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dkro23

Typical accomplishments for an average PhD student

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As the topic suggests, what is the makeup of a typical student that gets accepted to a top 10 institution (i.e. GRE score, GPA, publications?, math/stats background, undergraduate thesis?, interesting fields of research, and so on)?

 

I've looked through many university websites and they all have very low acceptance rates, so what makes 20 out of 1000 applicants stand out?

 

(I have posted the exact question in the economics section as well, since I am interested in both)

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Not to state the obvious, but you can learn at least part of what you're asking for by looking at the websites and CVs of early-career students at the top departments that you are interested in, especially first-second year students. People who have a website will normally list their interests, and on their CV you should be able to find any publications/awards/presentations/research experience that they have. Some also list things like their undergrad GPA and thesis topic/advisor. I'd stick to beginning students because in later years people might remove some earlier entries from their CV and only keep more impressive ones, so you might not get an accurate idea of what their CVs actually looked like when they were just accepted to the program. If you do this, you might not know everybody's GPA or GRE scores but the more important thing is the other stuff anyway.

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On the econ side, this is the general trend I've seen/heard:

 

GRE: Quant is the usually the one that matters, at least160 (80th percentile)

GPA: Generally anything below 3.5 will get you auto-rejected at top schools (like a GRE Q below 160)

Publications: If you have any that's great, but most undergrads coming out do not have them. So definitely helps you if you do, but won't hurt you if you don't. 

Undergrad thesis: Exactly 1 person in the world cares about you undergrad thesis - you. 

Research interests: There aren't any that are better than another, but you should be aware of each school's general strengths when applying

 

Now the math courses list is slightly more tricky. The golden rule is more math the better. But you should at the minimum have all A's in calculus courses (single and multivariate), real analysis, algebra courses (linear and abstract). and I'm probably missing some. Now, you may be missing one or more of the core math courses and you might get in anyway, but that means you're already a step behind everyone else. And playing catch up at a top school, or at any school, is not a good idea. 

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As the topic suggests, what is the makeup of a typical student that gets accepted to a top 10 institution (i.e. GRE score, GPA, publications?, math/stats background, undergraduate thesis?, interesting fields of research, and so on)?

 

I've looked through many university websites and they all have very low acceptance rates, so what makes 20 out of 1000 applicants stand out?

 

(I have posted the exact question in the economics section as well, since I am interested in both)

 

 

I would say that about half of us are atypical, fwiw.

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I would say that about half of us are atypical, fwiw.

 

THIS. My quant score was 5 points below the supposedly preferred "cutoff" at my top-10 school (although I am a humanities major and my verbal score was outstanding) and I still got into one of these groups of 20 out of over 600 applicants. There is no "typical" student who gets accepted - all of the others that I talked to in my cohort were above average in some areas and below average in others. Not everyone broke 160 on their GRE in both sections, and not everybody had at least a 3.5 GPA. I don't believe anybody is automatically thrown out because one area is a bit below average - if you have other factors that make you a stellar candidate, such as specialized experience, language skills, fellowships or internships, then two or three amazing criterion are enough to outweigh one "meh" slightly below average factor.

Edited by maelia8

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Now the math courses list is slightly more tricky. The golden rule is more math the better. But you should at the minimum have all A's in calculus courses (single and multivariate), real analysis, algebra courses (linear and abstract). and I'm probably missing some. Now, you may be missing one or more of the core math courses and you might get in anyway, but that means you're already a step behind everyone else. And playing catch up at a top school, or at any school, is not a good idea. 

 

There are dozens of students who get in with no math background at all.

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There are dozens of students who get in with no math background at all.

 

I think Walrus was referring to econ admissions here, in which case he/she is pretty darn near correct. For a growing number of econ PhD programs math experience is not a grey area, they flat-out require a full calc sequence and at least one or two of the other courses Walrus mentioned, maybe adding discrete math and prob & stats, as a prerequisite for admission. Some schools will take you conditionally if you can complete the coursework before your start date or contingent on some other arrangement. But at any rate, Walrus is right in that it isn't wise to go without. 

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I'll give this a whirl of what information I have gathered preparing for this cycle to try and crack a top 10.

 

GRE: 160+160 on both sections. Obviously the higher the better, but that seems to be the basic benchmark.

GPA: 3.5 (or close to it) or higher.

 

The rest gets a bit more wishy washy:

 

- You should have done an honours thesis. This is especially true for people coming straight from undergrad.

- All three of your LORs should be from profs that you worked in some capacity one on one with.

- Math/methods is a bonus, better to have, but not necessary especially if your math GRE score is good.

- Most people do not have publications, even masters students probably won't have any decent publications (student journals don't mean shit).

 

Lastly, I think one of the most important aspects of differentiating yourself from other applicants is research experience. Serving significant time as a RA is a huge bonus (if you emphasize it properly in your SOP). Combining time as a RA with other research things like a good honours thesis or independent study courses or the like is even better.

 

Unfortunately there is no magic formula. It is random, quite idiosyncratic in who is sitting on the committee, and how they determine you "fit" into the program. The best way to up your chances is to make every component of your application as good as possible, and try to show them why you fit where you are applying for each application you submit. 

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Thanks everyone for the input, it all helps a lot! I am really shooting for a top 10 in either polisci or economics, so I've just been bugging a lot of people over what I should shoot for on the application.

 

Just some comments and clarifications:

 

1) When I mentioned 'research interest' in the original post, I mainly meant how specific I should be in the SOP. I mean, I assume they aren't expecting me to lay out a research proposal for a dissertation, (are they?). And, does having a research interest in a 'hot' field do anything?

 

2) For the economists: I'll have calculus, linear algebra, ODE and PDE, Probability theory, an intro proof writing course, 1 semester of real analysis, and maybe 1 of abstract algebra (and a math for econ phd course sequence). Will not having that second semester of analysis and algebra hurt my chances? Are there any other specific courses that could help?

 

3) I forgot another part that might warrant some discussion: does job experience do help? I mainly ask because I have been told that working for a year or two between undergrad and phd is a good experience to have before fully committing to the phd.

 

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Pretty specific. You should have an idea of the literature in the area, be able to target a gap, have some general research questions, and possibly provide some kind of way to solve that using existing strategies. This can vary by personal preference a lot. However, approximately half of your SOP should be addressing this task.

 

No, how 'hot' your research interests are don't matter. More important is how well they line up to prospective professors at the university you are applying to. And even more importantly, how you can show that line of fit. 

 

Typically job experience doesn't mean anything. People usually say that as advice for you. IE, spending time working a professional job after undergrad or whatever will help you decide whether you actually want to do a Ph.D. or not. I think a reason for such high attrition rates in doctoral programs is because a lot of undergrads go straight into a doctoral program without even knowing exactly what it is, what it entails, and why they are doing it.

 

That being said, having a job in between that has a component of research and can be shown to connect with your progress or give you skills during your Ph.D. program may be a benefit (especially if you don't have formal research experience), but not an incredible one.

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