Zero to Caltech in four years
October 12, 2008 3:55 PM   Subscribe

Today, I have an MS in sociology from a state school. Four years from now, I'd like to be starting at a high-quality social science PhD program. How do I get there?

I am living in Denver for the duration of my girlfriend's Master's program - which is going to take about four years, courtesy of Colorado's crazy requirements for school counselors. At the end of those four years, I would really like to get into a great grad program - right now, the Brain, Mind and Society program at Caltech, the Human Complex Systems program-to-be at UCLA, the new Economic Sociology Program at MIT-Sloan, or the CASOS program at Carnegie Mellon are the ones that make me starry-eyed. If you poke through my profile, you might find a question from me from earlier this year saying that I didn't want to do research. I do, now - I really do - in large part because I have discovered programs like these that combine disciplines and skills. To me, a social science that draws on neuroscience and complexity, backed with some strong computational skills, would have the ability to do amazing things.

Granted, all of those programs are far out of my reach right now. Maybe they always will be. But I have four years in which to make some kind of a play for interdisciplinary social science glory. The best route to this, I suspect, is by proving that I am both interested and capable of research. No problem there: I've got a couple of publications out for review right now, many ideas in the works. The problem is, I need time to work on these things. And I also need to eat.

I basically see four options here, aside from giving up:

1. A grant/lottery/free money. "Matt, you're a genius/lucky/dead sexy! Here's money to research!"
2. A job that lets me work on research while I'm there, like working in a security kiosk or at a slow hotel.
3. A freelance job. I have yet to see any evidence that people do social research on a contract basis, which seems weird to me.
4. Another grad program. As I mentioned, I'm very interested in neuroscience and computer science - I definitely wouldn't mind learning more about either. Some obvious problems there (e.g. it has to be at a Denver university), but not a terrible choice.

Mini-résumé: many kinds of regression, multilevel, spatial stats, path analysis, qualitative research. Familiar with economics, organizations, criminology, and have BS in political science. Program in R, SPSS, and Visual Basic .NET.

The questions, then: Is this possible? Can somebody with a 700V/750Q GRE, a middling undergrad and MS background, and a fistful of publications break into a program like these? If so, which of the above routes would you recommend?

Of course, I am open to suggestions on both programs and tactics to get into them, and basically anything else you might want to add. I will be watching this question closely and will try to answer questions as quickly as possible.

Crazy bonus points if you have gone through something similar, have been on an admissions committee, have Denver-specific advice, or otherwise know the score.

I know this might not result in much - but I would really appreciate whatever advice you have to offer. Thanks in advance.
posted by McBearclaw to Education (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Livejournal's applyingtograd community is really the place for this question.

BUT - sure, you can get in to these kind of schools. You have a 1450 GRE and an MS already. Did you do a master's thesis for the MS? Are you working on getting it published?

I think that waiting 4 years is not a good thing. In 4 years you could be done with your PhD (especially coming in with an MS). It might be good to be apart while you're doing such intense work anyway.

But, if you MUST stay in Denver with your gf for 4 years:

Get whatever job you can handle until your gf is done with her program and know that every year that you sit and wait isn't going to help you.

Or get another MS in something more neuro than soc... see what your local universities have to offer. Hopefully you can get it funded!
posted by k8t at 4:25 PM on October 12, 2008

Couldn't you try to work in a social science lab at a university near you? They do exist--in forms like like the Berkeley X-Lab, or just in the form of social science faculty running big projects on which they might need for-hire assistance. You might end up running a lot of SPSS, but you'd also have a shot at building a relationship with someone who could help you reach your goals. Boulder has a data lab and social psych labs--maybe folks there could provide some advice?
posted by liketitanic at 4:27 PM on October 12, 2008

Rather than wait four years and then try and get into some supposedly perfect program (which may turn out to not be all that perfect), why not get a PhD in a similar field where you are living now? You are near a couple of quite decent universities; in academia, the quality of one's work trumps the name-value of the school you attended in a big way.

