Tag Archives: how to get into graduate school

What Should Grad School Types Do Over the Summer?

Summer is upon us. Long, lazy days at the pool, barbeques, beers, suntans…. Um, no, not if you’re a graduate student or planning to be one. No, for you, young gra-(duate student)-sshopper, summer is for work.

Not for you.

What kind of work, you ask? That’s a good question. And there are several possible answers. Here are some, in no particular order:

Plan 1: Enroll in summer classes and get some credits out of the way.
Plan 2: Enroll in summer research/independent study credits and work on an independent research/writing project.
Plan 3: Work to save money for graduate school.
Plan 4: Get into an internship or summer research program off campus that provides hands-on training in a related field.

All of these are excellent options, and everyone will have a different set of personal circumstances (budget, family obligations, etc.) that will influence their choices.

But overall, Plan 1 may be relatively short term thinking, in terms of preparation for getting into and out of the best graduate school programs with the best funding package. To achieve that, you need to stand out with independent research experience and ideally, a published paper to your name. Plans 2 and 4 are your best bet to achieve that.

Similarly, Plan 3 is a commendable and responsible choice, and it is never wrong to save money. But by the same token, if you focus your energies on Plans 2 or 4, it MAY transpire that your graduate school years are completely funded by generous fellowships, leading ultimately to an excellent full-time job.

When I advise students, one of the primary points I try to drive home is that you should always EXPECT and AIM FOR and do everything possible to PREPARE FOR an abundantly-funded graduate school experience.

In other words, do NOT start out expecting and planning to painstakingly scrape through graduate school with a punishing cycle of part time work and loans.

This initial mindset may play a large role in which of the four summer plans above that you choose. While a summer job can definitely help you put a little money away, that money will not go far in covering graduate school expenses. A summer internship or research project, while possibly costing more up front, may well make you competitive for a top-tier funding package at your ideal graduate program.

None of these outcomes is guaranteed of course! There is always risk in every choice. But with careful advising, especially consulting with potential advisors and directors of graduate study at the programs you most want to enter, you can gather the information to make the best informed choice.

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How to Ask a Professor for a Letter of Recommendation

In previous posts I discussed point number one of graduate school recommendation letters:

NEVER ASK A TA TO WRITE ONE OF YOUR LETTERS!

To review the point of those posts:  Your letters should come from tenure-line faculty.  That means, someone whose title is either a) Assistant Professor, b) Associate Professor, or c) Professor.  Any additional words attached to those titles, such as “Adjunct,” “Visiting,” “Research,” etc. should almost always remove them from your list of letter writers.  The reason?  Graduate programs want to see the recommendations of experts who have completed the full arc of an academic career, from graduate school through permanent professional employment.  Those who have not generally have less experience on which to base their judgment of student potential.

Of course in a pinch, a Visiting, or Adjunct faculty can serve, and may well write you a wonderful letter.  Just be aware they are not in the very top tier of letter writer status, and try to limit such writers to one slot out of three.

In this post, I want to give you a script for asking for that letter of recommendation.

Preliminary Step one:  Do well in the professor’s class.  Visit her/his office hours.  Make sure she/he knows you as an individual.

Preliminary Step two:  Let the professor know in advance that you have graduate school plans and aspirations.  Make the professor part of your “team” of supporters.  Get her/him invested in your success.

Step one:  When the application stage comes schedule an appointment with the professor at least one month, and preferably two months, before the first deadline.

Step two:  Bring with you a copy of any work you did for the professor, as long as it is good.  A term paper that got an A grade is ideal.  Be prepared to remind the professor which class you were in, which term, and any distinguishing features of your performance in the class

Step three:  Explain in concise and well organized terms your concrete plans for graduate school applications, including the schools to which you want to apply, which programs and why, and your ideas for thesis/dissertation topics.  Do not ramble.  Do not digress.  Do not self-deprecate.

Step four:  Ask the professor if she/he would be willing to write a letter for you.

Step five:  If she/he expresses any reservation of any kind, politely thank her/him for her/his time, and leave.  Find another letter writer.  NEVER try to persuade someone to write for you.

Step six:  If she/he responds enthusiastically, lay out the general timeline, ask for advice on how to proceed and strengthen your application, and for any suggestions as to good programs and funding sources.

Step seven:  After leaving, follow up with an email.  The email should:

a)  thank the professor for their willingness to write for you

b) include a copy of your personal essay/statement of purpose

c) include an excel spreadsheet that clearly lists, for each of the 5 or more programs to which you are applying (and yes, you should apply to at least 5):

c1. The program

c2. The deadline

c3. The contact person

c4. The means of submitting the letter

Special Note:  You do NOT need to provide stamped envelopes for your letter writers!  It is a professor’s job to write these letters and the university pays all postage for letters of recommendation.

