Don’t take my word for it: Crowdsourced Advice for Students Applying to Graduate School


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I did a presentation a few years ago for prospective graduate students at the National Council on Family Relations annual conference. In preparation, I gathered advice for students applying to graduate school.  You can see the contributors below.  Do you agree with the advice? What is missing?

Contributors: Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, Paul Amato, Mitchell Bartholomew, Alan Booth, John Casterline, Jeff Dew, Karen Fingerman, Gary Gates, Elizabeth Hay, Claire Kamp Dush, Tina Kauh, Andrew Martin, Lauren Rinelli, Karina Shreffler, Katherine Stamps Mitchell, Miles Taylor, Alexis Walker, Nick Wolfinger

What SHOULD an undergrad or graduate student who is applying to graduate school or a Ph.D. program do?




  • It’s probably obvious, but students should do research on the departments to which they are applying. For example, some departments are strong in qualitative research, whereas others are strong in quantitative methods. Some departments are much stronger in theory than are others. Look up the faculty members and see what they are publishing. If there are particular faculty with whom you would like to work, say so in your letter of application. Inquire about graduate student funding. Some departments, like the Sociology Department at Penn State, guarantee funding during the academic year and summer to all students. Other departments may not guarantee funding.
  • Talk to current students outside of earshot from faculty or administrators, preferably after a cocktail or two.  You need an honest assessment of how the program functions (including first-person student experiences with various faculty members) apart from how the school and faculty bills itself in brochures or public settings.
  • Meet as many faculty as possible and assess your ability to work with them.  This is particularly true for PhD candidates.  Don’t just focus on substantive areas of interest (though that is important).  Try to determine if you can work with this person.  Don’t be afraid to take into account things like personality and likability.  Also look at their track record for collaboration.  Do they publish almost exclusively solo or do they frequently work with co-authors?  Your probability of success will be much greater if you find faculty who fit with your personality style and are genuinely interested in collaborative work.
  • Be professional in all your communications. Dress appropriately, speak well, be on time. Be friendly, considerate and forthcoming about your interests in their program/research study/course, etc, but don’t act overly familiar (i.e., giving too much information) with people who are in a position to evaluate you. It’s not a babysitting job or a night at the pub, it’s the first step in your professional career.
  • Keep an open mind about fit-obviously the student should research the schools and try to find ones that match his/her interests, but I think quality of training is more important than simply having faculty in the student’s area (which, as we all know, changes over time).
  • Really have a good sense of what research they’re interested in and which specific faculty in a department they could work with. You want someone who is related to but no exactly the same as your research interests so that you can develop your own line of work rather than duplicating theirs.
  • Have a good sense for what you want to do after grad school – teach at a teaching school, teach/research at a Research I school, or do non-academic research.  This will help guide what type of program you go to as well as what type of coursework and research experience you partake in while at school.
  • Inform yourself in an up-to-date way about the research that several professors do, and write a statement of research interests that shows that there is a match between yours and theirs.
  • Have a skilled writer edit the writing sample. In the writing sample discuss something sociological (or psychological, that is, something related to the field in which you are applying).
  • If you visit the school talk to as many people (grad students and faculty) as you can work in. To make a good decision, you need to get many points of view.
  • Have a solid career goal and a reason for going to graduate school.  Don’t go just because you don’t have any other options, or because a sibling went, etc.  Graduate school should be a stepping-stone toward your career goals.
  • Direct your personal statements at the institution you are applying to. Graduate programs want to know why you want to attend their programs, who you want to work with and why, and how a degree from their institution will help you achieve your goals.
  • If possible, visit with graduate directors, faculty, and students in person before applications are due. Emailing or calling is better than nothing. Making contact shows your interest, and those on the selection committee will likely remember you when making admission decisions.
  • Choose a program where you have at LEAST two possible advisors.  You can’t predict the future – your advisor might change schools, have an illness, retire, and so forth.  Make sure you have options!
  • Your statement should always contain these words: “My goal is to teach and do research at a major university.”
  • Research the school and the faculty at that school before applying. Revise the statement for each school, showing how your interests match on what is already going on in that department. Contact faculty you are interested in working with to learn more about their research.
  • I would recommend contacting a faculty member before applying who overlaps with your area (read their work first and maybe get an undergrad advisor to look over the email before hand). I actually visited Duke before I applied because I was going to be out of the country for the next semester and accepted student visits. I met with my future advisor, Linda, then and I know that had something to do with getting in and working with her. She knew I was really serious about the school and it wasn’t just another application for me (i.e. a fall-back from a “better” school).
  • You should factor in the funding structure of grad students into your decision (is everyone funded, for how long, what’s the % funded as research assistants versus teaching assistants, do they have a TRAINING grant that I would be eligible for…this one was really important for me).
  • Get research experience as an undergraduate research assistant, preferably in your junior year, or even before.  Particularly at large schools, it is hard for faculty members to write personalized, detailed letters of recommendation for students. Having research experience will get you better recommendation letters, valued experience that will make you more competitive for funding should you be accepted to graduate school, and will help you decide if graduate school is really for you.
  • Take more English courses (get really comfortable with writing).