So that "perfect" program may get you much less ahead than you think it will, and you will be four years behind in your career, and there are all the complications of asking your partner to move temporarily right when she might be wanting more permanent positions, and all the other "could be"s of the future. Compare that to, four years from now, being within a few months of beginning writing your interdisciplinary dissertation on more or less the same subject you would have been writing about at Caltech.

Think of it as 80% of the goodness, for 20% of the hassle.

Don't get me wrong -- the caliber of a graduate program really matters, and the quality of and relationship with your adviser matters even more. But look at the CVs of the faculty at some of the top-tier programs you are considering -- chances are very good that they come out of a wide array of decent-to-really-good schools, including Boulder. Your local options are not terrible, third-rate schools, and at the end of the day, it is the caliber of your own work that people are going to look at most carefully.
posted by Forktine at 5:09 PM on October 12, 2008

In a way, you are in an enviable position. Assuming you are willing to wait, you have four years to become the ideal candidate. I would strongly encourage you to get as much experience as possible. An obvious choice would be to get a job doing research. I don't know the Denver schools at all, but I do know that CU Boulder has a strong cognitive psych/science/neuroscience group.

* Institute of Cognitive Science
* Department of Psychology

Research labs often have lab managers or research assistants who are between college and grad school. It provides a great opportunity to learn the nitty gritty of conducting (and sometimes managing) research. The idea of an RA or LM with a Masters degree and your technical skills would be very appealing. Unfortunately, they typically don't pay very well, and if they advertise positions they may do so only through university channels (school paper, etc.)

There is no harm in doing some basic research (track down some recent publications of faculty members to get a sense of what they are doing), and emailing faculty with a copy of a CV. If you highlight your technical skills and maturity (undergrad RAs are often a handful), you may score a position.

If you spend a few years working in a lab (or two), you will learn some things, and may have the opportunity to be involved in designing, conducting, analyzing, and possibly publishing some research. When you apply to your dream programs in a few years, you will look pretty competitive.
posted by i love cheese at 7:32 PM on October 12, 2008

Seconding the suggestions that you get involved in research now. Check out the neuroscience programs at UCHSC (Denver) and CU (Boulder). Visit each campus and speak with the (hopefully) kind department secretary, who will steer you to relevant faculty members. Good luck!
posted by lukemeister at 9:25 PM on October 12, 2008

k8t - thanks for the tip on applyingtograd. I will definitely check that out. I did do a thesis, and am breaking it into articles as we speak (or I guess I would be if I had more time). Definitely need to stay in Denver - we've already been long distance for three and a half years, another four would be too much.

liketitanic - very intriguing links. I had previously considered Boulder out of reach, but I just checked it on Google Maps - and, hell, it's the same distance I've been commuting already. Both of those labs sound appealing to me - one would let me put expertise to use, the other would let me learn something.

Forktine - I have been trying to guard against the sort of fetishism for the top-flight schools for exactly those reasons. Granted, all the ones I listed are way up there - but that's just because they have the most visibility. I'm not terribly ambitious. What makes them appealing isn't their prestige, but the fact that they actually are interested in the same kinds of questions I am. My last department was wrong for me - profoundly, utterly wrong. Like being a Roman among Greeks. I can't go through that again.

i love cheese - I love cheese, too. Also, thanks for your advice. I have been watching the UC jobs site religiously, but not much has materialized yet. I sent out an appeal for job help when I first arrived in Denver, but it might not hurt to try that again and include some of the places you link to.

lukemeister - Let us all give praise to the holy, holy department secretaries. Let them be ever-blessed.

Thank you all - this has been very, very helpful. If you think of anything else, please don't hesitate to post here or MeFimail me.

Thanks again!
posted by McBearclaw at 4:57 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sure, my pleasure. It's always gratifying when the original poster tells the commenters how awesome they are :-)
posted by lukemeister at 11:43 AM on October 13, 2008

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