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BFB

Faculty perspectives

339 posts in this topic

A thread for faculty to post about our perspectives and answer prospective students' questions.

 

Topics covered elsewhere, so far:

 

Fit vs rank () ()

The admissions process: inside the sausage () ()

Being admitted without funding ()

Rejecting students because they wouldn't receive funding? ()

Your place in the overall scheme of things ()

Should I disclose my admissions results to my schools? () ()

How can I fix my application / do better next year? () (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946641) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946705)

Is visiting schools useful? (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057945706)

Rates of completion (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057945757)

Does a substantive disconnect between college and grad school hurt me? (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057945829) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057945950)

Do top schools not compete for students they think they'll lose? (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946267) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946339)

How do faculty read applications? (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946333) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946611) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946691) (http://forum.thegradcafe.com/topic/30270-welcome-to-the-2012-2013-cycle/?p=1057946703)

Edited by BFB

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this is amazing. Every prospective applicant should read all of those posts. I'd add, from professors around the web:
Monkey Cage- advice on choosing

Vince Gotera- "The Grad School Letter Arrives ... Now What? "

Chris Blatman- FAQ on PhD admissions

Greg Mankiw- Choosing a Program , PhD or not, Working Before Grad School

I'd also add, on a cautionary note, William Pannapecker's pseudonym-written "Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don't Go."

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I suppose that I'll add my .02 to the "clustering" discussion here. It is both true that (1) the process is very flawed and that (2) admissions often cluster around the same candidates at many schools. This shouldn't surprise anyone, though. Admissions committee work off of the same information. They deploy similar strategies for coping with the weaknesses of that information. And there's also external pressure to weight the same factors, e.g., GRE scores. It follows that those schools who look for the same kinds of candidates are likely to cluster. 

 

Indeed, I've noticed that graduate admissions at my institution are often very sensitive to the particular individuals that sit on our subcommittees. Yet our pool still clusters -- just with a slightly different set of schools!

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I know that one question almost all prospective graduate students have is "Are my GRE scores good enough?". Would you mind giving your perspectives on how much GRE scores matter, how they are used in the process, etc?

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I know that one question almost all prospective graduate students have is "Are my GRE scores good enough?". Would you mind giving your perspectives on how much GRE scores matter, how they are used in the process, etc?

 

 

Building on this, what other factors in an applicant make GRE scores more or less important? For example, will a low GPA make a high GRE more valuable or essential?

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I know that one question almost all prospective graduate students have is "Are my GRE scores good enough?". Would you mind giving your perspectives on how much GRE scores matter, how they are used in the process, etc?

 

 

Building on this, what other factors in an applicant make GRE scores more or less important? For example, will a low GPA make a high GRE more valuable or essential?

 

For us, there's a big cutoff: if your verbal and quantitative scores don't average 75th percentile or above, you're ineligible for the grad school funding competition unless we use a waiver. Waivers are plentiful in the first round and ridiculously scarce in the second.  That doesn't mean that we won't pursue you; it does mean that we may run into problems getting you funded. Same goes for a GPA under 3.6. Neither of those cutoffs plays a role in our decision making, really, but they can in terms of outcomes.

 

As far as the role that GREs play in decision making: they're one factor among many, neither necessary nor sufficient. If they're a little low, a higher GPA can compensate; if both are a little low, a great statement or strong letters can compensate. There's no magic formula. We look at everything all together.

 

Out of curiosity, I looked at our records going back about 15 years, and at least when it comes to completion, GRE scores don't mean squat, either individually or interactively. I've seen insignificant results before, but these were really insignificant. They might predict placement, I don't know (placement data weren't included in the dataset I got). But personally, I don't pay a huge amount of attention to them.

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I'd start off by saying thank you to the faculty members who spent time in illuminating the rather mysterious admissions process. Thanks also goes to RWBG who proposed organizing this into a thread - it will be a great resource for future applicants.

 

A question regarding the letters of recommendation - Despite the small sample we have here (BFB/irfannooruddin v. dnexon), I guess it is safe to conclude that different schools place different emphasis on LORs. Having said that, we still want to do the best we could. Which hypothetical letter would ad coms like better - a formulaic letter by a big name or a better written letter (more detailed, less generic) by a junior faculty - assuming that some of us can't get the best of two worlds?

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A question regarding the letters of recommendation - Despite the small sample we have here (BFB/irfannooruddin v. dnexon), 

 

"v."?   :huh:  I like Dan.

