Category Archives: Advice

What’s in a Rank: How important are grad school rankings?

ranksHow important are rankings when it comes to choosing a graduate school? While most would agree that rankings are an important factor for graduate schools, it’s no exact science. There’s also no clear answer to many of the difficult questions that come up over rank.

So I didn’t get into a top-20 program, but I got into a graduate program that I like and is offering me funding. Will my degree be worth it?

I got into a program that is highly ranked and another that is not ranked as high, but that I feel will be a better fit. Should I pick the higher ranked program regardless?

The answer to these questions will depend on which program you are applying to and how great the disparity in rank actually is between the schools you are considering. The graduate program rankings should be an indication of the resources available to students, the strength of the faculty, and the credentials of the currently attending students at a particular school. That being said, just because a school has multiple noble prize winning alums and adds a little badge of prestige to your degree that doesn’t mean that it will be your best chance for success.

When it comes to graduate school, department rankings trump overall rankings. Even if a school has a well-respected undergraduate program, that doesn’t mean that is has the particular graduate program you are looking for. Industrial Organizational Psychology, for example, is a smaller but rising field and the top-ranked graduate schools aren’t the usual assortment of Ivy Leagues and big public research institutions. Be especially careful to look at specialties within programs as well. While a school might rank highly in English Literature, that doesn’t necessarily help you if they have an strong department for American Literature and you are looking to study Medieval Lit. So, yes, rankings are important – but you also need to do your research. The US News website‘s graduate school rankings are a good place to start.

grad_rankAnother controversial issue is your “fit” for a particular school. Part of this process will arbitrarily be decided for you by the admissions committee. If they don’t see a place for you in their program, you won’t have the option of deciding whether that school is a good fit for you. However, because the process is highly subjective – and honestly often a crap shoot – you may find yourself with acceptances to multiple schools that have very different program atmospheres. Now is the time to ask yourself:

What time of support does this program offer its students from faculty and advisors? Does the program encourage a collaborative or competitive atmosphere? Is the location of this school somewhere I am willing to live?

If you can determine that a particular school just isn’t the right fit, it doesn’t matter how highly their program is ranked. Sometimes, waiting another year for another round of applications is the better choice than going to a school that you have a gut feeling you won’t be happy at.

In today’s academic job market, it’s important to keep rankings in mind, within reason. Where you earned your degree can make all the difference in getting an academic job. The answer won’t always be easy. However, if you research your programs, contact faculty of interest, and reach out to current students at the school, chances are you’ll be able to get a pretty good idea of how successful the program is and whether or not you could see yourself as a graduate student there.

Meet the Elitist, the Realist, and the Optimist

The big question circulating around soon-to-be college graduates is whether or not graduate school is worthwhile. In the spirit of debate, I’ve outlined caricatures of the perspectives I see/hear most often. The moral of the story is that in order to tackle all the strong opinions out there, you first need to figure out where you stand. Well, enjoy.

The Elitist

Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton

You’ll find the Elitist trolling the Internet, spreading his unsolicited wisdom about which schools are THE top ranked and why degrees from only these schools hold any merit in the academic world. She also might be that faculty member at your undergraduate institution who is still obsessed with her Alma Mater, constanty reminding everyone that even though she is working at University of State, she got her degree from Ivy U.

Elitist camps are divided on whether successful up-and-comer schools can stand up to the tried-and-true prowess of the original Ivies. Some radicals will even try to throw a public school in the mix, to the disdain of their Elitist brethren. The Elitists are like the “cool kids” in the high school cafeteria; everyone gets irritated by them, but secretly wants to join their club all the same.

Elitists have a general disdain for flyover state schools and often argue that only one region of the United States is capable of producing elite scholars (usually East or West Coast, occasionally Midwest, rarely deep South, and wait, there are universities in that big barren northwestern part of the country?).

