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Platysaurus

Wisdom Repository 2013

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So April 15 has come and gone, hopefully we've all got some idea of where we're headed. For those of you who are still in the dark - good luck!

 

Anyway, the application process is so obscure and complicated, especially coming into this I know that I and a lot of people I met on the forums had very little clue as to what it was about, what to emphasise, how to prioritise different universities or different parts of the application.

 

SO, for the sake of future years, and I'm hoping there are enough people lurking around here to make it worthwhile, why don't we tell the world what we've learned going through this to make it clearer for future years? Just to lump our experiences into one thread for future generations.

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I'll start.

 

1 - When I started contacting POIs (persons of interest), the majority of them wouldn't respond. Of those that did, most just sent formulaic emails telling me that they couldn't really tell me anything and to just apply. I got one really enthusiastic response from a POI at a place that I ended up getting an offer from. Apparently having heard of my project he was really pushing the other admissions committee members to accept. At another place I was really tired of the whole process and I copied and pasted a generic inquiry email, forgetting to change the name of the University. The POI noted this and pointed it out in his reply, and I felt horrible. Again, this was just a "can't tell you anything, just apply" email. I ended up getting an offer there too. The moral of the story is, sending out these feelers will generally get you nowhere. But they never hurt, and very occasionally they can be very useful. So do it, and do it early!

 

2 - Related to the first, if you only have a few people/schools in mind and want to expand, don't feel bad about asking POIs for recommendations of other anthropologists or departments to look into. They were really helpful, they understand that you want to cast your net wide and don't feel bad or resentful for it at all.

 

3 - The fit between your proposed project and the department is almost everything. Even though I had other ideas at the start, looking at where I applied and where I ended up getting offers it's really obvious that where I was accepted were all environments that complemented my research, although in very different ways. And it's not enough to say something like "well I want to study Brazil, and this guy's a famous Brazilian anthropologist", it really helps to read the people's work and figure out exactly how you could fit in. This is something I did in some cases and not in others, and it showed in who accepted and rejected me.

 

4 - GRE generally I think is used more as a negative screening thing, ie they might not consider some people because scores are too low, but once they're decent enough, it's not like a phenomenal score will help you much. Although in one case where I was shortlisted the interviewer made a specific reference to my GRE marks being good, so maybe this isn't always true. At any rate, a good GRE will never hurt you unless it takes time out from your statement of purpose, which is ALWAYS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.

 

5 - I organised my letters of recommendation maybe a month before the deadlines started rolling in. This was probably too late, and I ended up having to hassle most of them to hand stuff in on time.

 

6 - One of the best pieces of advice that I got was that you shouldn't think of where you want to study and then tailor a project to that department, because in the end you'll get overworked with all the different research projects you're supposed to be doing, and it'll come across as fake anyway. Find something you're keen on and then figure out where the best place would be to pursue that research. Although ideas always change a little or a lot during the PhD, it's still important to show that you have a fixed idea, that you can feasibly see how it would work out theoretically and methodologically, and that you're excited about it.

 

7 - I applied to 9 schools, the one I ended up picking gave me an offer on April 15, one minute before the deadline for my second choice. Moral of the story is, it's never over till it's over! OK sometimes it is. But there are always exceptions.

 

8 - Take everything on Grad Cafe with a grain of salt, and I guess that includes my post right here. There are LOTS of conflicting advice and opinions, the only way you can get a good sense of what's important is to read around the forums a lot and balance out the different voices, AND THEN consider that alongside the advice from old advisors, POIs, departmental websites and whatever other information you can get your hands on. If one person on this board says your project is stupid or your GRE scores are too low, don't take it as gospel. Most people around here are as clueless as you are, they just like to pretend they know.

 

9 - Having said that, GradCafe is an awesome resource, and if you know how to use it it can really help! My very first post here was asking around about the anthropology of prisons, the couple of responses I got here led me on a path of research and communication with various scholars that got me where I'm going today. Just for emotional support it's great to be around other people who are going through the same thing, rather than family or friends who at least in my case were very comforting but they had no idea how the process worked.

