Choosing a Ph.D. Program in Political Science

Every April, hundreds of prospective students choose to pursue a Ph.D. in political science. The choice is an important and serious one that usually entails a multi-year commitment to a place, its professors, a set of people, and a program. For these reasons, many prospective students often struggle to come to a decision about what program to choose. Others have written extensively about the application process. However, we at The Smoke-Filled Room wanted to offer advice, from the perspective of political science Ph.D. students, exclusively about the process of choosing a Ph.D. program. To that end, we solicited our contributors for their advice. Here’s what they had to say:

Lionel Beehner, Yale
The best advice I received was to go into grad school with an open mind, cast a wide net, and find scholars whose work you like. I didn’t know what the difference between a R1 school or a policy-focused school was when applying (I probably should have), having already had a policy degree from SIPA and done some think thank and journalism work. I knew nothing about methods. I only knew I was interested in was security studies broadly conceived as well as civil wars. There is no such thing as a “perfect” school, since every program you apply to will entail tradeoffs. No grad student can “have it all.” But overall, you should get a keen knowledge of the program, its top scholars, and determine if the school is a good fit. Also, talk to as many grad students as possible, which I found was invaluable.

Matt Eckel, Georgetown
Think about the money, and not just yours. It’s probably not news that a guaranteed stipend can make a world of difference in the time, mental energy and caloric output you can dedicate to your academic work. It can be tough to stay focused on research when every semester brings a new search for rent and grocery money. If you are lucky enough to have multiple funded offers, though, don’t just consider what each department is offering you. Consider what it’s offering your future colleagues. How many get fellowships? How much funding is available on a semester or annual basis for those without guaranteed funding? This advice doesn’t come from some grad-students-of-the-world-unite sense of class solidarity (though if you’re inclined toward such thinking we should chat), but rather from intellectual self-interest. You’ll have a more enjoyable, productive, rewarding experience in graduate school if you’re surrounded by colleagues who can devote as much time, energy and attention to their research as you can.

Chris Clary, MIT
Don’t select a school based on one professor. Individuals leave, individuals retire, individuals take sabbatical, individuals go work in government, or are offered a fancy directorship of a research institute somewhere, and individuals get hit by buses. Young professors are denied tenure. People need to leave if their spouse is an academic at another university. Choose a school where you could imagine working with several faculty members over one in which you are passionate about just one. With that said, you will likely come to be associated with just one scholar: He’s a Keohane student, he’s a Thelen student, she’s a King student, etc. So, big names are not irrelevant, but you should have a narrative in your head about what you would do in the absence of that one big name. If that narrative is horrible, you might think about another program.

Cohorts matter. You will be in classes and seminars with your cohort members for 3-4 years out of your 5-6 years as a PhD candidate (assuming fieldwork and predocs take you elsewhere). If you dislike your cohort, you will dislike the program. Are there a handful of other PhD students working close to your area of interest? Are there a sizeable number of students working in your sub-discipline? Your cohort will be your primary source of information about new publications, new working papers, some guy at Columbia whose dissertation topic is the same as yours, etc. They will be who you ask when you have difficulty with R or Stata code. If you don’t like them, if you don’t respect them, it will be a problem.

Cohort cohesion matters. When you went to the Open House, did current students seem to know one another? Were you in awkward conversation circles where one current grad student introduces himself to another current grad student? Do grad students have office space to work and do they attend working groups regularly? When cohesion breaks down, students wind up getting feedback from just their committee, which probably means they are getting feedback from just the 1 or 2 people on the committee that read things closely.

Know your teaching load. I think teaching during coursework is horrible for everyone. Teaching more than about twenty students quickly becomes bad. Know how many courses will you teach and how many students in those courses. Some teaching is good, particularly if you might one day want to go the liberal arts route. Too much and the dissertation becomes a distant memory as you deal with the onslaught of student e-mails asking for extensions because they broke up with their girlfriends.

Charles Decker, Yale
Choosing a department with faculty you can work with is, of course, important. (Make sure to consider the faculty as a whole, not just your potential adviser. People, even titans in their fields, move on.) However, one aspect that I think is under-emphasized is evaluating whether the department has students that you can work with. Most of your brainstorming, your critical thinking, and your inspiration will be with and from your fellow graduate students. So email them. Call them if you can. Get to know them on visiting days. These people will be your most immediate intellectual community for the next several years, so vet them like crazy.

Dan Wollrich, Ohio State University
First, look for breadth in areas generally interesting to you. Think seriously: do you consider yourself, for example, a hard-core realist interested in international security? Perhaps… but have you had your premises challenged by an incisive liberal argument or a compelling constructivist perspective? Have you considered political psychological dimensions and what they may add to or detract from your theories? Theoretical variation in a department both enhances your initial course options and your later dissertation work by challenging your ideas from multiple directions. More than that, your incoming confidence in one theoretical bent may degrade or modify over time, and if your department enjoys diversity, you will appreciate the alternatives.

