Thoughts on the Political Science Ph.D. Application Process

I wanted to write about my own experience applying for Ph.D. programs in political science, in case it is of interest to anyone else looking to pursue a similar path.

I don’t claim, of course, to have any special insight into the admissions process for political science Ph.D. programs. However, now that I have just recently concluded the process, I also wanted to write down some of my thoughts and tips for future applicants while it’s still fresh in my head.

Please note that this advice pertains mostly to US Ph.D. programs in political science. Some of this might be useful for other programs in the social sciences, but I don’t know enough about the overlap to comment with any degree of certainty.

Without further ado:

1. Before the process begins…

I am going to graduate school almost straight out of undergrad — with a little over a year of working in between. In retrospect, if I had made the decision to pursue a Ph.D. in about sophomore year, I think I would have been better prepared going into this process. By the time that you are actually starting your applications, almost everything is outside of your control. You could try to get a good GRE score and you’re still in full command of your statement of purpose, but much else has already been decided for you: the relationships you have with your professors, your research experience, your GPA.

So if you do have the good fortune of knowing with a fair level of certainty 1) that you want to get a Ph.D. and 2) broadly what you want to study, while you are still actually an undergraduate, I think you are in a very powerful position. You are still in the driver’s seat, so to speak. I was relatively lucky in that a lot of the things that I did do — the classic case of the dots connecting looking backwards — ended up helping me get into graduate school. I was involved in some research projects for multiple semesters, did a summer of research, and worked as a researcher at a think tank after graduating. I also took a number of smaller classes where I was able to form relationships with professors who could write letter of recommendations for me.

If I knew my path earlier, however, I would probably also have done a few things differently. On campus I would have chosen research opportunities and smaller classes that allowed me to interact more closely with professors rather than with graduate students, who may be perfectly wonderful supervisors but cannot write your letters of recommendation. (UC Berkeley is a very big campus — here those who went to a smaller school may have an advantage.) I would probably have also taken more quantitative courses that could help signal my readiness for further methods training.

The timeline that I followed was roughly this:

  1. I began studying for the GRE early in the year. I didn’t study as intensively at first, given that I was also juggling a full-time job.
  2. Over the summer, I began gathering ideas for my Statement of Purpose and started writing a first draft. I also began putting together the list of universities that I would apply to.
  3. By August, my SOP had taken on a pretty concrete shape, but some pretty major revisions were still made before October.
  4. I began asking for letters of recommendation by the end of September.
  5. The majority of the US Ph.D. program deadlines were in December: either December 1st or December 15th.

2. The GRE

It’s hard to be certain whether or not most universities that did go GRE-optional during the pandemic will make it mandatory again, the trend does seem to favor dropping the GRE. But of course, it’s likely that over the course of your applications you will still encounter at least some programs that ask for GRE scores, and so it is difficult to avoid it entirely (and as a result participate in the putting of sordid amounts of cash into the pockets of ETS). I would plan on having to take the GRE.

I struggled for a while with studying for the GRE. What dug me out of my hole of standardized testing difficulty was Gregmat, a tremendous paragon of GRE wisdom that you can access for as little as five dollars a month. Yes, five dollars. It’s a steal. There is no better deal in the GRE test prep world to be had. To indulge oneself in Greg’s soothing voice as he teaches you all the tips and tricks you need to get a decent score on the GRE is as pleasurable a test prep experience as I’ve encountered. You still have to put in the work, of course, but his study plan makes it feel a lot less overwhelming. I focused mostly on the quantitative section, so while I can’t speak much for the verbal section of Greg’s plans, I’ve heard good things about his methods there too.

On whether to test more than once: I took the GRE twice and my score did see a significant improvement on the second try, with another month of studying in between the two tests. If you have the time/money/inclination/sufficient dissatisfaction with your first score, I would encourage you to go for it.

