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Finally! I hit a big milestone at the end of February; now I can sit down, take the time to write this post, and quickly respond to comments.

 

I was originally going to set this up as an “AMA” a la Reddit, but there are a few things that I can’t/won’t answer to maintain my anonymity and to comply with the rules of my adcomm.

 

I am a graduate student at a top 20 ranked university (top 20 ranking overall and in a sub-area). I am advanced in my program and have many friends at other top schools that I've met at conferences or know from my undergraduate institution. If there is something that I don't know the answer to, I will say that, and if I can, I will consult with other graduate students who I know on adcomms.

Here is an outline of my service on the admissions committee. Back in the fall, I was selected as a student representative to be on the committee. There is a 2:1 faculty/student ratio in addition to the DGS. We began reviewing applications shortly after the final deadline passed and met weekly until we had looked over all the applications. The committee was given rough outlines of how to grade the applicants, but some of us created additional criteria we thought important. For example, one person on the committee was really looking at transcripts for certain classes taken in undergraduate. I personally valued “fit”, which I weighted more heavily in my final score. At the meetings, we would look at the average of the committee’s score of each applicant. The DGS directed the proceedings and we used general cutoffs to admit students. When there was strong disagreement (i.e. 50/50 split) we would discuss candidates further. I felt like I had a strong voice to argue for and against any candidate, although we were sometimes constrained by arbitrary cutoffs put in place by the university’s graduate school.


Ask me (almost) anything you like!

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Finally! I hit a big milestone at the end of February; now I can sit down, take the time to write this post, and quickly respond to comments.   I was originally going to set this up as an “AMA” a la

Weakest application: We had many from people that had almost no English skills from abroad. Those were without a doubt the weakest. They generally had no background in social science and rarely provid

Hey everyone, just wanted to say that I'm going to retire from answering questions. I've graduated and have a real job in the real world now. I'm definitely not a source of information for academics a

I have some questions regarding fit. 

 

Suggesting that your program is larger than 10 persons then it might actually be hard to keep track of what is going on with everyone (where they are and where they are heading in terms of research). Did you identify a "core" of applicants and then looked deeper into their interests, possible POIs (suggested fit by the student) and cross-compared with the faculty/department to get a sense of fit? 

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I have a question regarding fit too. Do you determine whether an applicant is a good fit basing on the reasons he/she provided in a SoP or on the overall information (project description, writing sample, recommendations, etc.)?

 

And also a general one - does the procedure differ for internatonal applicants?

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Are people knocked out at every stage?  Like, if I have a 2.6 GPA and a 297 GRE, will my full application get read?  Or does someone "pre-sort" those out?  If so, what proportion of total applications get the "full reading"? (I get the sense at my school some percentage are presorted out by a professor or two, so that the committee can focus on the ones with a more realistic change of getting in).

 

What order do people generally read the application in?  Like I'd imagine, GPA-GRE-undergrad instition-maybe CV ("stats"), then SOP and maybe recs, and only then, if those things made them seem like a strong candidate who would likely do well in our program, would I move on to the time intensive writing sample.

 

What's the most common mistake you saw people making?  What's the single biggest aspect you wish people improved on (like "Oh man, this candidate would have been so great for us... if only they had studied harder for the GRE" or "Oh man, great scores, but clearly didn't bother to look at what this department was good at")?

 

Were you guys actually that impressed by publications?  Because I feel like that's something people freak out on here about a lot ("Oh no I have no publications!  No school will want me!").  Also, what counted as "research experience" in your views (if that was something you were specifically looking for)?

 

Were there people with great scores/recs/writing samples/everything else who weren't let in because of poor fit?

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What is an example of the weakest application? What really stands out? How much does the GRE really matter? How are the writing samples judged, like what are people looking for?

Weakest application: We had many from people that had almost no English skills from abroad. Those were without a doubt the weakest. They generally had no background in social science and rarely provided a clear reason for wanting to study sociology.

 

What stood out: I remembered the personal statements the most. So when we discussed people we'd say stuff like "oh was that the guy who did research in India?" or "didn't she speak Farsi?". Sometimes that was a bad thing, because people had written about... memorable but inappropriate topics in their personal statements.

