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Profiles and Results, SOPs, and Advice (Fall 2014)

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The previous years' threads in this vein have been super helpful, and since we seem to have hit a bit of a lull in terms of responses and people are ruminating on what could have been done differently, what better time to compile a thread of advice, lessons learned, and things of that sort?


First, to credit all the threads that have come before:


It's indeed a bit early, but the 2012 thread was started on February 13, and RWBG raised a good point about:


Nonetheless, given that some peoples' cycles are ending around now, I wanted to get this thread up and running before people started leaving.


And the template from previous years:


Type of Undergrad Institution:
Undergrad GPA:
Type of Grad:
Grad GPA:
Any Special Courses:
Letters of Recommendation:
Research Experience:
Teaching Experience:
Subfield/Research Interests:

Acceptances($$ or no $$):
Going to:





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Type of Undergrad Institution: Michigan State University 

Major(s)/Minor(s): (1) BA in International Relations; (2) BA in Economics; (3) BS in Global and Area Studies (focus on International Development)
Undergrad GPA: 3.41/4.0              
Type of Grad: American University
Grad GPA: 3.97/4.0
GRE: 167V/158Q/5.0AW
Any Special Courses: PhD course in Advanced IR Theory at AU
Letters of Recommendation: One from a tenured professor who is a rising star in the field, one from a quasi-retired professor who is a former president of the ISA, one from a non-tenure-track professor. All three were thesis committee members. 
Research Experience: Four years of faculty guided research, one paper under review, several regional conference papers and one upcoming international conference paper.
Teaching Experience: Served as a teaching assistant for three semesters.
Subfield/Research Interests: International relations, critical constructivism, philosophy of science, evolution of normative practices, humanitarian intervention and sovereignty

Acceptances($$ or no $$):
Northwestern ($$)
Waitlists: American (my own school, womp --- it's more policy oriented than I want, and the adcomm knew that)
Rejections: UC Berkeley, Cornell, likely Chicago
Pending: Yale, Columbia, Syracuse, Toronto, Johns Hopkins, Delaware, Georgetown, George Washington
Going to: TBD


LESSONS LEARNED: Don’t give up. This is my second round of applications and it has thus far produced an acceptance about which I am thrilled. If things don’t work out, strengthen your file and try again. Don’t lose sight of what matters --- your dreams! The most important thing really is fit, fit, fit. Not just with one faculty member, but with an entire department. You’ll be there for 5-7 years --- make sure you enjoy it!

SOP: I’d be happy to talk about this in more detail over personal message. Basically lead with your research interest. Spend 1/2 – 2/3 of the SOP talking about your research and the fit with the university in question. Spend 1/4 talking about personal stuff that got you there. Use whatever is left to make it clear you know that this is the only thing that you want to do with your life. At least that’s what a DGS I talked to told me. Seems to have worked for at least one school with more decisions pending. 

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While I applaud IRTheoryNerd (and her/his very confused deer) for stepping in, I think filling this form out when your cycle is over / very close to being over is a good idea to provide the maximum benefit to future folks - especially since it is not possible to edit your posts after a short time period. 


Thanks veritaserum for starting the thread.

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While I applaud IRTheoryNerd (and her/his very confused deer) for stepping in, I think filling this form out when your cycle is over / very close to being over is a good idea to provide the maximum benefit to future folks - especially since it is not possible to edit your posts after a short time period. 


Thanks veritaserum for starting the thread.


I interpret the deer as restlessly overjoyed. 


I generally agree but was overtaken by impatience. 

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I'm going to be watching this thread closely, as my cycle is likely to wrap up this week or next. Is it possible for people who respond to indicate whether they're interested in conversing further about advice for the next cycle of applicants?

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I'm going to be watching this thread closely, as my cycle is likely to wrap up this week or next. Is it possible for people who respond to indicate whether they're interested in conversing further about advice for the next cycle of applicants?


The last couple years, many people included an offer for PM. Don't give up hope just yet, though, all you need is one!

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The last couple years, many people included an offer for PM. Don't give up hope just yet, though, all you need is one!


Awesome! That will be very helpful, especially since I don't want to bother people who have enough on their plate in transitioning!


And I'm certainly not despondent, or without hope! I'm disappointed that it looks to be going that way, of course. Of my remaining applications, one is a presumed rejection (Vanderbilt), one is a long-shot (UPenn), and the last is a wild card that has started distributing decisions (Maryland). I'm lucky that I'm in a good place in life right now, and maybe now isn't the right time for me! It'll happen, if it's going to happen for me, and when the time is right. I'm optimistic for the long-term.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Type of Undergrad Institution: Non-US, likely not very recognized.

