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 — which is exactly what I’m doing with the Mawazo Institute — 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. 

Nairobi photos

A few snapshots of what I’ve been up to lately in Nairobi!  More photos can be found on Flickr, as always.

The photo shows a colourful painting of a woman in a headwrapGorgeous painting spotted at our lawyer’s office

The photo shows a canyon with two people walking through it, and the blue sky aboveHiking at Hells Gate National Park

The photo shows a record labelled "Editions d'Ivoire"Browsing old Congolese records at Kenyatta market

The photo shows green rolling hills and the blue skyHad an amazing time cycling to Limuru recently

The photo shows a glass of ginger-lemon tea sitting on a black table, with a black and white checked floor visible in the backgroundEnjoying some dawa at Artcaffe Lavington

Tea and linguistic globalization


Quartz recently produced a fascinating article which spoke to all of my longstanding interests in linguistics, maps, and tea.  As they note:

The map demonstrates two different eras of globalization in action: the millenia-old overland spread of goods and ideas westward from ancient China, and the 400-year-old influence of Asian culture on the seafaring Europeans of the age of exploration.


The 25 best longform articles of 2017

The image shows a red square with the text "2,952,My year in Pocket

I’ve always been a bookworm, but over the last year or two the number of books I’ve read outside of work has steadily declined.  This was dismaying until I noticed that I’ve just been substituting longform journalism for the other reading I normally might have done.  I do almost all of my reading through Pocket, which recently sent the very reassuring year-end email above.

Here are the 25 most interesting articles that I found out of those almost three million words (!) in 2017, in no particular order.  Check out my 2016 list as well.

Black mothers keep dying after giving birth.  Shalom Irving’s story explains why.  NPR.  “But it’s the discrimination that black women experience in the rest of their lives — the double whammy of race and gender — that may ultimately be the most significant factor in poor maternal outcomes.  ‘It’s chronic stress that just happens all the time — there is never a period where there’s rest from it. It’s everywhere; it’s in the air; it’s just affecting everything,’ said Fleda Mask Jackson, an Atlanta researcher who focuses on birth outcomes for middle-class black women.  …  [Chronic stress] has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman’s life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday).”

Every parent wants to protect their child.  I never got the chance.  The Cut.  “But no matter whose fault it is, giving birth to a child with a terminal disease is something I did do. This is just as obvious as it is important: I am the one who was pregnant and gave birth to Dudley. That I continued my pregnancy under mistaken pretenses feels like an irreparable violation, one that I don’t think any man — including the one who loves Dudley as much as I do — is capable of understanding.”

How the US triggered a massacre in Mexico.  ProPublica.  “But unlike most places in Mexico that have been ravaged by the drug war, what happened in Allende didn’t have its origins in Mexico. It began in the United States, when the Drug Enforcement Administration scored an unexpected coup. An agent persuaded a high-level Zetas operative to hand over the trackable cellphone identification numbers for two of the cartel’s most wanted kingpins, Miguel Ángel Treviño and his ​brother Omar.  Then the DEA took a gamble. It shared the intelligence with a Mexican federal police unit that has long had problems with leaks — even though its members had been trained and vetted by the DEA. Almost immediately, the Treviños learned they’d been betrayed. The brothers set out to exact vengeance against the presumed snitches, their families and anyone remotely connected to them.”

The best books on Vermeer and studio method.  Five Books.  “There is quite a lot of argument about Vermeer’s working practice, particularly over whether or not he might have used an optical aid, such as a camera obscura.  But he only had the same things available to him as did any other painter of his day. Because his pictures look quite different from his contemporaries, the big questions are whether he worked in an unusual way, and also how he could have used a lens in his studio. There is very little documentation about Vermeer, and so I had to start by finding out what were the suggested methods and materials for artists at the time, and how people were using lenses. There was a bit of an overlap between alchemy, medicine and painting then, and old artists’ treatises give recipes for cures and experiments as well as for paint. They were all fascinating, and so my reading became very wide, and it took a very long time to write this book. This is why the bibliography is so big.”

