If I knew then what I know now...

171 posts in this topic

Posted

Now that applications are mostly done (for this year, anyway), I'm being asked to reflect on the process in hopes that I might be able to offer some kind of advice to next year's batch of applicants coming out of my undergraduate institution. This is probably a noble pursuit, since I was totally clueless when I first applied for Fall 08.

I figured I'd open it up and ask you all, What do you wish you had known going into the process?*

*Also, as a historian, I can guarantee you will be properly cited for your contribution!

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Posted

When deciding where to apply, I wish that I hadn't been so preoccupied with "official" rankings, such as US News, which are not necessarily definitive (or completely reliable, for that matter). Instead of trying to figure how to make myself a good fit for certain schools, I should have been asking: "Which of these schools is a good fit for me?" Had I done so, my list of schools would probably have been much shorter, but my applications would perhaps have been stronger and more focused. I wish that I had discussed prospective schools with my undergrad advisor, rather than rely on the internet and my own judgement.

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Posted

I wish that I had known how to separate good advice from bad. I'd assumed that all of my professors were naturally looking out for my good, but I realize that every once in a while, there are some that are so self-absorbed and out of it when it comes to applying to graduate school nowadays, that they simply don't take the applicants personal circumstance/wishes/goals into account.

Even in some cases where I worked very closely with one professor in my program, that as the time passed and as I was no longer his student (and thus as was described to me, i no longer brought him prestige), he'd conveniently forgotten all that I'd been through to get where I am now, and gave me simply wrong advice about applying to schools that I wish I hadn't listened to. (in addition to, as I have said elsewhere on this forum going MIA in terms of my recommendation :shock: )

Watch out for people like them! There is also a certain amount of following your instincts in this whole process--if you are a serious student there will always be people willing to help you out. In the end, I truly believe that their recommendations will be stronger and more honest than type A as listed above

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Posted

Just because most of an application is online doesn't mean necessarily that all of it is. This should have been an easy one to avert, but there were a couple schools for me where most of the stuff was submitted electronically, but something (like LORs) needed to be snail mailed. I had to take one school off of my list due to this mistake.

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Posted

If we really want to go back, I wish I just sucked it up and moved into a dorm when I transferred to UNC, rather than moving into an apartment with someone who turned out to be unreliable. Then my financial situation might have been better and I would have been able to focus more on studies and have gotten a better GPA. If wishes were horses.

Through the application process, I have no real regrets asides not having enough money to apply to more schools. That and not having known about this site sooner so I could post my SoP and get others to edit it. Although, I do think the postdocs at work helped me with it well enough.

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Posted

I, too, wish I had better anticipated the financial element to this -- I would have started saving a lot sooner! Some of the costs are to be expected (the $20 GRE score report multiplied by 10), but the application fees upwards of $120 nearly knocked me on my behind, as did having to overnight several items that I know I already sent to the programs. I try to think of it as a big investment in my future, but next time, I'm getting sponsors.

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Posted

Just because most of an application is online doesn't mean necessarily that all of it is. This should have been an easy one to avert, but there were a couple schools for me where most of the stuff was submitted electronically, but something (like LORs) needed to be snail mailed. I had to take one school off of my list due to this mistake.

this is a good one. particularly when the online applications have to be completed in one fell swoop, and you don't figure out something has to be snail mailed until you have to pay ungodly sums of money to have it in on time.

I also wish that I would have asked for recommendations as an undergradth and then kept in touch. As someone who has been working for awhile and out of the school loop, many of my professors that I could have asked for recs were MIA once I went looking for them..and it made the process of tracking them down, requesting recs, etc. harder than I had anticipated.

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Posted

The advice I'd give is that you really can't start preparing too early, and by that I mean with everything... Researching programs as a good fit is very important - start reading articles written by potential supervisors, find out what methods they use, see if you like how they write/look at the world.

