How to Improve My Grad School Chances
August 15, 2008 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Is there anything I can do to help myself get into grad school (PhD, political science/international relate) between now and January?

I'm working on my grad school applications and I'm wondering if there is anything I can be doing over the next six months that might help me get into a good program.

I graduated from college three years ago and spent the last two years working on a college campus and this year I'm in a foreign country doing a one year study program (both unrelated to what I would be doing in grad school).

One of my thoughts was to start a blog about something I'm interested in concentrating on in a grad program (Sierra Leone) and writing about it for the next six months. Would grad school admissions committees consider something like that a plus?

Is there anything else I can be doing that would make me seem like a stronger candidate? Any info or advice would be a big help. Thanks!
posted by davidstandaford to Education (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If you were going to write on Sierra Leone, I'd work more on publishing something than blogging. Anyone can write anything of any quality on a blog, and the well-written blog about anything is the exception, not the rule. Even if you wrote extraordinarily well in your blog, I think admissions committees would look at it as not only having no positive value, but appearing like you just threw it in there out of desparation. If you can write and would put it all the work to write a very good blog, I still think it would be wasted. You want someone else's stamp of approval if you're trying to prove your credentials.

Probably too late to get something in an academic journal (it takes YEARS, even if you have a great idea ready to go - academics should make better use of the Internet in this respect). Given that your interest in poli sci and your emphasis on a particular country is likely to relate to some set of regional events, I'd see if there were any niche current affairs magazines or edited websites and submit something there.
posted by el_lupino at 4:54 PM on August 15, 2008

Would grad school admissions committees consider something like that a plus?
I can't speak for the admissions committee, but it would, to me, demonstrate a) that you were looking to learn as much as you could, and/or were already knowledgable on the subject and b) have a passion for the topic. If you really want to study Sierra Leone though, by all means, you should do this anyway. It's a great excuse to learn everything and be accountable for it in some way based on your own deadlines. Also, post it to projects.
(Alternatively, if you live in an area with a large number of immigrants from that region, you could get involved in an established community organization doing related work. This would be a really neat add-on to the theoretical/big-picture learning that comes out of poli-sci/policy.)

Is there anything else I can be doing that would make me seem like a stronger candidate?
  • Seek out any external funding opportunities that may apply to you, based on financial need, geographic status, field of interest, whatever. Include this information wherever it fits on your application. If you have external funding or are in the process of finding it, you are a much, much more appealing candidate.
  • You've visited the schools and met with professors, right? Grad school admission isn't just about your numbers, it's about patronage. Check out the professors' profiles online and find ones who match your interests. Schedule some time to meet with them (in person if possible) and chat them up. You want to find people who would be good matches for your interests, but also you want them to be your advocate in the process.

  • posted by whatzit at 4:59 PM on August 15, 2008

    I do political science (American politics), but have not sat on graduate admissions committees.

    I would not generally care whether you had a blog or what it was about. I suppose it might be a plus, *IF* I looked at it, if you wrote a blog in which it was clear that you had some idea of what political science was actually like (for example, discussed empirical or theoretical puzzles and potential research designs that might solve them), and/or demonstrated some facility with existing theory. But again, that's IFF I looked at it, the odds of which are less than 100%.

    I would start with:

    (1) Practice the GRE. Do it again. Again. Again. Until your scores stabilize. If your combined verbal and math isn't at around the 80th percentile or better, take test-taking courses to improve. You want into the best program you can get into, and you don't want your scores putting you on the wrong side of the first cut.

    (2) Make contact again with your undergraduate profs, explaining your interests. Look at their web pages, if any, for publications in the past few years. The people you want to be talking to are the ones who are most senior, but who are also still active in research. You want those people to be able to:

    (2a) Tell you about programs that fit your interests, and your scores, and their sense of your undergraduate performance. No harm in reaching, but they might be able to give you a sense of which departments are realistic for you.
    (2b) Talk to their old grad-school buddies and coauthors and so on about you
    (2c) Write you good letters of recommendation
    (2d) Vet your statement of purpose

    (3) Work on your statement of purpose. Edit it. Do it again. The impression you want to give here is that you have some idea of what political science is actually like (ie, in the best of all possible worlds a theory-driven discipline that makes wide use of quantitative methods to test its theories), and that you have some idea of what you want to do.

