This post is principally for PhD applicants, who send me the most inquiries. Since I can’t respond in detail to most emails, I hope this post answers your questions. The advice is skewed towards politics PhDs, but I give advice to economics PhD applicants where it differs. (Fellow faculty: I’d love to hear any different advice in comments or by email.)
Should I get a PhD?
A PhD is training to become a professional researcher, advancing the science. The only good reason to get a PhD? That’s the career you want.
Now, a PhD will help you in many careers. But it is a trap to think like this. You need to think in terms of opportunity cost. Unless you want to be an academic, probably the opportunity cost of a PhD is too high. You could have been doing something more relevant and better paid (meaning paid) for those 5 to 8 years.
Maybe the only exception to the academic rule is if you want to be an economist at the World Bank or in your Ministry of Finance or Central Bank. That typically requires a PhD. I can’t think of an analogue for politics PhDs, however. The state department stars are not usually academics, unless they’ve come after distinguished careers in academia.
Is School X a good fit for my interest Y? Should I apply?
Your first objective is to get the best quality general research training you can. So you should apply to as many of the top schools as possible and then, once admitted, start to narrow down your choices based on fit and overall quality. Visit everywhere you are admitted, to get this sense of quality and fit.
The other reason to apply to many places is that the admissions process is not only ridiculously competitive but also somewhat random. Getting from the 80 attractive candidates down to the 25 or 35 you can admit is very idiosyncratic. So even strong candidates with a good fit might not get in.
That said, schools are much more likely to admit you if you demonstrate a good fit with their faculty–something you need to help them see by researching the faculty and reading their work, and describing how you would fit in. Then explain in the letter the people you see as the best fit. This is more important in politics than in economics. In my experience, in politics programs they tend to take your cover letter very seriously. In economics less so.
In the end, it is a numbers game. Applying to more programs might not change your expected probability of admission very much, but it will reduce the variance.
Thanks for the general advice, but what about you and Columbia?
Most of the students I work with are interested in topics related to either conflict and terrorism, political behavior (like voting or rioting or collective action), something under the umbrella of the political economy of development (micro- and macro-level), or causal inference. If your topic falls here, then I’d be a natural advisor for you, and I welcome new students. I work with both economics and politics (and sometimes sustainable development) PhD students.
If these are your interests, other Columbia politics faculty you should investigate include John Huber, Macartan Humphreys, Tim Frye, Vicky Murillo, Page Fortna, Kimuli Kasara, Massimo Morelli, Dan Corstange, or (methods-wise) Don Green, Andy Gelman and Shigeo Hirano. In economics and related disciplines see Eric Verhoogen, Miguel Urquiola, Supreet Kaur, Suresh Naidu, Ray Fisman, Pierre Yared, or Jonas Hjort. This is just a partial list.
Do I need to have faculty advisers picked out in advance?
Yes and no. “Yes” because you should demonstrate that there is good fit with the department. In your applications you should be able to point to two to five faculty who, methodologically or topic-wise, do things that are relevant to you.
(Aside: The reason you want to identify multiple faculty is that we know things you do not: who has too many students already, who takes few students because they are solitary or retiring or on long leave, who has job offers elsewhere, etc. So don’t make your application hinge on one faculty member. Also, make sure the people you focus on are core faculty in the department, not adjuncts or someone in the law school, since these people seldom advise PhD students.)
“No” because you think you know what you want to work on right now, but that will probably change three times. You haven’t learned much about the discipline yet, and it would be odd if two years of coursework and conversations didn’t change your mind.
Also, “no” because it’s rare to have a relationship and any kind of commitment to or from a faculty member in advance. Most of us tend to let the admissions process run its course before getting involved.
Should I contact faculty in advance? Can we meet or have a phone conversation before I apply?
Students often contact faculty directly about admissions, especially in summer and fall. Most us us get more emails than we can respond to. Different faculty deal with this different ways. For me, I prefer to meet or chat with students once they have been accepted by the program. There are a couple of reasons for this.
One is that I receive e-mails from more people than I can find time to meet. So in fairness I try not to privilege some over others. Once someone is accepted, that means I have the time to talk with them in more depth to help them make the right decision.
