Careers: Applying to grad school

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It's about the time of the year when the thoughts of young men and women turn to graduate school. Well, not really, but if you are thinking about applying to graduate school, here's are some tips on how you should prepare over the summer. Although I'm an anthropologist, these are general tips that should apply to most disciplines in the humanities and social sciences.

First, you really need to ask yourself if you want to go to grad school and why. I've seen enough unhappy grad students and assistant professors who went because of all the wrong reasons: they were smart and one of their teachers told them that smart people go to grad school; they thought academia was less stressful and had more intellectual freedom than the real world; they wanted to avoid going into the Real World altogether; etc. Unless you really consider being an academic your calling in life, then it may be difficult to make it through seven through ten years of grad school, and another seven to ten years before you get tenure.

One major difference between grad school and undergraduate applications is that the departments themselves decide which grad students to take rather than the university as a whole. Normally, all the grad applications for the year will come in to the department, the obviously bad ones will be culled, and the remainder of applications read by either part or all of the professors. What you want to be able to do is catch the eye or one or more professors who would be interested in working with you.

That being said, here are some of the elements of your grad school application that you should start working on.

  1. Statement of purpose: The statement of purpose (personal essay) is the most important part of your application and it is totally different from your college essay. The statement tells the committee why you want to become an anthropologist/sociologist/political scientist/etc. from an intellectual perspective. The search committee isn't interested that in 6th grade, you fell in love with Indiana Jones or that for study abroad, you went to India. They want to know what interests you intellectually and whether or not you are intelligent and organized enough to pursue a research project for over five years and write a 300 page dissertation.

    While you don't have to have a predetermined research topic in mind before applying to grad school, it helps greatly to be able to articulate what you are interested in. Many grad schools apportion students either by area or topical specialty to the professors. If you do not know what region of the world you're interested in, or what type of theoretical approach (gender, political economy, social movements) you want to pursue, it maybe be difficult for any professor to take an interest in you.

    The Statement of Purpose will make or break your application. Write a good one. Send it to all the professors you know and ask for feedback. Keep working and working on it until it becomes excellent. It should be the most difficult thing you have written in your life up to now.

  2. GREs: Most grad schools don't weigh the GRE exams too much, although they may use it as a first cut. So as long as you score fairly well, then there's nothing to be worried about. Don't bother with GRE prep -- use the time to work on your statement of purpose.

  3. Transcript: Various programs differ on how much they value an undergraduate degree in anthropology. My own school welcomes applications from all disciplines although there is a preference for students who have some real-world experience after graduating with their BA.

  4. Letters of recommendation: It may help to start asking your professors now if they can write for you, since they'll be bogged down by the Fall with other requests.

I can't stress enough the significance of the statement of purpose. It's too late now to change your grades and studying for the GRE won't help you application that much. The one thing that can significantly change your application is your statement. Don't work on it in a vacuum. Again, it is different from anything else you've written in your life. Ask for a lot of feedback on it from different sources.

Comments? Additions?


How do you choose which school to apply to? I've heard conflicting advice (choose the school based on the faculty member you want to work with [be willing to take Michigan over Harvard], go for the name [Yale over Berkeley, for example], etc, etc)

In my opinion, there are three critical things that contribute to happiness in graduate school: your thesis advisor, your financial offer, and the department climate.

Whether you like it or not, your thesis advisor will have a tremendous amount of control over your project, grant opportunities, teaching schedule, and future employment potential. Even more than working with a leader in the field, you want to work with someone who knows how to properly mentor graduate students, who will give you the freedom to explore while also providing guidance when necessary.

The financial package you receive will determine how much time you are spending teaching or waitressing and how much you will be spending on your own research and coursework. Inspect the offer letter closely -- many times at large universities, your stipend is based on TAships, which can eat up a lot of your time. You want some teaching experience out of graduate school, but there's nothing to be gained if you spent all 8 years in the classroom.

The climate of the department is hard to quantify but there are graduate schools where professors do not talk to each other. Others encourage their grad students to compete with each other for grants. I believe it's essential to visit the schools you are interested in before you commit yourself to eight years. Stay with some grad students and ask them if they're happy. If you can't visit the campus, go to the American Anthropology Annual Meeting in November and try to track down some grad students there.

That all being said, you don't know which schools will accept you so you may need to cast your net fairly wide in the application process. But as you apply to schools, take the opportunity to try to understand the local culture of the department. Visit the web page and look at the faculty interests and course offerings.

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This page contains a single entry by Karen Nakamura published on May 30, 2005 10:58 AM.

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