Applying for a PhD in Political Science

2 August 2012, 1400 EDT

I get a lot of emails asking for advice about putting together their graduate-school applications. I also get a lot of emails asking how to “improve” an application to make it “more competitive.” I suspect that these emails come to me because I am Director of Admissions in the Government Department, and people assume that part of my job description is “helping them get into graduate school.”

Nonetheless, because I like to think of myself as a “nice person,” I try to answer these queries with the sage advice that comes from many years on admissions committees. But it grows tiring to write the same basic words over and over and over again. “Perhaps,” I think to myself, “I could put my advice in a blog post and simply provide a link?”

General Issues

1. I teach at Georgetown and not at, say, Harvard or Princeton. We have a solid PhD program with excellent students, but we are not as competitive as the so-called “top tier.” Yet we routinely receive, for example, over three hundred applicants in the subfield of International Relations. And two fellowships. In some years we will let in twenty people aiming for a class of five. We initially admit 2-3 people and have a waitlist that runs 8-10 deep. Do the math.

That’s right… you have a slightly better chance of getting into our IR PhD than a high-school senior has of getting into Harvard. Some years your chances are worse. The odds of being offered a fellowship are significantly lower.

Given that our pool is already rather self-selected, this means that the number of people who apply and are “above the bar” greatly exceeds the number of spaces we have in our program. As college admissions officers sometimes say, we could throw out everyone we admit and still come up with a perfectly good entering class–probably two or three. So check your ego at the door, mate, because otherwise you risk getting it needlessly crushed.

2. Despite this wealth of qualified applicants, the admissions process is fraught with error and uncertainty.

“What?” I hear you think. “Didn’t you just say that you could put together many good classes out of your admissions pool.”
“Ah, yes,” I respond. “I forgot to mention that these classes are on paper.”

Well, here’s the funny thing. Being ‘smart’ or even ‘brilliant’ is not the same thing as being a successful academic. That requires:

  • The capacity to self-regulate such that you work without much in the way of adult supervision;
  • The ability to ‘produce knowledge’ and not simply excel in taking exams and writing collegiate papers;
  • The willingness to accept that you will make less money than most people with comparable educational profiles; and, most important
  • That special something (perhaps arrogance, perhaps imperviousness, perhaps non-neurotypical cognition) that enables you to continue on in the face of rejection… after rejection… after rejection.

It is extremely difficult to recognize which of the many otherwise successful, well-recommended, high-achieving applicants would make decent academics. In short, serving on an admissions committee is to operate in a high noise, low signal environment.

Implications for your Application

Your application has four central components: your grades, your test scores, your research statement, and your letters of recommendation. They are important. That’s why we ask for them.

1. Grades. Higher grades are better. Good grades in political science classes, cognate classes, and statistics are important. Other points:

  • If you have some questionable marks on your transcript, try to get a recommender to contextualize them.
  • If you went to a school that doesn’t suffer from an epidemic of grade inflation, gently remind your recommenders to note that fact. You cannot rely on admissions committee members to know or notice. 
  • Many admissions-committee members cannot make sense of foreign transcripts, so ask your recommenders to contextualize your academic performance.

Do you notice a pattern here? Good. If you don’t, stop reading. Graduate school is not for you.

Not everyone who would make a reasonable academic does well in college. My grades were a bit of a shambles. Nonetheless, it is increasingly difficult to make it through the process without strong grades.

If your grades are not strong and you are hell-bent on getting a PhD in political science, try doing well in an MA program. But keep in mind that most MA programs have very compressed scales, such that “doing well” often involves a grade point average pushing 4.0. Also, don’t get an MA degree just to get a PhD degree. That’s a massive waste of money.

2. Test Scores. Applicants seeking to “improve” their portfolios often ask me if they should try to bring up their GRE scores. Unless doing so is mathematically impossible, the answer is “yes.”

While some of us question the fixation on high GRE scores, we are a minority. Moreover, administrators and the National Research Council think that average GRE scores indicates something about the “strength” of a PhD program. At least some members of admissions committees get the message.

