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2019 PhD Cycle - Narrowing Down List of Programs

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I am new to this forum so please let me know if I am being redundant or if these questions have already been answered in another thread! 

I'm having trouble narrowing down my list of English PhD programs to apply to, and am wonder if others who've done this before might have any insight or techniques in doing so. My advising professor told me to choose numerous backups (dependent, of course, upon fit), but her suggestion of applying to 20+ schools is not monetarily feasible for me.

I want to be deliberate and smart about which programs I apply to, and while I'm tempted to apply to numerous 'reach' schools (i.e. top 15 programs), I'm not sure if it'll be worth it considering their low acceptance rates. I'm really just unsure of how competitive of an applicant I am, so any advice on where to start would be greatly appreciated. 

My current list includes a few American Studies and Performance Studies programs in addition to traditional English programs. I am still figuring out my project, but I'm fascinated by Afro-American and Asian American literature and autobiography (contemporary archives/repertoire are especially interesting to me, think Tina Campt). I will likely be applying to some of the bigger names in Black Studies; still determining if Asian American Studies is right for me. 

My questions, then, are as follows: 

- Is it worth it to apply to the top 15-20 programs when they have only a handful of spots? Of course, I will only apply to programs that are relevant to my research interests, but I'm not sure if it's worth spending so much time/money if I'm extremely unlikely to be admitted, especially since I don't have an MA and I would assume many (more qualified) applicants do. 

- How many 'reach' and 'backup' programs do most people apply to? To what extent does program 'pedigree' matter in overall PhD experience and eventual job placement? 

Some background about me:

- Graduated a few years ago with a BA in English (minors in Creative Writing and Black Studies) from a small liberal arts school. 

- Undergraduate GPA was ~3.87; I wrote a thesis. I have a few profs who know me well and will (hopefully) write decent letters of rec. 

- My GRE general test scores are horrendous to middling at best (~311 combined score, 164V, 147Q, 4.5 writing, will probably retake) 

- I have yet to take the GRE Lit Subject test, so that may improve my overall competitiveness, though I know that might not matter much. 

- No conferences or publications under my belt. 

Thank you! 

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1. It is worth it to apply to any program where you think you have a decent fit. It is not possible for you to truly evaluate your chance of getting in because there are a number of factors totally outside of your control that could greatly help or hurt your application, most importantly, who happens to be on the adcom that year (also, for example, the current disciplinary makeup of their grad population, the disciplinary makeup of the other people who applied, and so on).

2.  There is no such thing as a "safety" school. All English PhD programs have low acceptance rates. There are people who get accepted to top 10 schools but get rejected by schools in the 20s and 30s.  If you truly look at all schools that seem to be a good fit for your interests you are likely to come up with a list that has a broad cross section of school rankings.  That said, if you find your list reads something like "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, Chicago, Stanford" you might consider wanting to cast a wider net. Don't treat any school like it's a "reach" or a "safety."

3. I think most people who come through here apply to between 7 and 13 schools.  You do have the odd outliers who apply to 20 schools, and some folks who apply to only 2 or 3.

4.  "Pedigree" matters in hiring but it is not the most important thing. There are people doing fascinating, high quality work at all manner of schools. Oftentimes the reputation of your adviser can be more important than the reputation of the school.  Think about sub-disciplines you're interested in, as you might be surprised.  A few years ago SUNY Buffalo, a school in the 30s overall was listed in the top 10 of literary theory, though they recently fell out (presumably owed to the loss of Joan Copjec).  Schools with better "pedigrees" tend to have a lot more money to throw at you for stipends, travel grants, research, etc. That said, as a person at a school that ranks in the 30s overall but is a top school in my subfield, I have never really hurt for those things (though more money for conference travel would be nice, but most grad students go to too many conferences anyway).

Edited by jrockford27
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@swarthmawr There is a lot to address at it, but:

1. I think the first thing to realize is that there are NO safety schools. Some people get accepted into schools that have a 3-4 percent acceptance rate but rejected by schools with a 20 percent acceptance rate.

2. FIT matters. However, the way you determine fit might be different from how the school determines fit and there is no way to figure out what that specific fit is since those things may change from year to year. and being rejected this year does not mean you would get rejected the next year and vice-versa. ( @punctilious' husband was accepted at Harvard's PHD program but rejected at other programs of similiar 'prestige' and waitlisted at others.)

3. Re: Application costs https://www.btaa.org/resources-for/students/freeapp/introduction
The above link provides application fee waivers for programs in the B10 Alliance. There is no guarantee that all programs will grant a fee waiver, but it's worth filling out in case any of them do send you a fee waiver.

4. Some of your interests overlap mine. Shoot me a PM to discuss schools.

5. Some of the top schools might be worthwhile if the fit is right. Very few schools at the top are top at the same thing though. And some schools that are on the top of their field may not be on the T20 list.

6. The number of applicants with just a BA differs from school to school. Some schools prefer straight from BA applicants; others prefer applicants to have a Master's.

