Frequently asked questions on PhD applications

Last updated October 2017.

I’m asked about PhD admissions a lot. I’m going to give some advice and demystify the process of US admissions a bit. I also address the question “Would you be my advisor if I apply?” Since I can’t respond in detail to most emails, I hope this post answers your questions.

I won’t demystify entirely, because uniform applications are unhelpful to us reviewers. But I do want to make the application process easier to understand, both to make it easier for people like me to decipher your application, and also to level the playing field. Undergraduates at the top research institutions have the advantage of advisors who already give them this advice.

First, some caveats. My experience comes solely from my current role in Chicago Harris PhD admissions, two years on the admissions committee in Yale political science, two in Columbia political science, and one in Columbia sustainable development (which is essentially an applied economics PhD in science, environment and health topics). You would be wise to get second opinions.

Go here to read about the Harris PhD. You’ll see why we think it is one of the best places to study political economy of development. Other specialities include applied microeconomics, formal political theory, and energy. It’s also one of the only places to get rigorous retraining in both political science and economics. And remember that most (though not all) public policy PhD programs are like applied economics programs. You will need many of the same requirements for admission.

If you are applying to economics or public policy, you absolutely must heed the following:

Nearly all of Athey and Mankiw’s advice applies equally well to aspiring political scientists who want to do political economy or development work, and indeed almost any of the applied empirical fields in politics.

For advice on political science PhD applications, also see Dan Drezner and Dan Nexon, who focus a little on international relations scholars. My thoughts are are on economics and political science together, with the most relevance for those doing applied empirical work and my fields: development, comparative politics, political economy, and labor.

Please point everyone to other sources of PhD advice in the comments.

Should you do a PhD?

A first important, simple point: If your goal is to be a professional researcher and instructor, then a PhD makes sense. If not, not.

In particular, if your goal is to be influential in policy and practice, then an MA or MPA or MIA from a US or UK/European institution probably makes far more sense for you (e.g. Harris, Tufts, SIPA, Princeton, SAIS, HKS, etc). Or consider the MACRM program here at UChicago’s Harris Public Policy if you want intense and applied research training and the option of a PhD at the end.

Why? Opportunity cost. A PhD is five to seven years, and a Master’s is two. A PhD means you are sacrificing several years of valuable work experience and as much as several hundred thousand dollars in income.

I talk about choosing among Masters-level programs here.

One thing to keep in mind: a PhD program, like most organizations, don’t just teach you, they socialize you. They gradually change what you think is interesting and important, the peer group you compare yourself to, the value you place on leisure and family over career, and the kind of life you will value when you emerge. This is good for science, maybe or maybe not so good for you. Enter with open eyes.

Where should I go?

If you are set on a PhD, then you’ll want to attend an institution with full funding (which often comes in exchange for a reasonable research and teaching load). If a PhD is going to land you with tens of thousands in debt, it’s a highly questionable decision.

Your first objective is to get the best quality general research training you can. So 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 be confident it’s the right place for you. I’m very serious about this..

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 100 attractive candidates down to the 30 to 50 you 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 (see below). 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.

Ideally, however, you will want entry into the top ten schools in your field because it keeps the most doors open, especially if you want an academic job. It’s not necessarily fair, but it seems to be the way the market works. Especially in economics, which seems to me to be the most hierarchical field in social science.

As far as I can tell, PhDs outside the top 30 schools are unlikely to lead to careers in research universities. This varies by discipline, but in the US the top 10 to 20 schools tend to staff the top 100 to 200 US universities. For those who graduate from lower-ranked programs, many opportunities remain open at teaching universities, think tanks, international institutions, government and the like. There are a lot of fulfilling research careers, and I am willing to bet that rates of job satisfaction are pretty high.

I would love to see (and will post) numbers on this if anyone has it for political science or economics.

Greg Mankiw also has advice on choosing a grad program.

Should you do a PhD in economics, political science, or public policy?

As a MPA student, Dani Rodrik advised me: “Look at the people you admire and want to be like, and do what they did.” This is good advice, though it biases you to the areas you know not the areas you don’t. Most of the political economy scholars I admired at the time trained as economists, so I took the economics route. But I didn’t know the most interesting political science work because I had been trained in economics. So at least be aware of this circular trap.