Major(s)/Minor(s): International Relations
Undergrad GPA: 3.4

Type of Grad I: Top international affairs school (US), area studies MA
Grad GPA: 3.6

Type of Grad II: Unranked political science PhD (US)

Grad GPA: 4.0

GRE: 163V / 170Q / 5.0AW
Any Special Courses: 1 micro, 1 qualitative methods, 3 statistics courses. Also a couple of other PhD level substantive courses unrelated to my research interests

Letters of Recommendation: All political scientists, but none of them are in my field. Also no big names. They know me quite well though, so I think they at least had some stuff to write about.

Research Experience: Multiple semesters of RA experience, few conference presentations. 
Teaching Experience: TA for two grad methods courses.  
Subfield/Research Interests: IR, formal/quant conflict. 

Acceptances($$ or no $$): 
UIUC, Iowa, Pitt, Michigan State, Indiana, Notre Dame (all $$)
Waitlists: N/A
Rejections: Princeton, Stanford, Michigan, Chicago, UCSD, Wisconsin, Rochester, Ohio State, Vanderbilt
Pending: N/A
Going to: ???




Unlike many of the good people of this forum, my case is not really a brilliant success story. However, I think I did fine and feel like I can comment on a thing or two. So here is my two cents. Usual caveats concerning grains of salt, of course, apply.


- Don't lose sight of the other important things in life. It is not the end of the world if you don't get in. You may try again and do better, or end up deciding not to go for it again. It is really not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it can be very difficult to remember during this process. 


- Improve every part of your application to the extent that you can. This may sound cliché, but it isn't. Pay attention to every single component of your application. Study for the GRE and get good scores. If you can't hack it the first time, take it again (if you have the money/time). Re-read your SOP many times, ask for feedback, read it again. Prepare a polished writing sample, get feedback, read, write, rinse, repeat. If you can think of a way to improve your application, do it. If you stick with it and put in the effort. you will feel a lot better at the end, regardless of the outcome.


- Yes, fit matters. If you clearly do not fit well, you will likely not get in, and if you fit very well, that can make up for some of the weaknesses in your application. Therefore it is always a good idea to do your homework and assess your fit (substantive, methodological, regional, whatever) with the department. It will also help you better customize your SOP. However it is very important to emphasize that your understanding of fit can be often dramatically different from the adcom members' understanding of fit when they review your file. Not much you can do about it. Try to remember that.


- I didn't contact any professors and I don't think that hurt me. I am not saying you shouldn't do it, but I don't think it is necessary. I am also skeptical if doing so is useful at all unless you have something truly interesting to say or have some other specific purpose in mind. 


- I think an obligatory signal that an applicant has to send is that s/he understands what political science is about. I suspect failing to do so is why an important chunk of good, smart, talented folks, including some of our friends here, fail to get acceptances. My suggestion would be to actually sit down and read some of the contemporary political science research that appear in leading journals in your area of interest (APSR, AJPS, JOP, IO, WP, JCR, CPS, APR, whatever). I underline the word contemporary again - things change.


- Speaking of signals, here is my rudimentary list of major signals that an applicant should send and the relevant components of the application that convey those signals: (i) I am hardworking (GPA, less so - SOP / Letters) (ii) I am smart and capable (GRE, GPA, SOP, less so - Writing Sample / Letters) (iii) I understand what political science is about and can ask interesting questions (SOP, less so - Writing Sample) (iv) My research interests fit with those of your faculty (SOP). You can add more, merge some of them, change the matched components etc. but -I think- a hard to dispute theme is that SOP is the component to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.


- There are established regularities in this process, however remember that those regularities are also regularly violated. Yes, if you have very low GRE scores, chances are you won't get into Harvard. I mean, don't bet on it, but maybe you can, if you think you have other considerable strengths that can make up for your weaknesses. Yes, ceteris paribus, someone who got into Princeton is more likely to get into UIUC, but maybe she won't. Similarly, someone who is rejected by UC-Davis, on average, has probably a lower chance of getting into Stanford - but you never know. Prepare yourself according to the regularities, but do not lose hope until the last minute because the regularities are regularly violated. 


- Think long and hard about getting a PhD. It is a tough road to follow. Think about it: Approximately one third to a half of today's winners - those who got into great schools - will end up not finishing their PhDs. They will drop out and move on to pursue other adventures. An important portion of those who do finish will do something that is unrelated or somewhat related to their research outside of the academia. Among those who remain within the discipline, many will struggle to find tenure track jobs. In many cases these people will spend years adjuncting, on post-docs, and on visiting positions before settling down on a tenure track job. Furthermore there is the pedigree bias, gender/race imbalances, getting rejections repeatedly from everywhere etc. Bottom line - academia is great, we all love research, but spend some time to think through your goals. Ask around. Do not barge in. 





I decided to not post my SOP publicly here, but would be more than happy to share and/or discuss it in detail through PM. A few words on my SOP:


- I spent one short paragraph tying my background to my research interests and one paragraph connecting my existing methods training to the training I want to receive at the X institution. Other than that, it is all about past, current, and future research. Past and current research is mentioned to the extent that it adds to the discussion on future research. 