Second, do not underestimate the importance of methodological training. Although ICPSR is always waiting for your summers, spending your falls and springs smartly enhancing your analytical toolbox will pay great dividends, regardless of your field. Early and persistent development of quality methodological skills will undoubtedly contribute to a quality dissertation, and a faculty well equipped to provide that training and support is vital.

Last, a tip for those bound to the military as reservists. Your time will necessarily be restricted differently than your cohort mates–losing one quarter of your weekends can be a real challenge. So when considering schools, make sure the program recognizes your obligation and you agree with their approach. Will they give you extra time for papers, and if not, will you still achieve your goals? Is it difficult to accommodate your summer drill requirements? You may be surprised: losing a weekend every month in graduate school is more difficult than losing a weekend while in the regular working world. Be prepared.

Suparna Chaudhry, Yale
Some potential things to consider are – Does the school provide you adequate summer funding? Is it able to support any fieldwork that you may be interested in conducting over the summer? If your field is comparative politics, what do graduate students in the department have to say about ease of acquiring funding to get funding for your fieldwork? If your work concentrates on a particular region, do you have any kind of institutional support for people studying that region i.e. are there a few faculty members who work on that region as well and/or can you get language training for that region easily? What kind of statistics training does your school provide? Even if you believe that you will not be doing a lot of statistical work, that might change, and also, unless you’re a theorist, you will eventually be expected to have a certain level of familiarity with statistics, both to contribute to discussion and to understand other people’s work, even if you yourself are not producing that kind of work. If the school has a less-than-adequate statistics sequence, does the school provide you funding to attending ICPSR over the summer? Talk to current graduate students as they might be able to give you more honest and exhaustive opinions than faculty members or any message boards.

Matt Scroggs, UVA
On MA programs vs. PhD’s: When I talk to prospective students that visit UVA, one thing that comes up periodically is whether it makes sense to go for an MA at a high profile school or just go straight to a PhD at a university that is not quite as prestigious. Holding other factors constant (especially fit, which has been addressed by others), I really want to emphasize that while an MA can be extremely helpful, it is not for everyone. Remember, applications for PhDs are a crapshoot: while you may have gotten into a bunch of great programs this year, there is no guarantee of it happening again.

Admittedly, the addition of an MA can be very helpful (grades from a graduate institution, stronger writing sample, additional letters of recommendation), but do not overthink things. If you got into a strong program, don’t pay for an MA in the hope that you can get into even better places; from year to year, your results may/will vary, so throwing away an acceptance at a top-25 school, for example, because you want to go to Harvard is probably not in your best interest. So here’s the takeaway: if you got into a PhD program that you’re happy with, just go with it. Worst case scenario, if you find that you absolutely abhor the PhD program you can leave with an MA from there and try to transfer out, without having to pay out of pocket for an MA.


Natalia Bueno, Yale
Figure out your deal-breakers. This might be overly broad, and not very helpful, but you might lose track of what really matters for you whenever you are facing choices and uncertainty. For instance, if you’re moving from a different country, with no real social net to fall back on, money can be crucial (and not only your stipend, but summer funding and resources for upper years). Also, a PhD is a long process and things happen, how well does the program deal with these things? Are there paid maternity leaves? Are students allowed to take a year off? Can they defer admission without jeopardizing funding? Basically, how much flexibility is there for the student? And flexibility not only in terms of supporting your personal choices, but also in terms of your choices within the program: how many classes can you take in different departments? Can you get an MA from different programs if you feel you need it? How is the language training? It’s hard to predict what might happen during the five years of PhD program, but you might be able to figure out now what will be indispensable for you during those years. 

William Nomikos, Yale
Choose an institution. This advice may or may not be self-explanatory. I think it is very important to choose the institution and what that institution offers over the presence of any single individual or collection of individuals. Try to find out what the culture of the institution is: are people mostly happy with each other, with their advisors, with the administration? Are they learning a lot in their classes? Are they being professionalized into the discipline? These are important institutional-level features that go beyond faculty. As important as Professor X will be to your future academic success, your happiness and comfort level will be just as if not more important. Look at acknowledgement sections and prefaces in dissertations/first books: not much successful and good work has been produced by miserable, unsupported people.

Niloufer Siddiqui, Yale
In choosing a program, it’s important to feel that there are at least a few professors with whom you would be excited to work – both because their research interests match yours and because they seem like the type of people who would inspire and motivate you. But also be ready for your interests to change and develop over your first couple of years in the program. Meet or speak with current students in the program and ask them their thoughts on courses (do professors invest time and effort into teaching? what are the required and recommended methods courses? are they mostly grad-undergrad?), on funding (summer funding, fieldwork options), and, perhaps most importantly, on cohort culture and cohesion (remember that these are the people with whom you are going to spend the majority of at least your next 2-3 years).
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2 thoughts on “Choosing a Ph.D. Program in Political Science

  1. Pingback: Daily Picks | Ali Gokpinar

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