How to Choose Graduate Schools

by Erik Voeten on March 8, 2012 · 25 comments

in Academia

It is that time of the year again when undergraduates interested in a career in political science have to choose between PhD programs. I know from e-mails that The Monkey Cage is widely read among these students. I thought it would be nice to use our collective wisdom here to provide some advice, presuming that they have already made up their minds to spend the best years of their lives withering away in libraries and computer labs doing poli-sci research.

Below are a couple of pointers I tend to give.

  • Choose a program not a professor. Professors move, turn out to be less interesting or friendly than you thought, may not be interested in you, or you may change your mind about what you want to work on.
  • Distinguish between costly signaling and cheap talk during the wooing period. Sending e-mails is cheap, offering a research assistant ship is a real commitment by a prof. Don’t pay too much attention at how nice the faculty are at open days or how well these are organized. I have overheard students complain about minor things, like favoring the open day at one program over another because they had laminated name tags. Some schools are simply better organized at this stuff but they may not necessarily offer a better program. Talk to current students, they can tell.
  • Examine methods training. Methods are the hardest thing to learn by yourself and thus one of the most valuable things to learn during grad school.
  • Think carefully about where you want to live. This is six years of your life!

There are many other ones (like ask about placement, look at faculty student collaborations) but I would like to turn it over to the collective wisdom of Monkey Cagers.

{ 25 comments }

Robert March 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Really? That’s interesting. I think methods are the easiest thing to learn by oneself. Winnowing through theory and spotting dead ends (or minefields) is hard.

Soon-to-be Grad March 8, 2012 at 6:19 pm

It depends a lot on what kind of person you are (e.g., what you can motivate yourself to learn on your own), but I agree that it is possible to teach yourself a whole lot about (statistical) methods, especially once you understand the conceptual and mathematical foundations.

anonymous coward March 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm

It’s a bit late for this, but:

Do some research on departments and strengths. Especially if your undergrad profs don’t keep up with the discipline so well, you might apply mostly on the basis of overall university reputation and a vague sense of where’s good. But the quality of the training you’ll receive and your marketability are, while related to overall name-brand, only loosely related. This is true enough at the overall American/comparative/IR level, but even moreso by subfield. If you’re going into courts, a degree from Binghamton or Stony Brook will beat one from an Ivy.

Don’t forget to apply for an NSF fellowship. The only cost is opportunity, and while your odds aren’t great the expected value of any application is large.

If you’re doing theory (as in philosophy) and you don’t have the best departments in the world competing to see who can throw the most money at you, quit now. Academic job searches are no fun in the best of times, but the theory market is just dreadful.

The Dude March 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Make sure they promise you enough money to survive for 5-6 years without taking any debt. Turns out a polisci PhD isn’t worth much money, so go to a fully funded program or stay home. Talk to current students individually when there’s no faculty or staff around. I second the suggestion: Read the CVs of everyone in your prospective subfield(s) to see if they write paper with their grad students.

OneEyedMan March 8, 2012 at 5:39 pm

Ask for the recent placements. If none of those placements are jobs you would want then you probably don’t want to be there.

Student March 8, 2012 at 6:15 pm

More comments would be incredibly helpful. Particularly those dealing with fit v. reputation of the institution.

Alex Weiner March 8, 2012 at 6:17 pm

OneEyedMan offers very good advice. A shocking number of students in all disciplines go into PHD programs at schools with prestigious names that nonetheless produce way too many candidates relative to the job market.

prospect March 8, 2012 at 7:30 pm

keep them coming please! this is already very helpful for someone that will go through this very soon… thanks everyone!

Sebastian March 8, 2012 at 8:13 pm

I would like to second the above – it sounds really trite, but do not underestimate the importance of money, or rather financial security. I know none of us go/went to polisci grad school because of the money, so there is a tendency to be too idealistic about this.
Grad school won’t make you rich and the difference betwee a 20k and 23k/year stipend probably shouldn’t make a huge difference for you, but whether you can comfortably live from your stipend for 5-6 years and won’t have to depend on winning selective fellowships etc. _really_ matters – and not being freaked out that you won’t have an income next year does matter (a lot!) for the quality of your work.

Find out about how easy it is to get internal grants. Ideally, you want easily available small amounts of money 500$ for a conference, 1-2k for summer fieldwork etc. but there should also be a good amount of larger research grants – not everyone can get an NSF/Fulbright/SSRC etc. grant.