Noah Smith recommends an economics PhD if you’re not sure what PhD you should do. He’s even a little more emphatic than that: “Economics is the best PhD you can possibly get.”

This is a little suspicious coming from an economist. It helps to remember that most people like to make their students in their own image (I am no exception).

I think Noah’s advice makes sense if you like economics a lot, if you want to do highly mathematical research, and if you want to be assured of a job. That is why I did an economics PhD.

But if you are motivated by other questions, prefer other methods, or if your strengths are somewhere other than math, I don’t see how your path to fulfillment lies through economics.

If for example you are deeply motivated by questions about politics, you will generally learn a lot more about politics in a political science department. Economics is almost unmatched at a very narrow slice of political economy. That’s what you’d expect as a result of specialization. But you will get fairly narrow political training. It worked for me, but you have to decide based on what and who interests you.

If your interests are political economy (like a great many readers of this blog) you will be well served by both economics and political science, with these caveats:

  • Economics, like any PhD, will socialize you to like what the profession likes.
  • If you don’t like what the profession likes, you can either be successful in convincing them it is interesting, or struggle to be considered relevant. It’s hard to predict.
  • As I have written elsewhere, it is extremely difficult to get jobs in other fields like political science, and people like me get them largely by chance.

What about policy school PhDs, such as Harris? These are a great fit for people interested in very applied work. To be honest, it will add a slight hurdle to the already hurdle-strewn process of getting a job in a conventional department such as economics or political science. Successful Harris graduates sometimes receive assistant professorships in economics and political science departments, but more often than not their career paths lie in professional schools of policy, health, education and the like.

Finally, there is the Sustainable Development PhD at Columbia, where I used to teach. This is basically an economics PhD where people study applied sciences, health, environment, etc. The biggest mistake I see applicants make is mistaking this for a non-quantitative program. This is a hard-headed ultra-quantitative program for people who want to be on the frontier of both economics and science at the same time, and requires all the math requirements of economics to be considered (see below).

Okay, so what does it take to get into a top school?

For entry into the top 10 or 15 schools, it is exceptionally competitive. 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.

If you think you don’t have what you need, but want a short, applied program designed to launch you into a top PhD program, consider the MACRM degree here at the Harris school. I personally take and train 1-2 students a year.

Some things that help, but that you may or may not be able to control at this point:

  1. Good grades. If you’re not at least an A- student it’s hard to make the case you are destined to teach or reach the research frontier.
    • Economics applicants will want to have A’s in as many mathematics classes as possible.
    • Night courses or an MA or MPA are common ways to make up for a patchy undergrad degree. That’s what I did.
    • Note, though, many and perhaps most people we admit do not have an MA. The American PhD is designed for smart people to come with only undergraduate training.
  2. Strong letters of recommendation from professors.  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.
    • We take these letters very seriously. Professors typically specify in their letter how and how long we have known you and often give a sense of ranking relative to previous students we have recommended.
    • So: Have you developed close relationships yet with professors in the field where you want a PhD? Start now. Work as an RA, take small classes, and remember that it’s better to get a great letter from someone less known than an okay letter from a well-known scholar.
  3. GRE scores in the 90-99 percentiles help a lot. Perhaps even worth retaking an exam for. This is especially true in economics.
  4. For most: quantitative methods. Economists (and sustainable development PhDs) probably need 2-3 semesters of calculus and statistics each, plus real analysis and linear algebra. Other courses (e.g. differential equations) help. Aspiring political scientists (except the theory/philosophy focused and some ethnographers) would be wise to do the same in calculus and statistics. Nine out of ten job market papers I see use quantitative theory or statistics to some extent, often inadequately. The bar is rising rapidly and those with basic math foundations have advantages. This includes the ethnographers, who often want to do multi-method work, integrating insights from game theory or run regressions. If so, 4-8 classes of methods preparation in undergrad is the minimum to be literate in half the work in your field.
  5. Relevant or interesting work experience. Unless you want to be an abstract theorist, 1-2 years of work experience, ideally research experience, before applying, in order to better develop your research skills, explore your interests and understanding of the literature and write a compelling research statement.
    • I can’t speak for all schools, but each year I’ve served on admissions, most of the faculty on the committee discriminate against students that come straight from undergrad, at least in applied fields.
    • Also see Mankiw on working before grad school.
  6. A compelling research statement. Basically, you should be able to articulate a concrete research question and how you would propose to answer it. More on this below.
  7. Outside funding. This won’t make a difference at all schools, but at many it can help. US students should apply for an NSF and foreign students may have a similar institution in their country. See my grant application advice.

