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Chuck

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  1. My letter writers were from: Anthropology, Political Science, Law, Economics. I had never taken a "Sociology" class prior to my first semester in my top-choice PhD program. I'll echo what others have already stated so eloquently. It's not about what discipline you're coming from. Doctoral programs are primarily interested in your potential to do top-notch innovative research. If you have a strong background and you present yourself well, you can demonstrate that potential coming from pretty much any field. We've had students come from: Engineering, Natural Sciences, Mathematics, History, English... FWIW - I actually think that, in some cases, applicants with background in a different discipline have a slight advantage. Never underestimate the keen interest faculty have in moulding bright "new" students to "their way" of doing sociology.
  2. You sound motivated and like you're getting on the right track. Going to graduate school is a big commitment. Figuring out that you really do want to go and what you want to study should be a process of careful deliberation. The more you know about yourself and your interests and goals, the more happy and successful you will be as a graduate student. I've advised a few recent college graduates in similar situations. You're still quite young, so don't feel pressure to rush the application process. The more effort you put into figuring out what you want, the better your experience will be in graduate school. As is the case for most everyone who asks 'what are my chances' type questions, It's going to be pretty difficult for anyone on this board to give you a realistic picture of how competitive your application is likely to be at various programs. That said, there is a lot of advice we can offer without knowing too many of your personal details. One thing I can say with some confidence that lack of sustained contact with at least one faculty member is going to hurt your application. The first thing I would suggest for someone in your situation is to postpone the application process by at least a year. Admission to desirable programs (read: funding, positive academic environment) is highly competitive. One often has to be strategic to gain admission even to the least prestigious programs. Successful applicants are most always those who have been working towards the goal of graduate work for several years. They've been taking advanced classes in their area of interest, exploring various fields, working with faculty and advanced graduate students on research, attending conferences, doing lots of reading, developing a well-conceived research proposal, etc. It sounds like you're getting yourself on the right track by doing some reading in your field. Working towards getting yourself to a space where you are even more sure of what you want will have the added benefit of greatly increasing the competitiveness of your application. For example- you never want to be in a situation where the best possible reference you're going to get from a faculty member is "This student did very well in my class, and got an A." You need to develop relationships with mentors who know you well and can vouch for your ability to succeed in a graduate program. Skills for success in graduate school (leadership, perseverance, maturity, tenacity, research skills, creativity, dedication, etc) go far beyond GPA- and it's evidence of these skills that admissions committees are on the lookout for. I suggest that you start by taking an advanced class in an area related to your research interest. You can usually do this somewhat inexpensively at a local public university as a non-degree student. You'll be able to develop your academic interests, form a relationship with one or more faculty, and hone your academic skills.
  3. Great question, Gilbertrollins! I also often feel that cloud of guilt. In contrast to my past life in the 9-5 world, I have long ago given up on the idea that my weekends are my own. But equally important to recognize is that burnout is quite real, and it has a way of sneaking up and making you more unproductive than ever! Another question I have for advanced students and faculty - Looking back on those who struggled to get through a PhD program and/or left altogether, are you able to point to any common predictors? I recently read a commentary about women and minorities who leave academia. In most cases, departmental leadership chalks up what is actually a statistically significant disparity in drop out rates to "individual circumstances." I suppose we could take raw demographic categories more seriously. But, in your (anectdotal) point of view, what are these "individual circumstances"? What were the kinds of things that tended to be the last straw for colleagues who left your program? Was there a 'push'? (Academic burnout, failure) Or more of a 'pull' (lured away to a non-academic job, shift in family obligations, illness)?