Inquire about teaching loads. Ideally, even in years you teach, you don’t want to teach all year round.

absurdbeats March 8, 2012 at 10:22 pm

Ask about professional preparation. Do they encourage/require you to submit conference proposals? Do they encourage/require you to submit journal articles? Walk you through the submission, rejection, and revise & resubmit process? Are conference travel grants available, and do they exhort all grad students to attend at least the regional conferences? Are they honest about the job market and the decreasing number of tenure-track positions? Do they in any way encourage or prepare students to find jobs outside of academia?

I received a terrific intellectual education in my subfield (theory), but the professional preparation was nil. I can’t say my decision to bail on trying to find a FT position is due solely or even mainly to that lack, but had I had a better understanding of the nuts-and-bolts of the academic grind, I might not have been so quick to abandon the search for a tenure-track position.

Patrick Lam March 9, 2012 at 4:47 am

As somebody who was courted by the top programs and whose interests changed over time, I can’t emphasize enough the last point about choosing where you want to live. As I look back now, I believe that this should be the #1 factor, assuming that the programs you are choosing from are of similar quality. Most graduate students will be in a position where their funding packages are approximately equal. Go to the best program possible in a place where you want to live. The environment outside academics plays a much larger role in your academic career than one would expect.

Another point I want to emphasize is that you should basically ignore 99% of what anybody tells you during recruitment weekends. Many people will tell you about how great their program is compared to other programs. The one flaw is that most people know absolutely nothing about other programs and so only make judgments based on stereotypes. I remember so many graduate students telling me about how other programs were bad and how their program was awesome, all of which was utter nonsense. Each student’s graduate experience varies, and as long as your monetary needs are taken care of and you are in a place that gives you good training (which many schools can do), picking where you want to live is really the only factor you need to consider.

Foreigner March 9, 2012 at 5:37 am

Apply overseas! There are other countries outside the United States. Europe has many great MA/Phd-programs and Grad Schools, and often much more generous funding opportunities. For example, check German grad schools: They offer lots of stipends, methods courses and close supervision, and the working language is English. Furthermore, European political science is a much more pluralist discipline. And, last but not least, you get to know a different country, culture, language, etc..

Sebastian March 9, 2012 at 4:14 pm

having moved from Europe to the US for grad school I’m skeptical of this claim. Beyond EUI (which is terrific and about as easy to get into as Harvard), which European graduate school do you think can compete with top 10 or even top 20 US polisci departments?

Foreigner March 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

Well, that probably depends on what you mean with “compete”. Sure, continental European universities rarely make it into the top 50 of the well known rankings. But I think that does not really reflect the quality of their PhD programs.
If a US student really needs a big name on her CV, she can still go to OxBridge or LSE (or EUI, although some people told me they weren’t quite satisfied with the PhD program there).

setpoint March 9, 2012 at 3:42 pm

1. The “wooing process” is alien to my experience, and so is the “difficult choice between offers”. My sense is that admissions (with funding) have been tight for the past few years, and not many applicants are fussing over multiple top-tier offers. Naturally, such folks are over-represented among Monkeycage readers, but not elsewhere. Others will have to decide how much they like vanilla.
2. How many schools offer 5-6 years of guaranteed funding? I would not have attended without funding, but mine renews (let’s hope!) every year. I rolled the dice anyway.
3. Likewise with location. I disagree with P. Lam above, though you may not. Go where you’re wanted and where you can accomplish your goal. It’s not forever, and you’re going to be busy anyway. The town or city you did your PhD in will not affect your research skills. (In some locations, this changes ever year in March.)
4. You may have to accept that you simply will not know everything you want to know about a program at your decisive moment. If you apply to 8 schools with 20 faculty members each, how well are you going to know all of them? Not very. You are taking a risk. If you try to control it too much, you may miss an opportunity.

Tracy Lightcap March 9, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Let’s step back a bit.

What’s really important happens a few years earlier. I read a quite disturbing study of undergrad research in the social sciences just recently. It reported that only 15% of all undergrad pol sic programs require a methods course. For the sociologists it was 72%.

What those of you who are still undergrads need to do is hound your departments to teach and require research methods courses. At my college we have required it since the department became independent in 1993. The students we have sent on to graduate study report that they are far, far ahead of their peers when they get to grad school as a result.

Now, admittedly, that won’t help you select a grad school, but, as the advice offered here shows, that’s a hard proposition under any circumstances. What this will help with is navigating your way to success when you get to any grad school.