Step eight:  Repeat the above with two other faculty members, for a total of three letter writers.  If possible, make sure your letter writers come from relevant fields.  IE, if you are applying to do a Ph.D. in Japan anthropology, have at least one letter from an Anthropology faculty, and one from a Japan studies faculty.

However, it is also OK to change fields!  If you wish to go to graduate school in a new field that you did not study in your undergraduate days, that is FINE.  Then just ask your letter writers to focus on your general aptitude and potential for advanced work.

Step nine: enthusiastically accept comments and criticisms of your essay/statement of purpose from your letter writers if they have any.  Be willing to revise your essay.  Take your ego out of it and be grateful for constructive criticism.  You may submit a new essay all the way up to the application deadline.

Step ten:  Let your letter writers know the outcomes.  And thank them again.

Do all this and your letter writers will stay excited and invested in your success.   And their letters will reflect that.


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.


Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for Letters of Recommendation (Part Two)

In an earlier post I explained the reasons that you must never ask your TA for letters of recommendation.  All of your letters must come from faculty, preferably full-time faculty in your major department or one closely affiliated.

Now I’ll discuss some tips for accomplishing this.

If you don’t know the professor well, then get to know her. Go to her office hours.  Discuss your graduate school aspirations with her.  Ask her for guidance.  Remind her gently who you are and what grade you are getting/got.  Bring in a paper that you wrote for her course.

And make sure, when choosing your courses for next term, that you enroll in courses that are taught by faculty members and not by TAs.  It is OK to call the department to ask.  You may also simply search the name of the instructor on your university website people/department directory to see if they turn up listed as faculty or as student.

As you get into upper division classes, make it a central goal to work with professors. If you have dreams of graduate school, you must gather around you at least two and preferably three faculty members, ie, actual professors employed by your institution, who will write you strong letters of recommendation.

And, what you are seeking are professor who are full-time faculty members of the school.  While “visiting”/”adjunct” professors will do in a pinch, they are not as good (for the same reasons listed above) as regular, permanent, full-time faculty from your college or university, and preferably from your major.

You want the professor to enthusiastically agree to write the letter.  Any hesitation or reluctance….move on to someone else.

And, do NOT expect to see the letter, or to in any way tell the professor what to write.  This is a trust exercise.  And, professors know the stakes.

In sum: do not be intimidated!  It is part of a professor’s job to meet with undergraduates AND to write them letters.  YOU ARE ENTITLED to ask faculty members to write recommendations. And as long as the professor is genuinely supportive of you, the professor has an obligation to fulfill this professional responsibility.

Good luck!


Why You Must Never Ask Your TA for Recommendation Letters for Graduate School (Part One)

In my work advising undergraduate students to prepare for and apply to graduate school, one of the most common problems I encounter is the student’s lack of appropriate people to write their letters of recommendation.  All too often the student will come in with a list of names, and all of those names will be the TAs who are teaching their classes. 

As you’re probably aware if  you’re reading this, a TA (or here at Oregon a GTF) is a graduate student who is getting their graduate school funded by working in the classroom, leading discussion sections, assisting the professor, and/or grading.  As such, TAs may be only a year or two out of their own undergraduate days.

It is true that you may know your TA better than you know the distant and perhaps slightly forbidding professor in charge of your course.

Nevertheless, you must never ask the TA to write your letter of recommendation.

This is true even if the TA has enthusiastically supported your graduate school aspirations and dreams, and has offered to write one for you.  This is true even if your TA is brilliant and working in the very field you hope to enter.

Submit an application that includes a recommendation letter from a TA, and you immediately downgrade your application’s chances of success.

TAs cannot write letters of recommendation for graduate school, because they are not actually professors.  This is NOT just because professors and graduate programs are elitist and status-obsessed.   Rather, it is because TAs have not finished their Ph.D.s, and they do not have the professional experience to be able to judge an undergraduate’s potential for success in graduate school and in the academic profession.

There are countless small and large hurdles to overcome on the path to a graduate degree.  The TA is familiar with some of them, such as the GRE, the application essay, coursework, working in the lab, and maybe even fieldwork and starting work on the dissertation.  As such, the TA may be a great informal advisor.

But the TA will not yet have experience in defending the dissertation, teaching hundreds of students, working closely with undergraduate and graduate students in an advising capacity, working as a colleague, and building a professional reputation.   Yet these are the ultimate skills of a successful academic career.

Professors, by virtue of the fact that they are professors, have experience in all of these areas.  And they are in a position to judge a student’s potential in all of these areas.

Therefore, in sum, you must never ask a TA to write a letter of recommendation for you for graduate school.  You must always go to the professor in charge of the course.

In Part II, I will discuss how to make sure you are enrolling in courses taught by faculty (and not TAs), and how to approach your professors for letters.