Very few applicants have all of these things. Most are weak in one or two or three. So don’t stress out too much. Even so stress out enough that you do now what you can to improve your chances with the time you have.

A big piece of advice: Try to work on research projects with professors, because the best way to decide whether you want to do something is to try it out before it’s too late. Become an RA in your department, or start looking for RA jobs with professors in top departments in areas of your interest. This will also help with letters and your statement.

Thanks for the general advice, but what about you and Chicago?

If you want to know what it’s like to work with me, read this.

Most of the students I work with are interested in topics related to something under the umbrella of the political economy of development (micro- and macro-level), conflict and terrorism, political behavior (like voting or rioting or collective action), or causal inference. If your topic falls here, then I’d be a natural advisor for you, and I welcome new students. I commonly work with economics, politics and Harris School PhD students.

Do I need to have faculty advisers picked out in advance?

Yes and no.

“Yes” because your personal statement should demonstrate that you are a 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.

  • 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.

As a result, I don’t recommend contacting economics and political science professors in advance.

  • This is different than psychology or some of the humanities or sciences where you are expected to have a specific advisor and relationship in advance.
  • The reason is that we may get 1000 applications and a small committee may make 60 offers for 20 spots. It would be almost impossible to meet and screen people personally, and the majority of faculty in the department may not be clsely involved in the admission process that year.
  • Even so, we faculty can get bombarded by emails from prospective students in the months before applications are due. Different professors deal with this in different ways, and I am guessing a majority don’t respond at all. I try to respond but only to explain that I engage in depth with students mainly after the committee has made offers.

A word on personal statements

I must say a little more about personal statements, because they often miss the point, and this is unhelpful and even painful to admissions committees.

This is not an undergrad entry essay where you describe your life’s trails and tribulations. And please do not start with the story about an epiphany, such as the day that you knew you wanted to study the subject. Especially if it involves a child in a poor country. In my opinion, this is mostly irrelevant and largely cliche.

You are applying to be a professional researcher, and this is your cover letter. Personally, I like to see some of the following:

  1. Your fields of interest
  2. Who you would like to work with in the department and why this is a good fit
    • Make sure they actually are there and take students–that is, that they didn’t leave last year, are actually in the department you are applying to, and are tenure-track or tenured
  3. Your career objective(s)
  4. Concrete research ideas (this seems to be more important in political science, which likes to see if you can develop an interesting research question and propose a way to answer it)
  5. Important highlights from your CV, including any strengths that distinguish you
  6. Only if necessary: Information that might help us understand any apparent weaknesses or puzzles in your application (e.g. why you studied physics but now are doing politics, or what happened in that single bad semester, or what your foreign GPA means)

I’m pretty sure other professors will have different preferences here, so don’t take this as law. I think we’d all agree, however, that we need to know whether you will fit into the department and with whom, and it’s helpful when you give your view.

International students

I have some sympathy here, coming from Canada. Even though it’s not that foreign, is foreign enough to create some hurdles in an already hurdle-strewn field.

As far as I can tell, it’s hard to get into a US PhD program without a MA or MPA or the like from your country or the US. Like it or not, this seems to be a pattern. If other profs disagree, let me know, because I’ll update this. This can even hold for the UK, Canada, etc.

A lot of foreign recommendation letters, especially those outside Europe, say very little about how they know you, how long, where their institution ranks in the country in research, what they think of your relative quality, whether they’ve sent grad students to the US before and where, etc. This tends to be helpful information and if you can find a diplomatic way to see if your professors are aware of the US norms, the better for you.

It’s also very hard for us to remember and track how every country grades their students. I wish students would make it easier for us. If your registrar or an online site can convert your GPA, do so. At minimum, I’d suggest telling us what it means in your personal statement.

I’m not sure about this, but I’d consider putting that conversion directly into the field online where it asks your GPA. Because many schools get from 1000 applications to the 200-300 they read in depth with a big spreadsheet of GPAs, GREs, school name, and a few other pieces of info. A blank GPA field either raises or lowers the chance they look at your application, and I don’t know which. There’s no simple solution or recommendation here. But this is something I think applicants ought to know about.