    "Sierra Leone" isn't an answer for that. An answer might be that you are interested in civil war and reconstruction out of civil war, and are interested in the particular case of Sierra Leone in that context.

    (4) Apply for a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Your odds of getting one are very low (≤ 10%) ex ante, but the application is monetarily free (but some work to assemble) and it's both a fabulous ride and a great feather in your cap.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:36 PM on August 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

    I'd work more on publishing something than blogging.

    Probably too late to get something in an academic journal (it takes YEARS, even if you have a great idea ready to go - academics should make better use of the Internet in this respect).

    Using the internet has nothing to do with it. It takes forever because the peer-review process is very slow, and almost nothing gets accepted without at least two passes through that process. There's another delay between acceptance and actual publication, but I assure you that it's the acceptance that matters and that (Forthcoming, AJPS) is as good as gold.

    It's also not worth bothering with at this point. Your basic good political science journal runs a rejection rate of 75--90%, and the review process would take 6--12 months even if it's successful, and you're unlikely to be familiar enough with the norms of academic publishing for that to be a useful way to spend your time.

    Alternatively, if you live in an area with a large number of immigrants from that region, you could get involved in an established community organization doing related work. This would be a really neat add-on to the theoretical/big-picture learning that comes out of poli-sci/policy.

    Not for me. For me, it would tell me that you don't get what political science is about, and that you're a good candidate to leave in disgust after a year, so why bother admitting you now?

    Political science departments are, usually, not about changing the world. Not about community organization. Not about fixing things. They are social science departments that combine a number of theoretical and methodological perspectives behind a single object of study. I don't care if you organize an immigrant community or protest Tibet or kiss puppies or whatever.

    This is one of those big differences between undergraduate and graduate admissions: undergrad, you want to be "well-rounded," with a mix of extracurriculars and maybe sports and out-of-school activities. Grad school, nobody gives the slightest shit about any of that, and talking about them makes you look like a supreme noob.

    The right answer here is not "Golly gosh I am so interested in Sierra Leone and I did work with their immigrants and respect their culture."

    The right answer is "I've read some of the literature on civil wars and there are still the following three things we don't know much about: A, B, and C. I hope to research these three things, paying particular attention to Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is important because it is a natural experiment in the following way..."

    Note that in that second, you might well be wrong. You might say that we don't know much about C, but actually we just don't talk about it much because that debate got settled a while ago in a different literature. Nobody expects you to know all that. But an answer like that tells me that you are, first, interested in social science, and that you will be educable in seminars, and that you have some sense of the scientific process.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:53 PM on August 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

    ROU_Xenophobe: the comment about community organizations, in particular, was meant in a "you should be doing this anyway" bent. I should've been more clear. I did a Master's in Technology Policy, and having the theoretical crap down pat was only half the game. If you want to do anything real-world/effective, you had to understand the human and organizational side, and had to have the network in place to implement it. Sorry if that wasn't clear. I'm not advocating the "well-rounded" undergraduate approach, so much as "using this and that non-university-based mechanism to get what you want for your research" approach. In my department, at least, they were looking for that entrepreneurship to complement the scholarship. *shrug* Maybe I would have left your department in disgust after a year, though. ymmv, apparently.
    posted by whatzit at 7:07 PM on August 15, 2008

    If you want to do anything real-world/effective

    ...then you should probably go to a policy school or enter foreign service, not go to a political science program.

    This is less true in IR than in other subfields in political science, but even there the workflow is usually that nerds write about stuff in political science journals, semi-nerds read that stuff, among other things, and write and argue about it in policy-oriented settings, and from there it drips down to actual policy and policymakers.

    The analogy to what you describe in political science would be people who can ace stats courses, but can't put together a coherent research project to save their lives.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:24 PM on August 15, 2008

    Maybe I would have left your department in disgust after a year, though.

    It's very common in poli-sci phd programs for students to leave in disgust after a year because graduate education just isn't what they thought it would be.

