applying to graduate school

Academia has patterns and one of the ways that i know that it is November is that i’m getting lots of email from friends thinking of going to graduate school and from people who want to apply to the School of Information. Although i’ve been in school for forever, i’m not an expert on applying to graduate school but i do have some thoughts…

While i offer some suggestions below, i’d really like to do a call out to professors and graduate students who might have advice about applying to graduate school. Please suggest things in the comments. I know that applying to graduate school provokes all sorts of anxieties in people and i’d love to offer some guidance collectively if possible.

Anyhow, here are my top 4 rules:

Rule #1: Apply to potential advisors, not to programs. Sure, a PhD from CalTech looks uber swanky on your resume but if you aren’t that interested in what you’re researching and you have a poor rapport with your advisor, the likelihood of you dropping out is HIGH. In most programs (particularly engineering and sciences), your advisor is *EVERYTHING*. This is the person who will direct much of your research, the person who will fight to get you through the program, the person who will make you feel guilty about spending too much time blogging, the person who will foot your bills, and the person whose love you desperately need when you think the world sucks. You better love your advisor or you will be miserable.

So, when searching for schools, look for advisors who write like you want to write, who do the kind of work you wish to do, who generally are the kind of people you want to be. Try contacting them but don’t be discouraged if they don’t respond; many are too busy to field messages from potential students. If you can’t get in touch with them, try contacting their students. In both cases, write a BRIEF message about who you are, why you want to study with that person/in that lab, what you think you can offer. Do your research before contacting a prof – know what they’ve written, what they’re studying, and why. Compliment them (all academics are suckers for compliments) but don’t get too sickeningly sweet. Make sure you’re concise and that your email is well written but not stiff as a board. Give them something to respond to (translation: ask a question). The best questions include the future of their research, what motivates their research, an intelligent question about their findings, etc. This should be in addition to a question about what the prof is looking for in new students. While the adage is that there are no dumb questions, this simply is not true. Dumb questions, complimentary emails with no hooks, begging and pleading… these won’t garner responses. Don’t expect to start a conversation.

If the professor agrees to meet with you, show up on time and engage them about their research. If you didn’t do your research before, you better have by this point. Bring with you a paper including a brief bio of you and a very short abstract of what you want to do in graduate school. It can’t hurt to include a small, simple, elegant (i’d recommend black & white) photo on that page so that they can keep names/faces together (cuz the scattered professor stereotype exists for a reason). If you did meet with the prof, follow up via email and perhaps include similar information so that they’ll recall you via search when they’re looking at applications.

Note: in many programs, professors choose students so if they remember you and like you, that will be a plus for your application. Having a professor on your side is a good thing for getting in but it’s also key if you want to be happy once there.

Oh, and helpful hint: don’t apply to professors who have retired or gone to a different program. Websites are good first guidelines but you really need to talk to someone to find out the state of the school at the moment. Hell, at the very least, call the secretary for the department. I feel really badly every time someone contacts me saying they’ve applied to work for my advisor at Berkeley; he retired.

Rule #2: Programs are not generic. It’s amazing the number of people who apply to programs en masse and have no idea what they’re applying to. It’s really obvious in the application. When you write an application for graduate school, make sure it’s tailored for that program. Why are you applying THERE? Make sure to situate yourself within the broader program – what can you offer, why do you think you should be there, why do you think this is a good program? Work this stuff into your essay – make it really clear that THIS is the program for you. Reference professors explicitly, complimenting their work. This will help them understand where you think you belong within the program.

Before applying to a program, read the fine print. How much coursework will you have to do? What kind of requirements should you expect? How does the program do funding? Know what you’re getting into before you apply and make sure that’s soaked in and part of your application. For example, if it’s a program with two years of solid coursework, don’t write that you’re done with coursework and can’t wait to focus on research.

Rule #3: Interdisciplinary programs are not the lazy way out. In many ways, the borders of disciplinary programs are far more sane than interdisciplinary ones. To do well at an interdisciplinary place, you can’t just be sorta ok at a bunch of things – you actually have to dive deep and get really knowledgeable about a bunch of things. In many ways, it can be a lot more work and at the same time, you’ll never really succeed at being an expert at anything (which others will kindly remind you of constantly).

Don’t choose an interdisciplinary program because you can’t make your mind up about what you want to study. This is the *worst* reason to go to graduate school, especially to go to interdisciplinary programs. You need to have a vague idea of what you want to study and why. If you just want to be in graduate school, you’re better off at a disciplinary place (although i think that that motivation is still terrible there). At an interdisciplinary place, you’re always going to be making your own path, fighting for what you think it important, etc.