This doesn’t mean that everyone from a top-ranked school is an Elitist, in fact, many Elitists are not even from any of these schools but are instead bitter would-be graduate students or Ivy League groupies. One thing is certain: the Elitist will try and convince you that the only factor that matters when it comes to choosing a graduate school is school reputation and prestige, and that academia is best left to the big boys in the hallowed halls of Ivy U. The worst Elitists won’t even concede that a small, lesser known school can have a top ranked program for a certain discipline.

Don’t let the Elitist talk scare you away from applying to graduate school, or give you false notions that the graduate school crowd is a privileged, snooty lot. When it comes down to it, we’re all different. We don’t all come from wealthy families, nor do we all go to school for the same reasons.  And if you do take the plunge to apply and get accepted: don’t let it coax you into turning down a good, successful program because it is not your idea of “prestigious” or go to program that really doesn’t fit with your personality or academic interests just because they have a reputation.

The Realist

Hand load money to bank

The Realist will remind you that in spite of which schools have a historical reputation for prestige, they aren’t always the top ranked schools in each field. Each program has a different set of “top” schools with different reasons as to why they are ranked highly. If the official rankings do as they should, they should give you an indication of the quality of resources a particular school has to offer, such as faculty, publication opportunities, funding etc. For these reasons, rankings should definitely factor into your decision, but only if you do your research properly.

Despite the Realist’s far more reasonable outlook on the necessity of earning a badge of prestige along with your degree, the helpful pep talk stops there. If the Realist is truly being realistic, graduate school isn’t a low-risk investment of your time and money. If fact, it’s a pretty foolish investment if your object is – like the mass consumer – to earn as much money as possible with the least amount of effort.

Even the so-called top programs can’t offer students the certainty of finding a tenure track job. Your potential difficulties finding a tenure-track job coupled with the debt you might be carrying from your degree leads the Realist to conclude that the humanities are dying and only perpetuated by a bunch of old, moth-eaten tenured professors. Why didn’t you just major in computer science? Jeez, oh well, you better find a corporate job quick.

The Realist is often an embittered graduate-school dropout. Sometimes she is a history-major-turned-business-tycoon who likes to offer the public her opinion on how the best and brightest of humanities graduates should go into the business world instead of holing themselves away in PhD programs. The Realist is a good opinion to keep in mind, because frankly, you might be a realist when it comes down to it. If going down a path that comes with a high-risk for failure and requires a lot of hard work doesn’t not sound like your cup of tea, there’s no harm in being realistic about it.

What the Realist rarely acknowledges is that the self-imposed “poverty” of graduate students can be an educated choice. Poverty calls up images of uninformed, desolate souls who are dealt a limited set of choices in life. There seems to be this underlying belief that graduate students are passing up a life of high-earning corporate success with tons of benefits and the ultimate social life to go to graduate school.

Well, Realist:
Entrepreneurs fail in their business ventures everyday and end up in more debt than graduate students. For every exorbitantly wealthy professional athlete or actress, there are thousands working at a local fast food joint in L.A. trying to get noticed for their talent. For every rich, wealthy, successful business guru, there are probably many more who are unable to climb the corporate ladder and wake up every morning dreading the cubicle. Starving artists get the worst lot and usually only get recognized postmortem. Some people are just willing to take the risk for the potential benefit and some aren’t.

The Realist is looking out for the average American. Do yourself a favor and be true to your goals and what makes you happy.

The Optimist

Squirrel in birdfeeder 2

The Optimist is the easiest to listen to of our three perspectives, because the Optimist tells you what you want to hear. The Optimist sees the trend that the more education you have completed, the higher your salary, and assumes that a PhD is a one-track path to six-figure earnings. The Optimist could also be the professor who writes “excellent!” and “brilliant” on all of your papers and fluffs up your scholarly features, but never offers a real critique of your work. To the Optimist, a 5-7 year graduate program could be just the thing to ride out the dismal job market for a bit longer.

What the Optimist lacks in cynicism, he compensates for in over-inflated confidence in the ability of a graduate degree to cure all his problems. The danger of an overly-optimist view of graduate school is that it can lead otherwise intelligent and reasonable people to make choices that aren’t right for them. Choices that they can’t deal with financially and don’t end up turning out as they’d hoped.

