[QA’S Q&A] #6: Choosing Graduate School

Chào anh giai,

We all know that applying to graduate school is not gonna be like college application. Neither is (I presume) choosing an “ideal” grad school/program for your next 5-or-more years. But how so? What should be the major criteria for grad school selection, now that the usual benchmarks to judge an undergraduate institution (e.g. study abroad, diversity, campus atmosphere…) might not matter nearly as much?

Đa tạ anh giai,

– ZerO

The difference between undergraduate and graduate school is that the latter is unequivocally about getting a job. Following one’s dream–the other, oft-mentioned reason for getting a PhD–is not good enough. Five years of graduate school costs half a million dollars ($50,000 tuition + $50,000 lost earning per year). You could deposit that money into the bank and pursue whatever topic that strikes your intellectual fancy.

If getting a PhD is all about training for a job, then you should know about that job market. I highly recommend all PhD applicants to read the following post by a tenured associate professor about the career prospective in Political Science. The take home message is this: there are very few employment opportunities for PhDs that come from outside of top-25 departments. So, only apply to top-25 departments. The post is truthful and informative, if brutally so. I have nothing more to add besides my personal affirmation. Even in my top-10 department, frequent jokes about unemployment are no doubt rooted in a certain degree of self-consciousness.

If one squints his optimistic eye hard enough, he can see a bright side to all this: with only 25 schools to choose from, a typical student that applies to 7-8 schools doesn’t have to digest too much information. Narrowing from 25 to 8 is a matter of finding a fit, as follows, in order of decreasing importance. (Side note for other readers: in top-25, even 50, PhD programs, it is safe to assume that tuition will be waived and stipend provided. So funding is not a significant factor in choosing where to apply.)

Methodological fit: qualitative versus quantitative.
Sub-field fit: IR / American / Comparative / Political Theory.
Regional fit.
Topical fit: specific research topics such as authoritarianism, elections, parties, etc.

What is perhaps less obvious and more helpful than the above list is how to find out about whether you fit into a department. The best way is to look up the departments of authors that inspire your research. Since materials that you learn in undergraduate political science are often classics, a caveat is that those scholars may have moved on to other things. Make sure to look up their current projects. Better yet, find the up-and-coming scholars in latest journal articles that work on your topics.

There are two difficulties with this approach: 1) scholars may not publicly post their current work, and 2) among numerous articles, you’re not sure which one is really a scholar’s pet topic. Consult the professors that know your field on these matters. And don’t ask the tenured professors. Having been out of the job market for a long time, they may be eager to help but not much helpful. Seek guidance from young assistant professors and TAs, whose experience are still raw and advice relevant.

Having said all this about fit, I must also add that at the tip-top departments, where there are numerous faculties of all methodological and substantive stripes, perhaps fit does not matter very much. Anyone would fit there, so they are only keen on finding the “brightest,” whatever that means.

Finally, spread your application list a bit across dream, reach, and safety schools. Ask the aforementioned assistant professors and TAs what your reach school is. They know both you and the state of competition, thus able to give accurate estimates. Plus, by asking them to assess your chances, you get a glimpse into how enthusiastic their recommendation letters will be.


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