Advice about applying to graduate school while abroad
March 11, 2008 2:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for information for applying to grad school while abroad. (PhD programs in Political Science/International Relations). I graduated from college in spring 2006, and I'm planning on applying next year (Fall '09) to start in Fall 2010. I'm also considering going to Israel in July and staying for about 10 months, and I want to make sure this won't impact my grad school plans in any way.

All I've really done so far is had 3 professors write letters of recommendations that are on file at my undergrad school. In Israel, I would have to take the GRE (which is offered regularly) and do my personal statement and applications for the schools I'm applying to.

Is there anything else about the process that I'm not realizing that would make doing an application while in a foreign country particularly difficult? I tried googling, but all the results I got were about going abroad as an undergrad to prepare for grad school or grad schools that feature an abroad component.

I would almost certainly not be able to visit any of the schools I'm applying to, which I'm ok with in terms of picking a school because getting a real physical feel of the campus isn't important to me, but is that an expected part of the process, and would it weaken my chances if I can't visit anywhere I'm applying to?

Does anyone have any experience applying to a PhD program while abroad, or receiving applications to a program from someone that was abroad? Anything that I should do in advance to make things easier for me when I'm abroad? Thanks!
posted by andoatnp to Education (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I am currently doing a masters degree abroad, and have experience applying the schools in the United States and Britain. In terms of letters of recommendation, my advice is this: try to decide very early where you are going to apply, and make packets for each professor with stamped and addressed envelopes and short write ups for each program and its deadline. That way you can mail each professor a single folder with everything they need, and you won't have to worry about nagging them in person. It also makes the process a lot easier and, how to say this, more physical, for the professor. They are a lot more likely to respond promptly than if you email them casually a few times with a developing list of schools. Visiting campus is nice, but if you're abroad it's simply not an option (unless you have a lot of $$ or the school is willing to foot the bill), but I came to my current UK university having never stepped foot on British soil, and it wasn't too difficult. Another issue is that the schools you apply to will be mailing you, so email them to make sure your international address won't be a problem, though it shouldn't be. The same goes for phone interviews, but that shouldn't be an issue either. A final note- these days, with teh innernets, stuff like this is very easy. I wouldn't worry too much over it.
posted by farishta at 2:26 PM on March 11, 2008

It shouldn't make any real difference to your admission apart from it taking longer to send and receive physical mail. Political science does not normally do pre-admission interviews. Instead, if there are campus visits they are normally after admission has been decided -- they bring in everyone they've admitted and try to woo them to their program instead of some other.

You should care more about being able to visit. Visiting is not about the physical feel of the campus. It's about realizing that the prof you thought was hot-shit is actually both crazy and a jerk, or vice-versa. It's about seeing a sick department that hates itself, and realizing that you would inevitably be swept into that in some degree; or the reverse.

Check the deadlines for the NSF Graduate Fellowship. It's excellent free money and a good feather in your cap, and lots of people in poli-sci don't know to apply for them so your odds are relatively good (say 5--10%).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:27 PM on March 11, 2008

ROU_Xenophobe is exactly right about why you should visit. You should visit to get the chance to speak candidly with grad students, which you can't get by email or any other written medium, and which is much less likely by phone than in person.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:31 PM on March 11, 2008

I wasn't abroad while applying to poli-sci Ph.D. programs but I was cross country.

I agree with ROU_Xenophobe that you should try to visit the campus after you have been accepted but before you accept. Had I done that I probably wouldn't have gone to my first grad school school. I quickly (well after a year) left for another school that had a much better atmosphere.
posted by mcroft at 2:42 PM on March 11, 2008

Can you visit schools before you leave? I know you say it's not important, but everyone I know who's done a PhD talks about how crucial the atmosphere and culture of the program is. After all, you will be there for 4-8 (or more...) years. Would you commit to spending 5 or more years at a job without meeting any of your coworkers?
posted by lunasol at 3:15 PM on March 11, 2008

I'm an American currently doing a MA in Australia, and went through the PhD application rigamarole around 3 months ago. All my PhD applications were to US schools, and since I was accepted I'll be heading back stateside later this year. So, all my graduate application process experience has been with applying abroad, relative to where I was living at the time.

