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It’s hard to know how to plan for something when you don’t know what all you need to do! So, this week, I’m writing about key components of the social science PhD application. In future weeks, we’ll spend more time learning about the structure and nature of these different components, especially the statements and recommendation letters.
Let’s start with a list of required materials typical of social science PhD applications in the United States and Canada:
Statement(s) (Academic and/or Personal)
Recommendation Letters (usually 3)
Statements: Programs will require at least one statement; however, what this statement is called may differ. In some cases, you may be asked to write a “personal” statement and in others you may be asked to write an “academic” statement. Usually what is being asked of you in the same—but always read the instructions! In general, you will be asked to describe your academic and research background, career goals, and how a specific program (e.g., psychology PhD at the University of Michigan) will help you meet your career and educational goals.
I earned my PhD in psychology from the University of Michigan. For their application, I was required to write an academic statement, like the type described above, as well as a shorter personal statement. The personal statement offered a space for me to describe how my background and experiences influenced my decision to pursue a PhD at Michigan.
Note that whether a statement has a word limit will vary, so always check! In general, I recommend sticking to 2 pages single-spaced for academic statements if no word limit is provided. (Side note: Having access to statements written by others is so helpful. If there is someone in your network who is currently a PhD student in your intended field, reach out to them. In subsequent weeks, I will do my best to link to sample materials that are out there.)
Transcripts: You will also be asked to provide transcripts from each college/university-level institution you’ve attended. Note that some programs will request that you send official transcripts with your application. Others will only request official transcripts after you’ve been offered admission. Again, read the instructions! There is usually a fee to request and send transcripts to programs. If you are unable to access unofficial transcripts online, request to have official copies sent to you so that you can scan and upload electronic copies with your other application materials. I’ve paid $7-$15 to send one transcript to one school, so make sure official transcripts are required before sending!
Recommendation Letters: In addition to the application materials you complete, you will also need to request recommendation letters from trusted mentors and faculty—usually three. As you’ll quickly learn, if you haven’t already, a lot of biases are baked into the application process. Recommendation letters are no different. It’s usually in your best interest to request letters from mentors and faculty who know you and your work best. At the same time, the people who may know you best may not be faculty. We’ll talk more about how to request letters and how to curate the strongest set of recommenders later. For now, think through who you might ask to (positively, strongly, and enthusiastically) support your PhD applications.
GRE: As many programs move away from requiring the GRE, you will need to decide whether you want to invest in taking the exam. If a program does not require the GRE, you should not feel compelled to submit scores. I’ve spoken with several faculty who have all said that, if optional, do not submit scores unless you want to. This is not an additional test in and of itself. However, some programs may still require the GRE and you will have to decide whether you want to apply given that requirement. There may be reasons to take the GRE—perhaps you want to demonstrate that you excel at quantitative reasoning but didn’t do that as a student. If taking the GRE, keep finances in mind. The test itself is expensive and sending scores to individual programs can really add up. We’ll talk more about fee waivers later.
TOEFL: The TOEFL measures English language ability and is usually required for students who have not earned a degree from an institution where the language of instruction was English. If you are required to take this test, check to see whether individual programs have performance requirements—they usually do. (Again, keep in mind that this advice is largely tailored to schools in the United States and Canada.)
Fee Waivers: Applying to graduate school can be a very expensive process—from application fees to requesting official transcripts, it all adds up. Depending on your situation, you may be eligible to receive fee waivers for applications and the GRE. I recall spending over $1,000 when I applied many years ago, so consider doing some math and budgeting now so there are no (or fewer) financial surprises later.
It's not that we have little time, but more that we waste a good deal of it. - Seneca
Now that you have a sense of what you’ll need to do to complete your applications, it’s time to begin planning. Start by reviewing this timeline shared by Dr. Emily Sarah Sumner. Next, think through what this timeline could look like for you. It’s almost July and most applications are due in December. This gives you a solid five months to prepare the strongest application possible. BUT do not be deceived! This time will fly by if you are not proactive.
Here, we can draw from behavioral science and help ourselves by guarding against falling prey to the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy refers to our tendency to underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. In an ideal world, I would have completed a set of analyses I’ve been working on by yesterday. But, here we are on Saturday (when I’m writing this) and I’m still not done! To be clear, I’m a much better planner now—but I’ve still fallen short (or, in this case, long). So, build in much more time than you think will be necessary to complete these tasks. We can talk about more timeline specifics if you would like later.
Some homework: 1) Determine whether there is someone in your network with whom you can work through this process. Do you know anyone with a PhD in your intended field? Do you have a trusted mentor knowledgable about applying to PhD programs? 2) Check out the websites of some programs that interest you. What are their application requirements? 3) While navigating those program websites, check whether they offer virtual information and/or recruitment sessions. Many programs have shifted to offering virtual information and recruitment sessions to expand their reach. Sometimes these events are open to everyone and sometimes applications are required. Many of these events are advertised on Twitter using the hashtag #AcademicTwitter. Here is an example of what to look for from the University of Michigan’s Diversity Requirement Weekend for psychology.
Want to have a 30-minute planning session with me? Throughout the summer, I will offer 1-on-1 and 1-on-few sessions for students seeking guidance throughout the PhD application process or students seeking guidance on how to make the transition to their first year of a PhD program. Share this week’s post via Twitter with the hashtag #hiddencurriculum, subscribe to this newsletter, or comment below for a chance to be selected this week!
More to come: Soon, select posts will include scholar profiles! The purpose of these profiles is to help you learn more about different paths to the PhD, introduce you to new areas of research, and help you better understand the range of resources and opportunities available to you as you navigate this process. Is there a scholar you’d like to hear from? Let me know!
How to reach me: You are always welcome to email me (email@example.com) or find me on Twitter @tweetsbymidge.
Until next time!
During the last application cycle, GRE scores were largely waived meaning that applicants were not required to submit scores, but could if they chose. More generally, there has been a movement (#GRExit) toward shifting away from the GRE as a requirement. So, be sure to verify whether this is needed for your applications!