3. The Research Statement. Here’s an interesting fact: students’ dissertations rarely resemble what they wrote about in their research statement. Here’s another interesting fact: research statements matter a great deal.

A good research statement does two things.

First, it demonstrates that you have a clue about what political-science research is about. This means being able to lay out puzzles or problems, relate them to general literatures, and say something vaguely plausible about how you might address them. However, recall that the committee knows that — with the possible exception of your regional interests — your research statement will be totally obsolete after a year or two in graduate school. Thus, you should avoid being overly specific lest you (a) come across as crazy and (b) zero out the number of professors we think you might wind up working with.

So, for example, you might say that you are interested in “international organizations” and provide us with a plausible story about how you developed this interest. You might then list a few specific, and related, dimensions of international organizations that you think are puzzling and thus worthy of study. You would show that you know some of the current literature, and mention how you intend to address the problems in that literature.

Second, it strokes the ego of the admissions committee by making them think you really want to study in their department. Be sure to explain why [[Department]] is an excellent place for you to pursue your research. Describe how the work of [[Professor]] and [[Professor]] on [[subject]], as well as [[Professor]] and [[Professor]] on [[other subject]] is a good fit for your plan of study. But try to make it look like you aren’t cut-and-pasting. And do a bit more than just glance through the website. We can tell.

At places like Georgetown, you also want to pay attention to the difference between units. For example, listing people who you really want to work with that are non-tenure-track faculty in the School of Foreign Service? Bad idea.

4. Letters of Recommendation. For some of us, recommendations are the most important part of the package. A letter that effectively signals your potential can make an enormous difference. Thus, at least two of your recommendations should almost always come from college professors who are familiar with your academic performance. People with academic experience in government, think tanks, or other vocations are okay, but only if they understand that their recommendations must speak in an informed manner to your suitability for a successful academic career.

Your boss might think that you are the most awesome employee she’s ever had.

We don’t care.

Your platoon leader may think that you are the best soldier he’s ever led.

That’s nice.

The CEO of your company may think that you will make a great college professor.

Whatever. Okay, but make sure you have at least one letter of reference from an academic

Your politically influential connection may think, as she recently told her best friend (who just happens to be on our board of directors, she writes), that you really must be admitted to our PhD program.

Drat. This means that  I will have to spend a few minutes writing a short note — in which I explain why we denied you admission. 

But now I’m going to walk the snark back a bit.

If your college professors aren’t an option, try to minimize the number of letters that fall into the above categories. Try to find people who have academic experience. Choose recommenders who can, and will, speak specifically to analytical and research capabilities.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. If you have been out of school for a while you will want to aim for two academic letters and one letter from a manager who knows you extremely well. Under these circumstances, the non-academic letter gives us an indication of how you’ve developed since you graduated and serves as a reality check for the faded memories of your professors. But make sure your boss, platoon leader, or whatever understands that, in addition to commenting on your character and professionalism, we really need to know about your ability to work on your own and your analytic skills.

Concluding Remarks

Writing an undergraduate thesis is a major plus. This process, along with writing an MA thesis, is the closest you will likely have had to writing a dissertation. It sends us a signal that you have some idea what you are in for and that you can produce a substantial research project.

At Georgetown, we do admit unfunded students. Some of these students are our most successful. In general, though, I agree with the consensus: it doesn’t make sense to attend a PhD program without funding. I followed this route, but I had a spouse who made money, help from relatives, and a nasty debt burden afterward.

Do not badger Directors of Admissions and Fellowships. They are slow to anger but their wrath is terrible to behold.

Questions or contributions? Don’t be an idiot, this is a blog with a comments section.

UPDATE: the comments section already has excellent additions on the subject of signaling academic potential by presenting at conferences and the like; the fact that, unlike college admissions officers, we generally don’t care about your extra-curricular activities; and so on.

Also: see Dan Drezner making similar points a few months back.