GREs: Unfortunately... it matters. There was an overall cutoff provided to us by the graduate school. We couldn't accept people below that cutoff. Overall, I got the sense that there was pressure to admit people with higher GRE scores. When people had lower GRE scores, their personal statements/GPAs/etc. became MUCH more important. This is one of the things I was most frustrated by, because there were several people we couldn't consider because of their GREs, but I thought they would be outstanding in our program.

The overall score matters, but the parts mattered too. Almost no one brought up the writing score unless the person's native language wasn't in English. The quantitative score was discussed more frequently because we have a very heavy required stats sequence. When someone had a low quant score, that was often raised as a warning flag.

I will add a caveat about the GREs. I don't know if other top 20 programs are as strict in admitting people below a cutoff score. I can only judge by my own admissions and the experiences of other friends in top 20 programs and on adcomms. The sense that I get is that cutoffs are still pretty common. So if you have a dream program, try to find out what that cutoff is (they usually have statistics about the average GRE score).

How are the writing samples judged, like what are people looking for?

So there are three kinds of personal statements.

1. The super vague: These almost always mention C. Wright Mills and a moment where someone realized they wanted to study sociology. I love CWM, but it's also something that SO many people mention that it instantly makes you forgettable. That isn't to say that if you mention him that you won't get in, but it's definitely a cliche.

2. The wildly personal: I tried to come up with a rule like "would you tell this story to a stranger on a bus", but people have different levels of sharing. If it's something you might talk about in therapy, you probably shouldn't write about it in your personal statement. You might be incredulous, but I assure you, these were COMMON. They are memorable, but also risky. Sometimes the risk pays off (you lived in a yurt in Mongolia for 4 years) and sometimes they aren't (stories about suicide, sexual abuse, etc.).

3. The just-right: A memorable anecdote that helped me remember them and a strong command of grammar, English language, etc.

This might be contentious, because I'm sure some people will say "oh I'd tell a stranger that!" but you have to remember that this is your one impression on a group of people. Higher education can be slightly snobbish and some topics are just NOT discussed. None of these rules are 100% right all of the time. I'm sure we admitted someone with a vague statement and a stellar GRE score and didn't admit someone with a bad fit but an outstanding personal statement.

Things I looked for in the personal statement: identification of faculty members they wanted to work with, clear definition of research interests (you don't need to state your intention to study fertility preferences among American Indians in South Dakota, but you should mention that you're interested in domestic fertility or something like that), and why they wanted to attend THIS school.

Things I looked for in the writing sample: indicators of ability to do research, correctly interpreted statistics, interesting research problem

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I have some questions regarding fit. 

 

Suggesting that your program is larger than 10 persons then it might actually be hard to keep track of what is going on with everyone (where they are and where they are heading in terms of research). Did you identify a "core" of applicants and then looked deeper into their interests, possible POIs (suggested fit by the student) and cross-compared with the faculty/department to get a sense of fit? 

When you get to your dissertation stage, everyone will say stuff like "make sure you're telling a story" and give very little feedback about how to do that. I found fit to be a similar concept. So I'll just say what I think fit consists of.

 

1. Can I think of at least 5 potential members for your dissertation/thesis committee?

2. Do your mentioned research interests line up with the whole trajectory of our department?

Now faculty members on the committee had different opinions. Many of them thought that people's research interests were flexible and might change. I went back to my statement of purpose and read it again, looked at my dissertation topic, and decided that I was going to stick with my definition of fit.

We definitely took into account the department as whole when admitting students. For example, if we had several advanced students graduating in a sub-area like gender, we looked for more admits with strong interests in gender. We also have several grants that provide funding that we have to consider and try to identify students who will match up with these interests.

I'm not sure if that fully answers your question, but feel free to follow-up either on this board or through PM.

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I have a question regarding fit too. Do you determine whether an applicant is a good fit basing on the reasons he/she provided in a SoP or on the overall information (project description, writing sample, recommendations, etc.)?

 

And also a general one - does the procedure differ for internatonal applicants?

