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"Green" Applicants


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So I was shamelessly stalking the grad student profiles at some top Sociology programs, and to be honest, I was very intimidated! Many of them seemed to have had years of professional experience in the field, published several articles and books, directed NGOs, earned advanced degrees, won awards, etc etc, before even getting into these schools. It makes me wonder if "green" applicants—people like me who are just coming out of undergrad and who don't have all of this experience—have any chance at all at claiming any spots in these schools?

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Are you looking at their current CVs? I mean, it would make sense that they have some those things (especially in regards to articles/books) now that they are active in grad school. Unless you are looking at their stats when they actually applied and entered grad school, I would not feel intimidated. Lots of people enter grad school with a MS/MA/JD, but a fair amount (maybe even more - I haven't looked at any stats) enter straight out of undergrad. Do you have RA experience or have you conducted an independent research project? Either of these things are note-worthy when applying straight from undergrad.

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At my program, back of the envelope calculations make me think:

  • probably 1/4 or fewer came straight out of undergrad
  • somewhere around 1/2 had a graduate degree of some kind before coming to the program (including applied degrees like JD or MPP and academic degrees not necessarily related to their study here)
  • if we include people who have never been out of school (that is they went bachelors-masters at another school-doctorate here) maybe 1/3 didn't take time off.
  • Almost no one had publications before coming here. Maximum 10-20%, but even that might be overestimating.
  • I think every cohort had someone straight out of undergrad (sometimes more than one). I think every cohort had someone over thirty (sometimes more than one). There's a real diversity of people accepted just like there's a really diversity of people applying.

    These numbers are estimates and based mostly on my cohort, and the cohorts above and below me, which isn't a huge number of people, and while I think this holds true for my program as a whole, I'm not sure it does.

    There are a couple of reasons why these results might not be typical:

  1. We take a lot of non-American students, and the clear majority of these students got some sort of graduate degree (some got PhDs) in their native country before coming to the U.S.
  2. We are probably a majority qualitative program--I get the impression that a lot of people who work with numbers are more likely to not take time off, and when they do take time off, it's a smaller amount of time.
  3. I also think, more generally, because certain things about how our program is structured, the adcoms (perhaps rightly) tends to prefer older, presumably more mature and self-directed/self-motivated candidates. I don't think other schools have as skewed as number as we do.
  4. Everyone should have a plan B when applying to PhD programs, of course, there's no such thing as a safety school in PhD programs, I tend to strongly encourage people to take time off because that was important for me, etc. but maybe you're also experiencing "imposter syndrome" early. You're impressed a lot with how these people look on paper. Trust me, when we got here, we were all impressed with how each other looked on paper too and over the first six months of the program all but one person in my cohort admitted that they felt underqualified. But also trust me, we all had things that other people found impressive and intimidating that we ourselves found mundane. We knew our own qualifications so they were just normal. Some were impressed that I had taught myself a foreign language but I was like "but that's a minimum requirement for my project", just like I was impressed by people who could do time series and social network analysis, to which they'd reply "but that's a minimum requirement" for my project and I was impresssed by some people who have many contacts in the fields they want to study and they said "but that's a minimal requiment for my project". Don't compare yourself to others, but ask your self:
    i. is the question I'm asking interesting?
    ii. am I (uniquely?) qualified to (continue getting the training and experience necessary) to try and answer that question?

When applying (and to stay sane once you start going to graduate school as well), you have to look at your qualifactions from the outside and think about your strongest qualitites, not fixate on how you might be inferior to other candidates. Honestly, all you can do is make the best application possible so really work on that. If you're worried that you might not look ready because of your age, for example, show that you are ready by demonstrating knowledge of the revelent debates in your field or whatever.

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I have spent considerable time on economics applications forums, as I've considered both fields. The qualifications of most successful applicants there are pretty loony, as well. My pet theory is that demand for advanced degrees has risen at a fixed supply, and the prices (in terms of opportunities foregone to acquire exceptional credentials) have gone way up.

Admissions committees have no incentive to take chances on greener applicants, when attrition is already a problem among hyper-qualified cohorts. That said, given the diversity of methods and fields in sociology, I suspect there are more ways to distinguish oneself than getting advanced degrees or doing professional research assistance before applying.

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Thanks for all this info! Do you think adcoms evaluate recent undergrads differently than they would a more mature student? I mean, time isn't the only the only distinguishing factor (I don't want to detract from their accomplishments at all by saying that), but I'm sure many of us just haven't had the time to build our CVs to that level yet.

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I think committees are looking for maturity of skills and research interests. That doesn't necessarily require publications or work experience (in fact in most cases work experience is probably a detriment), it requires maturity of skills and research interests. If older candidates are preferred it is because they've done more independent research and can signal better their commitment to the task etc. Undergraduates who have substantial research experience and relationships with advisers etc will find themselves in the same position a successful MA student will on applying. Considering age on its own terms and holding everything else constant, I would imagine younger applicants are preferred as the costs of sacrifice one makes in terms of personal life, relocating, etc go up as one gets older, adversely affecting their performance in the program.

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I received this email from a potential POI before explaining that I was an older non-traditional student with plenty of lived experience. If I had known that might happen, I would have opened with said experience, haha. Take from this what you will, but I do think being older is helpful, I don't think sociology ad coms are as interested in 22 year olds right out of undergrad. This is from a well known top 5 program that will remain nameless, haha.

I am going to give you my standard admonition, which I give to all students coming directly our of college. DO NOT GO DIRECTLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL OUT OF AN UNDERGRADUATE PROGRAM. Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, Americorps, work for an NGO, travel, volunteer, intern. You clearly have a variety of interests, deepen them and get some experience. Learn who you are and how the world works. I have yet to regret giving this advice to anyone. I have regretted accepting people who did not take this advice. Without exception, they simply have not been ready for the sort of work I am interested in and want to support.

After 27 years of teaching and service on many admissions committees, I can also assure you that you will be a better, more attractive candidate for graduate school - and just as importantly, for funding - if you have something on your resume besides classes. Your lived experience will shape you in important ways and teach you a lot about yourself, and you will have a much better idea of what it is that you want to do in graduate school, if you've taken time off from academics. Far from getting "behind" or "losing time," you are a better candidate if you do somehting outsdie academics for a couple of years.

So, bottom line, I have little interest in anyone, no matter how strong their academic record, coming right to grad school out of undergrad work. Doubtless this is disappointing to you, but as you may surmise, it is something that I feel quite strongly about. If you want to talk directly to me about this, you can call me some time.

Edited by xdarthveganx
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