Applying to doctoral programs

37 years ago, I was writing applications for history doctoral programs. I was a senior in college, had one of my professors give me the “tenured jobs in history are shrinking, regardless of what others are saying” talk (he was right), and had no clue what doctoral admissions committees look for. I applied to a dozen programs, was admitted to a few, and given a promise of full support at one, at the University of Pennsylvania. And that’s where I attended. I vaguely remember that the departments generally had different essay questions — I think Yale’s program asked applicants to write about a history book that inspired us, and why, and I chose Peter Laslett’s The World We Have Lost, which was published in 1965 and probably not anything like what they were looking for in prospective students.

If you’re applying to doctoral programs, don’t do what I did. I don’t mean, don’t apply to doctoral programs; that’s a more complicated discussion. Read the relevant portions of Jessica Calarco’s The Field Guide to Graduate School and Tressie Mcmillan Cottom’s blog entry on the topic for more complete and thoughtful comments. What I mean is, don’t apply as if it’s the 1980s with no solid information widely available about doctoral programs and what admissions committees often look for (I wrote some thoughts on this in March 2015).1

Before sending in the application, do a little homework for each program about key characteristics:

  • The academic structure of the program. This is partly about knowing what you’ll be studying, and the expectations of students. But it’s also about how much the program is structured. My college’s EdD program is highly structured: most of the program’s courses are required, students are placed in cohorts, and then in cohorts-within-cohorts for dissertation work, which falls in various versions of action research. On the far end of the spectrum, I know a program in the sciences (not at ASU) where there literally was no required course other than dissertation hours. And my college’s PhD programs in educational policy and evaluation, and learning, literacies, and technologies, fall in the middle: several required first-year courses, categories of other courses, and then a certain amount of choice (with hundreds of potentially-relevant courses around our university). Each of these arrangements imply different levels of formal choices for student projects and interests, and also the potential tradeoffs. A more open program structure has more choice, and also requires both student initiative and practical and ethical mentorship of faculty for students to complete the program.
  • Financial support. The one decision rule I set in fall 1986 was that I would only attend a doctoral program if I would be “fully supported,” which in my naive 21-year-old mind meant tuition and some graduate assistantship with a stipend (i.e., a doctoral student job on campus). So my wife and I lived in cash-limited circumstances in Philadelphia as she made more money in child care than I did as a graduate assistant. Plenty of doctoral programs have professional aims, and the student pays tuition, no assistantships available. Plenty of programs support students with assistantships, some admitting only students they can support and some admitting some students with financial support and others without. Understand in advance what you can afford, in both financial costs and opportunity costs (what you can’t do professionally when you’re a student) — leaving a professional job for a graduate student stipend entails both. And for PhD programs with some financial support, ask about the proportion of assistantships that are for research, for teaching, and for “service” (basically serving as underpaid staff). If there are significant numbers of assistantships in different categories, you can also ask what the current gender breakdown is for each (especially in science programs); students are somewhat more likely to know this (i.e., be shrewdly observant) than faculty. Ask about insurance that’s included with the assistantship; does it cover just the student employee, or also dependents?
  • The academic relationship of students to faculty. This is about both the program and also the application process. Our EdD program assigns committee chairs as generalists, not as content specialists, and students do not choose their chairs — so prospective students do not talk with individual faculty; instead, we have information sessions because we know prospective students have different levels of knowledge about doctoral programs, let alone our EdD. Our PhD program students’ committee chairs are generally content specialists close to the interests of students, and we have small enough applicant pools that we want our prospective students to research and contact faculty who might share interests, and do so before applying. From our standpoint, we want to know that admitted students will have appropriate mentors. From an applicant’s standpoint, you want to know that you will have appropriate mentors. But other PhD programs where there is an expectation of expertise-based intellectual mentorship have too many applicants to set up those conversations at the start of the application pipeline; I’ve known history faculty who become upset when prospective doctoral students contact them out of the blue. If a program expects that a student’s chair will be close in expertise to the student’s interest, you need to find out if the program expects you to contact faculty before applying or wait for some later stage, and if the answer is that one contacts faculty early, do the research to find out who shares your interest and contact them. Request a short (i.e., half-hour or less) meeting, now typically by Zoom. This research includes looking up publications and vitae (the academic version of a resume); find out how recently they have graduated students, and for fields where most publications have coauthors, if their publications frequently have student coauthors. Scale these expectations by career stage; if a prospective advisor is a new scholar (typically, an assistant professor), they are unlikely to have more than a small handful of graduated PhD students, and often none.

There are more considerations either during an interview process, for programs that interview some students before acceptance decisions, or after admission. But thinking back on my process of applying to programs, I know some of my ignorance was from the lack of widely available knowledge, and a good part foolish confidence that since I had succeeded academically thus far, why shouldn’t I rely on my instincts for doctoral applications? In retrospect, it’s no surprise that I was rejected by the vast majority of programs where I applied. You can surely do better!


  1. Some of the context from March 2015 is no longer true eight years later. []