Fit: It's a combination of these things. I looked at what the applicant had identified as their future area of study and then looked at their background to try and ascertain if they would succeed in our program. So for example, does the person have a strong background in the kind of social science that our institution is known for? Or are they interested in a different school of thought? If someone wants to study theory from a Marxist perspective, but they apply to a school that rejects Marx (I am clearly not a theorist, but go with it) then I would consider that a bad fit, even though they want to study theory.

Many people didn't delineate exactly WHY they thought they were a good fit. I usually was looking for a sentence to highlight to remember why I thought someone was a good fit. The best ones were really straightforward, something like "I would be an excellent graduate student at X College because of my strengths in x, y, z."

International applicants: Here is an area where I'm not sure our department is the norm among other institutions. Because we've recently had international students leave the program, I thought certain people on the committee were more gun shy about admitting them than perhaps they were in the past. That's an impression, because I wasn't on the committee in other years. I personally weighted them the same way I did applicants from the U.S. One complication is that some streams of funding aren't available to international candidates, so I think that putting together a financial package for them is sometimes more difficult. (Again, an impression, since I had very little to do with the financial part.) I was probably looking at their English writing skills more closely when English wasn't the first language, but I definitely took off points if an English only student had a crappy writing sample too.

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Are people knocked out at every stage?  Like, if I have a 2.6 GPA and a 297 GRE, will my full application get read?  Or does someone "pre-sort" those out?  If so, what proportion of total applications get the "full reading"? (I get the sense at my school some percentage are presorted out by a professor or two, so that the committee can focus on the ones with a more realistic change of getting in).

 

What order do people generally read the application in?  Like I'd imagine, GPA-GRE-undergrad instition-maybe CV ("stats"), then SOP and maybe recs, and only then, if those things made them seem like a strong candidate who would likely do well in our program, would I move on to the time intensive writing sample.

 

What's the most common mistake you saw people making?  What's the single biggest aspect you wish people improved on (like "Oh man, this candidate would have been so great for us... if only they had studied harder for the GRE" or "Oh man, great scores, but clearly didn't bother to look at what this department was good at")?

 

Were you guys actually that impressed by publications?  Because I feel like that's something people freak out on here about a lot ("Oh no I have no publications!  No school will want me!").  Also, what counted as "research experience" in your views (if that was something you were specifically looking for)?

 

Were there people with great scores/recs/writing samples/everything else who weren't let in because of poor fit?

Pre-sorting: I read every single application until I got to the point I felt they were disqualified. So for example, if I was reading an application and someone had a low GRE and then mentioned a substantive research interest that we didn't have any faculty in, I would quit reading. Sometimes people would get low enough scores from the whole committee that we didn't discuss them further in a meeting. The exception would be if someone wanted to argue for them as a candidate. In the case of a 297 GRE, that's below the cutoff, and probably wouldn't have merited larger discussion unless the applicant was very strong in other areas.

Order of reading: I just read them in the order the materials came in. It was roughly the order you described though.

 

Common mistakes: Not identifying WHY they wanted to come to our institution! Several people that were otherwise strong candidates were sunk by a very vague personal statement statement. (See my definition in a response above)

I can't think of one single disqualifier other than the GRE cutoff, which was imposed by the graduate school rather than the committee. Even if someone had a low GRE score, if they had an otherwise great application, they were usually an admit. People with poor fit were almost never admitted though, regardless of how great their GREs/GPA were.

 

Research experience: Yes! This was VERY important to the faculty members of the committee. They were extremely impressed by publications (this was almost required for people coming in with an M.A.) and research experience. I also thought research experience was important. Examples of things I'd consider research experience: internship in undergrad, working in a lab/with a professor as an undergrad, and senior honors theses.

That said, if you don't have any research experience, I think if you explained why in your personal statement, it wouldn't be a deal killer. Maybe you had to work your way through college or came late to sociology. For undergraduates, publications were icing on the cake. For masters students, they were more of a necessity.

I consulted with a friend who was on an adcomm at another school and she said that publications were weighted more heavily in their considerations. It probably differs from school to school. When in doubt, ask the director of graduate studies before you apply.

 

 

Were there people with great scores/recs/writing samples/everything else who weren't let in because of poor fit?

YES!