Comments and other perspectives welcome. I am also happy to entertain other questions. First see my advice on the right sidebar about success and fulfillment in a PhD, including (for the idealists like me) how to still save the world.

79 thoughts on “Frequently asked questions on PhD applications

  1. Thank you for posting this article. I had just contacted a professor to try and get to know her, and she was very, very brief in her replies. Now I know that it’s not personal, and that I should just wait to speak with her once accepted. Saved us both some grief.

  2. Experience for prospective Econ Ph.D. students — check out all the 2-year internships at government agencies, policy institutes & think tanks. They are designed specifically for BA’s who will leave after 2 years to go to grad school. Great way to get hands-on research experience (and thus a good letter of rec from a senior scholar) and to decide whether a life of research is indeed what you want to do.

  3. I have learnt some tricks from Chinese history in Han, Tang, Ming, Yuan, Jin dynansty and the time of Three Kingdoms, and have extracted some learnings from realpolitics and development in Asia. I also learnt from I-Ching, Lao Tze, Shangshu, Machiaville and Home.Politics means darkness in China and even in the whole course of human history, especially in international politics when Athens sieged Milos. I have only one hypothesis in my inklings, that is, the study of politics shall be dynamically and integratively filed for special circumstances while being consistant in its fundamentals. However, I have only money to prevent myself from hunger by doing drugery. I have no GRE scores as my finace prevents me from it. What’s more, I have only a bachelor’s degree in English ffrom Yunnan Nationalities University in China. Your recruiting staff Andson has written letters to me for TESL. I reprimanded her for staying with a University where money was the King. However, I hope to catch your eyeball. Should you be interested in me, please contact me by the email I have posted or though [email protected].
    Best regards!

  4. Today was the third occasion that I pointed a potential graduate student applicant to this page for advice. Thanks so much for making it public!

  5. Hi, first thanks for this. It helps a lot to know what professors think and what they value most. I am, however, slightly discouraged when reading the line, “The PhD is designed for smart people to come with only undergraduate training.” I guess I’m not smart people. I have strong interest in my field and study hard. I read slow, so I read longer than other students, but even so, the grades aren’t top-notch, straight As. I haven’t taken my GREs yet, so I don’t know what will happen there, but since I don’t have the best scores, I don’t have the strongest recommendations either, the thing you consider most important. Is there nothing that I can do?

    By the way, the anti-spam question is clever! :)

  6. my qualification is mcm bed so i want to do phd by bu bhopal in education shall i eligible for it or not give suggestion and also give detail information about syallubus of phd in education thanks

  7. Hi Chris,

    I think your work is really cool. Basically I want to be you. I am interested in applying to Phd programs in economics, with the hope that I can eventually do research in development economics. It would be really cool to do research like the stuff that Innovations for Poverty Action is working on. Is the phd in economics the only path to doing this type of work? Because here’s my conundrum: I think that the context of development economics research and the problems it is trying to solve are super compelling, but many times when I read an econ paper I endup falling asleep in the middle of a page long mathematical proof. My undergraduate background is in engineering, so I think could hack the math stuff if I had to, but the all math just makes the research seem so dry and uncompelling. I look at your work, and alot of it doesn’t seem to have that same degree of mathematical work to the methodology, and seems to focus more on statistical regressions and stuff like that. Not trying to insult the rigor of your work at all the way. And I am probably not making any sense. Basically, how can I do what you do without going through 4-5 years of doing things like page long mathematical proofs and things like real analysis? Is it just par for the course?

    Thanks!

    -Ryan

  8. Interesting blog post and very useful advice. Do you have any relevant advice about transferring grad schools early (1 year) in the phd program? I am looking at it as applying to phd programs rather than ‘transferring’ per se but I’m curious how something like that affects this process.

  9. I suppose I should clarify that I just completed a Masters at my current university in the Fall and am beginning the phd program this year. Thanks for any advice or feedback.

  10. I have found your blog to be the most informative and helpful I have happened upon. Thank you!!!

  11. “Basically, you should be able to articulate a concrete research question and how you would propose to answer it. More on this below.”