 

10 - Try not to let the application stuff swallow your life whole. And remember that everyone else is probably as badly informed as you are, so as much as you can prepare it's always going to be a shot in the dark to some extent. Good luck!

 

Anyone else? Feel free to disagree!

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1.)  I have spoken to a professor from a Big10 Univ. Dept.who said that they he generally has a bias against cultural applicants coming straight from Undergrad, due to lack of life experience. Unfortunately, I just didn't look up the statistics or ask whether a lot of admitted students came in with masters, because I assumed they didn't since many programs combine the MA & PhD.

 

Here is a good article I recently read about the admissions process and where people fall through.

http://quod.lib.umic...n;view=fulltext

 

2.) While I was not admitted to any of the PhD programs of my choice, I have been admitted to a funded MA program and will be matriculating there next fall.

 

Regarding PhD programs, I feel as though I may have had unrealistic expectations of where I was as an applicant, although multiple UDG anthro professors, mentors and advisers looked at my application and said they thought I was a strong applicant for the top programs I applied to. FYI, I applied to 6 PhD programs and 1 MA program.

 

3.) Another thing I would do differently, is keep in consistent contact with my POIs, as I believe this had a significant effect with my success in getting into the MA I did. However, this could also be a result of my POI being an incredibly friendly and personable person, which cannot be said about everyone.

 

4.) I completely agree with Plat in not allowing the cycle to dominate you're life, because you never know how it will turn out. I would suggest continuing to pluck away at school, work or whatever it is you're doing. (It does help if you have job though or some activity to completely take up your attention.)

 

I really started checking this site around mid February, and realized that most others were in the dark as well. Obviously the lack of transparency is a fatal flaw in the admissions process, but realizing you're not alone with a hood over head is  an important piece of knowledge.

 

While it didn't work out the way I imagined this cycle, Im not feeling to down on it. After visiting the program I was admitted to, I feel much better and confident that this department is a good fit for me and a place I will be able to grow and develop.

 

Lastly, contact Grad Students and visit if you can, they are most likely to represent the department how you will come to see it, so utilize their experiences with funding, peer review (or lack of), solidarity/competition, policy on conferences.

 

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I vouch for everything that Platysaurus mentions and wanted to add a few more things. These are in no particular order.

1- If during the interview phase a school asks you directly whether you would attend their program, and it is one of your favorites, say yes. Don't hesitate about other options, or try to make yourself sound hard to get. Nothing you say is binding at all, but sometimes schools need to hear that in order to offer you a spot. I was rejected after a fantastic interview where they asked me straight up and I said I would consider (I really think I did not sound to enthusiastic) -- and was accepted to the program where I clearly said, yes. both top ranked places. By the way, schools are not really supposed to ask this but sometimes they do.

2- Also, a lot of people say you won't get in if you are straight from undergrad. In my experience this was not true either. I know plenty of people who did, but it does seem that there are programs that are more prone than others to take people that already have a masters. That said you need to have an amazing life / research experience in order to compensate.

3- GRE's are not important, but they can get you more money at some places through fellowship nominations.

4- Think of the SOP as a research proposal. What you want to do, why it's important, and why you are qualified to do it. don't list qualifications for the heck of it... they need to be directly relevant to your proposal.

5- Fit is a very fuzzy thing. I ended up being admitted (and signing on to!) a program where I was not sure my research fit was good. Sometimes it works out that X and Y are doing exactly what you want to do and they will admit you to work with them. Other times it is a much less direct relationship between your work and theirs... and you have no idea the broad range of things that might interest a professor that are not listed on their webpage. But just think about YOU. In all seriousness, why is this school actually a great place for you? Research the school well. Then tell them.

6- Apply only to programs you would attend. Don't apply to schools only because you think you have a chance of getting in.