When I was an undergrad I liked being challenged by different perspectives, but my department was pretty much 90% Marxists - I would not want to go through that if I was writing a thesis! Being challenged intellectually is worthwhile, but I don't want a doctorate to be an uphill struggle all the time!

GRE preparation is the next biggest one. Due to time/undergrad work requirements I really didn't do as much or as well as I could have. Getting a 1300 after three weeks of prep (and while writing a 4000 foreign policy analysis paper) is something I can be proud of, but I would have liked to have hit 700+ in my quants to be that bit more competitive.

Recommendations are also hugely important - make sure you pick someone who actually knows you academically as well as personally. I had one recommender turn around and basically refuse to fill in the 'academic ability' coversheet of my application, despite knowing I came top if my year last year (he handed me the prize himself). If I could have done things differently I'd have asked for a recommendation from the professor who's now stepped in to give me a last minute recommendation to replace the one lost in the post by the disinterested professor (who sounds a lot like the 'lost interest' prof above.

I think one of the most important things to realise is that the world won't end if you don't get into grad school, and that there are always other options.

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Posted

I am glad I applied to 14 schools, despite the cost. I applied to a range of programs, which gave me a good set of choices. I recommend this to everyone, despite the hassle.

I am glad I spent the money on GRE prep.

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Posted

I wish I had realized that the directions on websites can be completely contradictory. One school said on the online application: "Please do not send us copies of your official transcripts. Upload a scan of your unofficial transcript or grade report, and we will ask for official confirmation if you are accepted." In their Notes on Applying booklet, they said, "Every program requires two official copies of your transcripts before your application may be considered."

A different school had two different lists of required supporting materials at the departmental level, one on the department's subsection of the main school website, and one on the department's own separate website.

This made the post office very rich.

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Posted

When I was an undergrad I liked being challenged by different perspectives, but my department was pretty much 90% Marxists - I would not want to go through that if I was writing a thesis! Being challenged intellectually is worthwhile, but I don't want a doctorate to be an uphill struggle all the time!

What's wrong with Marxists, fenderpete? Many of the scholars in my area are Marxists so I have a lot of contact with them. For the record, I don't think it made it any harder to write my MA thesis, though it did challenge me intellectually in really good, productive ways.

There's nothing major I wish I'd known that hasn't already been said. I did a lot of things "wrong" when I applied to MA programs and still got into great places with funding. *shrug*

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Posted

I just wish I'd known what the Canadian/US dollar exchange rate was going to be when I paid my fees for the American schools I'm applying to, so I would have saved more money!

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Posted

I wish I had known that the whole research process was going to take much longer than I thought it would. There's a hell of a lot to consider in deciding where to apply.

FIrst thing...ideally the program should be well ranked (or at least well respected).

The school should be in an area you would be ok living in- take into account proximity to family/ partner, weather, culture, cost of living etc. Everyone is different but there probably is a place you would be absolutely miserable in due to one of those factors, and you really don't want to spend the next 5+ years of your life with seasonal depression bc you are surrounded by crack dealers tunneling through 12 feet of snow. Of course, some may say that you have to go wherever academia will take you, but some people have these internal 'deal breakers,' and if you are one of those people, lying to yourself probably won't end well.

So after you've found a reputable program in an area you have no heinous objection to, you've got to make sure that the department has a few potential suitable advisers for you. What's that? Your very narrow subfield (elderly victorian shoplifters who suffer from gout) has very few professors across a smattering of schools who could advise you? That is often the case, but it just stinks to think about how many things are out of your control in this whole process- Prof A, B, and C could be going on research leave, have too many advisees right now, be planning to leave the school, etc. So you better find lots of these programs to apply to just in case.

Then, of course, you need to tailor your SOP and research statement (where applicable) to fit each of the 15 schools you've ended up with.

ai ai ai. hope this can help you guys reading this in....the future...

give my love to doc brown and marty.

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Posted

you really don't want to spend the next 5+ years of your life with seasonal depression bc you are surrounded by crack dealers tunneling through 12 feet of snow.