The African enlightenment.  Aeon.  “In short: many of the highest ideals of the later European Enlightenment had been conceived and summarised by one man, working in an Ethiopian cave from 1630 to 1632. Yacob’s reason-based philosophy is presented in his main work, Hatäta (meaning ‘the enquiry’). The book was written down in 1667 on the insistence of his student, Walda Heywat, who himself wrote a more practically oriented Hatäta. Today, 350 years later, it’s hard to find a copy of Yacob’s book.”

The hellraisers of Nairobi.  Nairobi Side Hustle.  “From the beginning, Mumbi’s approach was radical and feminist. She realized that women were being excluded from local community associations because of the membership fees, so she set up her own women’s parliament, and made it free to join. Herself a Kikuyu, Mumbi invited women who represented all the different communities around Mathare to join.  Almost immediately, the Parliament got to work on issues that no one else seemed to be touching. ‘For us, we wanted to have a unique platform where women can share and exchange their views about things that are not going right at the community level,’ she said. After a house girl was beaten by her employer and cheated out of her wage, the Parliament helped to form a house girls’ association. And after a woman died in childbirth at the local Huruma Maternity Clinic, they organized a march to demand that the local government shut the clinic down.”

Afghan war rugs and the lossy compression of cultural codingRespectable Lawyer.  This is a Twitter thread, so not so easy to quote here, but it’s a fascinating discussion of how the Soviet and American invasions are visually represented in rugs, and how cultural artifacts get passed between generations of weavers.

India’s Silicon Valley is dying of thirst.  Your city may be next.  Wired.  “Bangalore has a problem: It is running out of water, fast. Cities all over the world, from those in the American West to nearly every major Indian metropolis, have been struggling with drought and water deficits in recent years. But Banga­lore is an extreme case. Last summer, a professor from the Indian Institute of Science declared that the city will be unlivable by 2020. He later backed off his prediction of the exact time of death—but even so, says P. N. Ravindra, an official at the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board, ‘the projections are relatively correct. Our groundwater levels are approaching zero.'”

What do slaveholders think?  Aeon.  “While not every one of the slaveholders I spoke with in the course of this research was as frank as Aanan, his approach bears all the traits of contemporary slaveholding: financial distress, emotional manipulation, illegality, and paternalism. At the end of our conversation, I inquired about Aanan with one of my research partners. Yes, they had heard of him. I updated my field notes: ‘Largest contractor in [town].’”

How did Indonesia and Malaysia become majority-Muslim when they were once dominated by Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms?  r/AskHistorians.  “While Islam was spreading, Southeast Asia was experiencing other rapid changes in matters other than religion. Forests were cleared to make farms, while fishing villages turned into humongous cities within a few generations. People began to leave their villages and head out for the wider world. Animism tends to be localized and unpredictable, but Islam is true no matter where you go and says that no matter what, the pious go to Heaven and the evil fall to Hell. Islam was perhaps the most suitable religion in this brave new world.”

The couple who saved ancient China’s architectural treasures before they were lost forever.  Smithsonian Magazine.  “Liang and Lin—along with a half dozen or so other young scholars in the grandly named Institute for Research in Chinese Architecture—used the only information available, following stray leads in ancient texts, chasing up rumors and clues found in cave murals, even, in one case, an old folkloric song. It was, Liang later wrote, ‘like a blind man riding a blind horse.’ Despite the difficulties, the couple would go on to make a string of extraordinary discoveries in the 1930s, documenting almost 2,000 exquisitely carved temples, pagodas and monasteries that were on the verge of being lost forever.”

What would count as an explanation of the size of China? Marginal Revolution. “Currently there are over one billion Chinese in one political unit, and a bit of scattering.  And there are over one billion Europeans, spread in fairly significant numbers across about fifty political units.  How did such a fundamental difference come to pass?”

