The internet is full of political science. How do I narrow it down?
June 21, 2010 5:26 PM   Subscribe

What's a good way to organize my PhD application process?

I'm applying to PhD programs in political science this fall. As such, I've been doing a lot of research into different programs and I'm starting to reach the point where I really need a good way to organize all my research.

So far, my research has taken a few different tacks:

1. Looking at departmental websites, finding professors and research institutes that seem relevant, reading (or skimming) their research and bookmarking specific profs, institutes and programs that seem interesting.

2. Finding articles related to my area of interest (either by looking back through old syllabi or google scholar searches) and then looking up the authors on their school web site. If they're young enough, I look at their PhD alma mater, if they're older, I look at what kind of work their advisees are doing.

3. Taking into account stuff like their ranks, gossip from places like gradcafe and poliscijobrumors, recommendations from my professors or other academics.

This has worked pretty well, and I now have a list of about 15 schools I could apply to. But now that I'm starting to work on narrowing that list down (I plan on applying to 6 programs or less, so I really want to find the best list of schools that fit my interests and have a good mix of reach and "safety" schools), and thinking about contacting potential advisors and writing statements of purpose, I need a way to organize all this information, taking into account that I have a mix of web pages, pdfs, things I read in the library and random tips I've received. I also need a way to organize stuff like application deadlines/fees, selectivity, program rank/placement history/other measures of quality.

Is there some sort of web-based app that will let me keep track of all these various sources and types of information? I would love to be able to just pull up a page or folder that has all the information about "program x." And it would be freaking amazing if I could somehow look at different programs side-by-side to aid with decision-making.

For those of you who have successfully applied to PhD programs, how did you keep track of all of this? And how did you ultimately decide which programs to apply to, given all these different variables?

An added layer of complication is that I was recently diagnosed with and began treatment for ADHD. This has been a great thing for me, but it's really put into sharp relief how poor my organizational skills are! Now I have the ritalin-bestowed ability to actually organize stuff like this, but not much knowledge of how to do so.
posted by lunasol to Education (15 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: When I applied to grad school I created a spreadsheet that listed each program and what its application requirements were (application form, departmental application form, fee, letters of recommendation, personal statement, GRE scores, undergrad transcript, etc), along with the addresses of where they needed to be sent.

Then I just used the spreadsheet to figure out how many copies of everything I needed to order, and what the status of each item was. I also kept track of e-mail correspondence. For me it was kind of easy: I knew which school I wanted to go to (and I got in) and the others were back-ups. I think if you just extend the spreadsheet idea and keep a list of pro's and con's for each school you'll be able to make an informed decision.

Also, feel free to e-mail program advisors and professors who are doing the research at any given school that you feel you'd like to work with. Part of their jobs is talking with interested applicants.
posted by jeffamaphone at 5:31 PM on June 21, 2010

I'm from a discipline that straddles the social and natural sciences. From my perspective, you should contact at least one professor in each program you are applying to that you are interested in working with. If you can't find a professor that you might be interested in working with, perhaps you should reconsider applying there. Ask these professors a few
relevant questions about their research. Explain to them what you're interested in doing and how it relates to their work. Ask them outright if they have interest in taking on graduate student with your interests. Getting a faculty advocate on your side will greatly improve your chances for admission and, more importantly, funding.
posted by mollweide at 6:05 PM on June 21, 2010

Or, what Bwithh said.
posted by mollweide at 6:06 PM on June 21, 2010

Response by poster: Bwithh/mollweide, thanks for the contacting programs/profs advice. I guess I was looking at this as something to do before contacting profs, so that I'm not juggling correspondence with a million different professors at a dozen different schools. But do you think that's backwards?
posted by lunasol at 6:10 PM on June 21, 2010

Best answer: In my experience - which is in a totally different field - contacting professors directly will help cut down your options pretty quickly. At least a couple of them will say something like 'my project has no extra funding' or 'I can't take on another student this year' or 'I'm not working in that area any more'. Some of them you might just not like them and that's helpful to know too. All of which, in turn, makes the rest easier because you can just cross that one off your list.

Otherwise, yeah, spreadsheets. One big master one, possibly a few smaller ones. There's nothing like having a bunch of formal column headings to make you think about what information is recurring across each college and what bits you don't really care about. Then collect all your other files together and give them meaningful names (even just xx college 1, xx college 2) and list them somewhere with some kind of detail as to what each one is (tada, now you have an index). Personally I keep everything hard copy and use actual manila folders, then you really can pick up a folder with everything about one place in it and look through it. Bonus points for coloured tags or coloured paper for further dividing things up. For online stuff google docs will get you a long way with their spreadsheets I think. I didn't do this in applying to schools because it wasn't necessary for me in the end but I do use something similar for all my thesis research (of which there is a LOT by now), and it scales surprisingly well.

You don't have to have a perfect system from the start. Just try going through each one and thinking systematically about it all, e.g. what kind of information do you need for each school at a minimum, then let it grow naturally. As long as you stop at regular intervals, weekly or whatever, and have a go at reorganising what you've got then it shouldn't get out of control.
posted by shelleycat at 6:21 PM on June 21, 2010

To answer your question about organizing your information, I've heard of people using Google Wave for this (hey guys remember Google Wave?).
posted by PercussivePaul at 7:00 PM on June 21, 2010

Poli Sci grad student here: I'd email the profs you'd be working with - not every single one in the department (that's obnoxious). Don't email grad students until you've been accepted.

I wouldn't look at those rating boards/gossip at all, personally.

