Applying for the PhD

— Dr. Chris Hoadley

*Note: this guidance was written while I worked at Penn State. Most of it is still relevant for students applying at NYU, or indeed at any research university in the US.

I've just finished a marathon of graduate applicant reviewing and I have some advice, especially for applicants and their recommenders from other countries who may be unfamiliar with our application procedures. These are based on my experiences at Penn State in Information Sciences and Technology and in Education. Other disciplines, and other universities, may be different, but most of what follows should apply generally.

For recommenders

If you're writing a recommendation, please remember:

For the applicant

Test scores are actually important. If you have low English proficiency, and your GRE Verbal scores are low, we at least hope your Analytic Writing score is good. Personally, I find this score to be the single most useful predictor of success. * Even if the program does not require GRE scores, you should send them if you have taken the test and your scores are good.

If we have unique application requirements (such as a separate research statement from the statement of purpose, or an article review requirement) we don't want you to say 'See my statement of purpose' (which you presumably sent to other universities as well). We ask for unusual components specifically because we don't want to see the standard thing; in some cases we do so to prevent cheating, and in some cases because we get a better sense of your English skills on certain kinds of writing.

Don't use cut and paste, and certainly double check that your letter of purpose isn't about the wrong university! (We had one where the title said 'Statement of Purpose for Indiana University' and the body described why the applicant wanted to go to Carnegie Mellon University. There was nothing about our university in the essay.) Help us understand why you chose to apply here. If there are particular faculty whose work attracted you, let us know. If you are hoping to work with particular people, let us know.

Please have somebody proofread your grammar. Please. Pretty please. It's hard not to be frustrated after reading dozens of applications with English errors. For instance, in English we never talk about researchs or researches as a plural noun. In American English, we 'do research', 'perform research', or 'conduct research'; we do not 'make researches'.

We don't care in the US about marital status, age, sex, or religion. There is no need to put these on your curriculum vitae. You can mention them if they are relevant in your statement, etc., either because they connect to your qualifications or your goals. In general, we are not allowed to discriminate on these characteristics (and some others, such as disability, military service, etc.), so it's usually extraneous information. This is, however, the opposite of Europe where some of these characteristics are required components of a CV, and there may, for instance, be legal restrictions on how old a student may be to join a graduate program, and so on. You'll have to reformat your CV to A4 size paper anyhow, so keep a European and a North American version.

I have heard some applicants, especially domestic students with conservative political views, insist that they are discriminated on the basis of their religious or political views in the application process, especially if they emphasize this heavily in their application and then are denied admission. I have never once personally seen this type of discrimination take place (although I have seen two instances of illegal discrimination, one on the basis of ethnicity, one on the basis of disability; both were reported to the authorities). In general, we will not be swayed positively or negatively by your devotion to your church, military service, or by activities that carry strong political connotations, whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise. On the other hand, I have seen several examples of people successfully arguing on the basis of their experiences from these activities that they would make great scholars. That does influence admissions. So rather than just brag that you spent two years as a missionary, or in the army, tell us what skills or knowledge you developed as a result, and how those skills and knowledge might relate to grad school. If that part of your life doesn't relate to the main skills you would bring to bear as a student, don't make a big deal of it. People don't (and shouldn't) get brownie points just for being a patriotic soldier or a religious person or politically one way or the other—these are fine qualities, they are important to you and your identity, but they don't, by themselves, affect your ability to do well in grad school. If you fill up your statement of purpose with your religious beliefs, but don't tell us anything about your experiences or aspirations as a scholar, you are unlikely to be admitted. You should know we also reject really fantastic, great students if there isn't a 'fit'—for instance, if we are not excellent in your area of interest, or if the relevant faculty can't take on additional advisees, or even if we expect you would be unable to make it financially. To repeat: grad school admission is NOT a judgment of you as a person, or even of your intellect, and certainly not your politics; rather, it is a judgment of your potential for success at being a grad student and scholar at our institution. * Note: for professionally oriented master's programs, the emphasis is not on scholarship, but professional expertise. So you can replace 'scholar' with 'professional' in the preceding paragraph.

If you have external funding, make sure this is prominently featured. Although this is atypical at many universities, at Penn State we also have a number of self-funded individuals as well; if you are a university employee or dependent of an employee, and plan to use your tuition grant-in-aid to support yourself through graduate school, let us know. We tend not to admit people we think won't come, and funding is part of determining this. Generally, doctoral study requires your full-time attention during the degree, so if you would need full-time employment unrelated to your studies to support yourself, you may not have good fit with our program. That said, in some cases you can integrate your job with your studies, for instance if you are already working in a research-oriented job and your supervisor is supportive. So if you have that sort of plan we need to know about it.

A statement of purpose is not about your life's work or history, unless it's connected to your intellectual interests. Proving you are a good human being is nice, but the main job of the statement is to identify what brings you to grad school. Stating that you want to come to grad school to make your parents proud, to prove that you are an achiever, or because you are a good student is not helpful.

For Master's programs, you are typically trying to prove your interest and aptitude for becoming a professional in the field. In that case, you would want to identify your career goals, your prior skills, and how you think graduate school will help you grow into your profession. It is not required that you already have an undergraduate degree in the same field, but it is required that you bring the skills and learning from your bachelor's degree to your master's program.

For a PhD program, you are typically trying to prove your interest and aptitude for becoming a scholar in the field. Note the difference between 'student' and 'scholar'. Ph.D. programs are for training people to become scholars. When you become a scholar, your family will wonder why you are actually making less money than you did before grad school. Many people will think PhD education is esoteric and irrelevant to the real world. In many cases, they are right. The reason to come to a PhD program is because you can't help it—you are deeply interested in the figuring out, the thinking through, and the theorizing. It is hard work. It does not end—once you have the degree you are only really prepared to do grad-school-type things for the rest of your life. So if that sounds attractive, you should apply to a PhD program—but otherwise, you should consider professional education, the MBA, EdD, MSci, DLIS and so on. You could spend a decade establishing your professional competence in your field of choice (business, charity, government, etc.) or you could spend a decade getting a Master's, a PhD, and a postdoc or so. Each one will be taken seriously by different audiences. Which audience do you want to speak to? What is your intellectual passion?

One of the most powerful ways to convince a committee you are ready for doctoral study is to identify what area(s) you want to know more about with some sophistication about what you do and don't already know. However, listing classes you want to take is not helpful. PhD programs are not about the classes; they are about apprenticeship to research and scholarship. Remember that you will learn about an area both by learning from academics and by making original research contributions—your dissertation will mean being the single most expert person in the world on your topic, and you won't find what you learn there in any textbooks, but rather through your own research and scholarship. Don't write us a term paper on the subject. Similarly, don't write your application as a thesis proposal; you don't yet know enough to propose a specific study. Write a broad sketch of what you want to know and why it matters in the context of what you already know.

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Copyright © 2008-2012 Christopher Hoadley. Last updated 16 June 2012.