Another unseen pitfall the Optimist stumbles into is the hardship of receiving rejection letters. Having assumed their high GPAs and GRE scores made them a shoo-in for a PhD program, optimists naturally assume every admissions committee will be as smitten with their work as their undergraduate professors were. They gave me As, didn’t they? The truth is that your undergraduate professor could hand out as many As as she felt the class deserved. An admissions committee at a top-20 school will potentially be dealing with hundreds of applicants and the money to only fund 10-15 of them. The Optimist who goes blindly into the application process doesn’t come out unscathed.

The internet’s most vocal Realists are likely former Optimists who see themselves as shepherds preventing other sheep from going astray. Like the Realist and even the Elitist, the Optimist isn’t trying to confuse/hurt/anger you. But the choice to go to graduate school isn’t for everyone and the Optimist isn’t willing to acknowledge that until it’s too late.

The Conclusion:
The conclusion is that discerning graduate applicants won’t let the Elitist scare them away from applying or convince them that a school is not a good personal fit just because its not an Ivy. They also won’t set aside their aspirations because a disgruntled Realist claims that the recession marks the end of our education system as it is. And they won’t go to graduate school just because the Optimist leads them to believe it is the easy way out of the real world. Know yourself enough to make an educated decision!

Funding Graduate School – Fellowships, stipends, tuition, oh my!

Feb Challenge Day 28 | moneyI am a money scrounger. I’m not independently wealthy – far from it – and I had to pay for most of my undergraduate degree.

The summer before my freshmen year in college I worked as an intern at an engineering firm and got paid $9.50 an hour. By the time this money made it into my bank account, 20% had been taken out for taxes and the rest went straight to my bills for school. After an entire summer of part-time work, my take home was less than $2,000. Maybe even closer to $1000. Sure, I got some money back from tax returns, but it wasn’t cash that was available for school immediately.

That same summer/spring semester, I applied to 10 scholarships. Now, I won’t sugarcoat this – I was 3rd in my high school class of 650+ students and was involved in just about every club the school offered. I also put a considerable amount of work into these scholarships, and I don’t have any clout whatsoever. I had to write personal statements, essays, and gather recommendation letters. These scholarships aren’t given out to anyone who applies, but the competition was probably as fierce (if not less so) than getting one of those coveted spots in a funded PhD program. I ended up receiving 6 out of the 10 scholarships, amounting to $17,500. I applied to everything I was possibly eligible for, including a scholarship offered by a local Buddhist temple (for the record, I’m not Buddhist, but I’m very open to exploring the viewpoints of other religions).

Before I ever applied to graduate school, I had amassed over $40,000 in independent scholarships. The best part was that it wasn’t even taxable. I don’t relay this story to boast, because not many people would find my situation enviable since I am still in considerable debt and will not be able to pay it off until after my 5-7 year graduate program. And that’s if I get a job right after I graduate. I honestly would have been better off if my parents had paid for all of my undergraduate degree and I hadn’t earned a cent of scholarship.

I relay this because I have, in a large part, already put myself through the financial game of graduate school. I know how to search for the most obscure scholarships and I know how to market myself in order to get them. Since I was in charge of my scholarship money (my parents didn’t give me a monthly allowance to pay my bills), I had to budget that money to get myself through each year of undergrad, not knowing how much money I would have for the next year. It’s a lot like being a starving artist begging high-end clients to buy into your highly abstract work. Only your a student peddling your academic prowess for funding.

It’s no wonder there’s so many articles/blogs/etc. out there discouraging people from going to graduate school. Being a money scrounger is not a life of luxury, and you take a considerable risk in order to get any future pay-off. Many students will enter graduate school after years of living off their parents money, or even after years of holding a full time job and suddenly realize what it is like to be living off a stipend or fellowship. It’s a completely different experience than doing your 9 to 5 work and getting a pay check bi-monthly.

If you ask yourself one thing before you go to graduate school, it should be this: can you live with the cost of graduate school?