...

What's that? Your very narrow subfield (elderly victorian shoplifters who suffer from gout) has very few professors across a smattering of schools who could advise you?

Nice, katanianQ!

1. it's refreshing to think of dealers so dedicated that they will deliver through rain, sleet, storm, or 12' snow

2. im glad my subfield is slightly broader, hah!

:D

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Posted

I'm sure the money's good enough to make it worth going out in all weather. Alternately, you get the kind of clientele who will be desperate to find YOU no matter the weather.

My climate from hell is kind of the opposite (at least as far as snow), I don't care about crack dealers but I do NOT want to live somewhere that's 100 degrees between April and October. Of COURSE, in my very narrow subfield with only a smattering of schools, one of the best is in such a climate. I applied, but I'm a bit nervous about how to take that into account if accepted. It's a problem I'd like to have.

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Posted

:) i try.

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Posted

So after you've found a reputable program in an area you have no heinous objection to, you've got to make sure that the department has a few potential suitable advisers for you. What's that? Your very narrow subfield (elderly victorian shoplifters who suffer from gout) has very few professors across a smattering of schools who could advise you? That is often the case, but it just stinks to think about how many things are out of your control in this whole process- Prof A, B, and C could be going on research leave, have too many advisees right now, be planning to leave the school, etc. So you better find lots of these programs to apply to just in case.

Then, of course, you need to tailor your SOP and research statement (where applicable) to fit each of the 15 schools you've ended up with.

I think there are more professors specialising in early victorian shoplifters who suffer from gout than there are who do what I'm into! I found two faculty members in the US who share my intersts. One is probably ready to retire anyday, and is at the top ranked school in my field. The other is at a lower ranked (late teens) programme in my field, but said programme is at one of those universities that is SO prestigous and has the name recognition that it gets enough applicants to make it super competitive.

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Posted

What's wrong with Marxists, fenderpete? Many of the scholars in my area are Marxists so I have a lot of contact with them. For the record, I don't think it made it any harder to write my MA thesis, though it did challenge me intellectually in really good, productive ways.

There's nothing major I wish I'd known that hasn't already been said. I did a lot of things "wrong" when I applied to MA programs and still got into great places with funding. *shrug*

Absolutely nothing :)

I think my aversion is more due to their focus on theory rather than IR/Comparative which are my fields. I tended to find (and I can only speak for our department) that the Marxists were more engaged in navel gazing research than applicable work. I don't care about theoretical background, more about how people apply it!

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Posted

I thought this would be a good topic for people new to the boards. A little advice so those that apply next year and the years after don't have to make the same mistakes we did.

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Posted

I'll start with this one. There is no such thing as a safety school. A school is either a good fit or not. A poorly ranked school doing research in everything you're not interested in, will reject you. Before you apply make sure the program is a good fit.

What about everyone else. What do you wish you'd known at the beginning?

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Posted

Even if you're a good candidate for admission, have good credentials and experience, know what you want to study, you still might get rejected. It's not uncommon to have to apply multiple times to secure a spot. So don't get discouraged if you're rejected your first time applying. Many have to try again a second (or sometimes third) year. If you really want to go to grad school, it will be worth waiting an additional year.

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1) I definitely have to agree with there being no such thing as a safety school -- apply at schools matching your interests, safety or not, otherwise you probably won't get in. The two schools I was accepted at are, quite frankly, way out of my league of my undergrad university. I am convinced the primary reason I got in was because of my research match.

2) Don't put off industry experience in good companies, internships are a must if you can get them.

3) Get involved in research as soon as possible. If you don't go to a research university, start working on your own. Ask your professors for help and advice during the process as they will probably be behind you all the way and it is a good way to get recommendation letters. If your school doesn't have professors with a background in your area, look at other schools and ask professors there. This can be a great way to network. Also, along the lines of #1, do work in your area of interest if at all possible. If you tell a school that you want to work in area X and you already have some undergrad work in that direction, this will help you application a great deal by showing that you are interested enough to actually do work instead of just "it sounds cool".