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Ok thanks so much for the great answers. I have a few more if you can.

 

Did you get any letter of recommendation that were negative? (It's my greatest fear some is just lying to me and want to screw me over kinda irrational I know)

 

What in the letters of recommendation help or hinder?

 

Thanks again!

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FertMigMort - thanks so much for generously answering our questions! I have a couple to add:

 

1. How much does the prestige, ranking, or basic name recognition of the undergraduate institution come in to play? Specifically, are students who graduate from mostly unknown state schools at a disadvantage compared to those graduating from a well-know school/program?

 

2. Did you encounter transcripts for students who had completed their undergrad on a part-time basis? If so, how was that perceived?

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How much did the undergrad GPA factor in, particularly for those with master's degrees?

We were more interested in the Master's GPA, and in general the GPA didn't matter unless it was low. The GPA was rarely discussed at our meetings, which surprised me. We were more interested in grades for classes that we felt were important prerequisites for our program.

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Ok thanks so much for the great answers. I have a few more if you can.

 

Did you get any letter of recommendation that were negative? (It's my greatest fear some is just lying to me and want to screw me over kinda irrational I know)

 

What in the letters of recommendation help or hinder?

 

Thanks again!

You're welcome!

LORs: I wish I could allay your fears, but unfortunately we did get some lukewarm letters of recommendation. We never had one come out and say "don't admit this person", but it was clear when the letter was tepid. The general feeling on the committee was that the student was to blame because they chose the wrong person to write a letter. I disagree and would never write a LOR for anyone if I couldn't write them a strong letter.

Other LOR red flags: If you are on your Masters and don't have a LOR from your thesis chair or if none of your letters are from sociologists. If you are an international student, you should have at least one letter from someone in the U.S. if possible.

I can't really think of anything that hinders in a letter. It helped when there was some sort of deficit to have the LOR explain why. For example, we had several LORs mention that the person's low GRE score wasn't representative of the kind of work they did in class. That was very helpful.

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FertMigMort - thanks so much for generously answering our questions! I have a couple to add:

 

1. How much does the prestige, ranking, or basic name recognition of the undergraduate institution come in to play? Specifically, are students who graduate from mostly unknown state schools at a disadvantage compared to those graduating from a well-know school/program?

 

2. Did you encounter transcripts for students who had completed their undergrad on a part-time basis? If so, how was that perceived?

Happy to demystify some of this process!

Undergrad rankings: I can honestly say I don't think this was ever mentioned. The only exception might be if you come from a department with a very strong SOC program. The LORs were much more carefully scrutinized from those schools. If a Bob Hummer, Bob Wuthnow, or Marta Tienda wrote you a mediocre letter, that was definitely looked at harder. In some ways it's almost a disadvantage to come out of a strong SOC undergrad, unless you were really a shining star there.

We never saw a part-time undergrad transcript that I can remember, so I can't comment on that. I will ask friends on other adcomms and PM you if I know anything different.

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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. 

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@oilandvinegar part of the problem is  that there is a lot of overlap in admissions with who gets in a given year. While it may seem weird, one of the biggest fears of any program is "losing out" on the top admits in one cycle and not actually filling all their spots since many programs are allotted money for them that they want to use or it goes to another department's graduate students.   

 

A faculty member conveyed this interesting story to me about the problem with "Wait lists" - is that you often brand that person as "less than the other admits" from the get-go.. when they really don't see it that way.  And our program seems to really discourage hierarchy among students.  For an adcom, its just putting together a balanced group of 10 or so graduate students, they may have many qualified applicants they really want, but its a complicated process to get the right balance.  The department I'm in doesn't have an official wait list - part of this I think is to alleviate the complicated part of having to rank the wait list (imagine the frantic phone calls from the people on that wait list asking how many people have declined an offer so far and where they stand on the wait list), and also, there's just always a fear that a school will have less then their expected yield.  Because often when a school realizes this, its in mid-April.. and I've heard in the rare situations when a school goes under yield, its really hard at that point to get another top applicant to switch programs from another top one they are already committed to.  It's why its just easier to not reject people a school feels is highly qualified in the odd chance that a school can't get enough students to accept a program's offer.  It was conveyed to me that any top program can easily fill their class with 50+ of the applicants in a given cycle (this makes total sense as if each of the top 5 programs have 10 students each, that's 50 top students -- imagine doing this for the top 20, how many "qualified" candidates there are)..  so in the admissions process when you can only admit 20, its so much easier to just "hold" 30 other applications while the dust settles.    

