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This Blog Has Migrated To a New Home–Please find us there!

Dear readers,


Project Graduate School has moved to a new home on the official University of Oregon blog hosting site.


Please find us there at:


Thanks for reading.


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.


The A+ Graduate School Essay

As we continue on our path of learning the strategies for success in applying to graduate school, I will now introduce your guide to all things personal essay-related:  The A+ Graduate School Essay.  This pamphlet summarizes my years of wisdom and advice related to writing the personal essay.

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, the personal essay for your graduate school application is the single most important element of the application, and arguably the single most important piece of writing that you will do in the early part of your career.

The A+ Graduate School Essay teaches you the key things you need to know to write a brilliant personal essay.

A spectacular essay will be instrumental in bringing you years of graduate funding in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

A mediocre essay will play a large role in consigning you to a graduate school life of overwork and debt.

And of course a really poor essay will keep you from entering graduate school at all.

This pamphlet summarizes the core techniques for writing the essay that will get you admission WITH FUNDING!   Share freely, but if you repost, please give full credit:  “Written by Karen Kelsky, Ph.D., McNair Program, University of Oregon [with this URL]”

Read and learn!  And comment!  I want to hear your thoughts!

The A+ Graduate School Essay

How Much Time Should You Spend on Your Graduate School Application?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I advise undergraduate students considering graduate school is:   how much time should I spend on my graduate school application, especially my personal essay?

The short answer is:  two months.

You should plan to spend at least two months working on your personal essay/statement of purpose for your graduate school application.

Why two months? 

Because the best essays get you into the best programs with the best funding package.

Let’s break it down.

Consider that even the most minimal funding package includes a tuition waiver and a stipend.

For the sake of argument, let’s value the tuition waiver at $12,000 annually, the cost of graduate tuition at a moderately priced state university.   Let’s assume a 40%  TA appointment, which carries a stipend, again at mid-level state university rates, of approximately $15,000.  Together, these equal $27,000 a year.  Keep in mind that the vast majority of graduate programs end up funding multiple years (even when they don’t guarantee it up front).  Rarely does a student enjoy funding one year only to have it withdrawn the next.  So, multiply $27,000 by five years (a very abbreviated Ph.D program indeed!), and you come to $135,000.

Now consider the amount of work that went into your application.  Say, for the sake of argument again, that you spend 2 hours a day, 7 days a week, for two months.  At 10 hours a week for 8 weeks, you have dedicated 112 hours of work.

That comes to about $1200 per hour of work.

Is $1200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Now let’s dream bigger.  Suppose your stellar essay gets you into a private university with an abundant endowment.  Their graduate students enjoy multiple year funding with NO teaching requirement!   Your 5 years of funding could now encompass tuition waivers worth $40,000 annually and $30,000 in stipend.  $70,000 a year for 5 years?  $350,000 in funding.  For 112 hours of work.

Is almost $3200 an hour an outcome you can get behind?

Get to work on that essay.

Expect to put it through 20 or more drafts.

Expect to show it to 10+ readers. Make sure these readers are professors and advisors at your university.  Pull every string you can to obtain help.

Make sure to have it read by faculty and advisors in different academic fields and subfields, to ensure it speaks across a broad audience.

Expect to labor over EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE.

In fact, expect to labor over every single word.

Include not one wasted word, not one line or phrase that does not communicate something specific about your and your plans, that does not advance your core theme and argument, and that does not SHOW (rather than TELL) your exceptional and concrete plans, preparation, and aspirations.

Expect to see your wonderful, compelling, original draft, that you slaved over for hours, torn apart, criticized, and rejected by your academic readers.  Expect to tear your hair out and maybe shed tears.

Expect to pound your breast and claim that it is “impossible” to say all you “need” to in “only two pages.”

Then, get it down to two pages.

There is no single endeavor that you will engage in, possibly in your entire working life, that will yield such generous, abundant, and life-changing results as your graduate school essay.  Write a stellar one and a path to success opens, bringing with it the time and leisure to truly relish graduate school and think the great thoughts and attend the local and national events that lead to brilliant dissertations and jobs.

Write a mediocre one and the path may still lead to graduate school, but a graduate school that carries with it the stress of indebtedness and the strain of overwork as a inadequately funded Teaching Assistant.

Naturally, a bad one will not lead to graduate school at all.

Now, get to work on that essay.

Welcome to Project Graduate School!

Welcome to Project Graduate School, the new blog of the University of Oregon McNair Scholars Program.

We’re glad you found us!

In this blog, we’ll be sharing information and tips on

  • how to prepare for graduate school
  • how to get into graduate school
  • how to fund graduate school
  • how to choose programs
  • how to find the best advisors
  • how to deal with the dreaded GRE
  • how to get letters of recommendation
  • how to write your c.v. (and what is a c.v. anyway??)

And all the other things that YOU need to know to make your graduate school ambitions come to fruition!

Is this you? Project Graduate School to the rescue!

In my next post, I’m going to tell you a little about myself, Karen Kelsky, Ph.D., the writer of the blog and your guide through the tangled thicket that is the graduate school application process, from scheduling the GRE to getting funding, and beyond!