You think you want to do a PhD… Where to start?

Five years ago, as I began my final year as an undergraduate, I had taken the GRE, crafted a list of cognitive science and psychology faculty whose work fascinated me, and started drafting my personal statement to apply to PhD programs. I wanted to be a professor, so I knew a PhD was a step I would take.

But honestly, at a small liberal arts college, I had had little exposure to graduate students at that point (though I had spent a summer volunteering in a lab with some phenomenal grad student role models). My work study “research assistant” jobs had included reading sentence after sentence and tagging each part of speech (computer science), “helping” a professor design a survey about college students’ study habits (psychology), and fetching books from the library (religion). So I wasn’t super versed in what it meant to do research.

Nonetheless, I wanted to do a PhD. Maybe you’re in a similar boat as an undergraduate, or maybe you’ve already graduated and gotten a job, and you feel called back to grad school. This guide reflects what I’ve learned from my own experience and from observing others applying to PhD programs. My experience is specifically in cognitive science, officially considered a “social science,” so this advice may not pertain to others in very different fields.

Reasons to do a PhD

As Craig Ferguson said about comedy, I’m convinced you should only do a PhD “because you can’t not do it.”

Research is the defining feature of a PhD. Most of your time in grad school is centered around completing research (which can be slow at times, since you’re often learning the necessary skills as you go). PhD courses are often focused on synthesizing existing research, and conferences are for sharing new research.

You know you’re called to do research if you have questions about how the world works that you don’t think have been addressed yet. In my case, I had read cool papers about how language seems to shape thought, but I still needed to know really, how does that work?!

These points probably make it clear why a Andy Greenspon points out: “A PhD program is not simply a continuation of your undergraduate program.” A love of taking classes, of being a student in the way most of us think of it, is not on its own a good reason to do a PhD. If you’re still a little fuzzy on what life in graduate school is actually like, talk to as many grad students as you can, and search for more info online to try to learn more about their experiences. One piece I especially like is by Richard Gao, another grad student in my department, at the end of his first year.

Grad students are eager to share.

Prerequisites

Do you need a Master’s to get into a PhD program? No. Definitely no. Master’s programs are usually focused on coursework, and they often teach very different things than are required for a PhD. You’ll take courses in the process of getting a PhD, and you will technically acquire a Master’s degree along the way.

You will be a great candidate for a PhD program if you have research experience and questions that drive you, not if you have an extra degree on your CV.

Where to apply

Resist the urge to add all the Ivies to your application list as a default. A GradHacker post On the Art of Selecting a Graduate Program tells readers, “the reputation of a university as a whole does not equal the reputation of a university’s departments.” People in your field are not necessarily wooed by seeing that you earned a PhD from Harvard if Harvard is not actually a leader in your field. A generally prestigious university can have mediocre departments, and a less prestigious university can have some top-notch departments. It’s crucial to focus on where the great research in your field is taking place.

“Good” departments are determined by the faculty who work in them. This means that your search should be researcher-driven. Whose work are you excited by? Make this list. This it your dream team.

Then, what other researchers have those researchers collaborated with? Whose work do they tend to cite in their papers? And who often cites the dream team? Add those researchers to your list, and look up everyone’s affiliations. You now have a first draft list that likely includes the best institutions for you and your interests. And since your search is researcher-focused, the next appropriate step is to look up the other researchers in the same program.

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An article by Joan E. Strassmann has more Q&As about choosing your program that will likely also be helpful.

Actually applying

By now, you have a good sense of the importance of research for the PhD process. Your application should reflect that understanding. You should be comfortable talking about the research you’ve been a part of (both in writing and in person, should you get an in-person interview). What was your role? What methods were used, and why? What were the findings, and what do they mean? What questions remain?

Why do you want to pursue a PhD? What are your long-term goals? What skills do you hope to gain from the process, and what research questions do you want to work on?These are questions you should be able to answer for yourself before you apply, but you also need to be ready to articulate them for others when you do. You won’t be accepted to a PhD program if your application doesn’t make it clear that your goals and research interests fit with those of the people already in the program you’re applying to.

Applying for a PhD requires a lot of intellectual self-reflection. It’s not easy. But it’s necessary to do this work before jumping head-first into a multi-year commitment (4-7 years is within the normal range from my experience). Once you start working on a PhD, you might realize that the questions and goals that initially drove you to start have changed. That’s ok, of course, and maybe even common. But the more self-reflection you do and information you gather about your field ahead of time, the more you will be set up for success once you actually begin grad school.

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