    Nothing wrong with them leaving; the problem is that political science does a terrible, really horrible and awful, job of giving undergraduates a sense of what the discipline actually does.
    posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:26 PM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

    re: the blog idea.

    I don't think the blog does much for your resumé if that's the only place they hear of it. But if faculty members become readers of your blog (e.g. prior to your application) and you do it well, then that's a very good thing.
    posted by winston at 7:30 PM on August 15, 2008

    Fair enough. I guess my exposure to political scientists, poli-sci courses and journals has been biased to a more practical side then. Learn something new every day.
    posted by whatzit at 8:17 PM on August 15, 2008

    My wife's advisor, Bill Sewell (who had a joint appointment in history, her field, and political science at the U. of Chicago), described himself at his retirement conference last May as the "refugee professor" in political science for grad students who applied to the program because they were interested in politics and then discovered, after their arrival, that they were expected to study political science, not politics. If they balked at learning IR or game theory, they came to him.

    The lesson of that story is that what undergrads, even very bright and talented ones, think about political science grad programs does not necessarily match the reality. ROU_Xenophobe is right. (Well, the other lesson is that Bill is a great guy in addition to being a brilliant scholar.)

    In my discipline (history), what I expect of a convincing graduate admissions application is that the applicant convince me that s/he has (1) identified an interesting area of history in which to pursue graduate studies, (2) done the basic preparation in college required to pursue independent research in that area, and (3) can explain convincingly why my department is well suited to foster his/her research. A blog would only help if it could provide evidence about 1, 2, or 3 that the rest of the application did not provide.
    posted by brianogilvie at 8:26 PM on August 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

    Just my 2 cents, but I don't understand why Sierra Leone is the "topic" - it seems to me that it is more important to find an advisor/program that focuses on the methodology/phenomenon/theory that you're interested in - quite possibly in a different geographical region. Maybe someone is doing amazing work in Columbia or Tajikistan and you could extend that to S.L.? You don't NEED faculty that knows your region so much - maybe a committee member, but not absolutely. PS isn't history and even in history, you don't need someone with similar regional expertise.

    But, beyond that, READ READ READ READ READ academic works. (Try to get a list from a grad student.) Your personal statement will need to be really focused as to exactly why YOU need to be at THIS program. They are the top people in the particular theory that you love. Or they are the people doing the most innovative work in this phenomenon. You want to make them want you.

    As you read, write down names of people that blow your mind, go to their CV and read more by them, and apply to those schools to work with them. Write emails to those profs (and put in your personal statement) what about those works really got you going.

    Then, GRE-wise -- it is totally worth your while and your finances to get the best possible GRE score. And with PS in particular, you're going to need a good quantitative score as well. GRE scores will be instrumental in determining what financial/fellowship/assistanceship package you get. Go to Kaplan and take a free practice GRE to see where you are at. Maybe you're already getting perfect scores - in which case, take it now and stop thinking about it. Otherwise, you'll know if you need to work on verbal or quantitative or both. Look at the school webpages, but you'll probably need a 1000+ to be considered for assistanceships.

    And, as I always say, LiveJournal's applytograd community is awesome. Get there now and post this same question.

    And, IMHO, they won't give 2 shits about your blog.
    posted by k8t at 5:23 AM on August 16, 2008

    Oh, and if you didn't take stats and methods as an undergrad, you may be well-advised to take those courses as your local community college and get very good grades in them.
    posted by k8t at 5:24 AM on August 16, 2008

    And as always, please read "Getting What You Came For" before applying. As ROU_Xenophobe implied, graduate education is not what a lot of people think it is (partially because we try to keep a brave face for the undergrads sometimes) and as a result, a lot of people drop out in disgust.

