Applying to Grad School – Danny’s Guide

So I’ve learned a lot about applying to grad school through two rounds of applications, having completely failed – zero out of ten – the first time around because I somehow thought applying to a PhD program in a field in which I had no formal background(business, marketing emphasis) with zero concept of research fit was a great idea.

Thankfully, the second round, this time instead applying for communication programs with a better grasp of research fit, went far better. Round 2, I received interview offers from Northwestern University and UC Santa Barbara, and straight-up offers of admission from the Ohio State University, the University of Illinois, and the University of Pennsylvania.

So given the relative success, I wanted to share my $0.02 on the grad school application process before I shift out of getting-ready-for-grad-school mode and into full-on grad-school-mode.

Note: This post is geared more toward applying for academic graduate programs, but most of it is certainly relevant to professional degree program applications as well.

1) Where to Apply, What to Apply for, Getting Ready

One of the biggest reasons my first round of applications resulted in failures across the board was the fact that I applied for completely the wrong programs for my background and interests. Finding the right field for you isn’t about finding the field that you think you could bring a different set of ideas to, it’s about finding the field where those ideas are already being studied and taking them into different directions. I learned this when I applied to b-school behavioral marketing PhD programs because I thought that I could conduct research in that field through the narrative communication and media psychology perspectives I had learned in communication. How wrong I was – I should’ve known rejections were coming when various applications asked me about the most advanced stats, math, and econ classes I’d taken, and being an undergrad game design major’, I didn’t have much at all in the way of such heavily quantitative classes to put down.

That said, there is a lot of overlap between certain fields, and what you first study in under one subject area label you may end up studying further under another label. Be open to ending up in fields that weren’t initially what you anticipated. Also, university reputation doesn’t matter like it does at the undergrad level; research fit (here defined as the number of faculty at a school who study topics related to what you want to study) and departmental strength are far more important. As such, it becomes readily apparent when you’re trying to be a prestige whore without much regard to research fit as I admittedly ignorantly did the first time around.

Once you decide which programs you want to apply to, get your stuff organized. Make a spreadsheet of what each school needs, when they need it, and who you want to work with at each school. And get crankin’.

2) Asking for Recommendations

Who to ask? In academia, recommendations from tenured (professor, associate professor) or tenure-track (assistant professor) research faculty carry the most weight – the professors on the admissions committees are looking for endorsements from faculty who they know if not personally at least professionally. But certainly, if you have a close relationship with clinical/teaching or adjunct faculty who hold a high position direct relevant to you, your program, or your work (program director, work supervisor, thesis advisor, etc), having one of your three letters of recommendations come from them can’t hurt.

How to ask? In person is always preferred. Invite them out to lunch or coffee, catch up and chat, then ask them in person. If need be, email can work, but I personally find it’s hard to deliver the warm personal touch over email. Either way, express the fact that you’re very grateful and cognizant of the fact that you’re asking for time in their busy schedule writing something that brings them far less personal benefit than other things they could be writing – like multi-million dollar grant proposals and articles for high exposure journals, for example!

The key thing to remember in all communication relating to a letter of recommendation, you are asking your professor for a favor, and something that people seem to forget, at least according to multiple professors who’ve thanked me for remembering, is that when you ask someone for a favor, it is your absolute responsibility to make said favor as easy as possible. Make a spreadsheet of all the schools you’re applying to, when the application for that school is due, who the faculty you want to work with are at each school, and any other notes; with regard to the list of faculty you’re interested in, your writer may even put in a personal good word for you with them if they know each other, and while there’s no way to concretely measure the benefits of such exposure, you have to imagine that shit helps. Your professors may also ask you for a list of things you’ve done for/with them, because as much of a special butterfly as you are, they have way too many things going on to possibly remember everything of note you’ve done.

Don’t spam them, but send them periodic polite reminders, asking if there is any further information or documentation you can provide to make their job easier. If they do request something, get off your ass, take care of it, and send it over ASAP. You shouldn’t feel utterly terrible about the fact that you asked them for a rec – after all, your professors probably wouldn’t have agreed if they didn’t like you to some degree –  but you should definitely feel a certain sense of obligatory guilt and responsibility for the fact that you’re taking up their time and try to minimize the barriers to their doing your the favor.

And some people “rationalize” their way out of this by saying it doesn’t feel “right” to get material gifts for people writing you a rec, I guess it might feel like bribery to the unsentimentally transactional mind, but get your writers a fucking token of appreciation! I got my rec writers $20 gift cards to Starbucks, and they all really appreciated it! Properly timed it can be a little reminder for upcoming deadlines, too!