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 It's why its just easier to not reject people a school feels is highly qualified in the odd chance that a school can't get enough students to accept a program's offer.  

 

Well, I am certainly going to tell myself this is why I haven't been rejected yet - I'm just too darn highly qualified!

 

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@oilandvinegar.. I know it really sucks to feel like "well, if I'm so darn qualified why didn't I get in?"  truth is, a lot of it is sometimes luck/timing of specific adcoms and what a program might be looking for that one year.  If there are too many gender people from the previous year's admits, they may put all the highly qualified gender people aside to balance the entire program out.

 

It isn't very uncommon for an applicant to get rejected one year from a top program - then submit almost the same application (but refined slightly) - and get accepted to that same program the next year.  Did the applicant really change from one year to another?  Was their SOP earth-shattering the second time around? Did they really score much better on the GRE's?  You can't change your GPA/undergrad institution..  so there isn't too much you can actually "improve" -- Or it could have simply been a different admissions committee, with a different level of "fit" and need in another year.  It's all very speculative and arbitrary.

 

What is nice about @fertmigmort's explanation is that there are things you can change (ie, your SOP focus) - but some things you can't.  Also, I am so thankful someone finally stepped in to say that a baseline GRE score matters, especially if the program is known for quantitative methods.  If you are applying to a top program that has a strong/mandatory quantitative methods sequence, take the GREs more seriously and don't discount how a bad score might weaken your application.  A top score won't get you into a top program, but a bad/below the median score may keep you out.

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I hope my comment was taken in jest - it was certainly meant as such!

 

I'm definitely happy with the offers I have received, and wouldn't wait another year to attend school. Mostly, I'd like to start making my decision, and I feel like I'm missing all the information needed to do so. I imagine after I get a couple visits under my belt it will feel easier, so that's good. I was just wondering if there was any insight into the mysterious ways of the adcomm in terms of releasing their decisions. 

 

Thanks for your thoughtful responses!

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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?

 

Chuck, interesting that you ask this question. I am an older, nontraditional admit. My undergraduate course was a desultory one, disrupted on several occasions by unforeseeable circumstances that required me to enter the work force full time, to the exclusion of completing any coursework, or, on other occasions, take a semester off (while I continued to work full time) in order to juggle chemotherapy, work, and family obligations. Most of those years I worked in education; a few I spent in publishing.

 

With regards to the app cycle, and contrary to recommendation, I did not cast a wide net. In all, I applied to four programs, three sociology and one cultural studies program. I received great feedback from all four institutions, and the cultural studies faculty were openly excited about my research, but they were also very candid about the age issue, noting that since they only accept two students each year, preference would go to younger students due to the hiring practices you noted above. I considered that application my throwaway, and I was right. As for the three sociology programs to which I applied, I was rejected by one and accepted by the other two, Northwestern and Yale. Perhaps they are willing -- or can afford -- to take a risk on applicants who deviate from the standard profile. Who knows. What I do know is that while hiring practices may favor the young, maturity has its perks: many of us "mature" candidates are 100% focused; we're not trying to raise families, find romance or our life partner; plus, we have the time, the freedom to enjoy -- singularly enjoy and attend to -- our research. Also that experience you mention, both the life and work experience, is invaluable, and some of us have spent years establishing solid global networks, within and without academia. I say all this because while age is an obstacle, it is not an impassable one. (So, to any nontraditional students out there who may be reading this, work for it, reach for it, go after it, because it's doable.)

 

As for hiring surveys, one friend of mine got her PhD in cultural anthropology in her late 40s, after leaving nursing. She now has a tenure track position at Virginia Tech. Another friend got her PhD in accounting, a field more amenable to mature candidates, at age 50, and is now teaching at Texas State. Yet another friend of mine got his PhD in economics in his late 40s, and landed a tenured position at the Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas; he'll be retiring to Brazil soon (lucky fella!). My father was hired by Appalachian State when he was in his 60s! And in a recent conversation he mentioned that one of his colleagues got her PhD in her 50s! (Note: all are full faculty, not adjuncts!) All this to say, probability does not define possibility, at least not unequivocally. And thank goodness for that!!!!

