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.

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Written by fabiorojas

January 30, 2012 at 12:09 am

Posted in academia, education, fabio

43 Responses

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  1. How do you read the files of applicants who’ve been out of school for a while? I’ve met great students that way, but am not great at predicting who will be happy and successful. In some cases like that the letters have been very helpful.

    Philip Cohen

    January 30, 2012 at 1:58 am

  2. How important is it for an applicant to list specifically who they want to work with versus the areas of specialization? Also, in the event the professor the applicant listed isn’t accepting students that next year, would it harm the student if they didn’t list multiple professors (even if their area of specialization is represented)? Would the grad committee, more times than not, look more broadly in terms of the whole department fit regardless of who the person listed?


    January 30, 2012 at 2:21 am

  3. @Philip COhen:

    I try not to let work history influence my judgment. Having a job is normal, not a plus or minus. I could imagine a few exceptions, but not many.


    The trick is to show that you know the broad areas of sociology and can indicate what you are interested in. But don’t be overly specific. For example, a successful IU applicant might say they are interested in political sociology and might work with people like Professor Rojas (me). On the other hand, it would be too weird to insist on specific people (e.g., “I want to work on Professor Rojas’ niche of the evolution of Ethnic Studies.)

    Hope that helps.


    January 30, 2012 at 3:46 am

  4. Every program (and even many professors who I’ve spoken) says that the “whole package” is taken into account or that there isn’t any particular focal point that admissions committees look for in an applicant’s file. Is there really any truth to that, or are their certain things that have more weight than others?

    Prospective Student

    January 30, 2012 at 6:44 am

  5. @Prospective Student:

    It helps to think “on the margin,” as they say in economics. For clearly strong or weak applications, there isn’t much consideration of the “whole package.” But there’s definitely a gray area (the margin) where “package” is considered. There have been times when everything is ok but nothing “jumps out” at me. Conversely, what looks initially weak looks better on close inspection. The package looks better than the parts. I’m fairly confident that other profs feel that way as well.

    Also, remember that committees read these things. One person may care about letters, others may care about statements. When you discuss things out loud, you get a better sense of the package and that matters once you get past a handful of clear admits.


    January 30, 2012 at 6:58 am

  6. It’s an interesting post. I also agreed the comments about the letter of recommendation

    One critical issue for selecting appropriate doctoral students is about knowing their passion in academic career, especially while academic market is highly intensive today.

    In Chinese or East Asia context, people study in a doctoral program is more than having a certificate to pursue academic career, but also can consider as a symbol for showing your intellectual or family pride. Therefore, some potential students and existing students pursue their doctoral degree without REAL passion in academic career, even they do write academic works but cannot grasp the whole picture of subject knowledge or really care about teaching, even those circumstances may be seen as the result of path dependence from those academic predecessors have done.

    I concern doctoral students without real passion may damage our next generation, and make academic job more like a “job” rather than a career that Marx Weber proposed, the call for marketization or deregulation of high education may also push academic institutions/industry may recruit doctoral students with intentions beyond academic concerns.

    Der Chao Chen

    January 30, 2012 at 9:22 am

  7. undergrad,

    I discount students who say they want to work with person X. more often than not this only means they are interested in topic Y, then spent 15 minutes reading the department webpage to see which faculty list topic Y as a topic.

    I’m particularly skeptical of students who say they want to work w me personally since (a) I’m junior faculty and (b) they usually don’t even understand the p-o-c paradigm I work in but are interested in media effects or something like that. It’s a pretty clear sign that they are just interested in media (usually out of some misguided notion that it has strong causal effects of false consciousness or stereotyping or whatever) and looked to see who does media/culture


    January 30, 2012 at 4:44 pm

  8. So, a friend and cohort of mine was invited for a “phone chat” (I assume that is polite parlance for an interview) with the Sociology Department at IU’s director of graduate studies.

    I am confused by this mixed practice of some departments asking applicants (presumably those who make some initial cut) for interviews and others just deciding on the face value of the application. What additional information does the admissions committee hope to learn from a phone interview that could not be learned from the initial application? Is the interview used for admissions, funding, or admissions and funding decisions?