  4. Thanks to msafiri and faculty for your insights! The poll function on gradcafe is unfortunately a little clunky (not to mention the obvious fact that the 'data' are absolutely not scientific). I certainly agree that "reading more" and "grant writing" should be added. As someone who spent a great deal of my own free time reading academic work prior to beginning my PhD program, I have to wonder about the pedagogy of the coursework phase of graduate school. Personally, I have found my innate curiosity and desire to learn stifled by college-style busywork and deadlines. I now read with an eye to what I know I will be evaluated on in the short term. I read with an eye to what I know the particular faculty member in charge of the course/qualifying exam thinks is important. I suppose this is a useful skill (at least I am learning how sociology as a discipline organizes material), but already it has put a dent in my publication lineup. Personally, it's hard to imagine right now how good I have it as a graduate student. Though I will acknowledge that a lot more could be made of the 'gift of ignorance' that comes with being the low man on the totem pole. I get to ask all kinds of questions of faculty and more advanced students. Many times I get the feeling that some 'more-senior' others wished they had the guts to ask the questions I am asking. What aspects of life as a faculty member are worse than life as a PhD student? And how can PhD students better prepare to be successful faculty? I wouldn't say my program is especially wonderful at professionalizing its graduate students. We receive very little instruction in teaching, grant writing, publishing, networking, etc. In fairness, colleagues at other top programs have expressed this same concern. (In contrast to colleagues who have gone through the MBA, JD, MSW, or MPP and have taken whole classes on these kinds of non-cognitive skills)
  5. I'm hoping to spark a thoughtful discussion among those who have already spent several years in graduate school as well as those who have moved on to bigger (and hopefully better!) things. This poll is intended to inspire the dispensation of some advice to those of us who are still in graduate school. So- Junior faculty and advanced graduate students: Help us see the big picture and avoid some of the biggest mistakes that you never saw coming! Thanks!
  6. Your previous program still thinks highly enough of you to want you back? You're golden! It would be unethical for a program to support your return without also supporting your application elsewhere. Have a frank conversation with your former advisor(s) about where you've been and where you want to go. A strong LOR from faculty who know you well and can vouch for your competence and the details of your situation should be quite sufficient to re-enter academia. Based on the strength of your previous work and the experience you've gained over several years of teaching, I would be surprised if you weren't able to gain admission to the program of your choice. I think it's easy to look at our professors and conclude that there's one "straight shot" way to be successful in academia. Non-traditional applicants are starting to get an edge, and I think this trend can only continue. Leverage those assets and keep your chin up!
  7. This is a terrific thread. You have done prospective applicants quite a service by posting this information, thank you for taking the time to write such thoughtful reflections on the admissions process. As a new student in a sociology PhD program, I am often approached for advice of this nature. I'm not sure why anyone thinks I'd have particular expertise in what happens behind the closed doors of the admissions process. So this is my chance to get some great insight from the horses mouth from someone who has actually been behind those doors! There are two questions that I get asked often which have not yet been addressed. They are somewhat related, but analytically distinct: 1) How is age looked upon in the admissions process? Obviously, it is forbidden to discuss or inquire about an applicants age directly. But we all know that it's pretty darned easy to make an accurate estimate based on secondary factors (transcripts, work experience, etc). And I would be quite surprised if applications from those who are significantly older than than the usual range are not treated differently. The conventional wisdom is that departments do have an informal age cutoff (I have actually heard faculty talk about this openly in my own department. They refer to 'hiring surveys' and justify their reluctance to admit older candidates on the basis of the crummy job prospects faced by older PhDs). What is this cutoff? And what are the secondary factors that are used to make the judgement call? Most older applicants will undoubtedly have educational, research, and/or professional experience that is directly applicable to a PhD in sociology. So, to a certain extent, we can assume that this type of experience is an asset in the admissions process. But where does the line get drawn? You discussed in an earlier post (last year, I believe), that those entering with an MA face somewhat higher expectations in the admissions process than those entering directly from a BA program (I believe you discussed this in relation to the expectation of research experience, publications in particular). 2) So, my second question is somewhat tangential to the first. Question #1 can be discussed in the context of someone with a more or less straightforward academic trajectory in sociology. So it can in a certain sense be reduced to a question of age. Where older applicant = expectation of more experience/accomplishments in sociology, up to a certain point (the age cap). Age aside, how are those who are switching fields evaluated? Obviously, its quite common to see folks coming in with degrees in fields directly related to or overlapping with sociology. But what about those who are new to social science? On what basis can they be evaluated? I'm thinking of the committee member you mentioned who combs through undergraduate transcripts in search of specific sociology classes. I can see the argument against admitting those whose background is substantially lacking in the social sciences. These applicants are more risky, and their letter-writers are less likely to be known by the department. On the other hand, several top departments are known to regularly admit folks who are entirely new to sociology (though they certainly are coming in with stellar records in other fields). It seems like these candidates could be fairly evaluated on ability to do research (as shown from CV & publications), as well as demonstrated commitment to sociological methods (as shown through SOP & LORs)...? In practice, what redeems candidates new to sociology in the eyes of the admissions committee? Its a bit of an 'apples and oranges' problem. Is the bar set higher? Or just differently? I would be surprised if these applicants aren't a point of friction between committee members.