At the same time, don’t go to a traditional disciplinary place if you want to do interdisciplinary work really badly. It’s quite possible to stick to a discipline until after your PhD is over (and this will make it a lot easier to get jobs) but if you think you’re going to be doing an interdisciplinary dissertation, don’t expect a disciplinary place to support you unless you’ve built a relationship with an advisor. I’ve watched many sad graduate students push for interdisciplinary work in a disciplinary program and bloody their heads from the repeated bashing against the immovable wall that is academic bureaucracy.

Rule #4: Read Piled Higher and Deeper. Phd Comics is a fantastic procrastination tool for all graduate students and a reality check for all wannabe graduate students. Its depiction of graduate school is far better than any that i know. And it will make you laugh and laugh and laugh until you cry.


Graduate school is all-encompassing. You will not have a life for years. Nor will you have money or sanity. So if you’re going to go for a PhD, do so because you love what you want to study and getting that PhD will make your life easier. Passion and maschoism are the only things that will get you through this academic hazing ritual. No matter what, you have to figure out how to make the process sane and positive for yourself. It doesn’t come easy but you can figure out how to make it enjoyable; i certainly have. But it takes a lot of hard work. And a good anti-depressant.

Anyhow, i’ll try to offer more advice if i think of any, but in the meantime, i’d love to hear what others suggest….

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19 thoughts on “applying to graduate school

  1. Ruthan

    Other than the obvious things, how does this cross-apply for programs that are mostly course-based and put very little weight on independent research?

  2. Jane McG

    Wow — well, I would have to say that my advice is actually very different than yours, danah! I basically broke all the rules you list, probably because (like many other people, I suspect) I wasn’t really sure why I was going back to grad school or what I hoped it would do for me. I applied to programs with flexibility (read: interdisciplinary) precisely because I wanted that freedom to decide as I pursued my studies. (And it worked out great — I showed up at UC Berkeley to study quantum physics and performance, and wound up a game designer and theorist!)

    I agree with you completely about the brutality, insanity and insecurity that is a fundamental part of PhD programs. That’s why I have a very different piece of advice–

    Apply to programs in places you would be happy.

    Grad school is going to be a nightmare (even though it’s also amazing and awesome and worth it, if you want it). You need to be somewhere that will make you happy to be there during those days (weeks) (months) when you hate, hate, hate your program and despair over your research.

    I picked the Bay Area because my twin sister was living here and I liked the quality of life. I applied only in New York City and the bay area because those were the only areas I thought I could be happy, even though I’d never read a single article or book by any faculty member in what would soon be my home department at Berkeley. And it all worked out fine.

    So that’s my two cents. Look for programs at schools that excite you, communities that engage you, places that feel right. The admissions committees will be able to tell, I believe, if your work is a good fit. I know admissions is a game, but I think that it’s good to represent yourself well instead of selling yourself as a perfect fit for an advisor.

  3. Core.B

    I’m basically the person outlined in the first part of Rule 2. I jumped into grad school right after getting a B.S.

    The advice I offer: Make sure that grad school is absolutely what you want. I was on the fence about continuing school or getting a job. It is much easier to get out of a job if you aren’t liking it and aren’t doing well with it, than it is for grad school.

    Now I get to decided if I drop out before the last day to resign, or continue on and have the (very likely) possibility of not being eligible to continue graduate study.

  4. Sarah "Intellagirl" Robbins

    Just a few more pointers to add to your great list:
    1. Talk to a student in the program. They’re the ones who really know what it’s like to be in the department. Ask them the important questions: Is the funding really there that they promise? Is Prof. X ever actually in his/her office to offer help? Have grads from the dept found jobs?
    2. Sit in on a class if you can. See what the dymanics in the actual classes is like before you make your decision.
    3. Find out about the admin. You’d be amazed how much of your future will actually sit in the hands of a secretary in your dept. Talk to him/her about procedures and policies. If you really like the program find out what goodies the secretary likes đŸ™‚ I think I’ll graduate based on how much our dept secretary likes my brownies. She always emails or calls me when I’m missing important paperwork.

  5. Maggie

    I’m one of those department secretaries referenced by “Intellagirl,” and strongly support her policy on sweets.

    One simple piece of advice — e-mails or letters which make me or one of my faculty smile or chuckle are much more likely to field a response.

    Oh, and the person answering the phones could very easily be the person who is handling your dossier — be charming and polite at all times.

  6. Randy

    I went back to get my Masters degree in Tourism and Public Administration. I chose my school because of the program, the diversity of the faculty as well as their documented real world experience in the field of event production and management. I have been in the working world for 5 years now and am considering a PhD in either sociology or public management since I work in a nonprofit and see myself having a long career in the field. I love what I do and hope that I can find a school in Cincinnati that will let me pursue my love and challenge me to be better at it.

  7. AdamM

    Really great advice, ESPECIALLY points #1 and #4 (the guy who writes the Phd comic gave a talk at Berkeley last year, and it was hillarious).

