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PhD--should I apply this year or next year?


zereg

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Hi everyone,

Excited to join the community and (eventually) go through the application cycle--this is exactly what my question is about. I'm interested in applying to PhD programs in political science. Unfortunately, my parents didn't go to college and I don't have siblings so I really don't have a good frame of reference for admissions at all besides some conversations with professors and one of my best friends who graduated this past year (chemical engineering, he's getting his PhD at MIT starting this upcoming year--he's a genius!)

In any case, I'm an incoming senior at a school consistently ranked around #15-ish in undergraduate rankings (side question: how much does this matter?)

I have a decent, but not amazing cumulative GPA (3.73) and a great major GPA (3.9), although my GPA has consistently improved over time (my weakest point was freshman year).

Not sure how I would do on the GREs, but I test well and am good at math.

In terms of research experience, I received a grant to do my own project over the summer last year, which was great, not-publishable as it stands (working on improving it) but I got an award for the best social science poster in my school's undergraduate research fair which I guess is pretty cool. This summer, I'm working doing policy research at a central bank not in the US--I'm a dual citizen of a Latin American country and found a cool opportunity there (another side question--I speak fluent Spanish, does that help?). This upcoming year I received a fellowship to work as a research assistant over the course of the whole year with a faculty member here, and I'll be writing a (separate) honors thesis so those will be two other cool separate projects.

I also have very strong leadership in extracurriculars at school. I've heard it doesn't matter much, which is understandable, but does it matter at all/should I talk about that in my statement of purpose?

As it stands, I'm leaning toward taking a gap year for several reasons:

1) my letters of rec will probably be stronger after completing my research assistantship and my thesis. I have a great one from the professor who advised my independent project, but I was thinking my thesis advisor and the person who I'm helping research wise would be better than my other potential letters (a professor I took a research seminar and several other classes with and did well in those--completed a 20ish page research paper he liked). How valuable would a letter from my current employer be?

2) My GPA will probably be better by the end of the year, I'll be doing an independent study and my thesis seminar which *should* mean relatively easy A's

3) I'll have more time to focus on the GRE rather than studying for it after work hours this summer

My biggest worry is that I have no idea what I would do over the course of the year while I wait to apply again. Any suggestions?

Finally, any advice for schools to look at? I've already started a very cursory search. I'm interested in comparative politics. Specifically, I'm interested in intrastate conflict, corruption, and development and how these intersect. I know that's super broad haha!

Wow, this post ended up being much longer than I intended over a relatively simple question, if you made it down here, thanks for putting up with that wall of text. Any and all advice would be so appreciated. Thanks so much in advance!

Edited by zereg
Misplaced a parenthesis
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Undergrad rank doesn't matter too much once you get outside the top 10, but for the top 10 it matters. You're solid on that front if it's in the top 15. Honestly, I don't think you need the gap year in order to have a strong and competitive profile. Your GPA is around where it needs to be, and you having independent research done in addition to your thesis means you're ahead of the game. Your language skills are a huge plus as well. With your profile, you should feel quite comfortable shooting for the top 15, which likely have scholars in conflict. However, I would be remiss if I didn't encourage you to check out my program (Penn State), which has a strong team of people working on intrastate conflict. If you would like to talk further about it, PM me.

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On 7/1/2016 at 6:24 PM, Determinedandnervous said:

Undergrad rank doesn't matter too much once you get outside the top 10, but for the top 10 it matters.

Where have you heard this? I've never heard of such an explicit cutoff.

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First of all, I'm in the Humanities (English Lit), so it's not going to be exactly the same for you as it was for me. However, my advice would definitely be to take that gap year, and maybe a couple others besides--it isn't a question of whether or not you CAN get into a program, but rather of your conviction for and ability to perform within the program itself. A person who has some adult experience outside of the academy often has a sense of priorities, conviction, and overall know-how that someone going straight through does--and in my program, at least, it is very obvious who is who. I'm not saying that the folks who went straight through are any less capable or intelligent--quite the contrary--but they do tend to have a bit more tunnel-vision which doesn't always serve them well. Speaking from personal experience, one of the best decisions I made was taking a few years off to work and travel between undergrad and grad school, even though eventually going to grad school was ALWAYS the plan.

A PhD is a big commitment, and my guess (assuming you're a traditional student coming straight out of undergrad) is that you are still pretty young. You have plenty of time to knock around before signing up for 5-7 years of intensive academic labor. When you enter later a PhD program (which you will), you will have a much richer pool of personal knowledge to draw from.

Again, I speak from my own experience, what I see in my program, and what seems to work well in the Humanities. Even more personally, I am also a first-gen college student. Thus, another thing (which I used those off-years to make sure of) was that the impetus behind my desire to continue in the academy consisted of more than just a giant middle finger pointing at my home town. I'm sure you can relate :) 

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On 7/3/2016 at 6:45 PM, Ben414 said:

Where have you heard this? I've never heard of such an explicit cutoff.

It's not a hard cutoff, and it's simply anecdotal. Most of the feeders into top political science PhD programs are the top research universities (US and foreign) and elite liberal arts colleges. Since you are at a university in one of these categories, it does benefit you. On the surface it seems like elitism, but it's more networking than anything. If you're at one of these top schools, odds are higher that your professors are connected to the universities you are applying to in some way or have higher visibility in the field. If a highly visible figure will write you a strong recommendation letter, that really helps.

Truly exceptional students from other universities can still make it, but it's a harder road. Since you are at one of the top universities, you don't need to worry. If anything, it'll work in your favor.

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1 hour ago, Determinedandnervous said:

It's not a hard cutoff, and it's simply anecdotal. Most of the feeders into top political science PhD programs are the top research universities (US and foreign) and elite liberal arts colleges. Since you are at a university in one of these categories, it does benefit you. On the surface it seems like elitism, but it's more networking than anything. If you're at one of these top schools, odds are higher that your professors are connected to the universities you are applying to in some way or have higher visibility in the field. If a highly visible figure will write you a strong recommendation letter, that really helps.

Truly exceptional students from other universities can still make it, but it's a harder road. Since you are at one of the top universities, you don't need to worry. If anything, it'll work in your favor.

OK, I get what you're saying. Also, just an FYI I'm not the OP.

I have heard from others there's a boost for top colleges, but I wasn't sure if you were suggesting there was a hard cutoff at 10. I agree there appears to be some boost for top colleges--probably only a minor boost, but when competition is so high a minor boost can be quite beneficial.

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