Dear You,

So, you think you want to go to graduate school.

Whether you are considering a masters, doctoral, professional, research, or applied degree program, there are some things you need to consider.

I swore I’d never write this kind of guide because I believe there is a complicated calculus to choosing graduate school. Advice necessarily assumes to know who you are, your limitations, interests, values, talents, and circumstances. Mentoring, on the other hand, assumes none of these things and instead gets to know you before offering up suggestions for what you might do. Alas, I am one person and cannot always meet with you when you feel you need to the most. Therefore, I have assembled some considerations, possibilities, and norms related to graduate school admissions.

You shouldn’t assume any of this advice is up-to-date (links change, for example) but the contexts I provide should be fairly stable. You also shouldn’t take anyone’s word as gospel. Instead, advice is a starting point for you to conduct your own research. As fortune would have it, research is what you’re obviously signing up to do in graduate school. Researching the process of applying is excellent practice for the life you are choosing.

With that, I’ll tell you that graduate school was one of the best decisions of my life. I was an unlikely candidate for elite graduate school admissions, or any admissions for that matter. I lacked institutional prestige, status, and cultural capital. Still, I somehow managed to end up in a fairly prestigious, fully-funded doctoral program where I finished in five years, with honors, and landed in a tenure track job at a research institution in a livable city with a decent cost of living my first year on the academic job market. My path is very statistically unlikely, not impossible but unlikely.

You should become familiar with the statistically likely outcome of graduate school training. Increasingly, academia means many extra years finishing a high quality dissertation, publishing, networking and pursuing highly competitive fellowships to eat and stay alive. You will then spend some time in a post-doc and maybe, if you’re lucky you’ll be short-listed for a tenure track job at a good college in your field. Or, you’ll do all of that and still only end up in an adjunct position with little pay, mobility and status. It’s not the end of the world but you should know that this is the world.

If there is good news it is that some disciplines have stronger job markets than others, better prestige schools have the best job markets of all, and minority candidates can (within reason and certainly not the extent that is rumored) get some extra consideration for some jobs. The catch-22 of that last bit, of course, is that it is harder for minority students to get into graduate school and when they do to gain admission to a highly competitive (read: prestigious) program, to procure adequate funding and mentorship, gain enough research exposure to publish or teach at the level necessary to compete on the job market, and to complete their graduate program due to discrimination and/or life circumstances.  But, if you are a minority student and you make it through those hoops, you may get a bit more consideration at some departments.

Even if you don’t get an extra nod for a job or you don’t get a job at all or you don’t get a job you can live on, you will still be one of the most highly educated people in this nation. That may not mean as much as it did twenty years ago but it does still mean something. Even for African Americans who always have roughly double the rate of unemployment as whites with the same education, unemployment rates sharply decline the more education you get. You may not have the job you dreamed of but you will likely, eventually land somewhere doing something you don’t totally hate at a wage that affords you enough disposable income to complain about how graduate school ruined your life. Depending on who you are, that’s better than you would have had without graduate school education. Only you know where you’re from.

I enjoyed graduate school. It was hard. I was often isolated, mocked, undermined and cut loose. But, I was also housed, fed, given minimal healthcare access and allowed to live in the library 24 hours a day, if I so chose, following my own intellectual curiosity. I love teaching and writing and publishing and controlling my time. I love that I will literally never run out of work because there is always something new to learn and explore. If these things appeal to you, graduate school is a shot at this kind of job or it is a way to a job that offers more stability and pay than you may earn without it. But, keep in mind, education is always about increasing your odds. Taxes and death are the only guarantees in life.

Now that I’ve depressed the hell out of you, let’s start. Believe in yourself but work like you don’t. I believe in you.