Another reason is that having a conversation with a professor in the department, in my experience, does not influence the admissions process. It is enough to mention in your application that you are interested in the work of specific faculty and illustrate a linkage. In the end, even that does not weigh heavily in the decision.
If you feel you must contact faculty, attach a short (1- or 2-page CV) and make your email very short (as in three to four lines maximum) and easy to answer. Flag your best qualifications very briefly.
But please don’t be too discouraged if you get little or no response. We really do get a flood of these emails in a short space of time and often it’s not possible to respond to them all.
So what makes a successful application?
In short, focus on getting good recommendations, experience, grades and GRE scores.
After that, it’s hard to predict. As far as I can tell, most departments delegate admissions to a small committee of four to six faculty. The committee probably changes every year. Thus you never know who will be on the committee or what they care about. This adds randomness. Columbia politics farms it out to the full faculty, but each file is initially screened by just a couple faculty, so there is still randomness in what catches their eye or what they care about.
That said, in my limited experience there are some common denominators for what people look for.
Letters are extremely important. We like to see effusive letters from professors who know your coursework and research abilities well. This means that during or after your undergrad or MA you build relationships with two and ideally three faculty. Non-academic letters are discounted, since they can seldom speak to your ability to do what a PhD expects of you: produce great research.
You want to signal high intellectual ability, and a poor GPA or GRE score might hurt you in the early stages of reviewing files. If you think you can do better, then you should try. Retake the GRE, or do an MA and get straight As. If your undergraduate GPA is not reflective of your abilities, explain why in your letter. What’s a poor score? It’s hard to say, and varies, but at minimum an A- average and (in most cases) much better is what we look for.
Economics applicants will ideally want to show A’s in all their maths (linear algebra, multivariate calculus, real analysis, statistics, etc.) There is hope for you if you don’t have these–I did not have the full range of maths and my math grades were not perfect–but I got in partly from luck I think. And admissions seem more competitive these days.
Politics PhD applicants ought to have a clear statement of research interests. It helps to have a finished research product from your thesis or post-graduate work, though this is not essential. It helps us see how you think and judge your ability to think and produce. My understanding is that economics admissions committees are much less interested in this work, and may even ignore it, because they assume you haven’t even learned the basic tools of the trade yet. Which is true. Politics has less of a fixed methodological cost of entry, and is more heterogeneous, and so early work is a better indication of future work. Well, some people think so. I personally don’t put a lot of stock in the writing sample.
Do I need an MA?
Many and perhaps most people we admit do not have an MA. The PhD is designed for smart people to come with only undergraduate training. I don’t think admissions favors MAs, but this is a guess: I have not done the numbers.
An MA can be useful in some circumstances, though: to see whether you like political science and what you like in it, to improve your grades, to get courses you did not get in undergraduate (especially important for economics PhD applicants who didn’t do their maths) or to build the faculty relationships you didn’t have a chance to build during your undergrad degree.
Keep in mind: most economics and political science MA programs are moneymakers for the department. The core faculty don’t necessarily teach the students or interact with them, and prioritize PhD and undergrad students. If you are looking at MA programs, figure out which ones give you the most interaction with core research faculty. Once admitted, choose the schools partly on which ones have core faculty who encourage you to come and indicate you can take their classes and work with them.
Do I need experience?
Not necessarily, but I think it is an advantage to have relevant research or field experience, especially in applied topics like development or conflict. It will help you ask and answer more interesting questions. It will also help you make sure this is what you want to do.
In my experience, politics admissions committees are sometimes weakly biased against people coming straight from undergraduate degrees. It’s too easy to apply straight from undergraduate, and going away and doing something else signals more serious commitment. But this varies a lot from committee to committee.
In general, I think it’s good to take a break from academia, try on other careers, or get some advanced research experience to make sure this is what you want to do with your life and get a head start. It’s too easy to apply to grad school, and so momentum carries too many people into PhDs for the wrong reasons. We are trying to screen you out. You should be trying to screen yourself out too.
Fellow faculty: anything to add? Students: Any major questions unanswered?