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International Applying to a ‘Top-Tier’ PhD Program – Advice Appreciated


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Hello everyone.


I am from Canada and would like to get your opinion on whether my application is good enough to be competitive in applying to a so-called ‘top tier’ PhD program in sociology. I frequently hear the horror stories about students going 0-10 and such when applying to schools like Chicago, Berkeley, Harvard, Oxford, UCLA etc. While fit is important, we all know how much reputation means in terms of future job security so I’m trying to balance both. Any insight on my situation would be appreciated.


My major interests are urban sociology, law, the criminal justice system, social movements, and the sociology of tourism. I'm finishing a MA in Criminology at a university in Canada. I hold a double major in Criminology and Sociology (summa cum laude, 3.82 GPA). I have 3 years of qualitative research experience as an RA, where I have collected 2 first authorship publications in 'decent' peer-reviewed academic journals (both criminology journals) and have done 1 conference presentation.  I have an additional first-authorship publication from undergrad in a non-peer reviewed journal. I am currently co-writing two more journal articles with a prof (1 specifically for a sociology journal). I have TA'ed 2 undergrad courses. I have not yet taken the GRE, but have set the date for mid-October. I will be starting a 6 month placement in the government doing quantitative social research in September, to advance my skills in that area. 


Potential Problems

1.     LOR will be strong, but not from sociology professors per say (criminology), and none are full time or tenured profs.

2.     Unilingual.

3.     Current school not the most reputable internationally 

3.     Lack the money to fund myself

4.     GRE may not be strongest


It’s always been my dream to do doctoral studies in sociology. Is going to a top school overrated? In an ideal world, my choices are schools such as Chicago, Berkeley, UCLA, Harvard, NYU and Toronto. Yet, I’m trying to remain realistic and will be sending out applications across a wide range (any suggestions?).


Also, should I be sending out emails to potential supervisors? How important is my GRE score?


Thanks and best of luck in all your upcoming applications.


- John. 

Edited by canada_kid
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Your experience looks good. I don't really think your institution now is that big of a deal, but you probably want at least one letter from a sociologist or someone in the social sciences (thus Crim would count). I think that you should probably take the GRE in September just in case you need to take it again. I think the GRE matters, you want the score to be enough so that it is *not* a factor. As for emailing potential advisors, the programs I got into were the ones where I didn't email anyone, on the other hand, it works for some people. There is an arbitrariness to the whole process that plays a role, thus there is a lot that is out of your hands. 


Some of the programs you picked don't really do much with the stuff that you are interested in. This matters *a lot*; fit matters so much. I highly recommend you look into programs with a really strong emphasis in your substantive areas.


Going to a top tier program is not overrated, but you should know that, for example, nobody from Harvard got a job this year, they were beat out by people in less prestigious programs. Extrapolate what you will from that info.


I don't think foreign language skills are a big deal unless you intend to study something that is not in English.


You should be competitive. Just make sure to have a strong writing sample (probably one of your pubs) and a very focused SOP.

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Are you looking to stay within crim or focus on something crim related? If so, you may want to reevaluate your list of schools. Crim isn't really something the prestigious programs specialize in. Instead, it's the lower ranked programs that have crim-oriented departments. Places like Maryland are probably going to be the highest ranked crim programs you find within sociology.


On the other hand, crim is where the jobs are. Those jobs just aren't at prestigious universities.


To address your issues:

1. Try to get at least one letter from a sociologist. It won't kill your application if you don't, but it will be really beneficial.

2. Not really a problem, unless you're looking to do something international.

3. Can be an issue, especially with some of those schools on your list. Look at the grad student bios on some of those school's webpages. Unfortunately, many of them go from one ivy leage to the next. Let me not step onto the soap box.

4. A program not willing to fund you isn't a program worth going to. You will need some money though. Lower class people have a very hard time in academia unless they take out loans.

5. Take your GRE now. If you don't like your score, retake it. It's odd that a field such as sociology cares about a standardized test score, but that's the reality of it.


Are top programs overrated? Certainly. But you're going to get a job if you go to Berkeley, even if it's not in academia. Can we say the same about lower ranked schools? Definitely not. Unless you consider adjuncting for a couple grand a course a job you'd be willing to take. If you want suggestions on what schools to apply to, I think we need to know a little more about your interests. Finally, you're going to get mixed-reviews on emailing facutly members. Don't think that emailing faculty members will get you into any schools though. Perhaps going to a conference and networking would be slightly more beneficial.

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Not in your field, but something true for Canadians (and other international students) applying in almost every field: private schools accept more international students than public schools. Mostly because tuition at public schools is a lot higher for non-Americans but everyone is expensive at private schools. Schools in the University of California system (UCLA, UC Berkeley especially) are very popular with international students and very competitive. I applied to a few UC schools and got rejected from all of them yet "higher ranked" private schools did accept me. Also, most Canadians I know only apply to top US schools, unless they have other reasons they want to be in the US, because it's only worth the trouble of moving countries etc. if you're going to get an opportunity you can't get in Canada! 


So, for an international student, there may be extra reasons to choose a top tier schools (but not all top tier schools are private schools, so personally, I would ensure my list is private-school heavy).

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