- I did not have a story, a childhood memory, or other such stuff. I am not saying it can't or doesn't help, I decided to play it safer. 


- I did not have a fit paragraph at the end, I mentioned POIs and their research while talking about my interests throughout the SOP. I tried to mention some of the works produced by my POIs in every version of my SOP. Tried to say something other than "it is a great article/book" that would indicate that I read their work(s). Oh and I actually did read or skim them. Again, my aim in this was to primarily connect their research with my research interests, hence to demonstrate fit, not just to list the titles of their own articles back to them.  


- Did not address my weaknesses in the SOP. I didn't want to draw attention to them there.


- It was about 2 pages, single spaced. I did not pay attention to any word limit.

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Type of Undergrad Institution: OK private institution not known for training scholars
Major(s)/Minor(s): Econ
Undergrad GPA: 3.09
Type of Grad: Middle of the road state school
Grad GPA: 3.85
GRE: 167v 168q 4.0 aw
Any Special Courses: no
Letters of Recommendation: a comparativist, a historian, and a theorist. All tenured full profs
Research Experience: I published an article in a leading journal on diplomatic/cold war history. I also presented at a number of conferences, including APSA and ISA
Teaching Experience:none
Subfield/Research Interests: IR
Other: proficiency in Arabic.

Acceptances($$ or no $$): Columbia ($$)
Waitlists: none
Rejections: Princeton, NYU
Pending: Penn
Going to: Columbia



 uh, don't give up I guess?


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Type of Undergrad Institution: Good, but not a top-ranked private institution
Major(s)/Minor(s): Economics and Political Science
Undergrad GPA: 4.00
Type of Grad: None -- straight from undergraduate
Grad GPA: N/A
GRE: 165v 162q 5.0 aw
Any Special Courses:  Two-semester graduate econometrics sequence 
Letters of Recommendation: Two political science professors; one economics professor
Research Experience: Senior thesis in Political Science, empirical research project in graduate econometrics sequence, no publications
Teaching Experience: Statistics and Economics tutor at my university
Subfield/Research Interests: Political Economy, American Politics, Public Policy


Acceptances($$ or no $$): Washington University in St. Louis ($$), University of Rochester ($$), Ohio State University ($$)
Waitlists: Princeton University, University of Michigan
Rejections: University of Wisconsin-Madison
Pending: None
Going to: ???




Fit is very important; apply to many schools if financially feasible; begin preparing for the process early.




PM if you have any questions or wish to read it. I don't think my approach was particularly innovative.

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Type of Undergrad Institution: French "Grande Ecole"

Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science/Economics

Undergrad GPA: (unconverted) around 14.6/20

Type of Grad: double master in economics from abovementioned grande ecole + prestigious ecole d'ingenieur (engineering school)

Grad GPA: (unconverted) around 14.25/20

GRE: (V/Q/AW) 166/163/5.0

Any Special Courses: sequence in Micro, Macro, Econometrics + behavioral economics + political economy

Letters of Recommendation: two from micro theorists (USA PhD's from Chicago and Stanford but not very well known) + one from a big South Asian expert in comparative politics

Research Experience: two master theses (with aforementioned micro theorists) + paper presented at a conference in india. currently a research fellow at a think tank working on climate policy.

Teaching Experience: tutor for graduate level students in consumer theory, course reader for two microeconomics courses

Subfield/Research Interests: formal theory, comparative politics, south asian politics, social/public choice theory



Acceptances($$ or no $$): Rochester, Michigan, UC Davis (all fully funded) + Toulouse School of Economics (at the moment no $), NYU (MA, not funded)

Waitlists: -

Rejections: YPS, Northwestern

Pending: Harvard PEG, FSU

Going to: don't know yet



LESSONS LEARNED: I will be brief:

  • You need to provide the right kind of signals. If your GPA equivalent is not amazing (like mine) you have to be strategic in your choice of letter writers and writing sample. I chose two micro theorists to make up for a few bad grades in technical classes and the lack of any formal mathematical training (given that I am interested in formal theory). I also submitted writing samples that I worked on with these profs.
  • GRE takes time to ace. I gave it twice with minimal training and got good results but I think a few more weeks at it would have really helped. If you are interested in formal theory try to do well on the Q sections. For the record, my Q score wasn't that great (87th percentile) but I tried to make up for it through my writing samples and LOR's. I also have this feeling that one needs a very good GRE score and/or GPA to break in the Ivies (ceteris paribus). This is just my opinion though. Refer to the gnome's regularity point for another view.
  • Fit is VERY important. All programs I was accepted to fit my research aims very well. It was important to identify faculty members who could tie into your existing or future research. This is at least a weakly dominant strategy (as coach has pointed out to me). This can overcome other weak aspects if sold well enough.

SOP: I will not share it here, but feel free to communicate with me via PM and I will gladly send it to you.


