Catlan Reardon, Ph.D Political Science - University of California, Berkeley
So, you’re thinking about doing a Ph.D. in a social science. Perhaps, you have dreams of being a political scientist, researching inequality in America or a development economist, exploring the best ways in which to reduce poverty. Whatever it is; you’re about to embark on a fantastic journey. The application process can be byzantine and intimidating. I know – I’ve gone through the process twice! Yet, there are simple steps that can help you along the way, and importantly increase your chances of gaining acceptance to your dream school. My top three pieces of advice are as follows, but before we dive into the details, you should think about one very, important question: Should I do a Ph.D.?
Put simply, if your goal is to be a professional researcher and professor, a Ph.D. is for you. If not, however, you may want to rethink why you are pursuing a Ph.D. For example, if you hope to work in a more applied/policy field, then an M.A. or M.P.A. might be more apt. A Ph.D. is 5 to 7 years and thus an enormous commitment. Make sure to deeply reflect on the motivation and long-term career goals you hope to achieve before making the decision for a Ph.D. Okay, now let’s get into the details!
1. Gain experience
For most Ph.D. programs in Political Science and Economics, previous work and/or research experience is a plus. This can include working on a campaign, non-profit, NGO, or as an RA with a professor in your desired field. These experiences will help cultivate your research interests and most often will enable you to write a stronger research statement. Real-world experience gives you an added perspective when you’re managing grueling late-night hours during your Ph.D. Most top professors in these fields (and those with whom I’ve communicated) think prior work experience will only get more and more important.
2. Your personal statement is key
Your personal statement is incredibly important in explaining to admissions committees why you want to go to their school and why you are the perfect fit. This means you should do your research about different Ph.D. programs and the type of research their professors do. Different schools have different schools of thought and different strengths. What makes a good personal statement? It should include the following: your field of interest, who you would like to work within the department and why it’s a good fit i.e. they have a strong interest in identity politics and so do you!, what you’re career objectives are (hint: they should include being a professor at a university), important parts of your resume and experience that set you apart, and a concrete research idea. Political science admissions committees like to see students offer an engaging and interesting research question and a possible way to answer that question. It is okay if you don’t end up pursuing this question, but it’s important to show that you can ask a question at the forefront.
3. Strong recommendations letters
Lukewarm recommendation letters from a top-scholar are worse than an intimate and strong letter from a junior scholar. Letters are best when they include information about how the person knows you, for how long, the quality of their institution if abroad, how they think you compare relative to other students, and whether they have sent students to the US before. It’s important that you can convey the import of including this information to any people you ask for recommendation letters.
4. A bonus! Grade Conversions
It’s a good idea to make it very easy for admissions committees to understand what your GPA means in the US system. You can do this in a few different ways. I included a detailed grade conversion document along with my transcript (as I completed my masters in the Netherlands). You can also detail this specifically in your personal statement or even input the direct conversion in the GPA part of the application. Either case, do not assume that committees know what your grade translates to in the US.
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