explain your financial concerns to them, and ask if they could support your request for a higher stipend.  You can also reach out to the campus financial aid office, or to student groups which might represent your interests (like women’s groups, or groups for people of color), to see if they could offer additional support or advice.  Finally, don’t apologize at any point for asking for more money.  It’s important that you be able to stand up for your own interests, and you’re not harming the department or your relationships there by doing so. 

Teaching obligations matter as well.  Another factor to consider is the work requirements which may be attached to a stipend.  Some universities offer generous stipends and don’t require their PhD students to work as TAs at all.  Others may expect the students to TA throughout their time on campus.  Working as a TA does build valuable teaching skills, and it’s absolutely worth teaching at least two semesters if you do plan to go into academia.  However, teaching is also very time-consuming.  I spent two semesters working as a TA, on top of my regular course load and preparation for qualifying exams, and it was very difficult to make progress on my own research during that academic year.  Generally speaking, if you have the opportunity to take funding which has fewer teaching requirements, this will help you get through your degree more quickly.

Once you’re in a PhD program, make sure to balance your emotional and physical health with your academic work.  This isn’t directly related to the application process, but I’ll add it here because I feel that it’s important.  Anecdotally, most PhD students that I know report feeling a great deal of pressure to subjugate their personal lives to their academic progress.  I’ve heard it said in economics that your advisor should ideally never realize that you’ve left the building during your five years in the program.  A few people might thrive on this schedule, but for most students, this is a destructive way to live.  Your worth in the world is not limited to your contributions to scholarly journals, or your invitations to lecture at prestigious universities.  You are also a person, with all a person’s needs for rest and exercise and friendships and time spent thinking about things that are completely unrelated to your academic work.  Personally, I have found that I am much more productive in my own research when I set boundaries on the amount of time I dedicate to it, and make sure to take care of my own emotional and physical health as well.  (A major part of this for me was realizing that the perfectionist environment of my PhD program was contributing to a severe case of depression that I dealt with over the past few years.  I might write more about this in a future post.)  I think this odd dismissal of the connections between academic productivity and physical and emotional health is beginning to be questioned now, in some departments, but it also remains a prevalent attitude amongst many faculty, and is worth watching out for. 

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