Most importantly however, my SOP:

  • listed all relevant research experience and how I see it continuing in the future.
  • Outlined basic new ideas.
  • Spoke about how the program I was applying to would fit around these interests and help me find creative and compelling answers to all questions I may have.
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Eh, I guess I'll go:


Type of Undergrad Institution:
Top 5
Major(s)/Minor(s): Molecular Biology
Undergrad GPA: 3.3
Type of Grad: N/A
Grad GPA: N/A
GRE:  170v, 165q, 5.0aw
Any Special Courses: 3 course graduate quant methods core sequence, 2 course graduate American core sequence
Letters of Recommendation: Three political science profs who I know well.
Research Experience: 3 years RA for multiple profs; Senior Thesis, a couple of seminar papers
Teaching Experience: Stats and R Tutoring
Subfield/Research Interests: American, with a primary interest in legislatures, secondary interest in race/ethnicity.
Other: Research internship at a DC thinktank junior summer.

Acceptances($$ or no $$):
Duke ($$), WashU ($$), Rochester ($$), Berkeley ($$), UCLA ($$), UCSD ($$),  Princeton ($$), Michigan ($$), Columbia ($$), UNC ($$), Stanford ($$), Chicago MAPSS (1/2 $$)
Waitlists: none
Rejections: Wisconsin
Pending: Harvard
Going to: Will decide after visits.



For me, deciding to pursue a PhD in Political Science was a big risk. I had to make very significant sacrifices to pursue this path. There was no plan B. I am really grateful that things have been working out well so far – let’s hope my luck holds in the future.


These are the things I found about my subjective graduate application experience. My experiences may not be applicable to everyone, but I hope they help.


1. Grad Schools are not necessarily “looking for a reason to ding you”

When I was reading up on applying to PhD programs, I ran across an article by Dan Drezner (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/18/so_you_want_to_get_into_a_political_science_phd_program_part_one)


He argues that because of the surplus of Political Science PhD applicants, the bar for applicants is set very high – the adcom is basically looking for a reason to reject you and move on to the next file.


When I read this advice, I was very nervous, because I come built-in with a reason to reject. I have a completely unrelated major, and a (relatively) low GPA. I was worried that the adcom would read my application as a “failed biology major that wasn’t serious about PS”. The beginning of my SOP focused on showing that even though I was a biology major, I had invested serious time and effort in preparing for a political science PhD program. 


So I think my advice would be “anticipate weaknesses in your application, and work to remedy them early on”.


 2. Build good relationships with your professors.

I’m pretty sure that my luck this cycle was due to the strength of my rec letters.  I am extremely grateful to my letter writers.


Professors have the best perspective on the graduate admissions process because they sit on the adcoms. However, as academics tend to have differing opinions, so it’s a good idea to get to know more than one professor.


I was very lucky – I clicked well with literally the first political science professor that I met, who continued to advise me regularly throughout my time as an undergraduate.  I always made a point of going to office hours at least once for every poli sci professor whose class I was taking. You don’t have to have an impressive question – most professors I’ve met were very encouraging once they found out that I was looking to pursue a PhD in political science.


RA work is also a very good way to get to know professors – it’s also a great opportunity to demonstrate your work ethic.


3. Invest in quantitative skills (if applicable)

Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you’re a political theorist (and if you are a political theorist, all the more power to you!) – but if you are not a political theorist, it may be more applicable than you think.  


As a PhD student, it is very likely that you will be taking a quant methods course/sequence in your first year. Those classes are hard, but ultimately they help prepare you for doing research in political science. Having those tools as an undergraduate makes your undergrad research more impressive, they show that you are dedicated to political science, and they will make your first year in graduate school easier (at least I hope!)    




PM me for SOP.

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Type of Undergrad Institution:  

Major(s)/Minor(s): Engineering major with minors in applied mathematics, computer science, and statistics.

Undergrad GPA: 3.90

Type of Grad: NA

Grad GPA: NA

GRE: 170 V, 168 Q, 6 W

Any Special Courses: I took the graduate methods sequence and one substantive graduate course in American.

Letters of Recommendation: One from a very good methodologist who I've been working with for three years, another from the political science department chair with whom I've been working for a year, and the third from my thesis adviser in my  home department.

Research Experience: 3 year RA with aforementioned methodologist (with an R library to show for it), 1 year RA with a substantive professor constructing a data set and doing database programming, and my senior thesis in statistical learning.


Teaching Experience: None that I mentioned on any of my applications.

Subfield/Research Interests: Quantitative methods

Other: I spent my summers working as a data scientist in major tech companies.


