Ph.D. Application Advice Panel: What To Take Away

Thanks to all who joined us last week for the Ph.D. Application Advice Panel. I hope you found the information useful as you all mull over potential future endeavors. For those of you who missed the panel (or for those who were there but far too burned out to retain anything), I thought I’d do a blog re-cap of the major advice points from the faculty that participated.

Before getting into the actual advice, though, one thing that all of the participating faculty agreed on is that you should get a lot of advice at every stage of your application process. So, the information from the panel is by no means an exhaustive list of things to consider or a fixed doctrine of must-do tasks. Think of this, rather, as a starting pool of advice from various disciplines that will help you begin the process on the right foot.

(Lots of advice…after the jump)

General Advice

  • Check and double check every piece of writing you send to the programs. As David Wray informed us at the panel, typos or other glaring grammatical errors are really easy reasons to eliminate a file, especially when committees need to narrow down the pool from 600 to 50 applicants as they go through the first quick rounds of the admissions process. Careless errors show the committee members that you’re not willing to invest a certain amount of time in your work and, no matter how brilliant your ideas are, they won’t be as inclined to work with you.
  • Across the disciplines, the faculty stressed that every applicant is considered in terms of overall fit with the department. For that reason, your entire package (especially the statement of purpose) should demonstrate how well you could fit with that program. Use every piece of writing to illustrate the sense of connectedness you feel with that particular department and the people who work in it. The underlying assumption here is, of course, that you’ve done careful research of every program you’re applying to and have only chosen to apply to those that would be a strong fit.
  • You may not want to hear this, but all of the faculty agreed that there is a certain amount of luck that goes into every doctoral program admissions process. That’s why you should apply to as many programs as you can afford, rather than pinning all of your hopes on one or two that seem really good for you.
  • Use Interfolio, but use it carefully. Interfolio is a really helpful dossier service where you can electronically store your application files and send them to the various programs you’re applying to. It’s most useful for recommendation letters because your writers can upload their letter to the site and, for a small fee, the site will send an electronic or hard copy to your schools. However, keep in mind that some schools (a diminishing number, but important to take into consideration) won’t accept letters from dossier services, so you’ll need to have a strong back-up system in place. Also, remember that it takes Interfolio several days to process each letter request, so if you’re constantly butting up against deadlines, some of your stuff might not get in on time.

Statement of Purpose Advice

  • Specifically for English programs, Benjamin Morgan insisted on the importance of “doing your homework” before submitting the application. The committee will want to see (mostly in your statement of purpose) why you’ve chosen the program and which faculty members you’re interested in working with. In my own statements, this generally manifested itself as a paragraph at the end that first connected the strengths of that particular program to my previous work and then discussed specific faculty members and how their work compliments my own interests.
  • Specifically for Philosophy programs, Daniel Brudney suggested NOT including specific people you’d like to work with in your statement of purpose. Philosophy programs work a bit differently than the other disciplines and they’d rather see strong applicants with interesting ideas than strong fit with one or two particular faculty members (because you never know who might leave or die, according to Ben Callard). So mention some of the strengths of the program and your reasons for applying, but keep the names out of it.
  • Specifically for Art History Programs, Martha Ward stressed the importance of carefully framing your academic interests in the statement of purpose. That is, if you’re getting your Ph.D. to be a curator, SAY that. But also say how or why a Ph.D. and the particular department you’re applying to will help you reach that professional goal. Also, it’s very important that you contact a professor or two in the department that you want to work with beforehand and then mention that connection in your statement. Because this is a very focused field in terms of time period and area of specialization, it’s important to admissions committees that you will have someone specifically in your field to work with during your research. Contact that person via e-mail before submitting your application so you can make an initial impression that they’ll remember when they see your application later on.
  • All of the faculty agreed that there’s really no need to talk about conference presentations or published articles in your statement of purpose. It’s meant to be a focused statement about your research interests, with a bit on your previous research/writing and a bit on your ideas for your future research/writing. In other words, don’t just repeat what’s on your CV. Let each item of your application materials do the job it’s supposed to do. Your statement is meant to show them the type of scholar you are and why you’d be a good fit for their department; the CV is meant to show off your past accomplishments in a shiny and impressive way.

Writing Sample

  • Specifically for English programs, the general advice was that your writing sample should be used to show the committee a range of skills, not just strong writing. Since this is really the only chance you have to show the committee that you are comfortable with the conventions of your field, use it to show off the fact that you can do a strong close reading and successfully navigate your secondary sources, in addition to organizing a strong argument. The first five pages are really important for setting up your argument for the reader (especially when they have so many to read) so make sure those are really solid.

Letters of Recommendation

  • The most general advice was to get the strongest letters possible from faculty you’ve worked with in the past. This means, that it’s better to have a rave letter from a graduate student (preceptor, TA, etc.) than a lukewarm letter from a faculty member. It also means that you should feel completely comfortable asking your letter writers if they feel comfortable writing you a strong letter. Take the risk and ask rather than find out later on that a mediocre letter posed a problem for your application packets.
  • Stay in touch with your letter writers and be diligent about your deadlines. Be as organized as possible up front with your deadlines–let them know from the start when you’ll need the letters submitted to each program or your dossier service. Then send e-mail reminders every once in a while to politely remind your writers that deadlines are approaching. The faculty all agreed that polite reminders are preferable to frantic last minute emails when deadlines are missed.
  • When you send the letter request email to your writers, save them a step and attach the paper you wrote for your class. Generally a writer will follow-up by asking for your final paper so they can quote it and have a fresh idea of your writing. Include the paper with the e-mail and mention that it’s attached for their convenience. It just makes you look super organized, which is never a bad thing.

In closing, remember to lean on your MAPH community for support. I got through the process a lot easier by exchanging materials with fellow MAPHers to proofread and by late night freakout G-chats when deadlines were approaching. Also, I just went through this process last year, so I’m always happy to chat about ways to get started.

Now, bookmark this page for later and go relax and enjoy your summer!

One thought on “Ph.D. Application Advice Panel: What To Take Away

  1. hstrang

    three things i’d just re-emphasize from whitney’s careful post here:

    first two small ones: your letter writers will be very very pleased if you have an interfolio account. for writers that means uploading one letter, once, and having easy access to update that letter as necessary. it’s true that interfolio won’t work with all online applications, but you should have an account anyway and use it. even extremely patient writers of recommendations, such as your faithful blog post commenter, can get very annoyed by multiple emailed requests to upload letters in different incompatible formats, etc. etc. interfolio is currently the professional standard for recommendations, and you really do need to be using it.

    following from that — many of your letter writers will be writing dozens of letters during recommendation season. it’s on you to make sure that they get your letters in. that means not bombarding them with emails or sending them incomplete information about deadlines. get all that stuff organized. give your recommenders a calendar. and then you need to remember to remind them when deadlines approach. it really is your job to track this stuff for your recommenders in whatever way makes it easiest for them.

    the more important thing is: especially for the statement of purpose you should have multiple readers/commenters. it won’t ever be your favorite piece of writing you do, but it needs to be public, so you’ve got to find a public for it. don’t be shy about showing it to people.

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