    Only thing I have to disagree with is the part about emailing a professor you’ve never met. At least 75% of the faculty in my department really, really, really get annoyed by this. It is not fun to get >1,000 emails like this every fall (most from overseas). It is even less fun when these 1,000 people all get upset that you haven’t replied to all 1,000 of their emails, and start sending you nastygrams.

    If they haven’t met you in person or read something you published, you’re actually seriously hurting your chances of admission.

    My advice? Either publish something they’ll notice (sure-fire guaranteed admission, no questions asked) or take one of their graduate-level courses and do a killer project. Most schools let you sign up for classes “a la carte” as a nonstudent — at UCB you can take any course that isn’t full by the third week for $1,000. You may have to ask around and visit some administration offices; these programs are often not advertised.

    One last thing, you’re way better off if you take the long view. Most of the stuff that will improve your odds of getting in will take at least a year to do.

    Oh yeah, apply for fellowships too.

  8. Kevin

    re’ AdamM’s point; surely if one is publishing something that they will notice, then there’s a fair chance that you don’t want (or dare I say) require a PhD..

    I’ve been hmmmming & hawwing over the whole PhD (or not to PhD) thing for a while.. why do we (people) do it?

    Yes, there is the ‘cop out’ angle (avoiding the real world another x years), but I’m thinking about the whole seeking guidance angle (Rule #1).. outside of disciplines where expensive technology is only accessible (if even then) by your advisors & the research school, what exactly is the benefit of the deal?

    Hazing, as a word/concept, is something like the word/concept ‘too much’ for an obsessive/holic.. something that is spoken about jokingly or given critique ‘as if’ it is happening someone else..

    I’ve a Math’/Engineering(Mech/Elec)/Computing base & did Communications for an MSc (yeah, I’m European, so what do I know?).. I did Communications as I think that something real & big (yeah, yeah, vague, I know!) must be done if we don’t want a society where the vast majority just give up on Math’ & such fields while the sciences become full of ‘yes men’/accountant types (bar the 5% who are effectively genii ‘despite’ the education system)..

    I won’t detail my views here, but I will say that finding someone amongst academia who entertains truly radical ideas is often like seeking a pacifist amongst the middle echelons of the military.. radical is too costly, esp. for reputations.

    Is there any requirement for radical thought? Now, especially since we face ever larger databases of papers published & the prospect of a next generation growing up seeing a wider world than we (the many of us contemplating doing a PhD) did.. I think so.

    I can ‘smart’ search the activities of many of my contemporaries now ways that were not possible 10 years ago, not just ‘make do’ & focus on the here & now reality of a ‘little bitty’ island..

    Sure I can proceed down many avenues, but the fact is that I am not competent facing such choice. I can see that I am not competent. I can act like I am competent, I am (perhaps) competent measured against my peers, but I am not truly competent…

    Next generations will see that &, I suspect, will clearly perceive my response..

    I’ve been tutoring Math’ for over five years & can see how, frankly, most of what I cover is like an ‘extremely crappy brochure’ for a country that is nice..

    Do I tell my students that? I do, mostly, that’s possibly why I succeed where others do not..& I, pragamatically, try jazzing up the course or even present it as a course on creative visualisation & data representation even though I know that it requires a major rewrite.. can I do the rewrite? You can probably imagine the politics of that!

    I’ve recently begun programming again (after a 5+ year hiatus).. I’ve forgotten most of what I knew, which is a good thing as I’ve decided that Lisp is the language for me & everything that I did know (well) about programming would probably screw up the process..

    So, I think again about programming, am free of a lot that I knew, can embrace (fairly confidently) a new way of doing things.. & I desire so doing..

    I know enough about myself that if I’d done Java or whatever for the past five years, then while I would claim (& want) to be open-minded about how we will code such-&-such.. I wouldn’t be..

    Some little newcomer effectively telling me that all I can show for 5/10 years is that I’ve gone & made the wrong choice? Sure! I’ll go for that!

    Irony aside, I think Mathematics (actually I think Combinatoric Geometry) not Java.. I will entertain the radical idea that Java is so terrible that it is not worth a cent, but I will defend Math’ for ‘ever’.. is Mathematics anything other than a kind of game that the ‘status quo’ supports & uses for the development of military technology? Even if it were, I’d defend it..

    On (almost) everything else, I am flexible.. now, give me an advisor who is truly open on a topic!! Someone who’s gone the academic path, accepted the lean years, venerates the topic, they will welcome minor modifications, variations on a theme.. even a surprising turn.. so long as the fundamental idea of the research is not one which questions too much the basis of how ‘we’ do things..

    Publish something that they will notice? If you do, then you’ll enter the University free from obstruction.. you are possibly dangerous, hence you are welcomed..