    I understand the use of interviews if the department admissions process is less centralized (mostly physical and life sciences, I think): The department decides to which applicants they will offer admission and then individual professors decide which applicants they wish to fund and have work in their lab(s). If you are accepted in the first case but not the second, then you are SOL. I gather that most sociology departments (including IU) do not follow that model.


    January 30, 2012 at 6:08 pm

  9. I encourage grad school applicants from my department to contact and discuss their research interests with selected faculty in their target departments. If this goes well, then the student asks if the faculty member will contact the director of graduate studies to affirm their interest in mentoring the applicant. This trumps all letters of reference, GRE scores, and personal statements. The selection process often involves my acting as “tertius iungens” based on personal relationships with the selected faculty. The quid pro quo arrives in a year or two and I reciprocate as champion for the admission of someone else’s student.


    January 30, 2012 at 6:36 pm

  10. Pretendous,

    One very practical thing you can learn from a brief phone interview but not very well from the written packet is whether a non-native speaker is sufficiently fluent in spoken English to participate in seminars and teach undergrads. TOEFL and GRE-V are only so-so at this.


    January 30, 2012 at 6:49 pm

  11. @Pretendous:

    I agree with Gabriel. Also, phone calls are good for:

    - telling someone that we can admit them but the paperwork is incomplete
    - seeing if they’ve already accepted another offer (yes, already another top 20 program has called people!)
    - seeing how serious they are about our program in particular
    - making sure they have basic interaction skills. As Gabriel, you have to teach and get along with other people.
    - getting a better sense of intellectual fit. You may think that your statement was crystal clear, but it is not always the case, even with good candidates.

    Hope this helps.


    January 30, 2012 at 7:06 pm

  12. @Pretendous: Finally, remember that we have to live with the applicant for the next 5-10 years of our lives. An extra phone call is prudent.


    January 30, 2012 at 7:18 pm

  13. Prof. Rossman said:

    “I discount students who say they want to work with person X. more often than not this only means they are interested in topic Y, then spent 15 minutes reading the department webpage to see which faculty list topic Y as a topic.”

    Personal experience:

    1. From talking to faculty, my impression is several Departments get around this by asking students to name more than one faculty member they would welcome the opportunity to work with. This seems to signal how well the student is aware of the departmental foci of interest. It also has practical benefits if the student is admitted.

    2. The exercise of selecting professors you would like to work with is not trivial. Even is the department has several teachers specializing in your subfield, you have to figure out if the faculty in the department have a similar theoretical and methodological outlook to yours. Multiply it by the number of schools you are applying to (six schools is the advisable minimum these days) and it ends up involving a lot of time and effort.


    January 30, 2012 at 7:33 pm

  14. Gabrielrossman wrote, “It’s a pretty clear sign that they are just interested in media (usually out of some misguided notion that it has strong causal effects of false consciousness or stereotyping or whatever)…”

    Does ‘framing’ count as “whatever”? Are you suggesting it’s been shown that “media” provide little influence over behaviors and thoughts? I quite likely could be misreading what you are saying…


    January 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm

  15. Programs vary a lot in terms of how much they care about specific plans at admission. Mine has historically paid relatively little attention to this, although this is shifting somewhat. Even with the shift, we pay little attention to which specific person you want to work with. A lot depends on the underlying grad funding model, which varies a lot from place to place. At my program, the ballpark of topics interested in matters more than specific names, and the general sense (as Fabio said initially) that you know what a grad program in sociology is. At others, specific people admit you. So one thing you want to know is how the program actually works.

    As regards the effort of researching the people in places to which you are applying, think of it this way: there are good reasons why a department might be more interested in a candidate who sounds like they are enough interested in the department to spend 30 minutes doing some Internet research locating abstracts of people’s work. If you are too busy to do this because you are applying to 20 departments, is that because your qualifications are too weak to make you a likely candidate anywhere? or because you are really interested in another department and are only applying to us as a backup? If you are applying for jobs, would you really not bother to look up some basic information about a company before you apply to it?