Dr. Cottom


CONSIDERATIONS

  1. Graduate school is expensive in both time and money
  2. Applying for graduate school is expensive in both time and money (~$1000 for a standard application season)
  3. Everyone will lie to you about how much prestige matters in the academic profession and academic-adjacent professions. Everyone but me. Prestige matters. The prestige of your undergraduate school, your undergraduate program, of your letter writers, of your social networks, and of the program where you end up all matter to how much you’ll pay, how much you may be paid (or if you’re paid at all!), how likely you are to publish in graduate school, how likely you are to publish in the top tier journals that make you competitive for top tier academic jobs, and how likely you are to even finish the degree. Prestige isn’t everything but lacking all prestige at all levels is related to everything bad in this profession.
  4. Are you mobile? How mobile are you? Graduate schools still assume that their typical student is an able-bodied, unencumbered, financially solvent autodidact. If you are not all of those things, your graduate school options will be fewer. For this reason, you may want to focus narrowly on the programs that are prestigious enough to compensate your investment while also preparing for a non-graduate school option if you don’t get into one of them.
  5. What is your role in your personal network? Are you a primary caregiver? The cousin who helps pay bills? The partner who manages the household? Graduate schools also assume that you only have one social role: graduate student. If that isn’t true for you, graduate school will be very hard for you. You can do it but know that you cannot do it the way graduate programs imagine you will do it.
  6. Do you have money? Savings? A credit card? Graduate schools assume you have all these things. Almost everything you do related to money in graduate school runs on a reimbursement process, meaning you pay it upfront and are reimbursed later. If you can, think about savings or working your way into a credit card on your way to graduate school. At most, this can be done within a year, which is convenient because...
  7. It takes at least nine months, ideally a year, to research, write and apply to graduate schools that are a good fit for your academic interests and life circumstances. You can make a good graduate school choice on the fly but the probability that you will dramatically decreases the less time you allow to prepare.
  8. How stubborn are you? Life doesn’t end if you drop out of graduate school. It doesn’t. No matter what anyone says, we don’t shoot, shun, or shade you for dropping out. If anyone does shoot, shun or shade you when you consider withdrawing from graduate school, they were always going to shoot, shun or shade you. Nothing lost. However, if you are going into debt to go to graduate school or if you are a minority student (broadly defined to include first generation or poor or working class), your professional opportunities greatly improve with the credential. Being stubborn is a great way to finish.
  9. Work isn’t everything. If all of this strains your family, your marriage, your affair with your cat, don’t do it. There’s more to life than work, there’s more work than this kind of work, and there is more than one way to be happy and successful.

I have written a bit about some of these considerations. You should check out:

  1. Blanket “Don’t Go To Graduate School” Advice Ignores Race and Reality?
  2.  Different Bodies and Different Lives in Academia
  3. Race and Grad School Redux

As you’ll see in some of those essays, plenty of very smart people disagree with aspects of my advice. You should take those criticisms seriously. Without a doubt, the humanities graduate school market is different than one in sociology. And the sociology job market is different than the economics job market. If you are seeing me, chances are excellent you are applying to a sociology program or related (e.g. public policy, social policy, education). My advice is best applied to these contexts and even then it is just one voice you should consider. Find people who disagree with me and weigh all of this advice against the considerations I outlined above.


POSSIBILITIES

You have started early.

You have talked with your mentors.

You are doing your research.

You are a stellar person.

Now, let’s talk about some of the possibilities for applying to graduate school and maximizing your time in graduate school.

  1. Apply for fellowships. Find the ones in your field. Track all the due dates for them. Many of those dates abut graduate applications and have very short windows of opportunity (ex. The Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship). Fellowships can compensate for prestige that you, your program or your home institution may not have. Fellowships enrich your social networks, your academic reputation, and have very long tails. They pay off for years to come.
  2. Ask about fee waivers for the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, and applications. Every penny counts unless you’re rich in which case you’re not talking to me about graduate school.
  3. A terminal master’s degree program can help you improve your chances at entering a prestigious doctoral program, within reason. There’s a cost calculus here: how much debt should you take on to increase your odds at a doctoral program? Only you know for sure. But consider how serious you are about doctoral study, if you are at all. If you are doing an applied or professional graduate program there is probably less choice – you go to the best of a handful of programs in your area and you likely pay to attend.
  4. You can take a year off between undergrad and grad school. In fact, I highly recommend it. Graduate school isn’t going anywhere, but...
  5. Life isn’t standing still, either. The longer you live the more constraints pop up that might limit your mobility, finances, and choices later on: you have kids, you find a partner, you lose a partner, your letter writer (me) dies under a pile of books in her office, etc.
  6. Depending on the program and your professional goals, it might make sense for you to work and attend school. This is hard but increasingly it is the only way to minimize costs associated with graduate school. And, if you’re doing a professional or applied program, your work experience might give you a professional edge.

