It’s that time of the academic year — the time when students begin to ask for advice, and more importantly, letters of recommendations to pursue their Ph.D. research. As I care greatly about the future of the professoriate (and I think being a professor is the last great job — one gets paid to think!), I am willing to talk with anyone interested in pursuing a Ph.D. and I typically offer the same advice year after year. In the spirit of the season, I thought I would provide that advice here on my Diverse Issues in Higher Education Blog.
First, the best approach is to do well academically at both the undergraduate and graduate level. Take learning seriously and capitalize on each and every opportunity you have in college. If you didn’t do as well as you would have liked to, it’s important to communicate the reasons to the graduate admissions committee.
Second, write the best, most focused, personal statement that you can. Make sure to have a specific purpose to the statement, with clearly outlined goals and interests. The admissions committee needs to know why you want to pursue a Ph.D. and why in the specific academic area of your choice. Moreover, they need to understand why you are interested in pursuing the degree at their particular institution. In the statement, you need to make connections to the research interests of those on the faculty. However, your connections should be genuine — don’t name drop or exaggerate your interest in faculty. Link your work with one or two individuals and write a meaningful paragraph about the connections between your interests and the faculty members’ work. Don’t use cliches and quotes that have been used for decades — be as original in your thinking and approach as you can.
Third, acquire three very strong letters of support from faculty members. Make sure that these individuals know you and that you did well in their classes. When asking someone to write a letter of recommendation for you, say “Are you willing to write a strong letter of recommendation for me?” Graduate admissions committees are looking for evidence in the letters that you will be successful in the research and writing process and that you have strong critical thinking and analytical skills.
Fourth, if at all possible, arrange to visit the institution and program to which you are applying. Meet with students and faculty, attend a class or several, and get a good feel for the institutional culture. Ask yourself, “Do students appear happy and busy?” “Do students have dedicated workspaces at which to pursue their research and perform the work related to their research assistantship?” “Are faculty visible and available?” “Are faculty and students collaborating on research projects?” Although you will be able to make a better assessment of a Ph.D. program by visiting, the faculty members will also get a better sense of you — and you are more likely to rise to the top of the application pile if you made a positive impression during your visit (of course, a negative impression could have the opposite effect!).
Fifth, if you are a student of color or someone interested in studying issues related to race, class, gender, or sexuality, make sure that there are faculty members who have your best interest in mind and who can relate to and inform your perspective. Read faculty members’ research, notice which organizations they participate in and on which committees they serve, and if syllabi are available, see if your perspective is represented in course readings and assignments.
Lastly, do not apply to one one program. I see students make this mistake year after year. Identify the strong programs that appeal to your interests and apply to all of them, making sure to tailor your personal statement to each program’s focus. Ph.D. programs are intensely competitive, especially those that offer full funding for multiple years — keep your options open.
An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).