Grad School: Some Items to Consider

What Do You Want to Do with Your Life?

The first thing you need to decide is whether your ultimate career aims are in academia or in the policy community. Most graduate programs are geared toward one or the other, and it will be difficult to pursue a career in academia if your Ph.D. is from a policy-oriented school (or vice-versa).

Examples of Careers from the Two Different Graduate Tracks

Policy-Oriented Degree Academic Degree
M.A., M.P.A., D.P.A., Ph.D. Ph.D., D. Phil., or M.A./Ph.D.
Government policy analyst Academic (i.e. professor)
Public administration Full-time consultant
Management Independent scholar or analyst
Think tank research assistant/analyst Think tank project manager
Advocacy Government social scientist
International organizations International organizations
Foreign service officer

If you are undecided, I suggest applying to both types of graduate programs and putting off your decision until you’ve had offers and have time to consider it more. If you get into every program to which you’ve applied, have reviewed all of the pros and cons, and you’re still not sure, ask your advisor which of these programs has the most “flexible” degree.

Preparing for Graduate School Applications

The top graduate programs tend to admit students who perform well as undergraduates (often with minimum GPAs of 3.5 or above), have outstanding recommendations, and have strong test scores (GRE scores above 700 in the Verbal/Quant categories). Some graduate programs look for some sort of relevant post-graduate job or service experience, but this typically relates more to policy-oriented degrees. Research-oriented PhD programs often recruit students straight out of college, so working or volunteering for a year after college will neither advantage nor disadvantage your application for such programs. Here are the key ways to prepare for your grad school application.

1. Prepare for the GRE. Begin preparing for the GRE the summer before your senior year. Sign up to take the exam early, preferably before October. This will allow you to take it again before grad school applications are due in case you are unsatisfied with your score the first time around. You can prepare for the GRE by taking practice tests, available online and in different GRE prep books with accompanying CDs. Because the test is administered by computer, I suggest practicing on the computer.

2. Solicit Letters. Find three faculty references who are willing to write you strong letters. Solicit your advisor’s help in preparing your personal statement and helping you to identify a writing sample that best conveys your abilities. If you do these things early, you won’t need to rush before the due dates.

3. Stay Organized. Create a spreadsheet of the schools to which you applying, the application deadlines, the required content of the applications, and the address to which you send your materials.

4. Budget. You’ll need $300-$600 for application fees. Many universities are raising their application fees to account for lost revenues.

Where to Apply

The websites of various programs will be the best source of information for the following questions. Browse through them, focusing on the following considerations.

1. Substantive Interest: What is your substantive area of interest? Do you want to study security (i.e. nuclear proliferation, international conflict) or political economy topics (i.e. development, environmental politics, etc)? Does your program of interest possess strengths in your area of interest?

2. Faculty Profile: Who are the full-time faculty in the program, and are they adjunct instructor, tenure-track professors, or tenured professors? You can look up this information on the department website, and knowing these data will give you a good sense of whether the department has made significant investments in recruiting and retaining faculty in your area of interest. In particular, a department that possesses several tenured or tenure-track faculty in your area is probably better than a department with one tenure-track faculty member and an adjunct professor in your area. Looking up this information will also allow you to see whether there are potential advisors for you as you pursue your studies there.

Tip: don’t go to graduate school to work with one faculty member. The person may leave for any number of reasons, and you could be left without an advisor. Instead, choose a program that has a variety of faculty in your area of interest.

3. Department Reputation: You’ll want to know how the program is regarded outside of the university. There are a few places you can look. For international relations, there is a regular survey of the field you can consult here (see especially pp. 64-69). You can also look at recent U.S. News and World Report rankings of Ph.D. programs in political science, although there will be variation across subfield. I suggest consulting your advisor for more information about particular programs.

4. Graduate Student Placement: Many department websites contain information on where their graduate students go after matriculation.  Do these recent placements reflect the type of career path you envision for yourself?

5. Financial Considerations: How expensive is the program? What are the cost reduction opportunities (i.e. living stipends, scholarships, etc.)? How many students receive financial aid, and in what form?

6. Location: Are you interested in living where the school is located? Can you manage the cost of living?

7. Diversity of Options: I suggest a spread of 9-10 applications: 3 “dream” schools, 3 strong but realistic schools, and 3 back-up schools. Programs have become increasingly selective as they have received record numbers of applications for several consecutive years. It’s good to have some back-ups.

Once you apply, expect to hear nothing for awhile. Many programs will specify a date of notification (i.e. “by March 1st”), but expect it to take even longer than they say. Grad school admissions committees meet at an awkward time of year, and delays are ordinary.

If you’ve been accepted somewhere, congratulations! Check out some questions to ask of the program to help you decide where to go. Good luck!