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Identifying Programs, Finding a Supervisor, and Writing a Statement


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When I applied to PhD programs I found Grad Cafe forums extremely helpful. I suspect that many of us do come back because we feel like we want to give back as much as we can to continue passing on what we’ve learned. I know there are many others here, like myself, who used Grad Cafe in the past and are now settled into our PhD programs. So, I just wanted to give a few tips from my own experience in case it’s helpful for others. This isn’t new information, it’s just what I found most helpful, you’ll find much of it repeated elsewhere and some of it might not apply. So, with that caveat… I’ll keep it short and answer questions, and hope this also encourages others who are already in programs to join in and add their thoughts.

Finding a Topic/Theory/Approach/Region

You can’t pick a program or a supervisor, or write a statement until you’ve figured out what you want to do. Not exactly what you will study, but what it means to you TO STUDY. Does it mean doing library research? Does it mean 1 year of fieldwork, 2 years of fieldwork? Do you want 2 years of classes? How do you want to do your comprehensive or qualifying examinations? 1 test that your department produces and gives to you? 4 tests that you design yourself? These details matter. You also need to know what area of the world you want to study and what kind of anthropology you want to do.

Identifying a Program

The programs you apply for might be limited by where you need to live because of family or a spouse, or what country you want to be in, or what the department specializes in, or where you can use a special scholarship. So first pay attention to those limits and find all the programs that fit inside that group of limitations. Next, within those programs you must identify the ones that have at least 3 professors that you REALLY want to work with. You need to be able to draw on more than one person in the department. One of them will be your main contact, your POI or your potential supervisor. But the others are important. You want several people to be excited about your application so that when the department sits down to look at the applications, you have more than one person arguing for yours. I did this by emailing everyone in the department whose work I was interested in. A simple short email that said where I was studying, what my interest was, what I liked about their work that I had looked at, that I was interested in a PhD in their department and then asked if they were accepting new students for supervision.

Finding a Supervisor/POI

Once you’ve emailed everyone of interest you’ll have a great sense of what your options are. Some will write back excited to hear from you telling you all about the program. Some will say: “Apply, I’ll see your application, and don’t email me again.” Some faculty really want to talk to you, some don’t want hear from you at all. Some will tell you to email the graduate student advisor in the department, some will send you to the web site. This will tell you a lot about their personality and about how the department works. You’ll quickly figure out whether you really want to work with this person for 5-8 years. If you develop a good correspondence with someone, keep them updated. Let them know you’re applying, ask if they’d be interested in seeing what you are writing for your statement. Sometimes they’ll offer to edit it, to give you sources to cite. Sometimes they’ll tell you what to say about particular things in order to improve your essay. All of these things happened to me.


Don't forget to ask for email addresses of current students they would reccomend you speak with about what it's like to study there. Especially ones they are supervising. Then go over to Academia.edu and look up students yourself and reach out to them so that you talk to other students,  not just the ones that they reccomended. I ruled out schools very quickly when I spoke to many students in a prestigious, highly ranked program and they were all miserable.

Writing a Statement

All of my statements were well received and resulted in offers to several fully funded programs as well as a few prestigious scholarships. I used a simple formula. Sure, you can try to re-invent things and stand out, but my opinion is that people on admissions committees are actually happy to find that you’ve followed a clear outline so they can more easily read through many essays. Here’s what I used. Same for all of them, but tailored to that specific program. I DID NOT simply change the last paragraph, the whole statement was written specifically for each school, based on the long email conversations I had with potential supervisors.

Paragraph 1:
First sentence saying briefly and straight to the point: This is what I plan to study, broadly.
Second sentence clarifying and giving more detail

Paragraph 2:
The following scholars have looked at X, (citation, citation, citation). The following scholars have looked at Y (citation, citation, citation). Studies around the issue of X and Y have tended to look at them like this… (citation, citation, citation).

Paragraph 3:
However, this literature has not yet looked at how XY affects A, B, and C (this is where you insert your topic, from the first sentence, but in the context of existing scholarship, the point is to show how you want to contribute to knowledge).

Paragraph 4:
By looking at XY in terms of A, B, and C, I want to open up new questions about XY such as: New Question 1; New Question 2; New Question 3; etc. By exploring these questions my project will use theory D, theory E, and theory F in new ways to address XY through ABC.

Paragraph 5:
The University of (Insert name here) anthropology program is the ideal place to do this work. The department focuses on X and Y, and these people work on ABC, and their use of theories DEF are interesting because… Professor H’s work on A and X is relevant to my work because… Professor I’s work on B and E and Y is relevant because of the way she… While studying at University of (insert name here) I will draw on expertise in…

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This is excellent advice, and as another currently enrolled Ph.D. student I enthusiastically endorse it. I also agree that Academia.edu is a great resource for scoping out what other people in the program are doing, allowing for the fact that it's a selective and imperfect sample. 