The cost will be years of lost earning potential, possibly going into debt for expenses your stipends can’t cover, not receiving pay for all the work you put in, not being able to leave your work at the office, and not having a lot of choice about where you live and the degree of luxury in which you live.

For better or for worse, the admissions committees will more or less decide for your whether you have the academic credentials to go to graduate school. Many schools, however, will leave the financial decision up to you by offering you funding, not offering you funding, or offering you mediocre funding. Do your reading, but really consider this above all else. Is the cost worth the rewards for you (and not for Grad Student John Smith who is writing an opinion article about it)?




How important is the GRE on graduate applications?

“How important are GRE scores?” may be one of the most frequently asked questions by graduate applicants. When applying for your undergraduate degree, ACT/SAT scores carried a lot of weight along with GPA. The answer is a little more complicated for graduate school.

Where graduate applicants most often get led astray is when they assume one of the following:

1. That a very high GRE score will automatically get you into top programs

2. That a mediocre GRE score will automatically keep you out of top programs

Neither of these are true and both lead applicants to believe: I need to spend all the time and money needed to get the highest GRE score possible. 

studyingWith this attitude, best case scenario you will do just that and spent a lot of time and money on the GRE and your scores will show it. Worst case scenario, you accomplish all this at the expense of your writing sample and personal statements.

In general, most graduate programs deal with fewer applicants and admit fewer students than an undergraduate program and place more emphasis on the “personal” aspects of the application.

The more time, effort, and money the school will have to put into their accepted students, the more consideration the personal aspects of the application will receive (i.e. writing sample, recommendations, and personal statements).

When a funded PhD program accepts a student, they are not only allowing them to attend their program, but are also agreeing to offer them money to do so and to direct their research and course of study over the next 5-7 years. The school is making an investment in their PhD students in hopes that the work of these students will benefit their program. An admissions committee will want answers to the questions: is this student a good fit for our program? Does this student have the skills and professional goals necessary to success in our program? GRE scores don’t reflect this kind of potential in a student. This doesn’t mean they won’t cut the applicant demographic with the lowest percentile of GRE scores. However, it does mean that for PhD programs, the personal aspects of the application will be more important than the GRE scores.

All this being said, every admissions committee is going to place different emphasis on GRE scores based on how accurately they believe the GRE predict intellectual potential. Not even a 170 on the verbal GRE or a 6.0 on the Analytical Writing can compensate for a mediocre writing sample or a lackluster personal statement. If you take one piece of advice away from this: try to do your best on the GRE, but keep a reasonable goal in mind, and if you don’t reach it, don’t throw your applications in the trash just yet.

Grad School Applications Timeline

    One year before

  • Plan when you’re taking the Subject and General GRE tests
  • Start thinking about who you want to write your recommendation letters

  • Take the General GRE (Subject test as well if you can)
  • Begin thinking about what to use as your writing sample

  • Ask three professors if they would be willing to write a recommendation for you
  • Come up with a list of schools to apply to and research their programs and persons of interest

  • Take the GRE again if needed
  • Log in to all applications and fill out personal information
  • Update recommenders on which schools you are applying to and their due dates
  • Write up a draft of personal statement and academic interests

  • Writing sample should be fully written; get as much feedback as possible
  • Cater your personal statements to each specific school
  • Find out if any transcripts need to be sent to schools by mail and order them

  • Finalize all application materials and upload them to applications
  • Proofread writing sample & statements
  • Send recommenders a polite reminder
  • Hit that send button!

Read an explanation of all these steps!

How do I know graduate school is right for me?

questionsThe best way to know if graduate school is right for you is to talk to professors and current graduate students as much as you can – and to ask the right questions. Chances are, your professors have had the “talk” with many students before you and can give some personal direction. Some professors at your school may even work on the admissions committee that selects new students, or at least have some say in the process.

Current graduate students can offer you advice on what it is like to be a graduate student in today’s economy. Your professors may not be prepared to offer you advice on handling the financial burden and stress of being a graduate student in a recession, so be sure to seek out guidance from students who have recently gone through the process.