That all being said - your real question was how to organize it. I'd just plug it into a calendar/to do list system to keep you on track. There's a ton of programs out there. For information, just make different files on your computer by school. Organization and productivity are two extremely important tasks in grad school, good thing you are thinking about it now.
posted by quodlibet at 7:05 PM on June 21, 2010

Best answer: You should apply to more than 6; I think I've suggested a few offline. You should also be applying for the NSF graduate research fellowship. Odds are never good, but the expected value is high.

You're basically doing the right stuff. As far as organization goes, I'd suggest a spreadsheet or similar with columns for

*The program
*Who you'd most like to work with
*Who else is in your field who's active -- your potential advisor might well move, after all
*Who teaches methods
*Random other plusses related to the program
*Random minuses related to the program
*Random plusses related to the town
*Random minuses related to the town
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:05 PM on June 21, 2010

I think folks who've answered after me have touched upon your follow up, but I'll throw my two cents anyway. Think about your organization as an iterative process. Develop a spreadsheet with potential programs and professorial contacts. Send out exploratory emails to those contacts (and the folks that posted after my initial response are absolutely correct - don't spam the entire department, keep it focused to those faculty you might be interested in working with). Winnow out those programs without positive contacts (unless one or maybe two of them really appeal to you, you never know when you might qualify for some university level fellowship, it does happen, albeit rarely). Apply to the programs that are left.
posted by mollweide at 7:12 PM on June 21, 2010

3. Taking into account stuff like their ranks, gossip from places like gradcafe and poliscijobrumors, recommendations from my professors or other academics.

Just to warn you, the people on gradcafe are crazy. No, I mean it--like seriously crazy. Those sorts of message boards are hotbeds of misinformation about everything from cost of attendance to funding to the socioeconomic and cultural make-up of programs. I've also seen people get caught lying about their acceptance status.

But even without all of that, those sorts of message boards are a big steaming pile of anxiety-inducing crud once results start coming in. I really regret my time spent on a similar board during my own application process, and I'd generally warn you that, if you can't stay away, at least please take everything you hear there with an enormous grain of salt.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:25 PM on June 21, 2010

Just echoing quodlibet. Although I'm in philosophy, I also found that no grad student I contacted while applying every emailed me back, and nobody I know gets emailed by prospective applicants either. Save yourself some time and stick with the profs.
posted by Beardman at 7:26 PM on June 21, 2010

I was another Excel user during the graduation application process.

It was important for me (going into an anthropology program) to e-mail professors I was interested in working with to see if they had funding to accept a student. If the people I wanted to learn from were not going to have the time, money, or inclination to work with me, it wasn't worth MY time and money to apply (which was frustrating when our interests matched up perfectly, but they just didn't have funding ... but good to know).
posted by ChuraChura at 4:59 AM on June 22, 2010

I've replied as a grad student to emails from prospective students but generally only to those who have been given my email address by my supervisor. I'm not sure how useful this is with regards to admissions/scholarships decisions, but it can help you get a sense of the program. If you do email grad students, read their replies very carefully and very sceptically. If they like their program, they'll rave about it. If they don't, it's likely the email will be friendly but decidedly neutral (or they won't actually answer the questions you've asked).

Certainly be in touch with professors to see if they're taking students. If profs in your field of interest aren't interested in new students, there's just no point applying. In the first instance, I found it helpful to start by emailing the graduate coordinator and graduate administrator. I briefly explained who I was and what I was interested in doing, indicated that Profs X, Y and Z looked like they also worked in this area, and asked if it would be appropriate to write to X, Y, and Z directly. I also asked if there was anyone else they would suggest I get in touch with.

I strongly agree that you should attempt to visit the campuses, if at all possible. It's a great chance to make sure that the program is a good fit for you (but again - be sceptical on open days! no one is going to slag the department off in front of a prospective student!). Visits also give you a good chance to make your application much less anonymous.
posted by lumiere at 5:14 AM on June 22, 2010

Best answer: All of the above sound like good advice. I would add though some extra columns to the spreadsheet mentioned above:

* address of the PhD office (where you send your transcripts)
* application deadlines
* a column where you can mark each application as being complete
* special requests that the admissions office requires
* the program website (you will thank yourself for doing this)
* a column for fees

When contacting potential advisors, I would send them a copy of your CV (you have polished that right? Take your style and format cues from other doctoral student or professor CVs) so they can judge your research skills (any publications / conference papers you have are extremely important as they are one of the few ways you can let professors know about your capacity as PhD student).

Oh, and remember you are not writing one personal statement. You are writing one for each program that you apply to. I've learned the hard way that what every school asks is different, so don't let yourself off the hook for doing just one.

Also, some programs publicly state what their accepted GRE / GMAT scores are, so you can get an idea of what level they are looking for.

One more thing you can do is to scour research grants websites to see who just received funding. You can be sure if someone just received funding, they will need RA / PhD students to assist.

How did I decide which program to apply to? Being a quantitative social science person, I looked at how quantitatively oriented the program was. This is easy enough to tell by looking at what kind of journals the professors publish in. In my opinion, the quality of the training trumps the fit between you and your professor's interests (remember, you can do any kind of research you want after you graduate, but you can't get any more training to learn the methods you want after graduation).
posted by butwheresthesushi at 6:25 AM on June 22, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all, for some really stellar advice. Through reading these comments, it's become clear to me that, while I do need a system to organize all this info, what I need more is to get out of the research-as-procrastination mode and start contacting profs and working on my SOP.

This has been enormously helpful!

Thanks again, ROU, your advice earlier this year was indeed very helpful, as is this.

hey guys remember Google Wave?

Ha, that did not even occur to me, but I can see how it might work.
posted by lunasol at 1:19 PM on June 22, 2010

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