There are a lot of graduate programs out there. It is hard to determine the best one for you.  Start with the standard graduate school guides like:

  1. Peterson’s
  2. U.S. News & World Report

These guides are rites of passage. You have to spend ridiculous  money and energy poring over them. And they have some useful information but they don’t have the most important information. A program’s prestige, for example, can vary a lot depending on your subfield.  Or, a program may be making moves – hiring big name faculty and investing in new research – but it doesn’t show up yet (or ever) in rankings. To learn that kind of information you should:

  1. Find the graduate school guide that the professional association in your field publishes. Most of the associations have one of these. The American Sociological Association has the annual guide to Graduate Programs in Sociology. We keep a copy in the office.
  2. Talk to as many people in your field as possible. You don’t just want the information you could get from a website. You want, for lack of a better word, the gossip. Keep in mind that maybe half of that stuff is true but there’s enough truth in it to make it worth asking.
  3. Collate all the research articles you like. These are the articles you read in school that you understood, read more than once, and got really excited about. They’re the articles that made you think you could do this job or do this kind of study. Put all those articles in one pile and then figure out what they have in common. Are they in the same two journals? Authored by people at the same 3 or 4 institutions? Written 20 years ago (uh oh) or five years ago (good)? Extract all that information and look for patterns. Those patterns give you a good idea of: what you want to study, where you want to study and with whom you want to study. Doing this also helps you write a really good letter.

You can find a good program that fits your research interests where you can learn what you need to further your professional goals. But, it isn’t about luck.  


NORMS

This is the biggie. This is why I said I’d never write some of this stuff down. Do you see what I risk for you??

I’m going to speak plainly. All the caveats are especially salient here: your mileage may vary, only you know where you’re starting from or where you want to go, only you know your personal value system, and you could always win the lottery and none of this will matter at all.

I will take these norms by stage: preparing to apply, applying, attending.

Preparing to Apply

  1. Many people who love you will not understand graduate school. And many people who love you will want this for you more than you want it for yourself. Each has its own issues.
  1. You cannot apply as a part-time job. Thinking about the process will occupy much of your mental energy and engage almost all of your insecurities. You should prepare your loved ones for this stage.
  2. Those who want this for you can be great supports but you should weigh their advice against their expertise and their hidden motives, e.g. wanting you to stay close to home, etc.
  1. When you ask for a letter, ask if the person can write you a STRONG letter of recommendation. If they cannot say that they will, politely thank them for their honesty and find another letter writer.
  1. The norm in our profession is to say yes to these requests even if we can’t write a good letter or don’t know how to write one. You can’t assume every professor or supervisor you’ve had understands the graduate school process. Do your homework.
  1. The norm is that you will do what your advisor/letter writer did. Almost all of us project onto you. We’re human. Be kind to us. But also keep in mind that you have to vet all the advice and guidance we give you. Are you and your advisor similar? Are you both men? First generation? Women? Black? Gay? Their personal experiences may be especially informative for you. If you don’t have these things in common, your advisor can still give you great advice! But that advice may not account for the ways that what they take-for-granted will be true for you. For example, sometimes men (of all sexual orientations) don’t think about things like getting pregnant but you think about it a lot. A black mentor may get the experience of being isolated in the graduate school culture but not understand what it means to be a sexual minority in a small town with a negligible dating pool.
  2. The norm is that you present your potential letter writers with a clearly organized, well-researched dossier of all of your application materials six months before your earliest due date. Letter writing and advising is labor intensive. Most of us love doing it. I love doing it. But it is hard. A string of emails and disjointed communications that come in piecemeal is a logistical nightmare for people who are doing you, if not a favor, then a courtesy. Make it easy for the people who want to help you to help you. Set meetings that have concrete goals. Follow up when you say you will. Minimize emails. Respect your professors’ time.
  3. The norm is that you apply to the highest ranked programs in your field, within reason given your academic preparation (GRE scores etc.). We assume this for many reasons. Chief among them is that we are intimately aware of how much prestige defines our profession. However, as I said earlier, it may not be the most important consideration for you. Still, you should be prepared for pushback should you deviate from this norm. Having said all of that, let me real talk you on prestige. It matters. If you can afford it – the price, the debt and the opportunity costs – go to Harvard or whatever the big name is in your area. It is almost impossible to measure how much this impacts your career trajectory. But, if the culture or cost of the best school in your field comes with something that makes it likely that you won’t finish? It’s not worth it. If Chicago is too cold and you have a medical condition and the University of Chicago’s library will exacerbate your anxiety issues or your depression? It doesn’t matter that it is a top school. You won’t finish and that’s the best case scenario. You may not finish AND aggravate your mental health issues AND rack up thousands in medical bills because student health doesn’t do a good job managing your kind of treatment and you won’t finish.