Acceptances($$ or no $$): 
Berkeley ($$$), Princeton ($$$), Michigan ($$), Stanford GSB ($$$), Stanford ($$), MIT ($$), Columbia ($$), Harvard ($$), Chicago Harris ($$)

Waitlists: None

Rejections: None

Pending: None

Going to: Undecided




1.  Jumping fields is not so bad.

This one applies especially to future methods people.  I had not taken any substantive courses in political science before I applied (even now, I've only taken one), and was legitimately worried that the admissions committees would refer my application to the statistics department.  I  took every possible opportunity in my application to show that I do read and think a lot about political science in my down time and that I am interested in statistical models because of how we can use them to learn about the political world, rather than for their own sake.  That seems to have done the trick; one professor specifically mentioned that he could tell I cared about what is at stake in political science research.


2.  Find a mentor.

This one applies more to the younger people.  I was extremely lucky that my adviser took me under his wing while I was a sophomore.  The work I did with him made me want to become a political scientist in the first place and it's impossible to overstate how much I've gotten out of this relationship - he has helped advise me on which courses might be interesting, introduced me to graduate students and the work that they do, and passed down many of the secrets tricks and intuitions of statistics which cannot be found in papers or textbooks.  His presence definitely loomed large with the admissions committees as well; every person I have talked to has mentioned how influential it was to have someone they admired vouch for me.


3. Market forces make a difference.

There is a clear shortage of methodologists at the job market level, and I think this has trickled down to graduate admissions.  Many professors I have talked to have specifically mentioned how difficult it is to find graduate students who are likely to choose methods as their primary subfield.


SOP: I'm happy to share via PM.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Type of Undergrad Institution: Major Canadian research university

Major(s)/Minor(s): Honours in Political Science (like doing 1.5x the coursework for a major, plus an undergrad thesis), Minor in Arabic Language
Undergrad GPA: >3.6 overall, >3.8 in Political Science
Type of Grad: MA in Political Science, Major Canadian research university (same as undergrad)
Grad GPA: 4.0 (midyear)
GRE: 730 Verbal, 790 Quantitative, 5.5 Analytical Writing (taken just before the switch to the new test)
Any Special Courses: I chose my grad courses based on what I did not expect to have a chance to take them during my PhD - Canadian politics and qualitative methods. No formal coursework in quantitative methods.
Letters of Recommendation: One from my MA advisor (and someone I worked for as an RA for consistently over three years), one from my undergrad thesis advisor (and someone I worked as an RA for during undergrad). Both are well-known in Canada as quantitative, political behavior people, and my MA advisor has an audience in the U.S. My third came from a researcher at a think tank.
Research Experience: 3+ years in academia doing quantitative research as a research assistant in academia, 2+ in the think tank world. I spent most of this time working between my undergrad and MA studies. Three peer-reviewed publications (two forthcoming co-authored book chapters, one co-authored article), four co-authored policy reports, two undergrad journal publications, several conference presentations. Almost all of these publications and presentations came from good RA relationships with professors I met during undergrad.
Teaching Experience: Course grader for an undergrad methods course.
Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative Politics - representation, political communication and legislative behavior. Also Public Policy.

Acceptances ($$ or no $$): Princeton ($$$), Berkeley ($$$), UBC ($$$), UNC Chapel Hill ($$), UC Davis ($), UT Austin ($). 
Waitlists: None
Rejections: Stanford, Columbia, MIchigan
Pending: Harvard (presumed rejection)
Going to: Princeton

I'd rather not share my SOP, even in private messages. Basically I provided a broad overview of my interests, discussed one consistent project across (almost) all applications (also used for applications to funding agencies), then mentioned faculty and specific resources and research centers in a fit paragraph at the end.

My writing sample was an early draft of my MA thesis. It was related to my proposed PhD project, written in LaTeX and shows some sophistication in quantitative methods. 

I was an odd candidate for a lot of programs because many of the faculty members I was interested in working with are considered Americanists. This may have made things more difficult for me, particularly at certain programs (like Columbia). But my strategy was to attempt to represent myself as accurately as possible in my SOP.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Type of Undergrad Institution:  southern state school
Major(s)/Minor(s): political science
Undergrad GPA: 3.7
Type of Grad: southern state school
Grad GPA: 3.97
GRE: 168/164/4.5
Any Special Courses:
Letters of Recommendation:  three letters from professors with whom I have worked closely
Research Experience:  just writing my master's thesis, analyzing data for term papers, etc.
Teaching Experience:  worked as a TA for three semesters
Subfield/Research Interests: american politics, political theory

Acceptances($$ or no $$):  Northwestern ($$), Wisconsin ($$), UIUC ($$), Washington-Seattle ($$), UT-Austin (no $$)
Waitlists: none
Rejections: UPenn, Princeton, Ohio State, Virginia (presumed)
Pending: none
Going to:



I won't repeat everything that others have said.  However, I will say that I believe that allowing a professor to tear apart the first draft of my SOP was the best thing I did for my applications.  Promoting myself in that format is not something I am particularly practiced in, so having him point out all of the ways I could be doing a better job of it was essential to putting together a solid application.

SOP:  I would be happy to share this over PM.

