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Hey guys, I'm looking for some general information as I know nothing about grad school applications. I'm interested in doing a Ph.D in sociology or political science (I've taken plenty of courses in each, though my B.A. will be in public policy) and I'm wondering how competitive admissions are to top schools like HYP and Columbia for a student that graduates magna cum laude (3.7ish) from a top-15 liberal arts college. If GRE scores are important, assume the equivalent of around a 2100 SAT. 


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I've said this to people before, but there are way too many factors to really pinpoint how competitive it will be. It has a lot more to do with your letters of recommendation, writing sample, and transcript. Your GPA and GRE are important, but they aren't the only things that determine whether you'll be admitted. Also, maybe your area of interest doesn't allign with the school's research specialties. Or maybe the professor that would normally take you on is visiting elsewhere. I have no idea what a 2100 translates to as far as the GRE goes, but I wouldn't depend on the SAT as a good marker. I did significantly better on the GRE than I did on the SATs and I know people that bombed the GRE but had near perfect SATs (that's not usually the case, but it can happen if you don't study properly). To answer your question, the top schools will be very competitive. I know for Columbia's English program they receive about 700 applications for 12 or so spots. However, your GPA is good and graduating magna cum laude is certainly impressive, so definitely apply. Just make sure you apply to a minimum of 6 programs and have a few backup plans in case things don't work out. Really do your research. Read the articles that say not to go to grad school and look at the terrible job statistics and figure out exactly what is going to be asked of you. Go to department websites. Make a choice between Sociology and PolySci or don't and apply to both programs. Contact alumni and faculty. Read success stories and watch youtube videos of people getting their acceptance letters and picture yourself at each school. Go on campus visits if you can afford it. It's a terribly stressful process, but it's fascinating. Good luck!

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  • 2 weeks later...

@JessicaLange is spot on with her response, I think. I would add a few related considerations.

Don't just look into HYPSM and Columbia. Some prestige-focused applicants who assume that universities well-known for their undergraduate selectivity must also be as in-demand for doctoral work are A] often not correct and B] can give off the appearance of being interested in PhD programs for the wrong reasons (the "right" reason according to any faculty member at a competitive school is "research" - their research).

To the first point above, USNews rankings (a super blunt instrument - ranks literally come from the average scores given by faculty at competing universities), a much better indicator of "prestige" within academic disciplines, currently ranks Yale 20th in sociology, and a ton of public schools land way ahead of it. The only school you mentioned in the top 5 is Princeton. And as @JessicaLange sort of implied when citing employment stats, rank can REALLY matter. It's an okay proxy for the market outcomes of doctoral students who finish at each program. Someone interested in the academic job market, for example, might choose Berkeley, UNC, Michigan, or Wisconsin, among others, over most of the schools you have listed. To be clear, this is is a huge oversimplification of both the program selection and labor market processes: choosing a program is highly personal, related on the faculty for whom you wish to work, the ways in which your research and methodological interests connect to theirs, funding packages, regional constraints, etc. etc. etc.; getting a job in academia is insanely difficult and does not come to anyone simply because of their school or lab. The point remains, however, that an Ivy League name may not be as impressive to people in the discipline as it is to outsiders. And the people in the discipline are the people who matter (which is why I use ranking to make this point).

The second point I make about purpose for applying relates to the first. Without a strong intellectual reason or interest, it is much harder to get into or get through a doctoral program. Interest in the broad subject of sociology or political science, unfortunately, is often not going to result in an admit. As the majority of a PhD student's time is spent doing research, professors typically look for applicants with well-articulated research interests, especially interests that align with their own body of work. Accordingly, successful PhD students-those who complete the degree-do not place their primary motivation for acquiring the degree in a desire to drink in knowledge from the classroom. Instead, they demonstrate an ability and interest in creating knowledge.

Along these lines, I think it is actually very possible to apply to programs in more than one discipline. But only if your research interests are extremely coherent. The better you know what questions you hope to answer, the more effectively you can communicate how they fit within each academic paradigm. For example, an applicant interested in the ways in which public transportation access and utilization varies socioeconomically, and how this mediates the behaviors of a specific population, could describe their interest to a sociology program in the context of social stratification, or a political science program by considering how this might influence voting behavior. That being said, applying to more than one program type is extremely risky if you aren't certain of why you're doing so.

The process of doing background research on programs is not a short-term activity, but it's really rewarding! If I were in your position, I would learn asuch as possible about the faculty and programs that may be ideal for my research and career aspirations, look at the job outcomes for alumni, and email people whose backgrounds I find compelling.

Good luck!






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