7- Apply for external grants if you are elegible. If you get any this will make you a very desirable candidate at many places.

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dear coffeandmilk, do you know hoe the process of outside funding works? what i mean is, you apply first to the grant, they give it to you, and then you apply to the phd? or you apply to both at the same time.i dont understand how the institution of the grant and the  university work this thing together

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I know it depends on the grant... and I can't be of much help because as an international I was not elegible for a lot of the grants that were out there, but I know for example that if you are international, you can apply to the Fullbright or the OAS fellowship first (in spring). then you apply to schools with their backing (in the fall).

Others happen right about the same time. I applied to one fellowship that was due in December, right when I was also sending PhD applications, and they asked me to send my letter of acceptance when I had it in march. they announced winners in april, but several schools asked if I had applied for external funding and I could say "yes".

I think that the funding thing is an advantage particularly if you are applying to public universities.

Anyone else has insight about applying to funds before/during the application process?

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Great thread, Platysaurus!

 

This was my second time applying for US PhD programs, and after only deciding six weeks before the deadline last year, I had a year to prepare for the whole process this time round.  That I think is the most important thing to realise - applying takes time.  I got into four places this year out of eight, and ended up at my top choice.  In the past year I haven't got any more qualifications than I already had and I haven't added work/research experience that I didn't already have in sufficient amounts on my CV.  I basically just worked on my application as a whole, particularly my project and by extension my statement of purpose.

 

What follows is rather universalizing and prescriptive.  Rather than saying each time "I found," "my experience was" etc etc, I am just putting it all out there.  Obviously it's all my opinion and take it with a pinch of salt.  Hopefully some stuff will be relevant to you though!

 

Books

 

One book recommendation is Graduate Admissions Essays:  Write Your Way into the Graduate School of Your Choice by Donald Asher.  It demystifies the process and gave me a lot of confidence in understanding what was expected and how I could make produce a statement that reflected myself and my interests while still hitting each of the key marks that are necessary and show that you know what you're doing.  It walks you through the whole process of applying, not just the essay part, and I found it invaluable.  ("Invaluable," interestingly, is not a word that Donald Asher would appreciate appearing anywhere on your application!  And neither is "interestingly.")

 

Project

 

First and foremost, you need to have a very strong sense of what you want to do in the graduate program.  How much education you've completed will impact how formed a project will be, but overall you need to know what interests you, be able to articulate what you want to study, and show why it's significant - what impact it will have.  Being able to broaden it out to be of interest to faculty who don't share your narrow research interests will also help.

 

Of course projects change, but having a rough idea of the sort of work you want to do and how you want to go about it is I believe very important.  My understanding is that if you're still completing/only have up to an undergraduate education then it need not be particularly developed, but if you're applying with a Masters it should be more sophisticated.

 

Finding where to apply

 

Having a clear idea of a research project that interests you - and will hold your interest and enthusiasm for the 5+ years you're in graduate school and 10+ years you'll be publishing different aspects of it - really helps when it comes to choosing schools to apply to.  I found it really helpful to have a few keywords in mind that I was looking out for as I went through all the anthropology (and some related) departments that I knew of.  I looked closely at over 60 departmental websites, using rankings and the results pages on gradcafe to build a list of universities to look at. 

 

I read the about page, the departmental strengths etc and then scrolled down the faculty's interests.  If it seemed promising I spent a little more time on this stage, if not I whipped through it and crossed it off the list quickly.  This left me with about 20 departments, and I looked more closely at each one, further refining my list each time.  I ended up with 14 schools (that I asked my letter writers to submit to) and found that when properly preparing the application several of these wouldn't in fact work.  I ended up applying to 8 schools.  (Run this approach by your letter writers - mine very much didn't want a last minute submission request, so instead I gave them plenty of notice and sent them the link really early on in the process.  They expected me not to apply to several of these places.)