Rice and banchan — a love affair.  Ask a Korean.  “If you ever visited a Korean restaurant, even just once, you have seen banchan. Before you receive what you ordered—sometimes, before you order anything at all—an array of dishes come in small plates. One of them, without fail, is kimchi. Others can be meat, fish or vegetables. They can be raw, cooked, tossed, pickled, braised, fermented. Those are banchan: literally, ‘companion to rice.’  Eating food with carbohydrates is hardly unique to Koreans. Nor is eating food with rice, as other rice-growing cultures also center their cuisine around rice. But none of those cultures created a cuisine quite like Korea’s, which obsesses over building a constellation of small dishes to orbit around the rice. To be sure, not all Korean dishes come with numerous banchan. Dishes like gukbap (국밥, or rice-in-soup,) noodles, or bibimbap usually come with the maximum of three or so side dishes. But traditionally, Koreans have considered those banchan-less dishes to be the “lower” food that you would eat when you are out-and-about. Bibimbap, for example, originated as a dish for peasants on the field, who would mix in all the banchan into a large bowl with rice and sauce to eat quickly during their mid-day break. Gukbap and noodles were usually served at guest houses for travelers who needed to eat quickly and continue their journey.”

The Japanese origins of fine dining.  Eater.  “There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called ‘tweezer food,’ before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.”

Why would aliens ever bother with Earth?  Literary Hub.  “For these reasons, it strikes me that if there is intelligent alien life out there in our galaxy, they almost certainly wouldn’t pay us a visit in person in huge city-sized motherships, but by sending their sentient robots as emissaries.”

The origin of cities — part 1The HipCrime Vocab.  “Thus, the origin of cities was long before the agricultural revolution as was very much tied together with the activities of ritual feasting. Many of the ancient megaliths show the same ‘cosmological’ orientation as the early temple cities do. The calendrical orientation was associated with the priestly caste who used astronomical observations to determine the timing of the feasts. The design of these sites was intentionally made to represent a cosmic order manifested on earth, a common theme of early ruling classes who were establishing a celestial ‘order’ on earth – ‘as above so below’ in language of hermeticism. Just as the sacred feasting rituals provided the opportunity for the gift exchanges that led to the interest-bearing debt and inequality, so too did the written debt/credit relationships which supplanted them originate in the sacred context of the temples.”

Here be dragons: finding the blank spaces in a well-mapped world.  VQR.  “Until a century ago, Greenlandic hunters would cut maps out of driftwood. ‘The wooden part would be the fjord, so it would be a mirror image,’ Siggi says. ‘Holes would be islands. Compared to a paper map, it was actually quite accurate.’ … A Danish ethnologist, Gustav Holm, noted that notched into the wood, ‘the map likewise indicates where a kayak can be carried’ when the path between fjords is blocked by ice. Unlike drawings, the contoured wood could be felt, useful in a region where the sun disappears for months at a time.”

New exoskeletons will harness the subtle anatomy of human balance.  Nautilus.  “Unlike the rest of us, the [Kenyan] women were supporting the load [they carried on their head] with the structural components of the body, rather than metabolizing tissues of the body. They were balancing it perfectly on their bones, without the aid of any muscle, tendon, or supporting structures. Over time, Heglund showed, the bones and bodies of the African women had adjusted to perfectly support the head weight in the most energy efficient manner. The structure had adjusted so it aligned in an ideal formation to keep the weight off the muscles.”

The science of suffering.  New Republic.  “By far the most remarkable recent finding about this transmogrification of the body is that some proportion of it can be reproduced in the next generation. The children of survivors—a surprising number of them, anyway—may be born less able to metabolize stress. They may be born more susceptible to PTSD, a vulnerability expressed in their molecules, neurons, cells, and genes.  After a century of brutalization and slaughter of millions, the corporeal dimension of trauma gives a startling twist to the maxim that history repeats itself. Yael Danieli, the author of an influential reference work on the multigenerational dimensions of trauma, refers to the physical transmission of the horrors of the past as ’embodied history.’ Of course, biological legacy doesn’t predetermine the personality or health of any one child. To say that would be to grossly oversimplify the socioeconomic and geographic and irreducibly personal forces that shape a life. At the same time, it would be hard to overstate the political import of these new findings. People who have been subject to repeated, centuries-long violence, such as African Americans and Native Americans, may by now have disadvantage baked into their very molecules.”