    Did you have anything else to add about research statements? It looks like you meant to say more, but forgot to include it.

  12. This was very informative and well thought out. However, you have not covered the dreaded interview. I know interviews are not as common but they still do exist. No matter how many you attend, they are still completely and utterly terrifying. Especially when a number of the admissions committee members will be present; do you have any advice for doctoral program interviews?

  13. Thank you sir for sharing some wonderful and useful tips. I have two questions in mind, first is, whether it is disadvantageous for an undergraduate (Indian ) international applicant to apply for phd program in top ranked U.S universities especially Columbia university in the field of economics and second is, if it is viable to contact the current student of the university that one is applying to , in order to get some help regarding the admission process and appropriate requirements. Looking forward for your reply.

  14. Hi,
    I am trying to enroll in the university and I am not sure what is the appropriate career.
    I love to help people and it is possible travel around the world and help them, I already studied International Business, but I have to start again in USA because I got my degree in other country. I don’t know if study International development or Human service. can work that careers? thanks

  15. You are so nice and thoughtful to write this article. I am sure many students have found it very helpful. I would love to ask if you have known any international students that got accepted into Ph.D programs only with a bachelor’s degree.
    (Is using the anti-spam question with an only “Yes” answer a way for you to demonstrate the fact that Ph.D schools will socialize people? :) )

  16. I not sure about political science, public relations, and the like; you do not need to be an A- student to get into top programs (at least not for STEM). The general rule of thumb is that grades are not a good predictor of research ability, all they do show that you test well and/or know how to score an A. Also, students are evaluated differently in graduate school. Undergraduate research experience generally trumps GPA.

  17. Chris,
    Not sure if you’ll see this comment, now that this post is a little old, but I was wondering what your thoughts were on the importance of writing samples to an admissions committee. I’m assuming a committee will take it as a big plus if an applicant has completed an honors thesis.

    Thanks.

  18. My PhD app is aking me to list other schools to which I am appying to. will it hurt me if I do?

    Also, can I enroll in a PhD programme in a lower end school with the intention of switching to another prog next year?

  19. Question, any advice from going from a unknown undergraduate program to a top graduate school, I noticed you went to the University of Waterloo than Harvard

  20. Hi Chris,

    I am debating between going to law school or applying for a PhD in Political Science, and I found your blog to be a valuable resource. I was especially interested because I also did my undergrad in Canada, and was wondering if you could answer some questions on applying to American programmes with a Canadian transcript (although my situation might be a little different then yours, since I am a Canadian citizen).

    Also like you, I have a “patchy” undergrad – My senior grades are good, but my overall GPA is unimpressive because of a weak first year. Do you think this would sink me, or is the radical upward trend a good enough sign of my potential that my first year could be overcome? I am already studying in a masters programme at a top school in the UK.

    I was also wondering if the GPA requirements for US schools would be the same if you were coming from Canada. My understanding is that Canadians schools generally give out less “A” grades. I know in the UK they acknowledge this and have slightly lower grade cutoffs for Canadian applicants. Is it similar at US schools?

    I see many top schools (Michigan, Chicago, Rochester, say they look for 3.5… I fall just (barely) short of that because of my first year, but have higher grades for 3/4 years.

    Any additional thoughts/comments you had about going from a Canadian school to a US one would be eagerly received.

    I hope you get a chance to respond, but if not thank you so much for this blog. Sorry for the long comment

  21. Dear Sir,This is Dr. Mirza Munir Ahmed. I had completed PhD in Civil Engineering from Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP), Malaysia in October, 2013. I am highly interested to do post-doctorate from University of Columbia. I would like to email my Curriculum Vitae and abstract of my PhD thesis for your review. I will be very grateful if you guide me in this context. During PhD my area of research was “Risk and Safety Analysis Models Development for Petrol Filling Stations”. Hopeful to hear a positive and favorable response from your side.
    Thanking you with regards,
    Dr. Mirza Munir Ahmed

  22. Dear sir,this is nina from ETHIOPIA i would like to ask ya only one question. Do u think its necessary to take volunteer from your university to do research in ETHIOPIA where their are well qualified volunteers here

  23. Hello,
    I am international student from a developing country who wants to get an MA from a good university in Canada before trying for a strong PhD program in the US.
    Since you are from Canada, what steps do I need to take as a fresh undergraduate with little research experience to get into a great Canadian MA program first? Is research experience as important in the MA as it is for PhD? I looked at some US MA programs and some do not sound so demanding but some Canadian schools specifically want to see research experience ( which is difficult given the place I am from and my not-so-great undergrad program). I want to use the MA to really build myself up and obtain great research opportunities. Any advice for me?

