Applying to graduate school


One thing about graduate school (as most things in the US) is that you must think about applying at least 1 year in advance. For me applying to graduate school was beneficial for many reasons:

  • I didn’t want to try to find a job because of my F-1 visa. My employer would need to support my visa and its a pretty big risk for me to try to find work with the economy being so bad. In addition, my job could only last a year at most and I didn’t want to work in a place for only one year.
  • Most PhD programs will pay you to attend their program. You will get an assistantship which will pay for your tuition (often the tuition is waived) and then you will also receive a stipend for living expenses once you are accepted into the program. I liked the idea of having an income even though you are not paid as well as someone who is working. Most master’s programs do not have this advantage which made me decide to go into a PhD program.
  • By getting the visa sponsorship from my program/school, I could at least stay in the US for another 5 – 6 years, depending on when I finish my dissertation. With a PhD, finding an employer who will sponsor my green card will be easier than trying to find one with only a college degree.
So how DOES one get into a PhD program? 
  1. You must take the GRE examThis is the standardized exam to help give the Admission Committees a basis to assess all the applicants. There are three sections: verbal, quantitative and writing. The one thing I liked about the GRE was that different programs assessed your scores differently. For example, a friend of mine is going into a Physics PhD program–his verbal score is most likely completely overlooked since the departments are more interested in his quantitative score. The program that I eventually got into was more interested in my verbal and writing score.
  2. First select a program to apply to. Unlike in college, graduate programs are assessed by each separate department. For example, I can apply to a college to be in their music department as a music major, but later change my major to politics to join the politics department.  In graduate school the department you apply to is the only department/program you will get into. (Sometimes there are dual-programs, where you can be in two programs with only one application, but this varies with each university). Since I wanted to study immigration, I looked into international relations and politics phd programs but the descriptions of the programs did not interest me very much. It was all focused on economics and the macro/micro impacts of immigrants. I wanted a more holistic and humanistic perspective on immigration; I found myself more drawn to the sociology phd program descriptions and how they approached their topics of interest.
  3. Have at least 3 recommendation letters from individuals who can attest to your potential and competency to do well in the program. Most programs will ask for recommendations from professors whom you have taken a class with but some will accept recommendations from the work place. This part is one of the most important parts of the application since it will give a window to the Admission Committee what type of person you are. I asked one from my old community college professors and two professors from my 4-year university. Random thought: I was really happy that these recommendations could be sent electronically as opposed to when I transferred where I had to get hard copies of everything.
  4. Have a good grade point average. Meaning, have good grades to show that you are able to do well academically. For my case, this was especially difficult to prove because I didn’t have the best grades while I was in my 4-year university because of overloading on courses (to finish on time since not all my credits transferred from my previous college) and because I was working 2 jobs every semester. Depending on the program, this can be weighed very heavily or not so heavily. Luckily my program overlooked this :p
  5. Write a 2-page single-spaced personal statement as to why you want to join the program. The way graduate school works is that they are looking for individuals who are interested in what their faculty is interested in. You can’t just write “I want to save the world, cure cancer or contribute to society.” This must be a veryspecific, concise and clear statement of why you want to pursue a PhD in a field. Even if an applicant is stellar, if their interest doesn’t match the interest of the faculty, there is little chance they will be accepted into the program. My program accepted me because their faculty’s main interest was immigration.
  6. Have a resume. 
  7. Submit an application, the application fee and all the required documents(application, resume, personal statement, recommendations, transcripts, sending the GRE scores etc.). This was a very expensive and time-consuming process. Each application costs anywhere from $40 (University of Umass) to $110 (Harvard). At best, the cheapest an application will cost is $60 but it usually ran up to $80 per application. I worked two jobs the semester before I applied to pay for the applications and it still wasn’t enough. The least an applicant should apply for is 6 programs.
Needless to say, it was a very long and arduous process. On top of everything, I had school work, my jobs and volunteer work to balance. Every time I spoke with senior friends who were going through the process, we would often talk about the difficulties of balancing all three in addition to applying for graduate school–we were united in our suffering
The time line to apply for graduate is typically like this:
  • May – August = Study and take the GRE + find programs to apply to
  • September – October = work on personal statement and resume + ask for recommendations + send GRE scores to programs
  • November  = finalize documentation and programs I am applying to
  • December – January = Sociology PhD programs deadlines START! 
  • February – April = Wait to hear from programs
Mine was more like:
  • January, May, August = Study for the GRE and take GRE + find programs to apply to
  • October = work on personal statement + resume + send GRE scores to programs
  • November = worked on personal statement for a month (with help from different people) when friend looked at it and said “this is horrible. please don’t send this to your programs.” Revised my statement which took 2 more weeks.
  • December = Panic, cry and bleed while deadlines and finals were BOTH coming up. Called Harvard University “Princeton University” in my statement out of nervousness.
  • January = still working on 5 of the applications. Forgot to apply to one program.
  • March = Thought I had gotten in a program when they meant I was waitlisted. Visited the program to convince them that I am worth accepting into the program with funding. Finally got the REAL acceptance to the program. Fears of leaving the US are not assuaged. The rest of the programs rejected me.
In the end I applied to 8 programs and I got accepted into one of them. I got 4 rejections before I got my waitlist/acceptance offer so I was  in a terrible mood during the waiting period. Ironically the only one that accepted me was the program that I really wanted to get into so I was definitely lucky in that retrospect. I had lived in the city where the program was before and I loved the smallness of the city. After I had one acceptance from a program, the rejections were much easier to handle.
So that’s a slice of how graduate school works and how the application process was for me.

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