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Type of Undergrad Institution: Second-tier ivy
Major(s)/Minor(s): Philosophy major, Government minor
Undergrad GPA: 3.8
Type of Grad: Oxford MPhil in Political Theory
Grad GPA: Distinction
GRE: 660v/750q/5.5aw - old format
Any Special Courses: Attended seminars in both philosophy and politics at Ox, noted this on my CV
Letters of Recommendation: Strong, probably not glowing
Research Experience: Mphil is a research degree, no publications
Teaching Experience: One summer course
Subfield/Research Interests: Political philosophy

Acceptances($$ or no $$): Harvard $$, philosophy at Georgetown and WUSTL $$
Rejections: Six other philosophy programs
Pending: Oxford
Going to: Likely Harvard



I applied to eight philosophy programs and two gov/politics programs - Harvard and Oxford - and to those two because I had specific reasons to believe the kind of political philosophy I'm interested in would be well looked after in those places. Even so, probably should have applied to politics at Princeton and maybe Stanford as well. I'm pretty confident that having a clear idea of who I'd like to work with, which came across in my SOP, helped me get into Harvard.


My results in government were significantly better in gov/politics than in philosophy, but the small sample size and fact that I used different writing samples for each makes it hard to draw lessons. Still, I'd venture that my gov writing sample, which was more polished but less 'innovative', would have been better to use for all my apps. In general, I think it's wise to choose polish over trying to break new ground. Of course best if you can manage to accomplish both. (Good luck.)


I definitely encourage students who do normative political theory/philosophy to hedge bets and apply to both philosophy and gov/politics departments, especially if they're coming from the oxford MPhil rather than the BPhil. That is, as long as they'd be happy ultimately ending up working and teaching in either kind of place.


Don't want to share in its entirety, but it went roughly like this:

  • My interests are in X Y Z areas of moral and political philosophy. I worked with/learned from so and so and etc. while at undergrad and at Oxford, and wrote my thesis on X. Part of that thesis is the writing sample submitted with this application.
  • I am also interested in these core areas of philosophy, which while not usually under the auspices of political theory I would hope to use in this and that way...
  • I'm interested in School because I'd like to work with so and so. I know this because our interests are aligned in this and that way, and because I've learned a lot from This Particular Work, and because... 
Edited by pro_Tonto
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Well, here is my new profile, with updated information, less cynicism and hell of a lot better advice!


Type of Undergrad Institution: State University
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science/Legal Studies
Undergrad GPA: 3.897
Type of Grad: ------
Grad GPA: --------
GRE: 160/155
Any Special Courses: Several honors courses in philosophy and interdisciplinary fields. Also, legal research AND political research/statistics.
Letters of Recommendation: All Political Science Professors, (1. Political Theory/American Politics; 2. International Relations/Comparative Politics; 3. Public Policy)
Research Experience: Senior Thesis; Special Research Course (Legal and Public Policy)
Teaching Experience: Secondary School (Substitute Teacher)
Subfield/Research Interests: American Politics/Theory
Other: Supervisor of Student Judiciary Services

Acceptances: UNM ($$$), TAMU ($$$)
Waitlists: --------------------------------
Rejections: U. of Washington; UC-Boulder
Pending: UC-Irvine (Presumed Rejection)
Going to: TAMU



Don't count yourself out! (By mid February, I convinced myself I would not be accepted to my top program, let alone, any of the programs I applied!!!


I didn't contact POI's, which you definitely should, and am fortunate to have been accepted into my top choice program!

(But I would contact a POI and make sure to meet with someone who has applied in the past to make sure you don't make any gaffes)


Don't procrastinate. Get the application materials together and started in the summer before you apply. (I ended up completely stressed with classes, work, ect, along with getting my materials together.) 


Learn how to write a business email!!! Not only that, but re-re-read every email you send to any faculty members. If initiating contact, you might even want to have someone look it over.


I was too independent with my applications. I really should have asked my professors or gradcafe folks some assistance or suggestions. 

Though, all-in-all things worked out well for me.


Good Luck 2015 Applicants! :)

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I did this once, but now that I've made a decision and my cycle is over, I thought I'd redo it. 


Type of Undergrad Institution: top 100 national university
Major(s)/Minor(s): double major in political science (law and politics concentration) and women's and gender studies
Undergrad GPA: 3.4 overall, 3.75 in POSC
Type of Grad: n/a
Grad GPA: n/a
GRE: 158v/152q/6.0aw
Any Special Courses: none to speak of, though I took a great deal more POSC classes than I was required.
Letters of Recommendation: one from adviser (a constitutional law specialist), two from other professors (one an international law/HR specialist and the other a presidency/media specialist)
Research Experience: one research fellowship, one internship that was research oriented.
Teaching Experience: none yet.
Subfield/Research Interests: American constitutionalism, public law, civil rights and liberties, some comparative constitutionalism.
Other: four internships at most levels of government: one local/state, one congressional, one bureaucracy, and one non-profit.