How to raise a sweet son in an era of angry men.  Time.  “Boys have always known they could do anything; all they had to do was look around at their presidents, religious leaders, professional athletes, at the statues that stand erect in big cities and small. Girls have always known they were allowed to feel anything — except anger. Now girls, led by women, are being told they can own righteous anger.Now they can feel what they want and be what they want. There’s no commensurate lesson for boys in our culture. While girls are encouraged to be not just ballerinas, but astronauts and coders, boys—who already know they can walk on the moon and dominate Silicon Valley—don’t receive explicit encouragement to fully access their emotions. Boys are still snips and snails and puppy dog tails. We leave them behind from birth.”

How do you count without numbers?  Sapiens.  “None of us, then, is really a ‘numbers person.’ We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.”

Why clocks run clockwise (and some watches and clocks that don’t).  Hodinkee.  “The idea that one would need to specify motion one way or the other around a circle doesn’t seem to have been very widespread prior to the development of clocks, and people simply seemed to have said left or right, in most cases. Two old terms in English exist: widdershins (counterclockwise) and deosil or deasil (clockwise) though again, these seem to originally have more had the sense of left and right rather than clockwise or counterclockwise per se. ‘Widdershins’ is first attested in 1545 (notably, well after the appearance of public clocks in Europe).”

Why did life move to land?  For the view.  Quanta.  “Life on Earth began in the water. So when the first animals moved onto land, they had to trade their fins for limbs, and their gills for lungs, the better to adapt to their new terrestrial environment.  A new study, out today, suggests that the shift to lungs and limbs doesn’t tell the full story of these creatures’ transformation. As they emerged from the sea, they gained something perhaps more precious than oxygenated air: information. In air, eyes can see much farther than they can under water. The increased visual range provided an ‘informational zip line’ that alerted the ancient animals to bountiful food sources near the shore.”

The self-medicating animal.  New York Times.  “Animals of all kinds, from ants and butterflies to sheep and monkeys, use medicine. Certain caterpillars will, when infected by parasitic flies, eat poisonous plants, killing or arresting the growth of the larvae within them. Some ants incorporate resin from spruce trees in their nests to fend off pathogenic microbes, employing the same antibacterial compounds, called terpenes, that we use when we mop the floor with the original Pine-Sol. Parrots and many other animals consume clay to treat an upset stomach; clay binds to toxins, flushing them out of the body. ‘I believe every species alive today is self-medicating in one way or another,’ Huffman told me recently. ‘It’s just a fact of life.'”

The secret economic lives of animals.  Bloomberg.  “‘Biological markets are all over the place,’ says Ronald Noë, a Dutch biologist at the University of Strasbourg who first proposed the concept of the biological market in 1994. Scientists have since described biological markets in the African savannah, Central American rainforests, and the Great Barrier Reef. Baboons and other social primates exchange grooming for sex. Some plants and insects reward ants for protection. Cleaner wrasses eat parasites off other fish and behave more gently when a “client” has the option of visiting a rival wrasse.”

Call for applications: Mawazo Institute 2018 PhD Scholars programme

Mawazo PhD Scholars 2018

I’m proud to share that the Mawazo Institute is now recruiting its first cohort of PhD Scholars!  This fellowship programme is aimed at women pursuing PhDs focused on development-related topics at Kenyan universities.  It offers them a year of research funding, training, and mentorship to support them as they’re launching their academic careers.  More information about eligibility and fellowship benefits is available at the PhD Scholars page linked above.

Applications should be submitted through our online portal.  The deadline is 11.59 pm EAT on Friday, 2 February 2018.  Please circulate this widely!