Ted March 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I agree with what has been said. I tell undergraduates who ask me about grad school to be sure to have a plan B because teaching jobs are very hard to get, unless you’re planning to do theory in which case they are impossible and you should make your plan B your plan A. And be sure to take lots of methods courses. If there’s a professional conference you can get to, you should go. Figure out who’s doing research that you’d want to be a part of, read their paper, go to their panel. Ask a question. Talk to them afterwards. If the undergraduates are still first year or early second year when they ask me about this, I try to impress on them the need to stand out – do an independent study project, do a relevant internship, study abroad, present a paper somewhere, publish in an undergraduate journal. If you don’t want to put in this kind of effort, then you probably won’t like graduate school.

SomeProf March 9, 2012 at 11:01 pm

Lots of great advice on here. Foremost is this: As I say to all of my students, it is important not to pay for a PhD — it will never pay off, either financially or in terms of improved job prospects.

But my advice would be about advice itself — in particular, the advice you get during graduate school. Don’t listen to the professional advice your professors give… or at least, take it with a grain of salt. They think they have been successful because they took actions A, B, C and D. But lots of people, just as talented as them, took those actions and failed in the field. The basic problem is the problem of selection on the dependent variable — but surprisingly, very few social scientists can apply the same basic insights they use in their work to their understandings of the profession or the institutions that they work in (for instance, you will here some _absurd_ explanations of how academic institutions work, the most absurd likely to come from the “institutionalists” in your department).

So, once you’re in graduate school, start to meet some people who have been successful in the field, some who have been less successful, and some who have flamed out. You will thereby gain much deeper insights into the factors that lead to success in the profession.

Scott March 12, 2012 at 9:07 am

Good advice from everyone; I’ll second (or third, or something) the funding point – if you’re going into debt for a PhD, you’ve likely made a poor decision. Keep housing prices and job options in mind as well; some areas have many part-time research positions available to supplement a stipend (and gain some real world experience), others have none. Some areas have plenty of cheap apartments, others will force you to share a 1 bedroom with 3 other people. Finally, only do it if you really, really love the work. This is useless advice, since you won’t know this for sure until you’ve been in grad. school a few years, but if you have serious doubts about what you’re doing a PhD is not the right way to go.

John March 12, 2012 at 10:38 am

A question for everyone here:

I am looking to go back to school and get my PhD in Political Science at some point in the next couple of years, with the goal of eventually finding a teaching position. I hold a BA in Political Science and an MA in Public Policy. I’m currently out in the real world, working on the advocacy end of things for a relatively well known think tank – doing some lobbying/organizing, some new media work, and some Op-Ed writing (including ghost writing for a lot of brand name papers). I’ve been here for about two years.

I’m trying to decide when the ideal time to go back to academia might be. I’ve always believed that what I’m doing now, on top of working for a good cause, is ultimately for the purpose of informing my research and teaching. Is there added benefit to waiting a few more years, and possibly one promotion level, before applying for PhD programs? Or should I just get on with it and go?

PhDinGovt March 12, 2012 at 1:05 pm

@John–you’re not getting any younger. My sense is that it gets harder to take the pay cut required to do a PhD the longer one is working. Also, grad work requires a lot of energy, and youthful vigor helps.

Lots of good advice here. I think that it’s important to pay attention to department rankings AND individual members of the departments with whom one may want to work. It’s true that your interests may change, and that faculty move (especially the ones with whom one might want to work!). But you wouldn’t choose to go someplace where there was no one doing anything that you find interesting. And as someone said, you have to love the stuff–at least something about it–or you won’t succeed. So, optimally, pick a school with the best ranking you can get into where there are at least two people (more would be better) you could imagine working with.

Can be difficult from a distance, but distinguish b/w potential dissertation advisers’ active research agendas versus inactive (or imaginary) research agendas and old work.

Check those placements! If a program hasn’t placed a PhD in a decent place (that’s a relative term) in recent years, then you’re betting that the placement is going to get better. What’s that bet based on?

Also about placements–in many departments it’s the case that [list of professors] typically manage to place their students but [another list] never do. Make sure that the successful placements are in your subfield of interest. It won’t help a political behavior PhD that all the IPE PhDs find jobs.

Don’t go abroad, especially the UK. Those schools, even the prestigious ones, don’t do a very good job of professionalizing their grads. This is increasingly important in an era when journal publishing is the key to success.