I'll Nth what everyone says about the mail taking longer, though all the universities with which I dealt did nearly everything online. Letters of purpose, statements of intent, writing samples, the main application, and even letters of recommendation. Transcripts were the one thing that could not be submitted electronically. So, for 95% of your application you won't even need to worry about the post; hell, your acceptance notes will probably come via email first, too.

With my applications the only postal address I gave was my permanent address back in the states (actually, my mom's house [thanks, Mom!]). She was fine with it and I told her to just open any mail that came from any university. That way, if acceptance notes came via post I could just give her a call and she could let me know, rather than waiting for the horribly slow US mail/Australia post connection. In addition, I had my transcripts for my undergraduate uni (in the US) sent to her house and she was kind enough to forward them on to the respective departments to which I was applying.

I'll also mostly Nth what everyone says about trying to visit the uni before you attend. I was back home for the holidays and managed to visit just one of the universities to which I was applying, but I'm glad I did. I really got to know the department better than by just its reputation. And most importantly, I had the chance to ply the other graduate students with copious amounts of alcohol and see what they said about the department. Turned out, in this case, it was all good!

However, at the same time I never visited my current uni before applying, and it's turned out very well for me. It's a crap shoot, to be sure, but for the amount of time you're talking about investing in a graduate education you ought to see about hitting some of the programs you're interested in prior to going abroad.

Overall, I have found that being abroad for applying to graduate programs is no real barrier to entry. The only complications I've ever had are time zone differences for contacting admissions and international phone rates. I can live with that.

Good luck with your applications!
posted by barnacles at 5:54 PM on March 11, 2008

Graduate school is NOT like undergraduate school. The individual people in your department as SO much more important. In fact, your focus should actually be on finding the right dissertation advisor (based on your research interests, his or her influence in your subfield, and how helpful he or she is to his graduate students, etc.) and then going to whatever school he or she is at (and intends to remain at for the next 5-10 years!) than on picking a program first and hoping you just happen to find a good advisor once you're there. Seriously, your advisor will make or break you, and not every program will have someone available whom you can work well with.

You can't know how well you will mesh with someone without spending a little time with them so you must VISIT VISIT VISIT. Talk to potential advisors and as many other professors in their program as possible. Ask them not only about their own work, but what they think of the department and the other professors in it. Ask them about the other advisors/programs you are considering, too. Watch their body language, listen to their tone. Don't worry about this being a horrible imposition on their time. They became professors because they like to talk a lot and share their "wisdom" and opinions with others. If you can't get appointments with them, try dropping by during their regularly scheduled office hours (ask the department secretary when these are). If they don't have enrolled students waiting to talk to them then they will probably be willing to talk to you instead, since it's already their regularly scheduled time for being bothered by people. If they're completely unavailable to talk with a potential grad student, that does not bode well for their helpfulness once you are actually enrolled.

Meet as many current grad students in the program, at all stages (first year to ABDs), as possible too. Get in contact with the leader of the department's grad student association/club in advance of scheduling your visit, find out when the grad students' regular beer night is, and crash it. After they have had a few drinks, find out what they really think of their program, professors, and advisors. Are people getting through the program in a reasonable amount of time? How much help are they getting from faculty in learning to publish? What have they heard from their former fellow students about job hunting with a degree from their program? Etc.

You need to do all this because a bad graduate school experience can literally ruin your life. I know many people, including some in their FIFTIES, whose present-day career, financial, and psychological problems can be traced back to unwittingly choosing a toxic graduate program when they were in their 20's. You do NOT want to end up in a program where the faculty are warring amongst themselves and using their grad students as foot soldiers, or the professor who teaches the one class everyone needs to graduate is a heartless jerk and fails 75% of his students, or the person who would logically be your dissertation advisor because of your research interests is a total asshole, or you'll get no support to learn how to publish, or whatever.

You're going to be spending the next 5-10 years in very close contact with these people. That's longer than many marriages last. Shouldn't you take the time to "date" them first?
posted by Jacqueline at 11:02 PM on March 11, 2008 [1 favorite]

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