sociology and management phd program admissions – comments and open thread
My Facebook news feed is filled with colleagues commenting on graduate program admissions. Let me take this opportunity to make a few comments and open it up for discussion.
1. If you are applying to IU, I am quite sorry. We probably won’t be offering you admissions. It’s just a fact. We reject the overwhelming majority of applicants, including many who will go on and have great careers in sociology.
2. The rest of my comments are directed at faculty who are serving on admissions committees. First, departments vary in their strategies and procedures. Here are IU, we read through every single application. Of course, some folders get more attention than others. The folks with rock bottom GRE’s and a 2.9 GPA won’t get more than a quick glance, if that.
We do read a lot of folders in detail because IU employs a sort of “Moneyball” strategy. We look for diamonds in the rough. A lot of our star students, who go on to dominate the job market, were high performers at relatively low status schools. So we don’t rely on a steady feed of polished applicants from the West Coast and Ivy League. We find the gems from the liberal arts and public schools of the Midwest and South. It’s a strategy that requires reading folders closely, but it pays off in spades. IU has great students.
3. It is hard to develop meaningful distinctions with a certain class of students. You might call them the stereotype sociology undergrads. The profile is that they major in sociology and have a decent GPA. They also have decent verbal scores, but bad to miserable math scores. Unless they can make the case that their math score is an aberration (e.g., they did well in freshman calculus), it’s hard for them to move to the top of the pile.
4. Admissions committees often have trouble interpreting applications from foreign countries. Sometimes it’s language, sometimes it’s simply a different grading system. Also, you have to work extra hard to distinguish between students who are more interested in migration than the academic career. Some regions have a reputation for less than trustworthy credentials. That’s why it’s good to consult with colleagues from those nations if there’s a candidate who might be a good fit. If I were to advise foreign applicants, I’d insist that they show that they “get it” (i.e., understand academia) and have a credible signal of commitment to academia.
5. Letters of recommendation: My opinion of letters continues to slide over time. The more I do admissions, they more flaws I see. First, there is little variance among letter writers. Second, there is a double selection effect. Students only approach profs who like them and who have given them good grades. Third, a lot of letters are obviously lame. For example, I have read many letters that insisted the student was top notch (top 1% or 5%), yet the GRE’s and GPA were clearly atrocious. Fourth, a lot of students, especially those in low status schools or who have non-academic employment, have letter writers who are not in a position to write honest and thoughtful evaluations. I’ve seen a lot of letters by bosses, academic advisers, project supervisors, and so forth. I don’t count it against students, but it doesn’t help.
6. The 1% of letters: Still, every once in a while, there’s a letter that makes a clear and compelling case for a student. The profile of the letter writer is that they are an active teacher and researcher. They provide some concrete evidence that the student is actually exceptional, or that they are better than the transcript. They often have extensive experience with the applicant, or they can explain why the performance in one course is remarkable. Sadly, I’ve read only four or five letters that fit this mold, out of hundreds. The rest are generic and uninformative.
7. Random thoughts: Statements are good for sorting students, but only broadly. If the applicant is interested in social work or activism, academic sociology isn’t a good fit. I read transcripts carefully to spot praiseworthy or suspicious behavior (e.g., lots of withdrawals, hard courses, upward trajectories). Writing samples are good measures on general writing, but still, I am reluctant to make a decision on a product that was often not originally intended to be research sociology (e.g., a term paper in history or a policy report).
Add your admissions questions and remarks in the comments.