  8. La_Di_Da offered some of the best words of wisdom regarding making attendance decisions that I've seen: "pick the program/package that allows you to become your best self and do your best work, that is, within reason of course, for every choice involves some degree of compromise." Simple and to the point! I went through this process last year. I lurk on these boards from time to time, and would like to offer some advice (culled from my own experience, as well as those of peers and colleagues) When it comes to trying to choose between programs, now is the time to do some deep soul-searching about where to find the best fit for you. And 'best fit' absolutely means where you'll be able to do your best work in the next 2-8 years. There are going to be tradeoffs. But the good news is that there is likely not one 'best choice'. Be open, weigh all your options, and absolutely do your due diligence: visit programs, ask difficult questions of faculty and current students. Are these people folks you can see yourself collaborating with, learning from, and spending 60 hours/week with? Are they happy? Do they 'get' your background (academic, cultural, ethnic, social) and research interests? Do you feel comfortable? Do you see yourself being challenged (but not overwhelmed)? I've found that folks are remarkably forthright in answering difficult questions about their department (but only if they're asked!). It's in nobody's interest to lie and then be stuck with an unhappy student or colleague. What about the level of structure to the program? Are you someone who thrives on regularly being held accountable, or do you do your best work when given more freedom? Different faculty advisors will land at different points on this spectrum. There is also a huge variation at the department level in the amount of constraint/freedom accorded to graduate students. These differences are often not made explicit in the recruitment process. To compare programs, be sure to get all the information on required classes, resident credit hours, the structure of qualifying exams, prelim exams, etc. Imagine your first 2 years in each department in question. Is there a round of specific courses required of all students? How many? Are they classes you would be excited to take anyway? If the department is more stringent with the scheduling of their requirements, is this going to put a cramp in your research agenda? Is a more regimented schedule of requirements what you, personally, need to get things done? Conversely, if requirements are very lax, are you going to suffer for not having someone keeping you in line? Especially if you are early in your academic career, new to sociology, or new to research, are you going to feel lost without an armature of requirements? Know yourself. Differences in department ranking, research focus, availability of potential POIs, and placement of graduates are absolutely important things to consider. Though it's often poo-pooed, don't discount geographic location. You can't do good work if you're not in a place that makes you happy. But don't let stereotypes interfere too much. If your hesitation about a particular location becomes a sticking point- ask current students how they adjusted to living somewhere that is hot/cold/large/small/southern/midwestern/white/far from home/etc... Incidentally, this advice applies to department size as well. Don't let stereotypes about a program being 'too big' or 'too small' weigh more heavily than the actual culture and opportunities of the department. Does the department have a hierarchy among students? (dirty secret: even if informally, most do!) Especially if you're being recruited as a top student to a middling program /or are a wait-listed candidate to a top program, you'll want to think about how your position is going to affect your interactions with faculty and peers. The footing you start out on will absolutely affect your initial adjustment to the department. It can be just as difficult to be 'the star' as it is to be the one who just got in by the skin of their teeth. The good news is that, after recruiting season ends, most departments try to foster an environment of equality. After the first couple of years, nobody is going to remember if you were the one who came in on fellowship or were admitted the first week of September. The quality of your work in the department will trump all. Nevertheless, know yourself. Is it hard for you to do quality work in an environment where you feel more academically prepared than your peers? Will you be challenged enough? Did you meet students at visit day who you would be excited to collaborate with? Conversely, is being in an environment with a bunch of superstars for peers (even if they are humble, kind, and helpful, as most sociologists are) going to make