App season

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Paul's got some great advice for folks considering applying to PhD programs, advice worth repeating every year round this time, which is about when the cycle begins in earnest. I've already replied to several inquiries, and expect plenty more. I'd add a few things to his list as well, speaking as someone who's been involved in the process from the committee end for a few years now. So in addition to Paul's 10 points:

Writing Sample: This is one that I think gets misunderstood. Sometimes I see applications where a sample is submitted straight from a course. It doesn't occur to some applicants that it's okay to revise a seminar paper, even after it's been submitted for a course. Every applicant should be asking his or her mentors for feedback on a draft of the writing sample, which is one of the single most important parts of the application (for us, at least).

Searching for Mentors: It's important to find good people to work with, but it's almost equally important to find a program that supports that kind of work. One way to figure this out is to look at recent dissertations. Each of those projects required anywhere from 3 to 5 members of the program, and it's a good sign (above and beyond an individual professor's specialty) when dissertations in your areas of interest are coming out of a program.

Strengths and weaknesses: I'm not a big believer in wearing one's weaknesses on one's sleeve, but be honest with yourself about what you're good at and what you need help with. A program that caters to your strengths will do you good, but one that does so while also helping you shore up other areas will do you great. Both this point and the last one speak to the fact that joining a program will almost always mean doing some of your work (coursework, research, etc.) outside of your immediate interests.

Self-promotion: It's worth repeating what Paul says about this:

You don't have to sell yourself too much--this is not a job application. Being a good student and colleague who will successfully and promptly complete the degree and become a successful member of the field is sufficient.

I see a lot of spin, as you might imagine. The thing about that, though, is that it's not that difficult to see who's bluffing and who's not. Be straightforward about what you've done and what you'd like to do, and that's often enough. I feel about this the same way that I feel about "personalizing" job application letters which, despite some folks' advice, I never do myself nor advise others to do. I've served on admissions committees and search committees galore, and I've never been in a situation where an otherwise unqualified applicant was given special consideration for their personalization of a statement or app letter.

Asking questions: I hardly ever tell someone, in reply to a question, to go read the website, but that doesn't mean that I don't get those kinds of questions. And honestly, it affects how I look at a candidate if that person asks something that a quick trip to the website would answer. We don't put everything up there, by any means, but we do try to share as much information as we can for prospective students.

That's all I can think of off the top of my head. I'd double plus bold italic underline Paul's first point, though: be sure that doctoral work is for you. It requires a mix of passion, stubbornness, persistence, and interest that is not everyone's cup of tea. If you're at a PhD program already as an MA student, and looking elsewhere, look at your doctoral-level colleagues, and make sure that you can envision yourself doing what they're doing. There are lots of people who don't feel that the rewards of a doctoral program are worth the personal, psychological, and social costs. Be as honest with yourself as you can about your reasons for applying, and make sure that it's the right decision for you.

That's all. Happilicationalizing.


While i definitely can see the benefits of everything you are saying there - i know there are plenty of folks in the other camp. You know, the "i don't know what else to do with my life, so why not give grad school a whirl" bunch. It's not the best approach, but so far it seems to have worked out for me a little. i was waiting tables at the time i entered grad school - my writing sample, to say nothing of the letters...had to be a trip.

You may be in a position to offer some insight into this question. As rhetoric-composition programs move away from English departments, what then becomes the importance of the GRE? One of my undergrad profs claimed, and my experience supports this, that because of grade inflation and the sheer number of applicants to English departments, the GRE held incredible weight in the application process. Is this going to be any different in stand alone writing programs that offer a PhD?

Re the GRE, it is completely different in our program. We use GRE scores almost exclusively for the purpose of nominating prospective students for fellowships. Since it's a competition across the university, the GRE is one of the few things that "compares" across disciplines.

As far as I'm concerned, GRE scores have little to do with eventual success, and so I don't pay much attention to them. The university requires they be submitted, but I find that writing samples and letters are much more indicative.


ps. I say all this as someone who kicked ass on the GREs. But I also had good friends who couldn't take those tests well to save their lives...

Funny thing, Jimi, is that I was in much the same place. I got really really lucky to find a program that fit me well, and people that I could work with.

Maybe that's why I'm so insistent on trying to figure it out ahead of time. I think about how lucky I was, and how easy it would have been for me to end up in a bad situation, and I want to spare others that kind of struggle.

I taught for 4 years in an MA program that was mostly terminal, but a little bit transit, and I always felt pretty good about how we advised our students. And the ones who were terminal helped the "whirl" ones to see what some of the other possibilities were. Of course, that was a professional writing oriented program, which tends to be more "applied" than "theoretical," so that may have had something to do with it...


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This page contains a single entry by cgbrooke published on October 18, 2006 6:47 PM.

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