RESULTS: all MA unless noted.
Acceptances($$ or no $$): American, Boston College (MA), Georgetown, George Washington, Georgia, St. John's, Villanova ($$), Marquette ($$), St. Louis U., Syracuse (MA) ($$)
Waitlists: Boston College (PhD), Syracuse (PhD)
Rejections: University of Virginia
Pending: Case Western Reserve
Going to: Syracuse




This has been a wild ride. I learned a lot about myself and about my goals throughout this incredibly long and arduous process. For one, this was exponentially more successful than I ever expected. The only reason I applied to so many schools was because I was unsure whether anyone would take me with my mediocre GPA and okay GRE scores. As it turns out, I didn't have a reason to be concerned. I ended up with more possibilities than I could have imagined, which, though a good problem, was daunting to try to work through. In the end, though, Syracuse was clearly the best fit for my interests and I'm so very excited to be starting there in August. 



I'm reticent to share my SOP in its entirety, but it outlined my interests in civil rights and liberties, why the schools were the right fit for me, and addressed some shortcomings in my application (i.e. very low first semester grades). 

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  • 2 weeks later...

Type of Undergrad Institution: Generic Small Liberal Arts Catholic College
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science
Undergrad GPA: 3.37
Type of Grad: Masters of Public Policy
Grad GPA: 3.78
GRE: 169 V 158 Q 5.0 A
Any Special Courses:
Letters of Recommendation: 1 from undergraduate professor, 1 from graduate, one from current boss. I was told they were all very positive, but they were nothing special. I was not a research assistant for anyone, and had no demonstrable research experience. 
Research Experience: Produced some research at work
Teaching Experience:
Subfield/Research Interests: American
Other:  3 years full time at a DC-based advocacy group, 2 years part time in campaigns/PAC/etc during grad school

Acceptances($$ or no $$): GW (off wait list), UT-Austin, UC-Davis, UNC-Chapel Hill, George Mason
Waitlists: GW (accepted)
Rejections: Georgetown, Harvard, UCLA, UCSD, Maryland, Penn State
Going to: Likely either UT or UNC, still deciding.


LESSONS LEARNED: The past 12 months have been a huge learning process. My assumptions about graduate school and political science were challenged and changed constantly. While working a very busy full time job, I was forced to devote almost all of my free time for a full year to figure out what I wanted to study, strengthen my application, apply, and evaluate schools.


Read a ton of political science. I probably read 30 articles and 3 or 4 books before applying. That helped me figure out what I did and did not want to study, nail down a solid research question, and figure out what schools would be a good fit. In the end, fit definitely got me in.


I retook the GREs and got basically the same score. It was a huge waste of money and time. If your GREs are above the bar, just take the score and move on. 


Visit days after acceptance are key. After meeting with professors and students, I quickly narrowed down my list of schools. Also, every program offered me substantially more money after we got to know each other, which helped a lot.


If I could do it again, I would be more aggressive about the schools I applied to. I limited myself to 11 applications, but had 17 schools that I was interested in. I knocked off some higher ranked schools and not the lower ranked schools out of fear of not getting in anywhere. In the end, my application was stronger than I perceived at the time. Given hindsight, I would have knocked off 6 lower ranked schools and applied to the higher ones. 


I spent a lot of time sprucing up my writing sample. I thought the paper I wrote in graduate school was top-notch, but three years later it was merely okay. 


I did not contact any professors beforehand. I did not know anyone at any of the schools. 


I stuck to my deadlines and got the work done steadily over 9 months. The only point that was really stressful was getting my professors to upload their recommendations. They needed a ton of prodding and reminding. One professor was 2-3 weeks late on most of the recommendations. Nail that shit down early. Send them all your recommendations at once, so once you get them to upload, it's done. I made the mistake of sending them in batches. 


Some schools will ask for information a little differently. Save time for weird applications. 


Fit was huge. Every school I got into was because I was a strong substantive or methodological fit to the department, although none of the departments were a 100% perfect fit. They cared more that I was in the same American neighborhood. 


I can't guarantee that I'll check my PMs in the future, but if I see any messages, I'd be happy to answer any questions. 




[Writing this took a long time. I didn't actually have anyone except for one friend look at it. My goals were pretty simple: Answer the "Why political science? Why a PhD" question, demonstrate dedication to the literature and an ability to think critically about it, and demonstrate how my work experience would be an asset in an academic setting. I had a longer version for schools that asked for it that told a story about why I became interested in politics and how the Iraq War affected my generation.]


I knew that I wanted to be a political scientist when I took my first methods course at [Name of Undergrad]: Empirical Analysis in Political Science. It was the least popular course in the department. Many students were uncomfortable with quantitative analysis and scientific method. I, on the other hand, was fascinated, particularly after my professor taught us SPSS and linear regression, handed us data from the American Community Survey, and asked us to tinker around with it. I must have spent ten hours that weekend in the computer lab, looking for correlations between different independent and dependent variables. To this day, that was my favorite class at any level of education.


