If At First You Do Not Succeed

12 March 2012, 1035 EDT

Lots of posts these days about whether to go to grad school for a PhD, including by Dan DreznerDrew Herrick has a nice post that not only presents his views but heaps of links to past posts by various folks (including myself) on this topic.  What these blogs have largely omitted is any discussion of what happens to the aspirants who do not get in or who get in but without funding (which most folks then say “run away!”).

When I was applying to grad school in a galaxy far away, in a time long ago, I didn’t get into several schools, and those were the ones that notified me the most quickly.  So, I remember the panic that ensued.  The first bit of consolation is this: about half of the folks who got in (or more) will not be finishing.  So, if you choose to end the quest now, you will be saving time and stress far sooner than those who go and then do not finish. 

Okay, not much consolation there.  The good news is that there are many ways to pursue your interest in poli sci and/or IR even if you do not get a PhD.  I had friends who got into the CIA and State pretty much out of college.  They might be exceptions, but there are government jobs that will engage that curiosity and interest in ways that writing heaps of seminar papers will not.  Likewise, there are think tanks, lobbying groups, non-profits and all the rest.  And the good news is that if you can find a good job, it will probably be in a place where your partner/spouse/whatever will be more likely to find a job (unless they are an academic).  As I always harp on, the best way to lose control over where you live is to get a Phd and become a professor.  So, if you do not end up being a prof, you may end up having more control over the rest of your life.  The bright side of globalization is that more and more firms have an interest in that stuff over there, so they will need to hire folks who have an interest in that stuff.  An MA might be a good idea as that might open doors into the policy world, journalism, and alternative careers.

If you are really committed to getting a Phd, check out this site.  Ok, you are back–has that changed your mind?  While the profession is not chock full of horrible people, they often do occupy key nodes and serve to make people miserable.  Job security often means for the horrible people a license to do damage and for the people nearby a lifetime of enduring.  There are real penalties for working a career with limited mobility.

Ok, let’s imagine that I have not persuaded you that you are better off not going to grad school for a PhD in political science/IR.  What should you do to get into grad school?  Good question.  I guess the obvious stuff still makes some sense and figure out the weaknesses in your application:

  • If your grades were low or you didn’t have much poli sci in college, then an MA might be the thing you need to re-set your grades, demonstrate competency, and get a new set of potential letter-writers.  This is a big, big investment, but if your undergrad grades are lousy, this is the only way to change their impact.  There is enough competition that someone else who has demonstrated an ability to do poli sci well is a less risky bet.  
    • Don’t expect the MA to reduce the number of courses you take for your PhD or the time to complete it (this is all written for North American programs). Most departments will insist that you take the core courses, even if you have had them at the MA level.
  • If your test scores are low, then work on improving them.   Seems obvious, right?  Well, changing your GRE scores is a whole lot easier than changing whatever your grade point average is.  You can re-take the GREs, but you cannot re-take college.  Some places really care about GREs, others less so, but you can work on test-taking and you can work on the math and the rest.  
  • Work on the letters of recommendation: if you do not have any profs/employers who know you well, then work on the relationships so that they can put a bit more time in your letter.  And no, I don’t know you well, so don’t ask me, please.  Oy, what I am doing? 
    • Give them more info about your plans, your strengths and examples of those strengths so that they can more easily make the letter more personalized.
    • The standard stuff also applies–give your letter writers more time–a rushed letter is not a good letter.  
    • Don’t over-tax the letter-writers.  If you apply to 20 programs, the chances that all of your letter-writers are going to take care of all of the letters declines.  You can even ask the letter-writers where you should apply.  They might tell you to apply to places where they know people.
  • Have your friends and letter-writers read your existing proposal, sample and whatever else you send in.  The one or two page research statement is one of the few things you can control at this point (your grades are mostly fixed, the test scores will be whatever they end up being).  
    • Make sure it is well-written, concise, interesting.  That it demonstrates that you have a creative mind and the ability to think theoretically.  Not that you have to demonstrate you have a paradigm you love, but that you are interested in developing and extending and applying generalizable theories.  The funny thing is I wrote something about studying arms racing even though I didn’t know much about it and they had no one who did such stuff at the time.  I still have no clue why they admitted me.  
    • Do your research on where you are applying so that you fit the program.  Saying you want to do field research but not numbers at a place that is known for producing quantitative scholars is probably not a wise thing. 
  • Which speaks to the big issue–apply carefully.  Figure out programs, not individuals, as my experience is that individuals do not make admissions decisions but committees do.  So, figure out where your profile would play best, where you would excel the most.  If you write your app to fit a certain strength of a program, be sure it is still a strength.  For instance, don’t apply to McGill next year hoping to do the IR of ethnic conflict as I am not going to be at McGill.  There is some movement, but places do not update their websites that quickly.  So, do take care and research as much as you can.  
    • There is stuff you will never know–that some departments will filter apps so that problematic advisers do not get more students, for instance.  You can only know what you know. 
  • Update: I didn’t include the following advice: get policy experience.  This was an unintentional oversight but was reminded of this by a tweet this morning.  Getting some really cool experience somewhere might help, but if you are getting a really cool experience, I would suggest sticking with that.  Anyhow, I am not sure how committees view such experiences as they go through hundreds of files. I would assume that such experiences matter more to policy schools.  Dan Drezner will be posting later this week on getting into grad school so his experience/perspective might be different.
  • Update 2: One strategy to take is to gamble. Apply to a program that you think is underrated but is on an upward trajectory.  This is, indeed, a gamble since places may not actually get a better reputation or improve their training.  I think this partially answers my own personal mystery–that I got into UCSD when it was rising.  I highly doubt that my record from 1988 would get me into UCSD in 2012. Rely on your advisers to help you figure out where you might have a better chance but proceed with caution.

One thing to keep in mind–the odds of getting in these days are against you.  McGill would get 100 apps for eight spots (and spread out among the subfields relatively evenly).  So, this may seem depressing, but you should also realize that it is not so much about you but about others who fit better.  And, of course, committees get things wrong–just as some team will draft the wrong player despite investing millions of dollars in scouting, departments may admit lesser candidates because their file played particularly well for a particular committee member or two.

This is just my take.  I have not been on the admissions committee for a couple of years, and the process, like grading, causes brain damage.  So, tell me if I am wrong, tell me what I am forgetting.