    To give you a sense of what my social science graduate school experience has been like:

    * Applications: I didn't have a clue about this whole thing and didn't have a social science undergrad background, but LOVED research and had a high undergrad GPA, a good MA in a qualitative social science and high GREs, so I happened to get into a highly rated program. Looking back, this is shocking to me now.
    * Year 1, term 1: OMG, there is a lot of stats to learn. And the socialization sets in. They socialize you HARD. No time to spend with significant other. Lots of tears. I had to pay a lot of extra attention in the undergrad courses I was TAing for to pick up the things I didn't get in undergrad.
    * Year 1, term 2: OMG, I survived year 1. I better start finding a theoretical perspective. Wrote some shitty papers, but killed myself writing them. I had to pay a lot of extra attention in the undergrad courses I was TAing for to pick up the things I didn't get in undergrad. Stats are getting easier.
    * Year 1, term 3: Okay, I am figuring this out. I had to pay a lot of extra attention in the undergrad courses I was TAing for to pick up the things I didn't get in undergrad. Stats are much better. Starting to enjoy quantitative research a lot. Feeling better over all. Writing slightly better papers. Learn about taking adderall and ativan. Picked a theoretical perspective and advisor after a lot of internal debate about even staying in.
    * Summer after Year 1: With a light TAing schedule and no courses, I finally had time to read read read read read. I read so much all summer and did major literature reviews and wrote some proposals for grants. Feeling very very good.
    * Year 2: Less socialization, especially now that I have a theoretical perspective and advisor. TAing is going well. Writing less shitty papers. Feeling like I can survive. Went abroad to collect data, which people respect quite a bit. Got knocked up.
    * Year 3: About to begin, still knocked up. Will let you know how it goes. Will do qualifying exams this year. Plan to extend previous work to do dissertation proposal summer '09, will go on job market fall '09, dissertation to be written 09-10 school year.
    posted by k8t at 5:46 AM on August 16, 2008

    Lots of good advice in this thread. Among the other recommendations, however, what you can do in a year includes a very important task for which there will never be enough time in grad school: learn another language, getting as close to oral fluency as possible.

    In any international discipline, but certainly IR, that is a huge asset to bring to the table. When my program is making admissions decision, fluency in a challenging language is a high credential.

    Nthing that blogging is pretty much irrelevant. It's nice to have a blog. It won't impress prospective grad programs very much unless you get famous for it and it's really erudite. And someone bothers to even read it.

    Read like crazy, work on your writing, study for the GRE, and -- as everyone is saying -- refine your ideas about what you want to do for the PhD.
    posted by fourcheesemac at 6:20 AM on August 16, 2008

    Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice so far! Some responses:

    All: it doesn't seem like blogging would be the best use of my time in terms of graduate school. Thanks for the input on that.

    As far as my mention of Sierra Leone in my question, my specific area of research interest is more detailed, I just didn't think it would be necessary to elaborate in my question. I took a graduate class while I was an undergrad and wrote a paper that looked at post-conflict resolution in multi-ethnic states that I would like to study further in graduate school, possibly focusing on Sierra Leone.

    ROU_Xenophobe: Although I have letters of recommendation on file to use for graduate school, thanks for the advice about getting back in touch with those professors and others for advice about which programs to seek out and other faculty I can make contact with.

    Regarding your comments about people being unclear about what graduate school might entail, I have taken graduate classes while an undergrad and talked extensively with political science professors and graduate students and I think I'm reasonably clear on what graduate school would entail, and that it is something that I would want to do.

    k8t: Thanks for the book recommendation. I've actually been trying to get it already... but Amazon charges an obscene amount to ship to Israel so I haven't ordered it yet.

    fourcheesemac: A major goal of my time spent in Israel this year is to work on my Hebrew fluency, and although I focused more on conflict in Africa during my time as an undergrad, a lot of the theoretical ideas that apply there also apply to conflicts in the Middle East and so I might decide that is what I want to study in more detail for graduate school.

    I will be taking the GRE in November and I have been studying for that already and I tend to do well on standardized tests so that is not a major concern of mine.

    brianogilvie: Thanks for your information about how to formulate an application. Although that was roughly how I was thinking of it, your three part formulation has helped me to reevaluate exactly how I want to state my intentions for graduate school.

    Thanks for the input so far, if anyone else has any other comments or advice, I would really appreciate it.
    posted by davidstandaford at 7:50 AM on August 16, 2008

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