 

 

I guess it is safe to conclude that different schools place different emphasis on LORs. Having said that, we still want to do the best we could. Which hypothetical letter would ad coms like better - a formulaic letter by a big name or a better written letter (more detailed, less generic) by a junior faculty - assuming that some of us can't get the best of two worlds?

 

Are you sure that's what you're going to get? I mean... does the big name say, "Sure, I'll write you a letter; given your record, I'll send out letter 12b"?

 

Formulaic vs. personalized is... not the major cleavage I see. What I see is informative vs. uninformative. I know of one very well known senior prof who sends letters that are quite formulaic—I can predict what'll be covered in every. single. paragraph—but very, very informative, because that content varies usefully.

 

I'll give you an example. When I started out, I made a MSWord template for myself, complete with a set first paragraph with pull-down menus. "Smith is a superlative/an outstanding/a very good/a good student who was the top/among the top/one of the better/[     ] I've had in all my time teaching/in the past few years/this year/this semester..." that sort of thing. Then paragraph 2 started "In particular, ..." and went on to describe the student's individual qualities. But if you ever put some of my letters side-by-side, you'd know immediately how to rank the students.

 

That's the kind of letter you want. Not, "Like 90% of his peers, Smith is in the top 10% of his class."* Not helpful.

 

-----

* hat tip to Bill Zimmerman

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Given that BFB has invoked the eternal wisdom of Bill Z., there's little to add, but this is the Internet and so I won't let that stop me.

 

It's not that LORs are useless. It's that most of them contain little useful information because they vary so little. Ask yourself: would you ask someone to write your letter if you thought they thought you an idiot? No. Neither would I. So we all ask people we know like us, which means all the LORs tell us that their student is well above average. At this level, the only informative signal is a negative one (for instance, when someone ticks the box that you're in the top 50% of students they've ever taught) -- trust me, this happens, but even when it does it's striking how at odds this "objective" ranking is with the qualitative assessment in the letter which is often stuffed with superlatives. So the signal-to-noise ratio is low.

 

What I'm looking for is detail. A letter from someone who supervised your senior thesis, or for whom you served as a RA, or who knows exactly what research you did when on your study abroad -- that helps. A letter from someone who recalls you fondly as a fine student who always came to class prepared -- well, that's less helpful.

 

Finally, because YMMV as BFB points out, I'll simply say this: beware the moosehead letter.

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Oops, my bad for the careless diction! Those are useful responses given to an unclear question. "A letter from someone who recalls you fondly as a fine student who always came to class prepared" was PRECISELY how I described the "imagined" LOR, from the big name, to my friend when I was soliciting for advice.

 

A common fear amongst applicants (at least I've seen the same question every now and then on the Internet) is that, on top of the content, who wrote their letter matters a great deal too. My case was* to choose between a lesser-knwon prof who knew me well (3 classes, some TA work) but not THAT well (e.g. didn't know about the changes in my methodological inclination), and a big name who knew me not so well, but well enough to promise to write a letter. In a game of imperfect information (students can't read the LORs), it's good to know at least how ad coms read recommendations. And, I thank you both for that.

 

(* yes, my cycle is over, but this question still bothers me (and perhaps some future applicants to come).)

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I agree with the OSU mafia. A detailed letter that draws meaningful comparisons and speaks to a prospective student's strengths and weaknesses is terrific. Letters can also be extremely helpful when it comes to basic things... like reminding readers that an undergraduate institution does not have significant grade inflation. 

 

I'm not sure about how best to approach the larger question. It isn't just that institutions weigh elements differently; individual committee members do as well. And, as Irfan pointed out on a different thread, the structure of fellowship allocation is different -- and in consequential ways -- across different schools.

 

That's why the basic line you'll hear from us is to get your GREs as high as possible, pick writers who will produce personalized and detailed recommendations that speak specifically to your academic potential, and signal your competency to acquire necessary skills -- such as statistical methods, formal theory, languages, etc. 

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That's why the basic line you'll hear from us is to get your GREs as high as possible, pick writers who will produce personalized and detailed recommendations that speak specifically to your academic potential, and signal your competency to acquire necessary skills -- such as statistical methods, formal theory, languages, etc. 

 

+1000

 

Two other thoughts:

 

1) Dan: It's the Michigan, not OSU, mafia. We're just expanding our turf.