 

Once you've got your list, have a look at the acceptance rates for the various departments.  If money's no object then you probably want to apply to everywhere you feel you could thrive; if money is a consideration, it's good to know where you've got a 2% chance and where you've got a 22% chance, and then picking schools accordingly.  It doesn't make sense to apply only to places where a very small percentage get admitted.  www.petersons.com can give you a rough idea of this.  The top programs vary wildly - Duke is reportedly a 5% acceptance rate, NYU 4% but Columbia 17%.

EDIT: Note coffeeandmilk's comment below - not a good example!

 

Contacting faculty

 

I see many mixed messages about this, and for sure some people who have developed what seems a strong rapport with a potential advisor don't get accepted and others who apply cold do.  One thing seems sure - a respectful, well thought out, engaged and enthusiastic e-mail will never hurt.  (Unless it says explicitly not to contact faculty.)

 

Of the eight places I applied, I had developed a personal connection at four of the places, and they were the four I received offers from.  If you're not sure what to say to someone then you need to really think why you are interested in gambling $100 (give or take) on the opportunity to work with them.  You need to read some of their work and should highlight the areas of overlap you see in your initial e-mail.  Given that everyone you're interested in working with will have significant overlaps, you're already starting networking that will be necessary in graduate school and in your career.  It can also save you from applying somewhere where the people you'd like to work with are leaving...

 

Application Materials

 

Creating a fantastic application packet takes a lot of time.  The statement for sure, but also perfecting your CV takes time.  I have been working for four years, and last year submitted a two page, distilled version of what I'd been doing.  This time it took five pages and was modeled after academic CVs.  (Having looked through where to apply, you'll have a strong idea of what makes a strong and a weak CV.)

 

The statement of purpose deserves its own thread.  The most important things?  Perfect spelling and grammar.  Compelling.  Gives a clear idea of who you are and what you would bring to the project and the university without being dominated by you and your talents.  Tailored to the school!

 

I think that'll do.  Best of luck...

Edited by socanth

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a note on something socanth brought up: regarding finding programs, I would be wary of using rankings or published "admissions rates" as an indicator of one's chances because those statistics mix all programs -- sociocultural gets mixed with bio or archaeology -- so some times they can be misleading. for example the 17% columbia statistic includes the freestanding MA program, though if you are aiming for the PhD the stat is actually a lot lower.

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Ah fair - good point!  For some of them it is just the PhD though.

 

You can often find the statistics on the university's website - much more reliable.

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My "words of wisdom" for the whole process...

 

"May the odds be ever in your favor!" - Effie Trinket, The Hunger Games.

 

"Play to your strengths." - Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

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Here are my two cents:
 

1. If your program doesn't do interviews, you should still definitely go out there and meet them. I did that for three of my schools, worked really well in my favor. Contact your POI after application deadlines have passed (ie, January, February) and say you're really interested in seeing the campus and meeting them, and can they possibly schedule you in. Trust me, this is very important.

 

2. Avoid the "kisses of death" in your personal statement. (Click here for more info on those). Your personal statement should only include things that are relevant to you as a future researcher. Mine outlined a distinct project I wanted to pursue, complete with citations.

 

3. Do NOT accept an unfunded PhD.

4. Here are the important factors of a program, in order of importance: 

  • Research fit
  • Relationship with advisor
  • Funding
  • "Ranking" of the school
  • Location

 

Best of luck!

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Radio- why should you not accept an offer without funding? I did but turns out they only didn't offer me funding due to department politics which was cleared up before I started with funding. Plus I got many more opportunities and now my stipend is more than double any of my other offers.

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I'd like to add a few words about "fit" because I think different people use it to describe different things. 

 

Based on my acceptances and rejections, I finally have a relatively good grasp on what it means to be a "good fit" for a department. 