Don’t do a theory PhD unless you are perfectly content with non-academic futures. And I know of what I speak.

Chris G March 12, 2012 at 2:37 pm

@John, if I were in your position, I would probably not pursue a PhD but instead focus on the think tank work. It sounds like you’re on track to be doing research with the support of a well-known organization, so you don’t need the PhD for research. If you’re simply interested in teaching, if you keep raising your profile in your current position, you’ll probably be able to turn that into visiting lecturing jobs and the like within a few years. If, on the other hand, you’re dissatisfied by your current work or your work has led you to a specific question you want to explore in great detail in a way that your current position does not permit, you may then want to look into PhD programs.

If that were the case, I would urge you to try to find a program that would allow you to do this on a faster track, for instance, by crediting some of your MA work. The previous comment about the ticking clock is a good one. The earliest you can begin a doctoral program will be fall of 2013, and thus the earliest you’re likely to finish is sometime in 2018, and it could well be several years before you find yourself in a tenure-track position.

Matt Jarvis March 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm

I want to highlight something Erik said to emphasize it, and disagree with some of the other posters on a couple of other issues.

Pick the school, not the prof. Profs move. Profs might not mesh well with you. But, “school” is not just “Harvard, because it has a good ranking/reputation.” It’s also the place where you find your fellow grad students to be people like you, people you could see yourself learning from and hanging out with. I started my methods education with the help of fellow grad students, and the feedback on my ideas is STILL valuable and I’m STILL finding coauthorships amongst my friends. If you show up to the prospective weekend at School X and just get a bad vibe, take that into consideration.

Consistent with the above point, I would NOT ignore the “sales pitches” made by the students there. If it’s clearly just sales, discount it heavily. But there are going to be plenty of grad students who will be brutally honest with you as well. I could easily be deluding myself, but I’d like to think I was one of those. I LOVE my grad institution, but while I was there, I would tell some applicants to come, and others to not come. Not because I didn’t like them, but because, simply put, my program was a wounded duck in their field, and it looked like it was going to be bad for a few years. So, look for that grad student who will be brutally honest, who will tell you housing is costly or will tell you that your Antarctic politics specialist is well-published, but also a misogynist.

Money isn’t nothing, but don’t approach it stupidly, either. First: state schools have state tuitions, so comparing the “package” from UCLA or Berkeley to Stanford or USC just on the basis of how much money it sounds like is a terrible idea; the privates “cost” more, so pay attention to how much money will make it into your pocket after that difference, which can be substantial. The second thing, though, is that you’re going into a low paying profession. You HAVE to realize this. This is NOT for people wanting to make it rich. If you’re focused on the money now, this is likely not going to be a happy career choice. So, I would say that you SHOULD be willing to borrow a little bit if need be, but only because that would indicate that you’re the type of person who could be cut out for a lower-paying career field. But, if you can get into a PhD program and like money, maybe a JD or MBA is more appropriate for you, because the financial rewards are better.

And then, to highlight PhDinGovt’s point: theory PhDs are just WAY more numerous than the job opportunities, and there really are fewer funding opportunities for them in grad programs. You can do it, but understand that you’re very likely looking at your first job being at a bad state school in some place you’ll hate, and that you’ll be applying to get assistant professor gigs long after you have tenure, just trying to get to a decent school or location.

David March 13, 2012 at 1:36 am

I agree wholeheartedly with the original post and Matt Jarvis on the quality of program issue. The best thing about grad school for me was being around absolutely brilliant, crazy people for months and years on end. The seminars were fine. The office conversations were often mindblowing, and the competition made everyone sharper and harder-working. I was lucky in my peers at grad school. My experience in hiring now as a professor for over 20 years, is that students from the better or best programs are far better prepared, and it’s got something to do with culture and their peers. I have tried to ignore pedigree, but it’s a damn good indicator of how well-trained and how interesting a freshly minted Ph.D. is going to be. I’m convinced it’s the peers.

Sarah March 31, 2012 at 3:19 am

So, as one of the prospective grad students who has had the amazing fortune to be admitted to several excellent programs, I have a somewhat specific question. Do any of the readers have any thoughts on the potential benefits of choosing a school in a part of the country where there are a number of excellent institutions of higher education (say, the northeast corridor) over a school that is excellent on its own but more isolated from the greater academic community, at least geographically (say, midwest-ish)?

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