 

2) On the LOR question: Does the identity of the letter writer matter? Possibly. There is such a thing as source credibility after all. I mean if I get a letter from, say, Sam Huntington (yes, I know he's passed) saying that student X is the best student he's taught at Harvard in 50 years, I'm guessing it would make a much stronger impression on me than if I got a letter making the same relative claim from a professor whose name I didn't recognize at a school whose reputation I don't know as well. But disentangling the Huntington effect from the Harvard effect from the fact that said student is clearly a standout is very hard, and you can decide for yourself how you want to attribute that causality.

 

More generally, we can't control the identity of our letter writers in ways that would truly matter. I attended Ohio Wesleyan, a decent liberal arts university. My letter writers would not have been recognizable to the average committee member (for one thing, none of them were political scientists). It's irrelevant whether a letter from Huntington would have been better for me; that wasn't an option. So my goal was to give my letter writers the most ammunition I could so they could write the best letter they were willing to write (in other words, I followed Dan's advice above to the extent possible).

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More generally, we can't control the identity of our letter writers in ways that would truly matter. I attended Ohio Wesleyan, a decent liberal arts university. My letter writers would not have been recognizable to the average committee member (for one thing, none of them were political scientists). It's irrelevant whether a letter from Huntington would have been better for me; that wasn't an option. So my goal was to give my letter writers the most ammunition I could so they could write the best letter they were willing to write (in other words, I followed Dan's advice above to the extent possible).

Thank you so much for this excellent advice!

 

Do you think that it is okay to have more than three LORs?

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Thank you so much for this excellent advice!

 

Do you think that it is okay to have more than three LORs?

 

You're welcome. 

 

As to your question, absolutely. You can't force a committee member to read more than 3, though, frankly, you can't force them to read even 1. But those of us who do read diligently would welcome every additional data point that permits a better decision.

 

The only caveat would be to be confident that all your LORs are of comparable quality. In a world in which most letters are strong, a weakish letter grabs one's attention and you risk its (negative) signal swamping the positive signal of your other letters. So, for me, 3 strong letters beats 3 strong + 1 weak, but 4 strong would be even better. Does that make sense?

Edited by irfannooruddin

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Does the identity of the letter writer matter? Possibly. There is such a thing as source credibility after all. I mean if I get a letter from, say, Sam Huntington (yes, I know he's passed) saying that student X is the best student he's taught at Harvard in 50 years, I'm guessing it would make a much stronger impression on me than if I got a letter making the same relative claim from a professor whose name I didn't recognize at a school whose reputation I don't know as well. But disentangling the Huntington effect from the Harvard effect from the fact that said student is clearly a standout is very hard, and you can decide for yourself how you want to attribute that causality.

 

Yes.

 

I'd just add two things: (1) Credibility and prestige are far from perfectly correlated. (2) All else equal, it's more impressive to read "best student in 40 years of teaching" than to read "Best student I've seen in the three months since I started as an assistant prof." But that's really only a consideration at the margin, and all else is rarely equal.

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Another quick point: if you aggregate what I, BFB, and Irfan have said you might recognize a pattern: it is very difficult for an applicant to predict the quality of letters. The assistant professor who worked closely with you might put ten minutes of effort into a form letter. That big name might write you a personalized letter of the sort that opens plenty of doors.

 

Yes, you should be smart about picking writers; you should not be afraid to have a frank discussion with professors and/or employers before making a final decision about who writes your letters. But you should also recognize that there's a lot about this process that you cannot control. And, to be honest, a lot of what stinks about this process -- lack of control, lots of rejections, being at the mercy of idiosyncratic evaluators, and so forth -- pretty much applies to the entirety of academic life. 

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Hi. 

 

I was wondering how much the school a person studies/studied at matters when they apply. I ask this because I'm an international student and I'm pretty sure adcoms will not know my school/department/professors well enough (or even at all) to gauge me. Additionally, it seems like I'll end up doing a masters and I'm trying to figure out if which school I go to affects my future applications  i.e a school in the UK vs. one in the US. 

 

Thank you. 

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I'd like to expand on the previous post with a few related questions. As someone who got rejected from every PhD program, how do I gauge which MA programs can help prepare me for PhD work? 

 

I'm currently debating between a few options. Some of the schools are more "policy" oriented, like GW, Denver, and American, so I can cross them off the list. Other Schools like NYU and Columbia, which offer Masters degrees in their PoliSci departments, seem like good options, but I don't know if I can afford two years... 

