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How to Narrow the Search for PhD Programs


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Hello everyone,


I apologize in advance if this is not the best location for this question.


I am a 4th year graduating this spring term and am interested in pursuing a PhD program in my field.  I am having trouble narrowing down a list of programs to seriously consider when I do choose to begin the application process (fall 2015 or 2016).  The biggest obstacle to narrowing down programs based on rank is that I have not yet begun to look into the GRE.


So far, I have been going off of my academic information; GPA, ranking of my UG's grad program, research experience and interactions with faculty, etc.


I guess the biggest question among many is this: how is information such as GPA, experience,  and awards/honors indicative of the type of school you will go to without controlling for GRE score, or at least assuming that my GRE score will be within some range comparable to those who also perform similar academically?


I will not take the GRE for at least a few months and do not want to limit my search.


Thank you!


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I'm not convinced that the ranking of your undergrad institution will hold you back if you have good GPA and letters of reference. I went to a pretty lame school and got into some highly ranked programs. I think this is because my LORs were very strong.


I also don't think you should rule places out because of GRE, unless you know for sure that they have minimum cutoffs that you don't meet. A lot of places don't place much stock on the GRE, and it could depend how the faculty on the adcomm view it. If you want to go somewhere, you should apply. Depending on your field, research experience is a plus but not always necessary. (For example, in math, many tip-top programs explicitly state that they don't expect you to have research experience already.) If you have some, and can get strong LORs from profs that supervised it, I think that helps a lot though, especially if you have a numbers weakness you need to overcome (e.g. low GPA, GRE).


You have to figure out what you are looking for in a grad program. It's helpful to narrow it down a bit by ranking, as appropriate for your long term goals (e.g. I didn't want to go to the US unless the program was ranked better than the programs I could get into in Canada), just because there are so many programs to choose from, in general. From that, start looking at which meet your criteria - things to consider include personal fit (would you want to live there?), research fit, success of graduates in the career path you want, etc..


Again: if you find a place that is a good fit for your interests and you really want to go, you should apply. Don't hold back just because you think it's a long shot. More specific advice would require you to be more specific about your profile and field.

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Thank you for the response!


I'm interested in a political theory program; my major is in political science and my research is in political theory, which was done in my university's political science department.  My UG is a T25 and my GPA is 3.9 at the moment; I'm set to graduate with highest honors.  I've been narrowing schools down based on research focuses (analytic, Straussian, historical, etc), but have only been looking at T10 schools.  Prospects for theory PhD's are... competitive.  I'm sort of hoping my application package will make me a serious applicant, but I also think I need someone to tell me to be a bit more realistic.  I just joined this forum and have just started looking for this type of advice - what type of information is generally acceptable to share on this forum?

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If you want to go to a top 10 program, apply to several (that are good fits). I was kind of pessimistic and chose more in the range I felt like were safer bets (top 15-30), and got into those. I only applied to 2 of the top 10-15 and didn't get in. Perhaps if I had applied to more I would have gotten into one. I would recommend people take a different approach than I did.


Your GPA and where you're coming from both sound competitive for top programs. It depends on your LORs, research experience, and fit I think. Perhaps ask the profs writing your LORs if they think you're being realistic or not. I think you should apply to some top programs anyway, but perhaps pick a few lower ranked places to apply to as well (but only ones you'd still go to, and that would be a good fit).

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From a social science perspective, I still agree with MathCat  about many of their points. Different programs weigh various application elements differently. I too am coming from a poorly ranked university (in terms of acceptance rates) but was accepted with funding into all of the graduate programs I applied for. Something that was surprising to me while looking through this forum is how many schools some individuals apply to attend.


The research area I am most interested in pursuing is only relevant at MAYBE 6 schools in the United States and Canada. Less than six have multiple faculty specializing in it. It blew my mind when I saw that individuals applied for 10 separate schools. First it blew my mind because for me, each application took about 10-15 hours of work and about 100 dollars (after statement letters, requests for LOR's, essays about research interests, communications with the programs, etc). Secondly it blew my mind because, again, my research focus is very specific. 


I would not limit your applications to schools entirely based on school prestige and I would keep in mind all of the informal interactions you have with the program in addition to formal interactions. This sounds shallow, but the schools that had horribly not-user friendly websites and secretarial or graduate admissions staff that weren't helpful I was less interested in attending. Consider your long term happiness in that location as well- I think I'm pretty easy going in terms of where I live, but I was cognizant of the fact that some places I'd rather not be for 3 or more years (sorry University of Rutgers, Newark). 


Lastly, I got loads of helpful information from my academic adviser and other faculty as an undergrad. Those people all successfully navigated PhD programs and are a source of information if you have those connections. I looked at the two faculty who currently do research in areas I want to do research in, and spoke with them about schools they attended and would recommend. They had connections in the field and their LOR's greatly aided me in my pursuit. 

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I agree that you sound very competitive; I had a similar background (highest honors from a top 25 school), have spent my gap year working in my field, and in the Fall I'll be attending a PhD program in the top 3 for my discipline. So it is definitely possible! I would aim to do as well as you can on the GRE (look at Magoosh to see what the average scores are for successful applicants in top 10 programs, top 25 programs, etc.) and ideally do some relevant work in your year off. GREs are not everything, but obviously you want to keep your options open by doing well.


I also agree that it's not about applying to the biggest number of schools - apply to a range of places that seem right for you and your specific interests. In small fields that may mean 4 places, and for others it may mean 10. Only apply to places that you could see yourself attending, but keep your options open. Each school you apply to requires a lot of effort, money, and time, so make your decisions carefully. 

Edited by brown_eyed_girl
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