I'll add a few random thoughts from my own experience:


Visit if you can


By visiting you can put a name with a face for faculty and you give yourself the chance to talk with them in a more informal setting, which makes it easier to ask questions based on what they tell you and generally gives them a chance to get to know you somewhat. This will also give you the chance to meet other graduate students and hear what they think of the program.


Pick the right letter writers


You want to get letter writers who both know you and your potential as a scholar and who are unlikely to be total strangers to your POI. Of course this can't always be helped if you're coming from a wildly different background. But wherever possible, you want your letters to come from people your POI knows or knows of, because this gives them a frame of reference for evaluating the recommendation.


And finally, for the statement of purpose, I basically concentrated all my efforts on Dan's Paragraph 5. I didn't have a topic picked out so there was nothing for me to cite, but I did have a general sense of my goals as a researcher and I was very detailed and very explicit about what those goals were and why the places I was applying to were good fits. I also tailored every letter very closely to the program it was meant for. 

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Ajtz'ihb's point about Paragraph 5 is a great one. I was applying to programs in the US, the UK and in Canada (coming from the US). Some programs require you have an MA and know exactly what you want to study, others don't. But this isn't only a division by country, it's also by institution.


One great resource for seeing this in an example is to look at the samples that Duke's anthropology program provides for application statements. They are VERY fine tuned and tailored toward the research topic.


You can download them here: http://culturalanthropology.duke.edu/uploads/assets/2011-2012GradStmts(1).doc


From this page: http://culturalanthropology.duke.edu/graduate/faq


Each school has an idea of what they want, which is even more reason to be in contact with them and just ASK. Ask your POI what successful statements look like - are they about your personal history of founding clubs when you were in high school or are they about the fieldwork you've already done while getting your MA - schools have very different new PhD student profiles.

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Thank you so much for this, trying to find anthropology program specific advice has been difficult and I cannot tell you how appreciated this information is!

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I noticed there was a discussion in this thread about whether to include theory in your statement so I wanted to post about that here:


My advice is that you must address theory in your statement for a cultural anthro PhD.

Here's why...


Anthro Departments all have a theoretical bent. If you want to know what it is, don't ask your POIs, they'll tell you their own ideas about it - ask a few students who have taken all their coursework. They'll say things like "I had no idea that this whole department was going to be so focused on political economy until I got here." They'll be able to tell you that all the most influential profs in the department are looking at affect, at capitalism, at infrastructure, at ontology, at social movements and activism,  or whatever the main interest is. That is your clue to the theoretical trend in the department. And these trends have their own sort of gravity, they attract students and professors who approach those topics in similiar ways. There are always outliers, but they really are outliers.


You must write about theory in your statement/research proposal because if you don't write about it you're STILL writing about it. Just because you don't explicitly state it doesn't mean it's not there underneath what you're writing. There is no anthro without theory, and if you don't state the theory then they're going to wonder why you're using theory without acknowledging it.


So, this is why you want to make sure that your theoretical approach fits the department. This is more important than your topic of research. You might be interested in studying traditional dance in eastern europe. But more important is whether you want to study it from a Marxist perspective or in terms of ritual studies and embodied culture. Or maybe you want to merge the two. If so, the department better have people who are interested in those theoretical perspectives. If not, and they only have people who want to talk about topics in terms of nationalism or identity politics or structuralist theory - then you're not going to be happy there.


Once you've figured out the way you want to approach your topic you can match yourself up with departments and POIs where they will be open to that approach and where they have expertise in that area.


Trust me, if you don't do this you will be very frustrated with your coursework, your comprehensive examinations, and everything. And in fact, they probably won't admit you because this is the very definition of "fit".

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Another resource to consider when writing an SOP is current students in the department you're applying to.


I had forgotten about this until now, but while applying I was also having long email conversations with students currently attending the programs I was interested in. Many of them shared their SOPs from their applications with me which gave me a sense of what kind of SOP is successful in that department.


You might wonder, how did you ask for that? I just let them know the different ways that I was thinking about approaching my SOP and asked for advice, many replied by offering to share their own.

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  • 1 year later...
  • 8 months later...

This thread is 3 years old but SOP advice is still highly relevant. So thanks, guys.

Advice needed on reconnecting with a letter writer who I've lost touch with. It's been 3 years since I took said professor's classes. Is it too late? A different professor has refused to write a letter for me for a summer program because she said she last taught me too long ago and couldn't speak about my current work and performance, and she last taught me about 3 years ago.  


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2 minutes ago, xx Little Wanderer said:

Advice needed on reconnecting with a letter writer who I've lost touch with. It's been 3 years since I took said professor's classes. Is it too late? A different professor has refused to write a letter for me for a summer program because she said she last taught me too long ago and couldn't speak about my current work and performance, and she last taught me about 3 years ago.  

Best you can do is try. Are you asking because you've been out of school for this long? If so, you might want to mention that as part of the request, otherwise indeed professors might tell you that you should find someone with a more current opinion of you. And even so, yes, some of them might not feel comfortable, especially if they don't remember you well, but I don't think you have much choice than to ask, and you don't have anything to lose by doing so. 

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