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Application to a doctoral program

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I heard that you need to prepare your application to a doctoral program as soon as you consider applying (and that's even if you're not even a master's student yet). Is that true in your opinion? 

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Only insofar as you make an effort to obtain relevant research experience and better know yourself and explore your research interests even if your master's is a non-thesis one that does not require a specialization. As far as your actual application goes, I agree with @fuzzylogician. There is no way I could have anticipated where my interests lie nor even what drew me to my discipline before the final year of my master's, and I certainly wouldn't have been a strong applicant to PhD programs if I had started as soon as I considered it. Once I started considering it, I made sure to tailor my research papers in my graduate courses to my potential research interest, but that's pretty much it. I didn't start preparing my application (or even admitting to my recommenders that I wished to apply) until late August, four months before my applications were due.

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Some people think about doctoral programs as early as their first two years of undergrad, so definitely not the case to start applying as soon as you consider it! 

Here's the rough timeline I would advise for people in my field (but probably generally applicable to others as well). The years assume a start date of Fall 2018, but just add years if you are planning to start later.

Winter 2017: Figure out what exams/test scores you need for your PhD program application. The reason this is so early is because if you need to write the Subject GRE for your intended PhD field, they only happen in April, September and October, so if you want to write the exam in April, you need to start the process now. If you do not want to write the exam in April, or if you do not need the Subject GRE, then you can probably skip this step. I don't know the timelines for the other exams that some schools might need.

May/June 2017:
- Start poking around department websites to determine which schools you might want to apply to. Make a preliminary list of everything you're interested in. Seek advice from other grad students, postdocs, faculty, advisors, mentors etc.
- A good time to start studying for the General GRE (or also the Subject GRE if you want to take it in the fall). Personally, I think it's a good idea to do the GRE exam in the summer, before the school year and application season really begins, but it's a personal choice. If you want to write the exam in the summer, this is a good time to book them.
- Start poking around various fellowships or scholarships that you might want to apply for. Note their due dates---some of them are fairly early!

July/August 2017:
- Write the General GRE exam if necessary. 
- Study for the Subject GRE exam if necessary.
- Ensure you have a plan for all other exams you need.
- Start making a shortlist of schools to apply to.
- For scholarships or fellowships due in Sept/Oct, (e.g. NSERC/SSHRC/CIHR), start the application process near the end of the summer. Talk to your proposed mentor and discuss a possible project so that you can write a strong proposal.

September 2017:
- Write the Subject GRE exam if you booked it for this month
- Decide which schools you would want to apply to. This doesn't have to be the absolute final list, but I would say you should know 90% of the applications you want to send by now.
- Approach your letter writers and let them know your plans (if you haven't already included them in the conversation earlier on). This is a good time to double check with them that they are happy to write a letter for you, that they know which schools you're planning to apply to, and the approximate deadlines. Find out if they will be traveling or out of town. It's also a good time to seek their input on the schools you're considering in case they have suggestions.
- Submit fellowship applications that are due

October 2017:
- Write the Subject GRE exam if you booked it for this month
- Arrange for all transcript orders (or have a plan)---find out which schools need official transcripts, whether they need to be sealed, whether a scan is okay, whether they want your school to send the grades to the application school directly or not, etc. One of my schools takes 4 weeks to process transcript requests, and the earliest deadline is often December 1, so in October, it's good to have a plan to ensure you will have everything on time
- Have some materials ready to send to your letter writers. For me, this is a sheet of paper with a list of all deadlines, school names, dept names and potential advisor names. I also attach a CV, transcripts and brief research statement. So, have these parts ready as well.
- Begin drafting a SOP or other essays necessary for applications. At least have an outline / an idea of what you want to write
- If normal in your field, near the end of October is a good time to start reaching out to potential PhD advisors and ask them questions about applying / let them know you intend to apply. I'd do things like update CV and write draft SOPs before doing this

November 2017:
- Write your SOP and polish it.
- Update letter writers if any schools in your list have changed
- Submit transcript requests if necessary

December 2017 and January 2018:
- This is when almost all deadlines are for my field
- For each application: I send letter writer reminders 2 weeks and then 2 days prior to each deadline. I send another reminder 2 days after the deadline if they miss it.
- Budget time to modify your SOP for each application. This could be as short as 30-60 minutes if they want the standard format, but could take longer if the school wants an especially short or long SOP. I usually start the SOP personalization process in the week before it's due.
- I generally aim to submit between 20 to 30 hours ahead of the due date, to prevent last minute computer problems affecting submission.

January-March 2018:
- Wait to hear back, attend visits, make decisions!

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I'm a procrastinator so I did all of my PhD applications in basically the 4-5 weeks before they were due... Maybe not the best approach but I didn't need to take the GRE (had already taken it and had good scores that were still valid), knew who I'd get rec letters from (my MA thesis committee), and already had a sense of the subfield I wanted to be in and the framework (theoretical and methodological) within which I wanted to work. Of course, that last part was only possible because of what I learned during my MA so there's no way I could've started a good PhD application as soon as I started my MA.

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