3. The Statement of Purpose

I started drafting my statement of purpose many, many months before my first deadline. Condensing your academic interests into a brief intellectual resumé is to essentially sum yourself up in less than a thousand words, and this was not an easy task; I fully admit that I am particularly predisposed to using ten words where three would do. (A bad habit, but I digress.)

I would encourage you to start as early as you can. The final version of my statement ended up looking quite different to the first draft, and it was possibly the most frequently edited document I have ever made on Google Docs. Make sure you ask your professors to read your statement! I had little idea at the start of what a statement of purpose should look like, or indeed what distinguishes mediocre and good statements. My professors were invaluable in this process. I ended up essentially completely rewriting my statement almost entirely at one point.

This is the structure that my statement of purpose followed:

  • Paragraph 1: a brief overview of the research question I am interested in
  • Paragraph 2: a discussion of the “intellectual journey” that led to my interest in this question
  • Paragraph 3: some research methods that I hope to use
  • Paragraph 4: my qualitative and quantitative research experience
  • Paragraph 5: very quick summary of another question I am interested in
  • Paragraph 6: why my interests align with the department/professors I’d like to work for
  • Paragraph 7: wrap-up

I found here that the time I had spent as a researcher in the real world outside of academia was very useful in helping me formulate my research questions. After delving into the world of innovation policy and seeing the work of Thai public agencies up close, I had become very interested in questions surrounding bureaucratic reform and state capacity. All of this was reflected in my SOP.

My professors reminded me that the SOP is not a contract; you are not bound to what you write. I did use my SOP to signal my broad interests, such as that I would be most interested in studying comparative politics primarily and international relations secondarily.

4. Letters of recommendation

The general advice is to ask professors for letters of recommendation early, and that is what I did — around two months before my first deadline. Some professors may ask you to use something called Interfolio, which is a platform that you can use to send their letters to universities on their behalf. It is neat and convenient, but there’s a catch: a lot of universities seem not to accept Interfolio letters, particularly ones that use ApplyWeb for their application platforms. So you do end up having to bug your professors a fair bit.

Since I was out of school for less than a year when I applied, all of my recommendations were academic.

5. Writing samples

I edited a paper that I had written for class and used it as my writing sample. If I had finished my honors thesis in college, I would probably have used that. (As it turned out, I decided to graduate early instead of finishing the thesis. Whether or not that affected my application results I cannot say.)

6. Choosing where to apply

The advice from both professors and GSIs I have talked to was to apply broadly: shotgun the entire top 15 on the USNews ranking if you you are able, multiple people told me. Application fees may make you balk at doing this, and I did as well, but I still ended up applying pretty widely. All note that this process is highly idiosyncratic and there’s no predicting where you get in. The concept of “safety schools,” as ubiquitous as it is in undergraduate applications, doesn’t really apply here.

It is helpful to talk to professors and current Ph.D. students while sorting out the list of universities you are applying to. They possess a great wealth of knowledge about the reputations of different departments along with their specific strengths. Useful information you could glean include things like whether Professor X, who you would like to work with, is actually moving soon.

I did apply to a number of Master’s programs in the UK as well as backups in case none of my PhD applications went through. The process for these are similar to the US applications, with minor differences. Cambridge’s MPhil in Politics and International Studies, for example, wants a research proposal rather than a statement of purpose. (Cambridge also has earlier deadlines if you want to be considered for funding from the Cambridge Trust, so make a note of this!)

7. Miscellaneous thoughts

There are a couple of resources I found helpful. Professor Joshua Kertzer has good advice on his website. And there is more advice here from Professor Macartan Humphreys. Here are some tips on writing a statement of purpose. More advice here from Professor Yuhua Wang.

One last note: don’t look at GradCafe — at least not until you have at least one offer. It can ruin your sanity, if you’re not careful. And if you don’t already know what it is, good for you. Don’t look it up. (Apparently, however, getting an applicant to resist the urge to check GradCafe can be like getting a cat to resist catnip.) Go ahead and look at r/gradadmissions on Reddit though — it’s healthier, in my opinion.

Good luck!

(Cover image credits)

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