7. When asking for letters, please make sure to ask them if they feel they can write you a "strong letter of recommendation." If they feel they can't, thank them for their time and honesty, and then ask someone else.

8. At the BA level, it is not expected that you have any publications or conferences under your belt.

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Everything @Warelin and @jrockford27 said, but I would add that I wouldn't stress about retaking the GRE with a 164 verbal and 4.5. Most of your effort should be focused on researching schools that fit well with your interests, as that seems to have been the most important factor in acceptance. 

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I agree with all of the above statements. I will also say that a majority of schools accept a small number of students, so to reiterate, there is no safety school. I applied to about 10-12 programs, and I was only accepted to the schools that best fit my interests. So I recommend only applying to places that you think will be a really good fit, especially in terms of faculty (at least two to three tenured/tenure-track faculty members in your identified field).

Placement is a big deal in the humanities if you want an academic job after the Ph.D. So that's definitely something worth asking the DGS about, and I recommend talking to them about how accepting they are of Ph.D. students pursuing jobs outside of the academy, as it's becoming more and more necessary to consider.

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Hey there, @swarthmawr! Welcome to the community, and to this wild ride that is the applications process. Other folks have already offered some great advice and answers to your questions. I want to double-down on some of that here and offer a few other things to consider.

First, the really general advice:

1. As others have rightly noted, there's no such thing as a "reach" or a "backup" school at the Ph.D. level. If you can't 100% see yourself being part of a program and getting out of it what you need/want, then do not apply. Similarly, do not apply to the top five programs just because they're top 5 according to some ranking.  Which leads me to #2:

2. Prestige is not enough. There has been a LOT of debate on these fora about the importance of the USNWR rankings and prestige. Name recognition, access to ample resources, generous funding, and professional development opportunities, big-name POI to work with, and large alumni networks can certainly be helpful, but they are not enough. Instead, look very carefully at how a program's courses, faculty, resources, funding, and other opportunities mesh with your interests. It matters less how good your program looks on paper than how you and your work look on paper and in real life. PM me if you want anecdotes. :)

3. Fit is crucial.  Fit is a tidy little word for a massive concept that takes time to figure out. A few of us here have applied and been accepted to the same programs and it has been fascinating to chat about why we are or aren't leaning toward a particular program. 


How I figured out "Fit" (Sorry this is so bloody long; I hope this helps someone else.)

I only applied to five programs. They vary in terms of their particular resources and opportunities, but they all represent paths that I could envision leading me to where I want to be.

I started out by casting a wide net--I talked to friends, to colleagues, to mentors, I googled lists of programs and schools, and I scoured this forum. I began with a list of about 40 programs. Then I put that list away for a week and thought hard about my particular research interests. I narrowed those interests down into a few concrete goal statements and research questions, and then I started looking for articles, books, and conference panels that aligned with my interests. From there, I picked out a few scholars whose names kept popping up and I researched where they were trained and where they work now. Then I wrote the first draft of my statement of purpose. I kept it to 500 words and tried to cover ALL of my key experiences and goals. 

I took a break from my SOP for a week, and then sat down and re-read it with fresh eyes. Then I went back to that list of 40 schools and started looking at the profiles, publications, and research interests of the faculty and students. I very quickly eliminated more than half of the programs on my list because they just didn't have enough/any people or resources that would help me do what I set forth in my SOP. I found 10 programs that seemed like decent fits, and then considered things like the geography, climate, and anecdotes from friends. I also looked at recent theses and dissertations, placement data, and talked to friends. I ultimately chose to apply to five programs that I deeply believe would all prepare me very well to meet my goals.

My mantra all along was "you only need one acceptance" so I made sure that I didn't bother applying to a place unless I believed that I would 1) feel 100% thrilled to be accepted by them as my only acceptance, and 2) thrive there. Having a really clear articulation of my goals and fit at each program helped me prepare my recommendation letter writers to back me up. It also helped me to really focus on how to craft a compelling writing sample that (as Old Bill suggests in his pinned post that should be required reading material), worked together with my SOP to paint a clear picture of how the program and I were a good match.

That said, the applications process is a crapshoot. I could have sent the exact same applications last year and been shut out. :)