3) Writing the Statement of Purpose

First things first, this isn’t a college application essay. No poetry, no outrageous hook, no gimmicks please. This is all business. Some (myself included) would say if you have an interesting hook or narrative frame that ties into your interests without being an overpersonal sob story, use it (I did), but when in doubt, it’s safest to lean professional.

Talk about your research interests, your experience and qualifications, professors you want to work with, what you think you could learn from those people, and why you think that school would be a good fit. You should be able to refer to specific research, theories, and authors to explicate your research interests, cogently elaborating how your research is related to one or more topics in the field and how it builds on them. Discuss how your previous experiences in class or doing research contribute to your ability or potential to study this topic and carry out further research. You don’t necessarily need to go so far as to have a bibliography, but cite specific authors and years as needed.

Yes, the majority of the essay outside the people and school sections (or rather in the case of the latter, the singular mention of the school/program) will essentially be a form letter, and the admissions committees know it; don’t forget to swap out professors and schools names and put in the due time, but otherwise don’t feel like you need to fret about it too much. Space will likely be at a premium, so read, read, and read again until you’ve said everything you’ve wanted to say in as succinct a manner as possible using as few words as possible.

4) Submitting the Applications and More

As you get ready to and as you are submitting these applications, you should continue to be in touch with the professors you think you’re interested in working with. For the sake of avoiding spamming them, it’s also worth strategically timing your emails to coincide with certain target milestones or deadlines like I recommended with the gift card timing. Email once a good bit in advance in the hopes of exchanging a round or two of emails. Some professors may take a while to respond, some may never respond. If they do respond, aim to have your second or so email back be the, “Obtw I submitted” email (obviously don’t literally say that, and the exchange can keep going if you’re having a good convo, of course), if they don’t respond, make your second checking in email the obtw email.

5) Visiting Schools

Assuming you “dun good” with the applications, you should receive invitations to visit various schools during the spring. Some invitations may come with straight up acceptance and funding offers, some invitations may not; in the case of the latter, this may differ by field but my former faculty mentor told me that if they’re funding your visit, your chances are good.

The visits generally take place starting mid-late February and run until end of March. Many programs at major research institutions will have the budget to either fully pay for your flight out and lodging or pay for your lodging and heavily subsidize your flight out – some would argue that in the fields where having funded visits is common, how much a department can fund your visit is somewhat reflective of their financial situation, though this is a bit of a wild card factor complicated by the geographic locations of the other admits – more admits needing to be flown in from a far means everyone from afar may only get a small part of their flight covered, while if most admits are in driving distance, the one admit coming in from a far may be able to get their entire flight covered.

You’ll learn more about the schools at the visits and get a better feel for their culture and atmosphere, the kind of things you can’t pick up by reading words on a screen. You’ll meet other students and admits and be able to see how you get along with the people who are already there and those who would be entering with you.

The visits will also be a self discovery process. Days on end of talking to new faces will help you discover become more familiar with your social tolerances. Visiting different cities and towns means you will get a better feel for what kind of environments you feel comfortable and happy in.

There will be lots of free food and lots of free booze. Don’t get sloshed.

6) Deciding and Getting Ready

Deciding is a killer. The main factors in your decision as I analyzed it are, in no particular order: 1) Research fit, 2) Quality of life, 3) Departmental reputation, 4) Institutional prestige. 1 is arguably the most important, but if your research fit at all the schools you got accepted to are good to great – which, if you are accepted to several programs, may just be the case – then it becomes a lot harder.

By ‘a lot harder’, I mean that it becomes largely personal choice based on whatever rationalization your mind ends up coming up with based on where your feelings pull you. No one can make the decision for you. The best you can do is to talk through your decision making with your faculty mentors, for they will be a more aware of the “scene” and the long term ramifications of your decision making.

And, I hate to say this, it’s a bit of a waste of time talking to people who aren’t familiar with academia about the decision making process. It becomes tedious when you have to explain the structure of the system and the concept of “research fit” every time, and people outside of academia will almost always give you incredibly watered down answers based on whether the school is famous or whether they’ve heard of it or not. Stick to talking to your faculty mentors and PhD student friends.

After all that pondering is said and done, you should know where to go! Politely let the other schools you didn’t choose that you’d like to withdraw your application, including those for which you were on the waitlist. Do this AS SOON AS POSSIBLE IF YOU WANNA BE A COOL, CONSIDERATE PERSON – if you don’t want the spot offered by a school, someone else on the waitlist does, and if you don’t let the school proactively know that you’re going elsewhere a good bit before the universal deadline, you may leave someone out in the cold who could’ve otherwise had a spot, or at the very least leave said person scrambling to submit all their paperwork at the last minute. Not. Cool.

Now, pat yourself on the back, start scoping out the neighborhood and the housing situation at your school of choice, and pack yo bags – you’re going to college again!

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