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Hi everybody! I am on round 2 of PhD apps. I graduated a year ago but decided to pursue an MA after getting shut out of PhD apps last cycle (except for an offer with no funding). I plan to focus on international relations with a specific focus on military effectiveness, conventional war, and civil-military relations. I am wondering if my chances will have changed much from last year now that I am working on an MA and COVID has sort of moved along. I would like to know what you all think. Thanks for taking a look!

Undergrad: 3.73 GPA, special honors in the major and magna cum laude. Major in International Affairs with a minor in history. Private school, around #50-60 but top 10 in IR. I was involved in a 2 year undergrad research program/fellowship. I also won a large (by undergrad standards) grant to work on the project during the summer of 2020. I have presented the final work at a symposium with the rest of my cohort and it will be published in a sort of edited volume for the program but I don't intend to do anything else with the final product. I also was involved in another research seminar that more closely aligns with my current research interests, and did an independent study of a PhD level IR field seminar. My biggest weakness here is lack of quant skills. I took a survey econ course and then intro to stats in sophomore year but I got a c+ in it. 

Masters: I am currently working on a 1-year, research intensive MA at a top 10 program. My concentrations are international security and research methods. I am working on the PhD quant methods sequence here, along with some courses in qual methods/research design and IR seminars. I am in the early stages of an MA thesis but it won't be ready to use for this round of applications. 

GRE: 168V/160Q/5.5AWA

LORs: I think I will have pretty strong letters of recommendation from my undergrad faculty. First is from a famous faculty in the field who I knew since sophomore year and advised my undergrad thesis. Another is a well known prof in the subfield who I took multiple classes and an independent study with. They have been very active in trying to help me with grad apps and are well connected in the field. Last letter will be from a non-tenured professor who was the director of my undergrad research program and I got to know very well over two years. Unfortunately, I have only been at my MA school for a little while so I haven't had much time to build relations with profs here. 

Writing Sample: I will be submitting my final undergrad thesis. I changed research interests while writing it so it is totally unrelated to what I am working on now and want to work on in the future. It is my best finished work though. Both my advisor and the research program director liked the paper and gave it positive feedback. It's been through tons of rounds of edits and I feel confident saying it is polished, if not the most well designed research project. 

Other: I applied to ~10 schools last year and got pretty much straight rejects. I got an acceptance to OSU but it didn't come with any funding. I'm not sure what to make of it but I feel like given that I got at least one acceptance as a fresh undergrad during COVID, it means that I should be in a decent position this year. 

Schools (list is still a work in progress) : Stanford, MIT, Columbia, Chicago, UC Berkeley, UCSD, OSU, Duke

Let me know if y'all think these are within reach or if there are others I should be applying to. Thanks!

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Wow you seem like a really strong candidate, can't believe that you got rejected from all those places last cycle. I'm really worried about my chances now haha, but honestly think you'd be fine this cycle. All those choices should definitely be within reach for you. Have you mailed any faculty members at these unis yet?

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You seem very strong! If your focus is IR and conflict-related, I highly recommend applying to Michigan. Do you have a regional focus? Michigan is also looking for more Africanists. Otherwise, your list looks pretty good. Professors on the committees select people they want to work with so if you’ve been in touch with any professors or your work is adjacent to someone’s you might have a better shot. Also look at the current student profiles and the dissertation topics that your professors of interest have chaired and make sure there isn’t overlap but that your topics fit somewhat neatly into the kinds of topics the school is already covering. Do your letter writers have connections to any specific faculty or programs? Keep that in mind, too, because friends help friends. From my understanding, schools haven’t fully recovered from Covid and many people were in your same position last year so the admissions process will likely be challenging again this year. With your qualifications I don’t see any issues. 

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You will not like what I have to say. You went through an application cycle and received no acceptances - OSU without funding does not count in my opinion. Am I right to assume that you have the exact same profile as last year except that you enrolled in an MA program? Did you go to Chicago? Unfortunately it is well known that those MA programs do not do much for your phd chances. Except if they help you refine your research interests or come up with a better writing sample (which is not your situation) they will not make much of a difference. I admit that there is a chance that you were rejected from phd programs due to a lesser quant background and maybe your MA prep in that area will help you. But it is uncertain. A C+ in a sophomore quant course will always stand out to adcoms and is a huge red flag.

If I was you I would:

1. Introspect and really try to figure out what was missing in your application the first round. Likely your writing sample, LORs, or SoP were lacking. So go back to those and work on them non-stop until December. These are the areas you should try to improve in.

2. Apply broadly in the top-50. You will be competing with the best of the best in the top-10 and even if you had a perfect profile chance of admittance there would still be slim. There are many great programs in the top-50 - begin looking now.

3. Consider eliminating strongly quant-oriented programs.

I know this is not good news, but it would be devastating (?) to receive only rejections this year also. I do think you'll be able to enter a good program if you follow my advice.

Good luck.

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@Theory007 I appreciate the candid response. Actually the profile is different than the last cycle beyond just the MA. The writing sample used last year was admittedly subpar and I was frustrated I was not able to use my thesis but it was still not done at the time. I am now ready to use it as a writing sample and I believe it will be a substantial improvement. I am also replacing one of the letter writers from last year with somebody who can submit a more personal and positive letter. As for the SOP, it is being reworked from the ground up. I think there were some problems with it last year that I am trying to rectify in this year's. So in fact, all three elements you mention are receiving attention. 

I have been considering expanding the pool I am applying to to get out of the top 10, and I will likely heed your advice. 

Thank you. 

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2 hours ago, jjiffy said:

@Theory007 I appreciate the candid response. Actually the profile is different than the last cycle beyond just the MA. The writing sample used last year was admittedly subpar and I was frustrated I was not able to use my thesis but it was still not done at the time. I am now ready to use it as a writing sample and I believe it will be a substantial improvement. I am also replacing one of the letter writers from last year with somebody who can submit a more personal and positive letter. As for the SOP, it is being reworked from the ground up. I think there were some problems with it last year that I am trying to rectify in this year's. So in fact, all three elements you mention are receiving attention. 

I have been considering expanding the pool I am applying to to get out of the top 10, and I will likely heed your advice. 

Thank you. 

Good luck, seriously. I'll be rooting for you. Phd applications really are a crapshoot. I have over time become more and more convinced that the added value of going to a top program is not huge. People get hired based on the research they do, regardless of the school they come from. What matters more is the advisor you get and a terrible advisor in a great program may not be able to do as much for you as a great advisor in a lower-ranked program. That's why everyone always emphasizes the fit between you and the program and between you and your prospective advisor - and they are right in doing so. SO the benefit of a top program is not as great as one may thing, but the probability of getting into one is for most people very low. Just my five cents.

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