you struggle too much? Will it exacerbate your intellectual anxieties? (another dirty secret: everyone has them!) Again, know yourself. One last thing.... If at all possible, and if you're comparing different 'fully-funded' offers, try not to let differences in funding amounts be a primary factor in your decision. In the long run (i.e., over the course of your career), a program that pays a few extra $$ is not going to be worth the potential sacrifice of you doing your best work if it doesn't fit you in other ways. I suppose the exception to this might be if you know at the start that you'll be able to do an absolutely bang-up job on an MA thesis and then take a reasonable gamble to apply again to 'better' PhD programs in 2-3 years. Still. All would hinge on that stellar thesis, and that's a lot to leave to chance. I hope this advice is helpful to any and all who will struggle with difficult decisions over the next few weeks. Look on the bright side- you are so very fortunate to have this decision to make! In closing, I'll reiterate La_Ti_Da's point that all decisions involve tradeoffs. There is likely no one 'best' program out there for you. Do your best to pick the one where you think you can do your best work. And try not to look back! Best of luck! -Chuck
  9. I want to make a caveat/clarification to my statement: "Anyone who studies 'the grad cafe' message boards in some detail is likely to get a pretty good idea of his/herapproximate competitiveness in the applicant pool." I do think that there is a general consensus that immediately quantifiable attributes (GRE, GPA) tend to be vastly overemphasized on 'the grad cafe'. Of course these metrics are important. But, as many have pointed out in the past, it's easy to get caught up obsessing over them since they're such an easy short-hand basis for comparison. Far more important are the many elements of your application that are not easily compared in on online forum. There are many other ways to get a far better picture of the type of student admitted to a certain program. These include: talking to current students, talking to your undergraduate advisor, talking to the DGS at the program of interest, etc. These are going to be your most valuable resources. Take it from a current student who has recently been around the block in the 2012 application cycle!
  10. Do keep in mind that, as much as applicants are eager to be admitted to as many schools as possible, programs are just as keen on admitting students who are likely to accept their offers. Anyone who studies 'the grad cafe' message boards in some detail is likely to get a pretty good idea of his/her approximate competitiveness in the applicant pool. Yes, the process is stochastic. No, there are never any guarantees. All you can do is put your best foot forward and give it your best shot. If you have a pretty good idea that you're going to be a competitive applicant in a certain range of programs, there's not much reason to apply to schools that are significantly farther down on your list. For one thing, never apply to a school that you wouldn't seriously consider attending (Ask yourself: If this was the only school I got into, would I attend?). These schools are very aware that they tend to be people's second and third choices in graduate education. They've become very adept at sniffing out applicants who seem too good to be true. Last year, out of irrational paranoia more than anything else, I applied to several schools that I knew to be well below my range of competitiveness. At one of these schools, I was contacted directly by the DGS. We had a very awkward conversation in which he told me that I was their top candidate and asked me directly if my application to his program had been 'sincerely in earnest'. Far from feeling flattered, I was embarrassed. Another school called up one of my recommenders to ask the same question. We both approached the situation honestly- and I was rejected from both programs. I could have saved a lot of time, money, and general effort on everyones part had I simply applied to the programs which I knew to be a good fit. And by fit, I mean a magic combination of selectivity, academic strengths, and research program. I know that it can be difficult to ascertain 'fit' from a distance, but be assured that all programs have consummate experience sussing out which students are likely to accept their offers if admitted.
  11. Does anyone else find it strange that the NDSEG is interested in "community and volunteer work"? Community volunteering is all well and good, but I haven't come across any other academic fellowship that gives any weight to this sort of thing. In fact, extensive extramural commitment would seem a bit distracting to the mission of the fellowship. I wonder what they are looking for here?