    Some students who are really clueless coming out of undergrad end up being good grad students and good sociologists. But people who don’t know what grad school is really about tend to hate it and not do well at it.

    In other but related news, one of our top new PhDs who has published a lot in grad school and got a good job came to us because he wasn’t admitted elsewhere. There is a huge random component in this process and it is important not to take it too personally.


    January 30, 2012 at 8:23 pm

  16. Considering the advantages that come with obtaining a PhD at a top-20 program, and the uphill battle that’s fought with a degree from a lower ranked program, would you advise going the route of a masters and then reapplying to programs if one isn’t able to get into a top 20/top30 university? I’ve asked something similar to this in the past and you assured me that it is better to go straight into a PhD program than through the Master’s route but, now that I am waiting to hear back from programs, is there a trade-off I should be thinking about if I don’t get accepted to the “better” schools?

    In other words, where is the cut-off that would lead to reassessing the situation and taking an alternative route to try and get seeded into a competitive university?


    January 30, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  17. @undergrad: The very first thing to do is figure out your career goal. Look at placement lists to see where a certain graduate program will lead you. If you want a shot at teaching at a research school or a competitive liberal arts school, the top 20/30 is your goal.

    Schools outside the top 20/30 can have lots of good career outcomes. A lot of graduates from lower rank programs teach at regional colleges, smaller doctoral universities, liberal arts schools, professional schools, and get jobs in the private sector and government. If these teaching intensive or policy oriented jobs are your goal, no need to bother transferring or doing MA programs.

    Ok, let’s say that you really want to give the the R1 career a shot and you didn’t get into a top 20-30 school. What should you do? I don’t have enough data to prove my point, but my gut instinct is to take the respected PhD program over an MA program. The PhD faculty are usually publishing and have connections. if you do well, they can help you transfer, especially if it is clear that you are shooting for an R1.

    If that doesn’t work, you have the PhD and can move up by over publishing. In contrast, MA programs don’t always have publishing faculty. Some are taught by other graduate students. Only take the MA program if it has a fairly strong record for getting students to good graduate programs.

    My rule of thumb is: try the PhD programs first and you can transfer if you do well. If you can’t get into any program with helpful faculty, then try the MA. To apply this rule, you’ll need to spend some time researching faculty and graduate student performance. As usual, you can email me with a specific question once you know what the options are.


    January 30, 2012 at 10:49 pm

  18. olderwoman wrote:

    “As regards the effort of researching the people in places to which you are applying, think of it this way: there are good reasons why a department might be more interested in a candidate who sounds like they are enough interested in the department to spend 30 minutes doing some Internet research locating abstracts of people’s work.”

    I’m in complete agreement with all your points. I did this research, in fact. I was just disconcerted by the previous comment that a student who does the research should be discounted.


    January 30, 2012 at 11:00 pm

  19. Guillermo: YES. On this point, see Jeremy’s post at Scatterplot:


    January 30, 2012 at 11:24 pm

  20. Re interviews: It’s not at all uncommon for top Phd programs in management to bring a final slate of candidates in for interviews prior to making offers. We do this at Northwestern. Our reasoning is that if we’re going to spend around $300K to train someone (includes stipend and tuition), we ought to be fairly certain they are going to be a good fit for the program. Management Phd programs are also typically smaller – our median cohort size is 5 people – and we select students from a highly competitive pool of candidates, and so we have to be picky about who we let in.

    brayden king

    January 31, 2012 at 1:56 am

  21. how important is research experience when reviewing apps? I’m applying this fall and my gpa and gre scores are about the average of what top 20 departments accept (at least thats what they say on their websites) so it will be tough to stand out in that area. When I apply I will have 2.5 years working as a research assistant working on two nation-wide surveys under a well-respected survey researcher and will have a publication with another professor in the process of being reviewed. I have heard that applying to grad school is almost like applying to be a research assistant for certain professors, is that true? Would you take someone whose GPA wasn’t bad, but also wasn’t outstanding if they had a lot of quality research experience?


    January 31, 2012 at 2:57 am

  22. To Faculty: in your experience, what type of graduate student tends to do very well? Is it a person who comes in very knowledgeable about their sub-topic and obviously very passionate about it?