As a last resort, seek out impersonal advice from recent articles. Just like all advice, this advice will be biased – but you can’t have a conversation with the author, so the dialogue ends with what the writer has to say. You can’t (necessarily) get the author to weigh in on your personal situation, so take the advice with the caveat that it is catered to the masses and graduate school is not for everyone.

So, to expedite your process of inquiry and to prepare you for the discussions ahead, here is a list of questions to ask yourself and others before you apply:

1. Am I qualified to get into the program I’m interested in?

It may sound harsh, but this is the first thing you need to ask yourself. I’m all for going for your dreams despite the odds, but the application process is unfortunately impersonal. I’ll post more specifics on this later, but for now many schools will post statistics on their admitted graduate student’s average GPAs and GRE scores on their websites. The competition for getting into a funded PhD program is more like competing to get a scholarship than getting into an undergraduate program – and with application fees of $50-100, it’s a good idea to assess whether it is worth your time before you apply.

2. What motivates me to do my best work?

Or more specifically: does the academic setting motivate you? In the corporate world you’re expected to show up from 9-5 without fail and in turn you expect to get paid consistently for your efforts. That’s not how it works in graduate school. You need to find the motivation to show up to class and do your work knowing that it’s an investment for the future. You’ll be expected to do all the work (quite possibly more) of a person with a full time job without compensation beyond your basic living expenses. This may sound dismal, but the 9-5 schedule doesn’t motivate me the way an intellectual challenge does – you just have to know yourself and what will make you happy in the end.

3. Can you prioritize your time well?

Sure, graduate students have the reputation for procrastinating papers and late-night studying. However, at school you will be not “forced” to be an your desk 8 hours a day with your boss handing your tasks out as they come. Most of your work in school will have to be done on your own time. I know that I work best when I’m allowed to create my own schedule; I like to work out in the afternoon and then split my work time between a cup of coffee in the morning and the evening before I go to bed. Staring at the computer for long hours at one time isn’t my thing. The good news is that if you’re applying for an advanced degree, you’ve at least had experience with an undergraduate college schedule, if not at the master’s level. Were you able to effectively manage the work load of advanced-level classes and could you handle more?

4. If I had to choose a specific concentration within my field, what would it be?

Do you have a clear idea of what your concentration would be and can you articulate it clearly? While you don’t have to write your dissertation proposal just yet, admissions committees don’t just want to see that you love your subject and are SO excited to do your homework. They want to see that you have the type of thinking skills to move the field forward. The ability to articulate a clear, purposeful set of interests within your subject shows that you are ready to contribute to the ongoing discussion within your field. If you have no idea how you would narrow down your field of study within your program, it may be a good idea to step back and think before you take the plunge to apply.

5. How well do I respond to criticism?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about taking your work to the next level (something that is often necessary to accomplish before you apply to a graduate program, not after you’re in one), it’s that you need to be prepared to take criticism and use it to your advantage. Often, the type of students that get the grades necessary to apply to graduate school have not received many harsh critiques of their work in the past. If you’re not the type who can accept criticism and, more importantly, seek it out, grad school may be a difficult road for you. It’s also good to get a fair dose of humility before you experience what it’s like to get your first rejection from a school.

6. What kind of relationship do I have with my professors?

Recommendation letters are a huge part of the application to any program. A lukewarm recommendation can kill an application more decisively than a poor GPA or GRE score. I would hope that your professors would tell you upfront whether they are willing to write you a good recommendation letter, but there are some that would send off a crummy, generic letter (or worse, a letter denouncing you and your abilities) rather than confront you. That is why it is essential to have numerous positive interactions with professors well before you ask them to write you a letter. Even if you consistently get good grades, you’re instructors can’t provide you with a stellar recommendation if you’re a back-seat student who never raises her voice in class or talks to the professor. At best, they’ll write “came to class, got good grades.” Since the application process is impersonal, you need someone who can say with confidence “my student would be an excellent graduate student for these reasons.”

While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are just a few things to get you started as you decide whether to apply. If you can answer all these questions with confidence, then you’ve taken the first and most important step in the application process!