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FAQs on PhD applications - Chris Blattman

Chris Blattman

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FAQs on PhD applications


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 the process 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. I didn’t benefit from that advice as a young applicant, however, and I’d like to democratize admissions as much as possible.

You would be wise to get several opinions. In my case, my experience comes 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). I also write letters for my research assistants and students every year.

Go here to read about the Harris Public Policy PhD, and here for information on the joint Political Economy PhD with political science. 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.

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 perfect sense. If your goal is to occupy a highly technical policy position (such as a central banker, or a minister of finance), then a PhD may help. If these are not your goals, then it’s doubtful a PhD is a good idea.

I meet a lot of students who want a prominent career in policy, and see the PhD as a powerful accreditation. Especially students from middle and low income countries. That may be true in your country, but I’m skeptical.

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. Also, you’ll be acquiring skills that are far too specialized for a policy career.

Also, PhD programs (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.

In sum, 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. I talk about choosing among Masters-level programs here.

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 don’t choose on your preferred city. And certainly don’t select schools based on a particular professor or speciality. Look for places with breadth and excellence across subfields. Apply to as many as you can afford. Then, only once you’re 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.

The other reason to apply to many places is that the admissions process is not only ridiculously competitive but also extremely idiosyncratic. Getting from the 100 attractive candidates down to the 30 to 50 you admit is borderline random. So even strong candidates with a good fit with a program might not get in.

That said, schools are much more likely to admit you if you demonstrate a good match 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. The good news, however, is that across most social sciences you can fabulous PhD training in the top 30-50 schools.

As far as I can tell, however, PhDs outside the top 50 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. But your choice will be path dependent. An economics PhD will most likely result in an economics job, for example. As I have written elsewhere, it is extremely difficult to get a job in another discipline, like political science.

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.

We’ve also created a new political economy PhD program at UChicago, joint between Harris and the political science department. This is designed for students who want supercharged technical skills, and I suspect we will mainly place people in political science departments, as well as professional schools and some economics departments. Apply if you are interested in political economy issues and want the best training in formal modeling, econometrics, and microeconomic theory out of any political science department in the US.

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?

In my view, the fundamental problems in graduate admissions are “information overload” and “noise”. For every slot in a PhD program, there are probably 30 to 50 applicants. A department that plans to have a class of 20 students may receive 1000 applications.

Meanwhile, most departments delegate admissions to a small committee of two to six faculty. They don’t have time to read 1000 applications in detail. And the committee may change every year. Thus, their experience may be limited. And you never know who will be on the committee or what they care about. This adds further randomness.

These faculty want to admit the most talented and creative young researchers who will push the field ahead. And they also want you to pass all the most technical classes, because they hate kicking students out. So the admissions committee are looking for strong signals of intelligence, creativity, determination, and other proclivities for research.

But this is hard. There are too many applications. Applicants don’t have many good ways to signal quality. All applicants are trying to send the same signals. And there is a ton of uncertainty around each signal. Hence: Information overload and noise.

Your job as an applicant is to send the best, clearest signal possible, and minimize the noise around that signal.

Here are the components of an application, and advice on sending the best and clearest signals.

  1. GRE scores. Everyone uses these differently. In my experience, they’re often used (along with grades) to help a committee get from 50 applications per slot down to maybe 20 applications per slot. That is, to cull and make the review process more manageable. Therefore, scores in the 90th-99th percentiles help a lot.
    • This is especially true in economics, where some programs cull anyone with quantitative scores outside the very top percentiles. (They could care less about your written or other test scores.)
    • Political science programs are more heterogenous in their cutoffs and what scores they look at (if any). But having a score above the 95th percentile is a good signal if you can manage it.
  2. 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. Especially when it comes to Master’s degree grades.
    • 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. See below for more information.
    • 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. But if you are coming from a foreign country, you probably ned an MA. See below.
  3. Strong letters of recommendation from professors. Honestly, one of the very best signals a committee can receive is from a professor who has a track record of sending students to PhD programs, and who can write a specific and detailed letter comparing you to other recent admits.
    • Letter writers 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.
    • Non-academic letters are discounted, since they can seldom speak to your ability to do what a PhD expects of you: produce great research. So a great letter from your boss at a consulting firm, NGO, or government office probably will not help your application.
    • This means that during or after your undergrad or MA you build relationships with two and ideally three faculty.
    • 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.
    • I’ve written more detailed advice on recommendation letters here.
  4. For most: quantitative methods. Economists in particular 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 personal/research statement. Most people do this wrong. Basically, you should be able to articulate a concrete research question and how you would propose to answer it. See my advice on writing a good statement.
  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.

Lest you are beginning to despair: Very few applicants have all of these things. Most applicants are weak in one or two or three areas. 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.

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. You will get PhD training in microeconomics, political economy, game theory, and stats/econometrics. You apprentice with a faculty member and get a string letter. I personally take and train 1-2 students a year.

How many programs should I apply to?

The short answer is “many”. I think 10–15 is commonplace in political science and economics. This is partly because admissions is so idiosyncratic. You don’t know your fit. We don’t either. There’s lots of noise. Most people who apply to 10-15 schools may only get into 2 programs. That’s what happened to me.

This is time consuming. More importantly for some of you, it’s expensive, because schools charge fees. Schools do so partly because otherwise we get WAY more applications than we can handle (and so that the students who are admitted don’t bear the burden of paying for admissions staff through their tuition).

Here’s the secret: if this cost is a real constraint for you, ask the school if they will waive the fee. Explain your personal circumstances in a short and professional email. Attach a CV.. Many schools will co sider your request seriously.

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. Mostly 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 closely 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.

Special considerations for international students

The bad news: In my experience, it’s difficult to get into a top US PhD program without an American master’s degree. There are many exceptions. Several countries, especially in Europe and Latin America, have a premiere school that funnels students to top US PhD programs every year. Thus, American schools know what they are getting. Otherwise, it’s hard for an admissions committee to judge your record. This happened to me. I come from Canada, but from a school that few Americans know (Waterloo). Even though it’s not that foreign, Canada is foreign enough to create some hurdles in an already hurdle-strewn field.

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.