    Do students with very high GPA’s from difficult majors or very selective and competitive universities and with strong GRE scores as well tend to do very well?

    Or does it just come down to who has the combination of passion, work ethic, and talent – meaning you really can’t tell for sure?


    January 31, 2012 at 3:54 am

  23. “meaning you really can’t tell for sure” is the right answer. There are some “sure bets” at one end* and people who just lack academic ability at the other, but the vast majority of people who bother applying to graduate school are in the middle. And there are many dimensions along which people can be good. Productivity (cranking out papers) has a zero correlation with insight and creativity, for example. Everyone knows that many “good students” are incapable of making the transition to independent researchers, but evaluators have widely diverse theories/rubrics/decision rules for how to rank people who are not the sure bets.

    * These are the people who have high test scores and high grades, and who have already done one or more major independent research/writing projects that exhibit a high level of intelligence and creativity.


    January 31, 2012 at 5:07 pm

  24. Although it might be tricky to talk about it here, would it be possible that there is some (or even a lot) homophily going on in the graduate admission/faculty hiring process? People like to be surrounded by people who are just like them. This may apply to race, class (taste), gender, methodological orientation, nationality, sexuality, etc…. So in a highly quantitative-oriented program, you got to have a high GRE math score to be able to get the admission ticket, etc.


    January 31, 2012 at 5:55 pm

  25. SocialScientistAnyWhere: Admissions committee members, like anyone else, may have some underlying affinity for people like themselves on non task-relevant characteristics (race, class, gender, sexual orientation if known, etc). In my experience, though, most committees will have at least one and usually more than one member who bends over backwards to be inclusive, is self-reflective about their possible biases, is concerned about procedural equity, etc. It’s the nature of the discipline, to some extent.

    Sorting based on “methodological orientation” certainly happens, often explicitly. A highly quantitative program is going to prefer applicants who score high on the math GRE, all else equal, because on average these applicants are more likely to succeed in the program than applicants who bombed the quant GRE failed undergrad stats, and write in their statements that they only want to do ethnographic or qualitative research. (Are there exceptions? Of course. Occasionally. Well, maybe.) Call it homophily if you like, but it stems from a very different source than affinities for applicants who share non-task relevant characteristics.


    January 31, 2012 at 7:41 pm

  26. Austen,
    Basically, yes. I think people tend to be interested in media because they presume strong effects and I don’t believe there are strong effects. I’m not denying any effects, especially in the short-run, I just think they’re weaker than often believed. As to framing, that line of research has some good stuff but much of it is essentially descriptive with the assumption but not the finding of downstream effects.


    January 31, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  27. #gabrielrossman
    Interesting… one response:
    In the political realm, television appears to be an important agent of influence, or of power of some kind (i.e it’s not money that matters, it’s the tv ads money can buy that matter). The current GOP race is, I think, a case study in television and politics.


    January 31, 2012 at 9:20 pm

  28. Austen, if you want to talk about politics and media effects then you also need to consider issues like selective exposure to media and the subjective interpretation of these cues. There is increased audience fragmentation as partisans are increasingly moving towards partisan media, so many audiences won’t be exposed to the same frames. Even in cases where people are exposed to identical content, they often interpret it differently, based on their own political preferences.

    Getting back to admissions, there are a number of disciplines that could examine media effects (sociology, communications, political science). Any prospective grad students out there interested in studying areas like framing have a lot of options. They should investigate them all before applying to make sure that department’s approach to studying media is a good fit. Austen, I’m not making any assumptions about where you are in your career, just trying to help out some of the prospective grad students out there who may read this thread.


    January 31, 2012 at 11:10 pm

  29. reborn dolls thanks


    February 1, 2012 at 6:10 am

  30. The first half of my college career was atrocious and my GPA suffered tremendously, which led to being put on academic dismissal. After three years I came back to school and I have been doing well, even making the Dean’s List last semester. Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be able to raise my GPA up to 3.0 by the time I graduate, even if I continue to have 4.0 semesters. Is there any hope for me to get into a Grad program?