 

Firstly, the obvious: You should be interested in the same type of research in which your POI is interested. If your POI does zooaechaeology in China and you are interested in a specific Chinese fossil animal from the same time frame your POI studies, it would be a  great fit. (You don't always manage to align that neatly with a POI, of course. I just wanted to give a good example ;) ) I think there might be ways to improve your fit by saying "I studies these older fossils in Japan and would like to use that knowledge to compare them to the ones recently discovered in China". However, "I do zooarchaeology and you do zooarchaeology" might not be enough depending on the size of the applicant pool. 

 

And then there is the problem of past experiences, which I think is the part that is more often overlooked. 

 

Some places I applied to were attractive to me because I have always wanted to do the type of research that is done there. I even had a few term papers to back up my interest and was able to stretch some of my past experiences to "fit" the type of research I was applying to do. 

 

 I also applied to places where I would continue researching along the lines of my MA research and where I have things such as conference presentations and field experiences to back up my interest. 

 

Not surprisingly, I had much greater success at the latter type of school. In fact, a POI once told me that my SOP is not worth much if I cannot back-up my research interestes with real-life experience. 

 

So, I think there are two sides to fit. The one side is what you have done and the other is what you want to do. Ideally both of those things should align with your POIs interests. So, for everybody who has to put in a second or third round of applications, field schools and conference presentations in the area of your dream POI's research focus might be the way to get in next time.

 

Fit is, of course, only one of many factors, as everybody above mentioned. 

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Here are my two cents:

 

1. If your program doesn't do interviews, you should still definitely go out there and meet them. I did that for three of my schools, worked really well in my favor. Contact your POI after application deadlines have passed (ie, January, February) and say you're really interested in seeing the campus and meeting them, and can they possibly schedule you in. Trust me, this is very important.

 

2. Avoid the "kisses of death" in your personal statement. (Click here for more info on those). Your personal statement should only include things that are relevant to you as a future researcher. Mine outlined a distinct project I wanted to pursue, complete with citations.

 

3. Do NOT accept an unfunded PhD.

4. Here are the important factors of a program, in order of importance: 

  • Research fit
  • Relationship with advisor
  • Funding
  • "Ranking" of the school
  • Location

 

Best of luck!

That KOD was so helpful. I read all of it and saved it for when I start writing my personal statements. Thank you so much.

 

This page is like a treasure chest. Now if I only had a time machine to accelerate this process...

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I applied to MA programs only last year, so I cannot speak to the experience of applying for PhD programs! Here is what I learned:

1. Go where you know you will be treated as a colleague, rather than as a charming young thing with big, funny ideas or as an idiot who is underserving of the knowledge to be bestowed on you over the coming years. There is no time for patronizing or condescension, especially when you're already vulnerable from applying. I picked the program where I was treated respectfully and where alumni were honest with me, which brings me to....

2. Ask alumni/alumnae about their experiences, what professors are like, resources for research, their fears and triumphs, etc. My mom had an awful time in grad school with professors and a department chair who coerced students to sleep with them for good grades or who tried to seduce her. By asking alumni about their experiences, I was able to avoid some potentially awful programs with sexual predators, poor resources, and limited or no funding for projects or assistantships.

3. If they want you, they'll pay for you. It might not be a full ride, but funding helps! Don't go if they don't offer any funding. Due to political issues, my program was only able to offer me a semester-long assistantship. I did so well that another professor hired me to help with research. Now that all of the issues are resolved with the department, I have a year-long graduate assistantship and partial tuition remission lined up for next year. 

4. Make sure professors you want to work with or take classes from aren't leaving soon. Last thing you need is to find out at the last minute that your dream thesis chairperson is retiring or resigning after your first semester!

5. On a non-academic note, leave your significant other behind. Do not "bring them with you" to live with or go to classes with in grad school. This is YOUR time. Every person I know who is living with their significant other has had a decline in the quality of their relationship. Lots of fighting, lots of disagreements, lots of worries about how they'll both get to their different field sites....If you're worried that a long-distance relationship won't last or if your significant other says they don't want to going to a certain school, say goodbye! The stress of keeping someone happy while balancing class, work, and research is not worth it.

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