    How many go this route? Not many, I suspect, & those who do, do they complete their PhDs? Now there is a piece of research worth doing..

  9. pegasus

    The most important question is
    “should I apply for the university of my choice or go for the program of my choice.”
    most people are not lucky enough to get the dream univ and course

  10. SEV

    Beautifully written.. this is the stuff that no-one ever really talks about – the point of grad school is lost on the majority, then they suffer through something they were never cut out for in the first place.
    Auditing courses is so very underrated, and something that grad school makes almost necessary. Learning to read and summarize papers – its a matter of practicing it every coupla weeks or so; until grad school hits and you’re expected to understand, summarize, and implement those very papers.
    I’ll probably put in a linky to this in a coupla days, too many people I know need to read this.

  11. biella

    I would make sure to apply to at least 8-12 programs as it can be quite random 1) who accepts you and as important where 2) you get funding. The more places you apply to, the more chance you will get into a good program and get some funding.

    Then I usually tell folks that there are big differences between going to a small PhD program where you are 1 of 4 people per year accepted vs the larger type one that may accept up to 20.. Each one had advantages and disadvantages. In the large ones, you may not get the same time of intimacy from the professors but you will have a much easier time finding a cohort of friends and peers by which to circulate work and collaborate, for example… There are big differences between the large and small programs so think about that before you apply and/or pick programs you have been accepted in.

  12. Nancy

    Good advice. A few comments:

    1. You can’t always apply to the professor. In my department, for instance, you apply to the department, so in that case, it is helpful to contact the professor directly. It is not helpful to then be a jerk if you don’t get a reply though.

    2. I laugh when I see this whole ‘grad school is hell’ thing. Like the work you do post-grad school is easier? Let’s see, if you become a professor you have all the research expectations of grad school, only now your tenure depends on it so the pressure is higher. You’re now expected to bring in external funding, but if you spend time writing grants that don’t get funded instead of articles that get published, you’re hurting yourself. You have all the teaching expectations of grad school, only now you may be mentoring graduate students which is way more time intensive. And, oh yeah, you’ve got loads of service helping make the department and university and discipline run. Which part is easier than grad school? If you think grad school is hell, you really need to rethink whether being a professor is your career goal. Now, there are a lot of things you can do with an advanced degree other than academia, but don’t kid yourself that grad school is the hard part of a life in academia.

    Which brings me to the last point I’d make, which is that if you are going to grad school with the assumption that you’re going to get a nice tenure track job when you’re done, have a good and realistic look at the job market. There are many fields in which there are very few jobs in a given year and upwards of 300 applications for single positions. Many people who get Ph.D.s end up at institutions they don’t want to be at, or as lecturers, adjuncts, or otherwise grossly underemployed given their training. Be realistic about what you hope to realize on the other end.

  13. Amelia

    Thanks for the advice, from both danah and SEV, I’m not letting money decide which programs I am applying to, but when the time comes to decide which program to go to (assuming a get into more than one), money will be a major factor, I don’t want to come out with a M.A. and 80k in debt.

  14. Thomas

    Thanks, the post and comments have been really helpful. Any other suggestions for recommended reading for the about-to-graduate undergrad?

  15. watson

    wow danah, timely advice.

    as i am applying to at least 3 different types of programs (at 3 different schools) this bit about interdisciplinary work in particular speaks to me:

    “don’t expect a disciplinary place to support you unless you’ve built a relationship with an advisor. I’ve watched many sad graduate students push for interdisciplinary work in a disciplinary program and bloody their heads from the repeated bashing against the immovable wall that is academic bureaucracy.”

    particularly useful when combined with the sage advice about building such a relationship before applying officially.

  16. Shahan

    Thanks for the good post, from the grad students I have spoken with, I really do believe that these tips are accurate. I will be applying to grad school within the next month as well. Some of my own tips:
    – it’s important to read the current peer-reviewed journal articles related to your interest area. Not only will it help you become familiar with the type of research that you will throw into the mix, but it will also help you understand topics/language/theory that your supervisor will be considering, will help you convey your own ideas formally, and it will show that your interest is true.
    – be ready to put in lots of hours and a few late nights, it’s not a regular 9 to 5 job and some deadlines aren’t anticipated. if you have the passion, the rewards are immense.
    – always keep a straight frame of mind. your work is not the most important, almost everyone is looking to succeed and helping others should not be the exception, you may end up needing some help at some point. don’t turn down advice, but don’t be afraid of doing what you think is right either, it’s your own inspiration you are trying to encourage.

  17. dmarvs

    I was wondering if you hurt your chances of getting in to a grad program if you apply two consecutive years, rather than getting more experience/contacts and applying just once the second year.

    Basically, do grad programs/panels not like seeing a rejected candidate�s application the following year?

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