What should an undergrad or graduate student who is applying to graduate school or a Ph.D. program NOT do?





  • If you receive several offers, don’t necessarily accept the Department with the highest status or ranking. Some departments that aren’t in the top 10 may have programs that are a better match to your interests.
  • Choose a program based on location/stipend.
  • Do not consider reputation alone, either of a particular program or a faculty member.  Yes, reputation matters and you should not discount it.  But don’t let that alone drive your choice.  Especially for PhD candidates, you just have to find somewhere with a good fit for your research interests and where there are faculty who are collaborative and work well with students.
  • Don’t be overly critical of an area. For example if you want to attend graduate school to receive training in school counseling, don’t focus your application materials or your interviews on how you think the current state of school counseling is lacking and how you want to change that. Keep in mind the person you are interviewing with is part of that system and may be working very hard to move it forward. Rather, focus on what you think works about your area of interest, how it excites you, and how you want to build on that in your career.
  • Don’t apply at all unless you are sure that you want to go and are enthusiastic about research.
  • Don’t go to grad school because you are not sure what else you would do.  Especially for a doctorate program, you really do have to have a very strong interest in a specific topic – or be one of those people who can get interested in lots of different topics.
  • Suggest that you would like to work with a certain faculty member whose work you clearly know very little about.
  • They should not sell themselves short on their application.  But they should not over exaggerate on their applications either.
  • They should not go to a particular university just because that university offers their graduate students more financial resources.  Nor should they go because of the location.  Pick a place that will help you maximize your career goals.
  • Don’t submit writing materials that have not been proofread—those of us reading it will wonder if errors are due to laziness or inability.
  • Do not choose a program that doesn’t really have courses and faculty in your area of interest solely because of the awesome location in a big city, by the beach, etc (even though it might be tempting)!  Consult trusted faculty in the discipline (or your department) regarding which programs might be the best fit for your interests.
  • You should never admit to any desire to save the world.

What is the single, biggest piece of advice for a successful transition into graduate school that you have?







