applying for ph.d. programs – my own tips and tricks

Although I am still in the process of choosing what school I will attend in the fall, I find myself in a great situation of choosing between four top-20 programs. I thought I’d put my process out there because I would have been thrilled to find such a post last spring/summer when I began the long process of applying. Hold on to your hats, because this might be a long one!

Update, April 1! I chose Harvard and I couldn’t be more excited!

Ten Steps to Putting YOUR Best Foot Forward in Ph.D. Applications – after the break…

Step I: Research

This is obvious, but put a lot of time into researching the different programs you are considering. I made a spreadsheet in Google Docs so I could access it from anywhere and add new information as I found it. This spreadsheet included things like POIs, short descriptions of their research, program structure and length, etc. Research all the “big name” departments in your field, but also figure out where scholars whose work you admire are now. Look at the stats of current students — do you seem competitive? I’m not saying you shouldn’t aim high, just that you should aim to construct a realistic list, with some “reach” schools along with some where you think you are around the midline of their statistics.

In the course of this research, you will rule out some programs – maybe even the top ones in your field! Maybe Great School A is too focused on theory, while you prefer a different approach. And maybe Great School B is in transition with regards to your specialty — in the process of hiring some unknown new person. On the other hand, maybe Fantastic School Z, a school that seems out of your reach, is such a perfect fit for you that you really feel that application is the only option. Let me tell you what I find baffling: posts on the results board that are like “Princeton/Statistics/Rejected/Comment: “not a great fit for the program.”” Why, oh why, did you apply to Princeton if you weren’t a truly great fit? Make sure your list reflects YOUR INTERESTS, not just big fancy names. I got into big fancy name schools — BECAUSE their programs align with my interests, not DESPITE of divergence in specialty.

When you think you’ve finished your research, contact your undergraduate or master’s mentors with your list. They may suggest additional programs to look into. Keep honing your list until, I would say, October or so. Then close the book on it. There has to be a final list sometime! :)

Step II. GREs

I think the GREs are dumb. There, I said it! Nevertheless, I studied hard for them over the summer and took them in June so that if I wasn’t happy with my scores, I would have plenty of time to take them again before my MA program began in September. I don’t know what kind of impact they have had in all this, but I had good scores. You can too if you plan ahead and study hard!

Step III. Transcripts

Order copies of official transcripts for yourself, even if your list isn’t finalized. You can scan these and upload them to the various applications when you’re applying. It’s very handy to have them already scanned. Just do it now!

Step IV. Letters of Recommendation

I strategized pretty hardcore here, making sure I had three different people who showed off three different strengths. I didn’t use a recommendation from one of my most beloved professors, on his own advice, because he didn’t have a big enough name and was nearing retirement. Instead, I chose a well-known person who didn’t know me as well because I knew my other two references would be more personal and fully developed in their knowledge of me as a scholar. Even though my MA program is only one year, I had two references from my MA (yes, even though I’d only known them for 3 months by the time applications came due) and one excellent letter from an undergrad prof.

Step V. SoP

The statement of purpose struck fear into my heart. I shed many tears over it! I felt like I was grappling with a demon that I couldn’t see.

After doing my best to follow the suggestions on various websites, I met with a couple professors to get advice. Here are some golden nuggets of wisdom I received:

1. Don’t have a plan for your dissertation project? Me neither. But I said that I did in my SoP and laid it out convincingly. One prof said to me, “I’m not saying you should bullsh*t. But can’t you make something up?”

2. When you have a draft that isn’t a total disaster, print it out with super wide margins. As you read what you have written, jot down in the margins what you are thinking. For example, if you have written “My year studying in Mallorca influenced my decision to focus on Cresques’s mappa mundi for my project,” perhaps you are thinking, “The first time I heard of that was in this little cafĂ© talking with so-and-so.” It doesn’t matter if what you are thinking is smart or polished. Write it down anyway.

3. Now, integrate some of what you were thinking back into your SoP. If you’re like me, your SoP felt accurate in terms of the project you set out and the indications of your background, but stilted and maybe not that “you.” Getting some of your true thoughts back into the polished draft will give it some authenticity.

So I did all these things, then I sent it back around to profs and fellow students. Days before I was planning to submit it, I received completely contradictory advice from two sources I valued! One said to make it more personal, while the other said to make it more businesslike. I reflected on these pieces of advice and decided to go with more personal because that is more aligned with who I am as a scholar and a person. You need to make the choice that is more accurate for yourself.

Obvious, but not to be forgotten, is to customize each SoP for each school. To be honest, my “customization paragraphs” got a lot less attention than the body of my SoP. But because I had done my research thoroughly, they were accurate and described how I fit into each program. Save each school’s version in a separate folder with a header indicating the school name and department.

Step VI. CV

Make your CV! Ha! It really is that simple, even though it’s tedious. Here is a good post about them. Since I don’t have any publications or conferences, I made sure my CV included things like language proficiencies and described the various awards I have received in some detail. I saved different copies of the CV in the different folders with custom headers, like for the SoP.

Step VII. Any other weird requirements?

Some schools require a statement of diversity. Prepare that. (Honestly, I loathed such additional requirements and did not spend the time I should have on them.)

Step VIII. Contact professors

At all of the schools where I was admitted, I sent emails to the professors I was interested in about a month before the application deadline. Almost all of them wrote back. I found the process very awkward, but I sucked it up!

Here’s a sample of an email I sent to a POI with details blurred:

Dear Professor Great Guy,

My name is xxxx, and I am applying to begin my PhD in Humanities at Ivy League in 2014. I did my undergraduate studies at XXXX University in XXXX, and I am currently taking a Masters at XXXXX.

My research has, by and large, focused on two major topics up until now: blahdy blah, and boogidy boog.

As I researched Ph.D. programs, a few things stood out to me about Ivy League, not least of which was your research in blahdy blah (nb. same blahdy blah as above!). I hope you don’t mind me contacting you, but I was wondering if you will be working with any new students in 2014. (this bolded part was specific to a professor who I thought might be nearing retirement. it was my coy attempt to ask him about it — and it worked!)

I know this is a busy time of year, and I am grateful for your time!



I set aside a weekend in late October/early November and completed ALL my applications that weekend, well in advance of all deadlines. Because of all my preparation beforehand, I was ready to fill out each application IN FULL as I went through them. Check everything two-three times to make sure there are no typos and that the uploaded documents are in the correct format. If you are going to ask for fee waivers, do so well in advance; otherwise, pony up. Don’t try to do it at the last minute: it could result in your application not being reviewed.

When I hit submit on my first application, I almost puked! Nevertheless, you have to apply to be admitted. :)

Step X. Wait

As grueling as all that was, I almost think it doesn’t compare to the waiting part! But here’s the thing: eventually they are going to let you know :) One way that I kept from losing my head was to dream up a back-up plan in case I didn’t get in. I even contacted a beloved former boss about perhaps returning to that job, making it clear that this was dependent on Ph.D. outcomes. Having a safety net helped me stay sane. (Mostly ;) )


1) Be INSANELY organized. Mockably organized. Your peers think you’re nuts organized. This is how you will have time to hone your SoP into a finely worked weapon of glory! This is how you ensure you have good GREs! This is how you remember to write those profs! This is how you get excellent LoRs, since the profs have enough time to write them! And maybe most importantly, this is how you will meet all the deadlines!

2) Putting all that work into the SoP is worth it. I swear.

3) Apply to programs where you are actually a great fit, programs where you could see yourself excelling. Don’t apply somewhere just for the name or (another favorite quote from results board) “because it’s Berkeley.” Would YOU thrive at Berkeley? Would YOUR research be supported?


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