On the other hand, Chicago's CIR program seems like a great fit, but is one year of study enough to prepare someone for PhD work? Compared with these programs, how do adcoms view 'taught' degrees from universities abroad, like LSE? 

 

Basically, when admissions committees look at a student's prior degrees, how do the curriculum, structure, and duration of the degree affect its credibility?

Are these programs actually good at training future academics, or are they viewed as a way to kill time between cycles? (This is my main question, you can ignore everything above if you want).

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Hi. 

 

I was wondering how much the school a person studies/studied at matters when they apply. I ask this because I'm an international student and I'm pretty sure adcoms will not know my school/department/professors well enough (or even at all) to gauge me. Additionally, it seems like I'll end up doing a masters and I'm trying to figure out if which school I go to affects my future applications  i.e a school in the UK vs. one in the US. 

 

Thank you. 

If you are going to do a MA you should do it in the US if you plan to eventually complete your PhD here. To be frank, there's not a lot of respect for foreign degrees in the US (they are perceived as less rigorous), even those from elite UK institutions. The professors writing your letters might be more recognizable. Also, its also bound to be cheaper, especially when you consider the cost of living in London.

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Hi. 

 

I was wondering how much the school a person studies/studied at matters when they apply. I ask this because I'm an international student and I'm pretty sure adcoms will not know my school/department/professors well enough (or even at all) to gauge me. Additionally, it seems like I'll end up doing a masters and I'm trying to figure out if which school I go to affects my future applications  i.e a school in the UK vs. one in the US. 

 

Thank you. 

 

Mostly school matters to me in terms of interpreting GPA and putting letters in context. I'll slightly notch up the value of a high GPA/good letters from a top program, and slightly notch down the value of those things in a much lower-ranked program. Quality of student is only loosely correlated, imo, with rank of institution, so these really are slight adjustments. In both instances, though, an unknown school pretty much puts you in the "no adjustment" pile.

 

Basically, when admissions committees look at a student's prior degrees, how do the curriculum, structure, and duration of the degree affect its credibility?

Are these programs actually good at training future academics, or are they viewed as a way to kill time between cycles? (This is my main question, you can ignore everything above if you want).

 

Thanks  :)

 

I think they're quite valuable, mainly in that they help you focus what you want to work on in graduate school and find a more compelling set of ideas to include in your personal statement. I don't care about the piece of paper.

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I'm not sure I agree entirely. I think an MA at the LSE carries weight with some programs. But US institutions with strong political-science departments are more traditional "feeders" for US PhD programs. 

Edited by dnexon

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Thank you to those who responded regarding MA programs. My undergrad university had a very small polisci program, so an MA would definitely expose me to a lot more. Your responses reassured me and I feel like it certainly won't be a waste to pursue one of these degrees.

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Thank you to those who responded regarding MA programs. My undergrad university had a very small polisci program, so an MA would definitely expose me to a lot more. Your responses reassured me and I feel like it certainly won't be a waste to pursue one of these degrees.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I can guarantee that my MA is the only reason that I was considered at certain schools.  My undergraduate degree was in Psychology (certainly helpful in any field, but not exactly a direct pathway).  An MA gave me access to the quantitative and theoretical tools, and gave me opportunity to publish a few articles and write a thesis.  It also opened up the path to attaining a position in a related field, which gave me further opportunity to travel and experience the world from a different point of view.

 

 

So, to those wondering about an MA, I wouldn't discourage you from pursuing one (provided the financial strain isn't a problem).

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Hello, thanks a lot for this great thread. I'm currently doing an MA at a decent but not top PoliSci program, and I'm planning to apply for Fall2014. One of my concerns is that I have two largely unrelated areas of research interest: one in IR (A) and the other in CP ( B ). I've been taking IR and method courses to write a thesis in A, and I'm wondering whether I should mention my interest in B at all while applying for PhD programs. Though I haven't done any graduate level work in B, it is the topic of my undergrad thesis, and I have the language skills for B.

The risk of including both A and B in my SOP is obvious. But I'm afraid that only focusing on one area in IR (A) may seem narrow. In addition, I will be able take one or two courses in Fall2013, so it will be either A (+ a method course) or B (+ a method course). So my questions is essentially about balancing the depth and breadth of coursework, and balancing the depth and breadth of research interests in SOP.

Many thanks!

Edited by gradcafe26

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