Why You Should Apply to 6-10 Graduate Programs

In my work with McNair students (and indirectly with the larger pool of Trio students) at the University of Oregon, one of the most common things that I hear is:  “I’m thinking of doing a Masters/Ph.D. in xxx at UO/Portland State/Oregon State.”

A statement like this may sound innocuous, but it’s actually a huge red flag. 


Because it shows that the student has no idea how graduate school really works. 

Undergraduate study is often, for many students–particularly those who are first generation, low income, or underrepresented–all about location. Indeed many of our McNair/Trio students actually start at one of the community colleges near their family’s home, and only later transfer in to the UO to finish out their degree.  This makes sense.  There is a lower barrier to entry if you stick really close to home, and keep things familiar and as inexpensive as possible.

But while that is fine as a logic for your BA, it is disastrous as a logic for graduate school.  Because graduate school decisions must be made on a complex calculus of (in no particular order):

  •  the funding package the program offers you
  • the stature and enthusiasm (for you) of the advisor with whom you’ll be working
  • the status of the department
  • the overall status and reputation of the university
  • the placement rate of the department (ie, how effective it is in placing its MAs/Ph.D.s into jobs)
  • the fit of the department to your scholarly interests

None of those things has anything whatsoever to do with geography.  Indeed, for students in Oregon, which does not have a density of top-ranked research institutions, these criteria usually point directly away from the state.

The fact is, your criteria for choosing graduate school, if you want to have a hope of high-quality permanent employment at the end of it (as a professor or as another kind of professional) must focus on issues of quality of the program, fit with your interests, and financial package.  And these are things that you find when you apply on a national basis.

In addition, you do not know from the outside exactly how enthusiastically a department will respond to your application, or how much funding they have available for you.

This is why in addition to applying nationally, you also apply in quantity.  At McNair our official requirement of our students is that they apply to 6-10 programs.  This is because the so-called “perfect fits” often end up not accepting or funding the student, while the “stretch” programs do.

If you are admitted with generous funding to more than one institution, you CAN negotiate.  You can say to one institution, “I’ve been given xxx funding by institution A.  I’d  prefer to come to your department.  Can you match this offer?”  And some of the time, they will.  And some of the time, they won’t, and then you have to make a hard decision.

But it’s my official position (me being Karen Kelsky) that you should never take out new debt for graduate school.  So the place that funds you well enough to avoid that is the place to go.

And folks in Oregon—sorry, but in our broke state, that will very likely not be anywhere around here.



About karenkelsky

I am the McNair Advisor in the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program. I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and have had tenured positions in four departments. I have helped scores of students get into and succeed in graduate programs around the country. I'll be sharing 20 years of information and skills here. When I'm not doing this, I make and sell jewelry and explore Eugene with my partner and two kids. View all posts by karenkelsky

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