  24. This is one in a billion articles that I found to be very helpful. I scored 308 in my GRE last year December, 2015. I applied to about 13 schools in the US. 11 of them have sent a rejection letter to me and I’m not happy at all. It seems my vision is being stalled by their rejections. After reading this article, I realised my shortcomings. The truth is that I studied Economics in my BSc and MSc programmes and I graduated with a first class in my BSc programme. I equally possessed a PGD in Education and I have been a RA since 2014. But now, many of my applications for a PhD programme in Finance in the US were not successful. Now, I still want to go for a PhD programme in Finance – I am really interested in it and I know I can cope with its rigour. Many of those schools claimed to favour Economics and Engineering graduates. Please, advise me on what to do to secure a PhD programme in Finance. I really need your advice because I need someone to speak to. I am already preparing for another GRE. Thanks.

  25. Hi Chris,
    I know this post is a little dated so you might not see this comment, but I’m looking for some advice on applying to PhD programs. I’m mostly looking into economics PhDs but I want to eventually work in international development so the Sustainable Development PhD you discussed in this post and the grad school options through HKS sound like great options as well. However, focusing on economics, I keep hearing that I should have two letters from undergrad/grad schooling and one from elsewhere because PhD programs care about research and that’s where most people complete their research. However, in my case I don’t have much research experience from my undergrad/grad years (I have a MS in Applied Economics) and, in fact, most of my research experience comes from my current position as a Fed RA. Would you still advise the typical two out of three letters coming from my academic advisors/professors for my situation?

    Thanks for any advice you can offer!

  26. Hi Chris,

    I’m interested in pursuing a PhD in economics, and I find your blog very helpful. Thank you so much for sharing your insights.

    Recently graduated from University of Michigan with B.S., I applied for many Economics PhD programs last Fall (2015), but failed to get into any (I’m international). You may find my case particular. I triple majored in econ, math, and art history. I have a very solid math background (math major in honors track, taken around 4-5 grad level classes in stats, real analysis, etc.) The reason I think I failed in getting any offer is that I stretched myself too thin, leading to relatively low GPA (comparing to the PhD application pool, but still managed to get the honors degree), very limited research experience with a faculty member in econ, and weak recommendation letters. Thus, right now I am seeking RA positions in my undergrad school and also other top universities, in hope that I can work alongside a faculty for a long term (one or two years) to gain more understanding in economic research and methodology, and hopefully to get a strong recommendation letter and a decent original research paper/proposal/writing sample. After months of searching, I find it also fairly hard, because only top schools offer RA appointments to undergrad grads and the competitions in RA positions are usually as intense as in phd applications. Most of my applications are like stone sinking into the ocean and I’ve hardly heard back from any.

    So my plan for now is to seek for these RA positions while preparing to apply for a Masters as a transition. Here’s my questions for you: what do you think about the masters program in QMSS at Columbia? Do you have any advice for my situation? Thank you!

    Best wishes,
    Mengxi

  27. Hi Chris,

    Great article! Nearly 3 years on, and still as relevant as when it started.

    I have a question on how a poor Masters degree can affect my chances of getting into a PhD program. I had good grades during my undergraduate years, my scores were in the 90th percentile. However, my grades during my graduate studies were in the 40th percentile. I’m sure that looks bad to anyone reviewing my application. It is worth noting that I enrolled to an Oxbridge University for my graduate studies, and despite the poor performance I did get pass the program.

    How do you think this affects my chances of admission into a good program?

    I would be grateful for any advice at all.

    Best,
    Sean

  28. Hello Chris!
    I am a graduate student from a developing country doing my Ph.D. I am not satisfied with the work environment here and would like to apply for a Ph.D in the US. I do not want to reveal my plans to my current institute and hence what I would like to know is whether it is necessary to include the name of my current workplace in my application and whether any recommendation letter is required from this institute to substantiate my work efforts.

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