4) I was lucky to not need this one, but get to know your professors and use their office hours. Doing well in class isn't enough.

5) Start writing your statement of purpose as early as possible. This will help you clarify your intent in your own mind and will probably make the process of choosing schools easier.

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Posted

5) Start writing your statement of purpose as early as possible. This will help you clarify your intent in your own mind and will probably make the process of choosing schools easier.

This. I'm not kidding when I say I spent 6 months on mine. And it changed MANY times. At the end, it was worth it.

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Posted (edited)

I will be applying to grad school this fall and those who are also applying soon or will reapply in the near future, I would advise reading Donald Asher's "Graduate Admissions Essays: Write Your Way Into the Graduate School of Your Choice". So far, it is extremely useful in how I am approaching my schools. It is not all about crafting the best graduate school essay; its about crafting the strongest graduate school application possible.

For the past 2 weeks, I have been on this site more times than I can count and I was just so bothersome to see how the best applicants with the stellar GPAs and research experience were turned down. I do not know if it was because it were not lucky or too many people applied with few spots at hand, but I also think in comes down to how WE market ourselves.

Tip: Although I have not completed a graduate school application yet, don't list all your achievements in your SOP. Treat the graduate school process as your next potential job opportunity.

Asher goes into detail about what happens to when admission committees reviews your application and what ways you can beat more qualified applicants. I'm heard stories of people who brought this book getting accepted to all their graduate school programs so I had to loan it from the library! :P

I'm going to read the SOP part this week so I can start working on my SOP early. Thanks to the people above with the SOP advice. I will take that into consideration. Appreciate it. Good luck!

Edited by Christina Brown

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I've felt kind behind as I waited 3 years after I graduated from undergrad to apply to grad schools. However, I used these three years to find out for certain what I want to do and how to get there so I'm glad I did. I've learned a lot about where I want to work, how I work best, what truly motivates me (not doing something just because I'm supposed to) and what mark I want to leave on the world. I don't think I would have been sucessful had I gone to grad school after undergrad because I needed to see some of the end result of school (jobs and real life) before I could plan for it.

So my advice,

1. DONT apply to school just because you don't feel like your ready for the real world yet. I've seen people go this route, and it doesnt really get them the answers they think it will. If you're in this boat, join the peace corp or teach for america. You will certainly learn something new about yourself and will probably look at the world from a new prespective (also, after a few years out its hard to go back and have these experiences). Apply to school because you really truly want to learn more and you need the extra degree for a specific job.

2. Don't underestimate what schools you'll get into. Even if you have under a 3.0. The really do take the human element into account so take the time to visit and get to know professors.

3. Make sure that you get advice from everywhere you can. Especially if you aren't going into academia. The work world puts stock into name recognition (not just harvard, but also that school down the street) more than rankings, and nobody in HR reads US news and world report (Here, they just pass around avon catalogs :D ) . I'm definitely not saying that Harvard is never a good decision, but it's truly overkill if you want to say... work in a local school district.

4. Student loans are serious things; much more so for grad school than Undergrad. Undergrad is more of a life experience, and its worth the debt. However, Grad school is about a job (whether academic or not). For example, if you want to be a librarian and it pays 50,000 a year, then don't take out 100,000 in debt for an MLS. I don't care if it is harvard (look at advice #3).

5. If you don't have a specific job or industry in mind, then you should probably take a couple years off to determine that first. Too much education can hurt you as much as too little. For example, you find out that you really want to be an accountant...but you have a master's in Psychology. You probably aren't getting hired. It'll be hard to convince an employer than you're more serious about this career change then you were about the years of school you just went through to do something else.

6. There's more than one way to skin a cat. Meaning there's more than one field you can study to get to the same end result (job). Do some informational interviewing and see what other people studied. You'll probably be suprised and this may lead you to find other programs you can apply to.

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