  12. There are two issues around levels of funding less than 100%. You are right that there can be quite a variance of the sticker price of MA programs at different institutions and in different countries. No matter if a school is giving you a 95% scholarship or no scholarship, what you should really be considering is your out-of-pocket cost. When I was looking at MS programs (many years ago), the school that "gave me the most money" ("oh wow!" I thought, "look at that GIGANTIC scholarship they're offering me!") also happened to be a private institution with very high tuition in an expensive city. My out of pocket cost would still have been around $20K/year. At a comparable program in a public university, I was also given a scholarship, but for quite a smaller amount. My total yearly cost at that school would have been $5K. This is a big difference, especially over a 2 year program. Even if I had been an unfunded student at this second school, my annual out of pocket cost would have been much less than with the large scholarship at the private university. So, at one level, you should really not be comparing the level of funding, per se, but the final net expense. There is another issue with going to a program un-funded. Many programs that have un-funded MA students also have funded MA students (or at least students who were given some partial funding). I know that this is the case at both BU and Oxford. This means that if you attend the school as an unfunded student, you're literally at the bottom of the totem pole. Faculty and administration will take note of this. Not to be too blunt about it, but you're there as the student who they didn't really want, at least not enough to give money to. It can create an unfair and uncomfortable hierarchy, and academic bad blood. I ended up attending a master's program where most students were generously funded, but almost none at the level of 100%. On several occasions I heard professors remark about specific students what a bad decision they had made to attend the program un-funded. These remarks were certainly inappropriate. But, seeing how these students continue to struggle under the burden of large loan obligations, I have to agree.
  13. This list is confusing to me. The top US sociology departments (also according to USNWR), don't appear in the same order relative to one another. What's going on here?
  14. I would caution almost anyone against enrolling in a completely unfunded master's program, no matter how "prestigious" the program or university. $40,000 or $60,000 is a TON of money to be paying for a master's in socioloy. Even in the best case scenario (the program is your springboard to a top PhD program and a good chance at a tenure-track professorial job many years down the line), you're still looking at typical starting salaries for social science faculty, which are not nearly enough to live comfortably on while servicing that kind of debt. Unless you are independently wealthy, if you want to go into academia this is almost certainly a bad idea. This level of debt will require you to make monthly payments of many hundreds of dollars. It will literally cripple your lifestyle for many years, perhaps many decades, to come. At the very least, ask the program to put you in touch with some recent graduates. Ask them how much debt they took on, and if they felt it was worth it. I can sympathize with the desire to start a program as soon as possible. It can be tempting to take one of the offers you have now, but my advise is to strengthen your application in other ways and apply again next year. BC and Oxford both have good reputations in sociology, which is probably why they are sometimes able to get away with enrolling master's students who pay the full sticker price. Most of these students come from wealthy families who can afford this level of tuition. The money you pay is going (albeit indirectly) to finance the tuition of PhD students. I have heard unfunded master's students lament that they are thought less of in the departmental hierarchy. Think about if this is a position you want to be in academically. There are plenty of other programs that do provide some level of funding to master's students. Many of these programs are just as good as BC and Oxford, some just a little bit less prestigious. If you're using the masters as a launching pad to the PhD, there are literally hundreds of programs out there that will provide you with solid grounding for a strong PhD application. Ultimately, where you got your master's won't matter nearly as much as where you get your PhD. Just one man's opinion.
  15. I realize this question is a little bit obtuse. Nevertheless, as someone who is relatively new to the discipline, I am interested in a quick and dirty shorthand illumination of the reputation and ranking of departments by sub-field. Does anyone know of a publication or resource that has this information all in one place? I'm actually less interested in rankings in the traditional sense (#1 on down the line). What I'd really like to see is a resource that, for a particular sub-discipline, tells you which departments have been the traditional powerhouses, and which ones are doing up-and-coming groundbreaking work. If I look at the different section pages on the ASA website, do the section officers (and their respective institutions) necssarily represent the best work being done in a particuar sub-field? Is this useful information?
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