  • Get involved and stay involved in research.
  • When you go to graduate school, it’s good to know what topics you want to study or specialize in. But also keep an open mind. You might discover, after taking a seminar or working as an RA, that you become interested in something quite different.
  • Join a research lab/participate in research. Present at/attend national conferences. Volunteer in the community. Attempt to publish.
  • To make a successful transition, it’s useful to get to know the other graduate students well, especially those in your cohort. Don’t be a stranger to the department. Show up for social events, guest lectures, colloquia, and other activities. Volunteer to be on a committee. Get to know the faculty too. Get integrated!
  •  Be active in your department.  Go to events, talk to faculty, get involved in their research, work on campus so faculty see you.  The more faculty see you and feel like you participate in the culture of the department, the more likely it will be that they drop your name when talking to colleagues at other schools, introduce you to people at conferences, help you when you need it, offer opportunities that not everyone is afforded, and gives them more to say about you in your letters of recommendation than just your grades.
  • Figure out when you work best.  I had a Saturday rule during grad school….I never did work on Saturdays.  I needed some down time and needed to give myself a mental break and then I would work better and be more productive during the week.  Laura Sanchez said to treat grad school like a job….that advice served me well and kept me sane.
  • Talk to older graduate students.  Older students have been there longer and have formal and informal knowledge of the university and department that is extremely valuable.
  • Start publishing early!!!  I never realized how long it takes to get something published.  To be competitive on the job market, you need pubs.  It could take a year or longer to get something published (from the time you submit it to a journal to the time it gets accepted, there or somewhere else), not to mention the time to write the article in the first place, submit it to a conference, present it, tweak it, and submit it.  There’s always something else in grad school that you could be doing but make publishing a priority!!!
  • This is primarily intended for PhD candidates:  It’s not about getting it exactly right, it’s about getting it done.  You have a whole career to get all the nuances of your research “right”.  You can’t get to that important work until you graduate.  The value of your dissertation increases exponentially once it’s finished.  While, of course, you need to focus much attention on doing quality research, you should not do that at the expense of getting done—even if that includes some compromise on what the final product looks like.
  • First and foremost, be honest with yourself about how hard you had to work in undergrad. If you didn’t actually have to work very hard or very long hours to do well, accept that grad school will be different. No matter how smart you are, grad school will be hard, you will be busy, and you will have to prioritize and not procrastinate. You will not get an A just for showing up. Expect to work HARD. Basically, nobody cares that you were smart in undergrad.
  • I think my biggest piece of advice when transitioning to grad school is: try not to get overwhelmed. It can be intimidating constantly being around faculty and more senior graduate students who seem to know what’s going on, when everything is so new. My advice starting out is to take care of the things you can control: work hard in class to make a good impression with those faculty, take care of your research or teaching assignment, and be sure to regularly attend department events. Once you feel more confident about those things, then start talking with faculty about research and readings.
  • Communicate.  That is, don’t hesitate to approach faculty, to keep key mentors apprised of what you are up to.  Don’t be shy, put yourself forward.  Of course faculty usually feel busy and frantic.  Still, it’s important to connect with them, to get them engaged in your graduate career.  A starting-point is simply to keep in communication.  This won’t be resented so long as you are not rude.
  • Remember that as a graduate student you are supposed to be a knowledge producer, not just a knowledge consumer.
  • Realize that grades in your coursework really do not matter – it’s all about your research experience (or teaching experience if that’s the track you want).
  • “B” means “Ph.D.”   Ph.D. are the only “letters” that future employers care about.  They won’t look at your grades, so spend time on establishing a research agenda, not on getting A’s in your classes.
  • Build a support network of your cohort or other students early on. These people will serve as tutors, coaches, counselors, collaborators, and good friends during graduate school and likely beyond.
  • Make a big effort to get close with your cohort!
  • The most intimidating fellow graduate students in your cohort will probably not become professors.
  • The point of graduate school is to finish. Do not undertake research projects that involve years of data collection. A thesis is not a magnum opus– it’s a hoop. You want to jump through it.
  • Choose your advisor wisely – this relationship will determine quite a bit of your comfort/happiness as well as your success.
  • There are mentors everywhere (choose them at each level), getting involved in national/regional conferences can help you meet other scholars that can mentor in smaller ways.
  • Get out there and show ‘em what you’ve got (networking, presenting, and handling reviewer critiques are learned skills).
  • Treat it like a job, at some point it will be!
  • Get yourself and keep yourself on track with your goals (keep updated timelines and a CV).
  • Take this chance to revamp your work style (procrastination does not work as well as it used to).
  • Work hard, but more than that work smart (try to look more than a semester ahead).
  • “Brilliance” will get you far, but work ethic will get you farther!
  • Know thyself – build on strengths and work on weaknesses…what do you want in the long run?
  • Focus on learning. This is the last chance you will have in your life to spend on just that goal- learning. Take hard courses. Challenge yourself. You’ve got the rest of your life to achieve a lot and excel.
  • While you should finish, don’t rush either.  Enjoy graduate school.  Get to know the other students.  Learn a lot. Take fun classes. Don’t be in too big of a hurry to finish – this could hurt your chances on the job market if you leave with too few publications, and, you will have missed out on having the rich, rewarding experience graduate school is meant to be.


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