Planning to apply to a PhD?

It’s that time of year and the emails are starting to arrive in the inboxes of professors (whether or not they have blogs). I’d say the most common are “Would you take me as your student?” and “Do you think your PhD program is the right fit for me?” and, somewhat more seldom, “Would you give me advice on my applications?”

Most of the professors I talk to just don’t answer these requests, or give curt responses. There are just too many.  I feel badly, because these questions are sincere, so instead of answering all, I’ve written up advice on applications and details about whom I advise and how.

These applications are a big deal for the people writing them, and so the questions are understandable. They are crucial in some fields (psychology and some sciences, I think) where professors interview students like job applicants, and take them on as students from day one.

Not so in my fields–economics and political science–at least in the large departments. It might help if I pull back the curtain a little. Basically, these are often big programs that receive hundreds and hundreds of applications–possibly 20 or 30 per faculty member. We form a small committee to review these and make recommendations to the full faculty. So emailing individual faculty is unlikely to help.

There are exceptions, especially if your undergraduate advisor or another contact knows the professor personally. A personal note from them introducing you is very effective.

Dissenting opinions?

5 thoughts on “Planning to apply to a PhD?

  1. Before Inside Higher Ed launches another debate about your “tone” and frankness, I would just note that the student questions you have sampled do often get answered in the spring for ADMITTED STUDENTS who are choosing their graduate program. Relationship-specific insight from faculty for APPLICANTS simply does not pass a social cost-benefit test. The cost of an additional application for an applicant is low, and the waste for faculty from answering a thousand emails from students who won’t be admitted anyway is high. Aspiring graduate students cast a wide net in their applications, and graduate programs cast a net suitably wide for their expected admissions yield. Most relationship-specific sorting happens after admissions. That’s the way the process works in economics, and I gather political science is similar.

  2. Hi Chris,
    This is very useful. Thank You.
    At the moment, I’m finishing up my Masters and I hope to continue onto a Phd in 2015.
    I will continue to read your blog and picking up tips!

  3. I get these questions a lot too. I always tell them to do a Google search for ‘chris’ ‘blattman’ ‘advice’, and come back to me if they still have questions after reading the first 20 links or so. Usually that suffices – thanks for creating this public good.

  4. You are right that these emails are very important in other fields, especially sociology and anthropology, where it is a de facto rule to email professors with whom the student is considering working. In economics, it seems to be discouraged entirely.

  5. When I got accepted to one sociology department, I was asked why I *hadn’t* emailed the person who would be my adviser (even without emailing, I still obviously was obviously). I don’t think this is necessarily the norm in sociology departments, but I’ll echo Brittany in saying it’s more common. I think it’s especially common or important for students who are working in small sub- or sub-sub-fields. As someone who applied for “sociology of religion”, where the modal top program has zero people working on the field, it took some confirming that I “fit” with people in departments where no one explicitly worked on sociology of religion.

    As a comparative note, I also applied to a couple of Religious Studies PhD programs and there emails seemed much more important than even sociology. I was told several times that my application seemed strong, my project seemed interesting, but the person in question just wasn’t able to advise me. For example, there was a professor who worked on Islam in contemporary and historical Pakistan and had written on religion in Ottoman Anatolia, who told me didn’t feel comfortable advising a project that dealt with contemporary Anatolia–it was simply too far from his expertise. Knowledge, and knowledge production, was just constructed in a very different way.