 

Clearly you are correct: some departments have an age cutoff. For other departments, though, if an age cutoff does indeed exist, it appears to be more of a guideline than a rule.  :)

Edited by La_Di_Da
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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. 

Age: Age was never discussed or mentioned in any of our committee's conversations. Our department has several older students and we generally have a range of ages from year to year. I think that is just the norm for us, but it may differ elsewhere. If anything, I think that younger students are sometimes seen as not having enough experience, although it's usually not framed in terms of age. I personally can't think of a reason why I wouldn't admit an older student if they had a good fit and I thought they could succeed in our program.

Switching fields: This one is tough. We had a remarkable range of applicants from a variety of backgrounds. That was probably one of the most surprising aspects of my service. (I'm unsure why, because I had a non-traditional background as well!)

I think the most important thing for people switching fields is that they "fit" within the department. Our department lends itself nicely to people coming from certain disciplines that are sometimes coupled with sociology and sometimes separate. Other departments are similar, but with different disciplines. For example, I have a friend whose background is in psychology, but is getting his PhD in a sociology department with a heavy social psych focus. In that case, it's a clear issue of him being a good fit for his department.

We definitely took things into account like LORs from certain disciplines tend to be... less effusive than sociology. *cough* ECONOMICS *cough* So when we read those LORs, we tried to keep that in mind.

Overall.... and I'm not sure if this gets at all of the aspects of your question, it really goes back to fit. When an applicant proposes research that can be done well in our department, the committee rarely quibbled about their background.

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I know some schools (yes, schools to which I applied) have released some admit offers, some wait-list spots, and some rejections, and yet there are still students who have not heard (yes, me). What gives? 

I have been wondering this too! Unfortunately, I am not privy to that part of the process, so I have no idea why that would be the case. We have a waitlist, but I have no idea if its secret or public or if the students on the waitlist know. I would be really frustrated too.

My only guess is that it's because of funding. You'd still think they could tell you that you were admitted though! Good luck waiting, I hope this was a small distraction for you. :)

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It isn't very uncommon for an applicant to get rejected one year from a top program - then submit almost the same application (but refined slightly) - and get accepted to that same program the next year.  Did the applicant really change from one year to another?  Was their SOP earth-shattering the second time around? Did they really score much better on the GRE's?  You can't change your GPA/undergrad institution..  so there isn't too much you can actually "improve" -- Or it could have simply been a different admissions committee, with a different level of "fit" and need in another year.  It's all very speculative and arbitrary.

 

What is nice about @fertmigmort's explanation is that there are things you can change (ie, your SOP focus) - but some things you can't.  Also, I am so thankful someone finally stepped in to say that a baseline GRE score matters, especially if the program is known for quantitative methods.  If you are applying to a top program that has a strong/mandatory quantitative methods sequence, take the GREs more seriously and don't discount how a bad score might weaken your application.  A top score won't get you into a top program, but a bad/below the median score may keep you out.

I completely concur about this point. That's the most valuable thing that I learned from my service was how arbitrary the process is. The next time I don't win a fellowship or grant, I'm not going to beat myself up about it as much, because this whole process is run by subjective human beings pretending to be objective. There is an unknown criteria that seems to make some students stand out and others not as much. I wish I could articulate better what it was.

Thank you! I am wondering how my DGS would feel if she read these posts. I haven't violated any rules, but people seem to want to maintain secrecy to make it seem more serious. I feel like my service just enables me to give better and more specific advice for people applying about things like SOPs. I wish I had known all of these things when I was applying to graduate school, my 4 admissions now seem more like luck and a great GRE score than anything else.

The GRE cutoff totally matters. I wish it didn't, but it does. Study hard for that thing. I think my 327 got me into schools that otherwise wouldn't have considered my low GPA and odd background.

Edited by FertMigMort
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