Applying

  1. The norm is to apply to a mix of schools, probably no more than six. More than six and I start to wonder if you know why you’re applying. Is graduate school just a hail mary? If your research would fit at any of twenty schools it is likely that your materials are unfocused and so are you. It’s possible that you are sending equally good materials to twenty schools but unlikely.
  2. In my field, for the most prestigious programs there are cut-offs. Some people will say there aren’t. Maybe they’re right. But most schools that expect thousands of applications for ten to fifteen spots use GRE and GPA score cutoffs to make their admissions decisions. Other programs may do a more holistic read of your materials but there is no getting around this: the stronger your GPA and GRE the better your field of possible schools and the better your chances of admission. Aim for above 80th percentile on two of the three GRE sections to be highly competitive. If you don’t meet that, you can still go to graduate school. But you may reconsider how much of your limited application budget you dedicate to the most competitive programs.
  3. The norm is moving to attend graduate school. Prepare for that reality if it works for your life.

Attending

  1. The norm is that you have money and credit. If you don’t, start early finding workarounds: roommates, emergency loans with the graduate school, etc.
  2. The norm is that you attend class but you don’t just attend class. No matter how optional it sounds, almost all of the talks, colloquia, and meetings in graduate school are mandatory. As you progress, you’ll learn which of those are less so. But in the beginning, assume every suggestion in graduate school is a command (e.g. “Will we see you at the department karaoke party?” is really “I’ll see you at the department karaoke party.”)
  3. The norm, with a few exceptions at very big programs or with superstar advisors, is that you will meet with your professors regularly outside of class. Again, attending class in graduate school is the bare minimum. And if you do the bare minimum you will earn a reputation as such and this will negatively impact the opportunities afforded you.
  4. The norm is to socialize. Yes, I hate it too. Do it anyway. As  you progress, develop coping mechanisms: only go to the high profile events, schedule these with a day on each side to decompress, bring a friend or partner to help diffuse awkwardness, have a built-in excuse to leave early.
  5. The norm is to research during the summer. Summers aren’t summers in graduate school. It’s when you further your own research or professional reputation through fellowships or research programs or attending conferences.
  6. The norm is that you know how to do all of this already. You’re not the only one who doesn’t know this stuff. Everyone else is lying. Be the first person to stop lying about it and you’ll free up a lot of time that you can then invest in your work and quality of life.
  7. Every discipline has a normative hiring season and process. In sociology, the “good” job ads come out around July or August with waves of ads running through October. We do group interviews at the annual ASA meeting using a professional clearinghouse service. You network for more interviews and meet-and-greets at the conference. You follow remarkably similar norms applying for academic jobs as you did for graduate school.
  8. The norm is that much of the job market advice you get from your department is out-of-date, out-of-touch with your situation, or absent. Some departments do a good job but there’s a lot of variation. Find mentors far and wide who know the current job market. If you’re not aiming for an academic job, most of us are hopeless. Find someone in administration or industry to help you.

You should know about some go-to resources:

  1. The Professor is In for all the advice you don’t get in graduate school. It has a “real talk” vibe that can be refreshing after academicese. But, some of the advice specific to minority groups varies in quantity and quality.
  2.  Grad Skool Rulz is about sociology programs. It’s good advice. It overwhelmingly assumes you are aiming for a traditional academic job in the traditional academic prestige hierarchy and share the values and norms of those who have traditionally worked in those jobs. But it can’t be beat for ascertaining the normative assumptions of the sociology acculturation process and job market.
  3. Tanya Golash-Boza is a big deal sociologist with a very practical approach to this business.
  4. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s blog has some of the best practical advice about managing this profession that is out there.
  5. Read the Grad School Beatitudes every semester. Keep perspective on the norms even as you’re learning them.

ETCETERA

Dear Professor,

I am applying to graduate school [this/next] season. I was previously enrolled in your SOCY 322 and 508 courses in Fall 2015 and Spring 2016. I earned an A and a B, respectively. I enjoyed the course material and am attaching a sample of an assignment I did in SOCY 322. Would you feel comfortable writing me a strong letter of recommendation for graduate study in sociology? I anticipate applying to five programs and two fellowships, for a total of possibly seven requests of you this November and December. If you are willing, I can meet with you at your convenience to share my graduate school dossier. Thank you, Signature etc.

  • Your dossier should include:
  • A sample personal statement
  • A sample research statement
  • A sample diversity statement
  • Your GRE scores
  • A copy of your transcript (unofficial is fine)
  • A list of the programs to which you will apply, organized by application due date
  • Details about how the letter of recommendation is submitted, i.e. should I expect an email from the institution or do I register and initiate the submission
  • Any concerns you want your letter writers to speak to: your GRE, GPA, etc.
  • The dossier can be a folder, an actual physical folder (imagine that). Or, you can send a google drive folder or a nice zip file with all the documents named in a way that I know who they belong to and what they are (ex. Lastname_Statement of Purpose_Emory)
  • Some fellowships
  • ASA Minority Fellowship Program
  • Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship
  • McNair
  • NSF