In hindsight, I would have pursued a Masters of Political Science instead of Public Policy. I chose the program at [Name of Grad School] because I sought a rigorous analytical study of how public policy is crafted and implemented, and because I wanted to work in the field while studying. The program was academically rigorous, but focused more on measuring and analyzing individual programs and policies than trying to answer questions about how the system that produces and refines public policy functions. I learned a lot, particularly on statistical analysis, STATA, research design, and the incorporation of multiple disciplines to answer a question, and was able to work part time in the field, but it became clear that my long term research interests were in political science.


After graduating, I began working at [Organization], a think tank and advocacy organization. My primary job has focused on communications our research and advocating for its recommendations. However, over the last six months I have produced more research; including leading a [some details about research], which we hope to submit to a peer-reviewed journal in the spring. Extensive experience in the field will be invaluable to my academic career. It will help me to formulate hypotheses, develop new analytical techniques, illustrate phenomena observed in data, and advise students on their career path.


If admitted, I will study in the American Politics subfield. My research interests are interest groups, extended political parties, and the policymaking process. I plan on using social network analysis methods, perhaps using the techniques developed by Grossman and Dominguez (2009) and Koger, Masket, and Noel (2009) but also perhaps developing new techniques, to analyze the extended party networks of Democrats and Republicans over a time series, which is a major gap in the research. A time series will allow us to find trends, and possibly correlate changes in party networks with other phenomena.


An aspect of this analysis that particularly interests me is factionalism. I’d be fascinated to see, for example, if evidence of factionalism increased in the extended Republican network following introduction of Tea Party organizations in 2010. Increased factionalism may be able to predict primary challenges. Patterns may follow competitive Presidential contests. I hope to explore these types of questions if I am able to gather together a sufficiently large time series.


Further, both studies measure the density of both extended party networks, and find the Democratic extended party network significantly denser and larger than the Republican extended party network. I’d like to explore changes in density levels over time, which could potentially impact electoral effectiveness, fundraising, or policy outcomes.


I would love to pursue this research at the Department of X at Y, and learn from its great collection of scholars. [Paragraph about 3 scholars I would like to study with and why. I spent a lot of time researching individual work, and tried to read at least 1 article from each.]

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Type of Undergrad Institution: Average Public University in Europe
Major(s)/Minor(s): Political Science
Undergrad GPA: 3.91
Type of Grad: MA International Relations (policy-focused)
Grad GPA: 4.00
GRE: 160V 161Q 5.0A
Any Special Courses: MA level Microeconomics, Economic Math, Stats and Econometrics; two PhD level Political Science seminars
Letters of Recommendation: All three from my MA program (two Assistant profs, one tenured).
Research Experience: Some policy work and data-management experience - no publications
Teaching Experience
Subfield/Research Interests: Comparative/Political Economy


Acceptances($$ or no $$): MIT ($$), Harvard ($$)
Rejections: Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, Columbia, NYU, Princeton
Going to: Harvard



- Apply to all top departments, even if you think that fit is not that good. The department may know more than you. I was rejected by the schools I thought I had the best fit with and was accepted by MIT and Harvard which actually turned out to be a great fit (new faculty, profs shifting research agendas).


- If you are like me and standardized, timed exams like the GRE don't come easy to you - study hard and prepare to retake it. Try to get at least in the 160s, so you make the cutoff.


- Start working on our application early (July/August). The first few drafts of your SoP will be rubbish in retrospect. Get feedback from your professors and people who were admitted to good programs. 


- If your research interests are broad and you are not quite sure which project you want to pursue - don't state that in your SoP. Focus on one thing. This doesn't mean that you can only pursue this one question/project in grad school, but you don't want to appear unfocused. Admission committees will try to categorize you (especially in Comparative along regions!) and if that's not possible based on your SoP they may put you aside.


- Contact professors, but only if you have something substantial to say. In my opinion, "My name is, my research interests are, I am interested in your program" e-mails are a waste of time for both sides. If there is no question in your e-mail, there is no need to reply.


- Visit every school you got admitted at. It's fun and you will learn things about the program/faculty that you wouldn't have found online.


- Pick a writing sample that shows your ability to do academic work, not one that is similar to the topic of your SoP. Definitely a mistake a made.


- Be aware that this is a process that will cost you several hundred dollars (application fees, GRE, TOEFL if you are international). It's ridiculous, but there is little you can do about it.



I'd rather not post it publicly, but here is some advice.
- Like I said above, start early. Ask your profs and other PhD students to read it and give you feedback. The first few drafts of my SOP were rubbish, writing a decent one was a 2-3 month process.
- Three main components: Your research interests (preferably framed as an empirical/theoretical puzzle), your previous experiences, your fit with the department. The first component should take up more space than the others.
- If you have a regional interest, state it. Like I said above, committees will classify you as "Africanist", "European political economy person" etc.
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