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PhD Sociology for international applicants - questions


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I am an intl student who will be applying for fall 2014 at a dozen of grad schools in the US, and I have a few questions regarding the whole process, if you people on this forum could be so kind to offer some advice.


1. When it comes to my SOP, should I be too specific on my research interests or concentrate on my personal/academic strengths that make me fit the potential departments I will be applying to?


2. For the writing sample, I have a published essay that I translated into English from my native tonge (Spanish), do I need to make it with all the requisites academic essays demand, such as citations, bibliography, or with the content that shows my writing will be enough?


3. Some schools, such as Harvard, clearly state that the Soc professors should not be contacted... but the general advice I have found is that indeed it is a good thing to contact them. What's your experience on different schools that you have applied to?


4. Is it wise to mention an interest for research in a topic that is not part of the School's research focus? In my case, I am interested in eploring the connections between neuroscience and sociology, and would like to mention that I would like to work with both departments and to help advance research of these new emerging fields, such as social neuroscience and neurosociology. Would that get the rejection from faculty members that perhaps have no interest in that? Should I stick to the traditional fields of study within sociology?


5. Is it wise to explain low GRE scores as being a foreign student or is that a bad sign for admission committees? 


Thanks, your thoughts and experiences will be very helpful.



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1. Only the very briefest mentions of personal motivation of study are appropriate -- this goes across fields and has been emphasized in particular by psychologists who get a lot of "I was abused as a child so I'll make a great Psychology PhD student" types of SOPs.  In-dept discussion of a particular research interest is not appropriate either -- you want to be specific about what you have done, and telescope those details into a broader sketch of fields you're interested in and how that will fit well at the program you're applying to.  


2. The writing sample, without necessarily being publishable or published in a mainstream academic sociology journal, should be as close to that ideal as possible, so yes.  If there are no citations to add because you were a cultural studies, philosophy, or lit-crit person, it won't be a problem as long as you're being reasonably insightful and coherent.  People say the writing sample is just to see if you can write.  My opinion is that that is manifestly not the case, considering whether you can be creative and insightful and produce original research is the primary goal in evaluating the application.  


3. Contacting won't get your application trashed.  It is most likely to have no effect other than providing you information about where to apply if you get a response, and in very rare cases will have the effect of someone pulling for you on committee.  Contact should be brief and clear in what you're asking.  If a department says don't contact us -- don't.  Otherwise it really doesn't hurt to give it a swing.


4. If you want to do neuroscience and sociology, you should consider cognitive psychology, neuroeconomics, social psychology from within the psychology department or another established interdisciplinary field.  There isn't really any mainstream field of sociology to trojan-horse those research interests with, and doing so isn't particularly wise considering the special training you'll need to do.  You will have to generate some pretty compelling results, I think, to get neuroscientific experiments published in mainstream sociology journals, but I could be wrong.  Since you have such a particular interest already, yes, I would email various professors who you are reading and ask about planning a trajectory -- hopefully you'll get more qualified help than you can from graduate students and undergraduates on this board.  


5. Retake the GREs after more practice.  Excuses don't go over well on applications, and it's absolutely common for internationals to apply to American PhD programs now -- many of these people read and write perfect English, and many of them speak it very well too.  My understanding is that you essentially need to have a "I breezed through it" score on the TOEFL, and perform middlingly to well on the GRE to compete.  Try to be in the 80th percentile or above on both sections.  If you bombed a section badly, you've got some work to do.  You will hear lots of hemming and hawing about how important the score is to committees on these boards.  This discourse is tainted with all kinds of old hurt feelings about standardized testing and educational philosophies that go back decades in America.  Programs get hundreds of applications and have to trim the pile -- Grades and GRE are the first-cut way to do that.  

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