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Hi! I was a similar candidate as you are--I am in my last year of undergrad at a small liberal arts school, have a 3.7 GPA, and made a 163v/150q/5.5w on the GRE. You will have a huge advantage in applying because you already have a thesis that you can revise and make a lot better (I had to create a writing sample from scratch while I was working part-time and going to school and it was HARD). I have presented at a couple of conferences, but that isn't super significant to acceptance in my understanding. You also have a very clearly developed area of interest which I think is a big part of what sets the MA apart from the Ph.D (is my understanding--I am entering into an MA program so can't say for sure). I applied to 8 programs this year, 4 MAs and 4 Ph.Ds. I got waitlisted at 1 Ph.D and accepted to 3 MAs, one of which is a fully funded offer. I would definitely suggest not applying to less than at least 6 schools, and I would do closer to 10 if you can manage it. I would also look into fee waivers! I saved up for grad school expenses for a year beforehand, and I still ended up not being able to afford a couple apps. I did get one fee waiver from University of Rochester, which is an awesome program and ended up accepting me. I will also say that my acceptances were kind of across the board. I got immediately accepted at Rochester and Syracuse, but was waitlisted at Alabama, which is a lower ranked program. I got funding at Rochester but am waitlisted for funding at Syracuse, which is lower ranked than Rochester. Additionally, I do think rankings are somewhat arbitrary. Like others have said, I don't think there is any "safety" school, and most programs have similar acceptance rates. That being said, I don't think you should discount top 20 programs! Everything is about fit and a little bit of randomness. There are people on the forum who get shut out by every program except one, which happens to be top 10. It's all kind of random and dependent on numbers and factors that are out of your control. I would recommend applying to a wide range of programs, but I don't see why you shouldn't apply to top programs as long as the fit is right and you've created a strong writing sample and SOP!

Edited by Cassifrassidy
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Welcome! All good points above - 

I absolutely agree with @EspritHabile that there are no safety schools. It seems (from my anecdata) that schools are still regularly receiving hundreds of applications. Additionally, some programs are shrinking the cohorts to make for better funding during the degree and for better success on the job market. My gut feeling (which is pretty wobbly, seeing as I don't really much yet) is that programs are beginning to undergo change in terms of cohort size. Perhaps not all of them, but I think the trend will be to shrink the cohorts every year. 

Also, I totally agree with @Warelin that how you define fit may not exactly be how the program defines it. I didn't think I'd have a shot at the program I'm going to attend because my research interests didn't totally align on paper. While I could name 3+ people in the dept to work with, I figured it'd be a "no" given my projects - I was totally wrong. And when I went to visit and speak with the department, I got a really strong and clear understanding of how the dept can help me in a way I would have never known just by looking at the website and reading some articles. 

@swarthmawr - feel free to shoot me a PM as it looks like our interests overlap to some degree and I did my undergrad at a small liberal arts school. SLACs are not carbon copies of one another, of course, but I realized there was a big difference between the SLAC undergrad academic experience and the large, research university academic experience (which I did for the MA).

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Thank you so much, everyone. I will definitely PM those of you with similar interests, and hello to you, @jadeisokay! Your advice has really helped me evaluate my approach, and I think I've been thinking of this whole process as similar to undergraduate admissions when it's clearly different. 

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The advice above is top-notch, but I would add that this board is potentially an excellent resource for you if you're not familiar with the process. Take the time to read through similar threads, posts like your own, and talk to professors from your undergrad.

I'll also add two more decision criteria to the ones listed above: field and adcom members.

A university may decide that they want to strengthen the Modernist contingent of their grad students that year despite that school being well-known for their theory focus. So candidate X may submit an excellent application that names numerous theory people, but since the university is not interested in theory students that year candidate X gets a rejection.

The same line of thought applies for committee members. For example, you're applying to Maryland and being the cagey, scrupulous applicant you are, you tailor an application designed to appeal to, say, Mary Helen Washington (I only use this name because I've met her and she's freaking awesome, so I figure anyone in her field would want to work with her). Guess what? MHW isn't on the adcom that year. Too bad. 

It's a strange process, so the more information you have at your disposal, the better equipped you'll be to make informed decisions. I don't think our interests overlap, but feel free to PM me if you have any questions:)

Edited by Hermenewtics
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On 3/28/2018 at 6:46 PM, Hermenewtics said:

The same line of thought applies for committee members. For example, you're applying to Maryland and being the cagey, scrupulous applicant you are, you tailor an application designed to appeal to, say, Mary Helen Washington (I only use this name because I've met her and she's freaking awesome, so I figure anyone in her field would want to work with her). Guess what? MHW isn't on the adcom that year. Too bad. 


MHW is leaving after this spring, I believe. Not really applicable to the conversation, but thought it might be good info for those interested.

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Such excellent advice here! 

I'll add one more thing: to echo what someone else had mentioned, a lot of this really does depend on how applications are reviewed and selected. Some programs have everybody in the grad faculty read and rank the applicants and then they come together and discuss/decide; some programs have a certain committee of 3 or 4 people who decide; some programs have a committee of just 2; some programs may operate even differently where individual faculty pick who they want to work with and cohorts are formed that way. 

So, all this is to say, your odds of admission may be different depending on who you are planning on (or who they anticipate you) working with and how applicants are selected. A prof at my MA institution, for example, warned me that I might have faced stiffer competition because I was applying to work with a person EVERYONE applies to work with (it's okay; I still got in, but I was one of only two admits who were selected to potentially work with this person because they were trying to balance the cohort). 

So also be aware that some of this is just outside of your control! You don't know who else is applying, and with whom they're applying to work. And that definitely affects things and definitely varies. And unfortunately, there's not much you can do about it. 

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