  31. LB: I’m going to assume your test scores are also not great. IMO your chances of getting into grad school are low unless you have some strong counter-evidence. Just raising your grades would not do it. But what WOULD do it (for some programs) is strong evidence that you have what it takes to be an academic. The two kinds of evidence that are relevant to this are: (1) actually having done and written some high-quality academic research that demonstrates you have what it takes, despite the weak undergrad grades. (2) letters of reference from trusted sources that vouch that you have what it takes. These two in combination could make a difference. Even with them, you kind of have a “luck” issue of an admissions director who would be in a mood to take a chance.

    In line with the earlier thread about master’s programs and “weaker” PhD programs, one path to upward mobility can be getting into such a program and doing so well in it that you can present written work and references that persuade a higher-ranked program to take a chance on you. Another path some people have followed is working for a research firm, although my impression is that people with weak academic credentials are more likely to be used as “grunts” in such firms than to get the opportunity to produce the kind of independent work that provides counter-evidence of a weak undergraduate record.


    February 4, 2012 at 4:47 pm

  32. PS to LB: improving over time is definitely better than not. Disadvantaged students particularly show evidence of early struggles followed by later success. So if there is a “story” that accounts for the trajectory, that helps, too. Wise transcript readers will also be looking at evidence of course drops & withdrawals (signs that a GPA might be protected/inflated by selecting drops) and whether you seem to be taking hard vs easy courses — as subjective as all that can be. It will also matter how rigorous your school is perceived to be.


    February 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm

  33. [...] economist Jeff Smith has some short but informative comments on Fabio’s OrgTheory thread on graduate school admissions. My favorite bit: When I did graduate admissions at Maryland one year [...]

  34. [...] my record isn’t so great. What can I do to improve my position?” For example, last week, a student asked the following question: The first half of my college career was atrocious and my GPA suffered tremendously, which led to [...]

  35. Bravo, eccellente comunicazione


    February 15, 2012 at 8:46 am

  36. Fantastic discussion and very useful. Thanks!


    February 15, 2012 at 2:12 pm

  37. Hmm I am very glad to see how you deal with transcripts. I am in a situation where getting advice from someone who looks at “the package” like you do would be very helpful. Please if you have a moment, take a look at my little story and give me some blunt opinions :)

    I went from a community college to a University. At the CC I had LOTS of W’s, entirely out of my own ignorance. I worked full time as a manager (which at 20-24 was stressful) and just put a class on there and see which one couldn’t fit into my scheduled. Bad habit I know. Anyway, after about 66 credits at CC went to Uni, BOMBED my first semester because I really didn’t adapt to the Uni style of education. My GPA of those 2 years at Uni is less than stellar. I have about a 3.6 in my major, but it is sporadic. I had some bad habits/bad attitude towards courses. If I loved the course and the professor, I’d get A’s. If I thought the prof was not a good teacher for me, I’d end up getting a B-. But my last semester (a little too late) I just snapped out of the bad habits and got a 4.0 because I realized I had a crap perspective on grades and how important my record is for grad admissions. End result, CC=2.78 GPA – UNI= 2.69 GPA.

    I knew how bad I looked. I wanted to build a record that showed I was serious and focused, so I enrolled at a state Uni where I took a mix of undergrad and grad courses as a non-degree. 4 courses, 2 undergrad and 2 grad. Got a 3.89 for the Undergrad , and 4.0 for the Grad courses. Also I tried during this semester to really milk all the knowledge out of my professors and learn about the field which I didn’t do before. The realities of being a grad student, PhD student, job market, caliber of research that is needed and so on. Luckily I had some amazing professors who knew upfront from me I was a non-degree and this was a make up semester. they put a lot of energy into me and helped me grow which I needed. Anyway I digress (btw non of this is said on my SOP to schools, just that I wanted to show I was serious so I took a make up semester). I am curious how you would view this history of mine? I am only applying to MA degrees, not PhD. Would you care at all if you saw me do a make up semester? Would it matter that I took grad courses and did well? Please be a blunt as possible, I really appreciate your response if you do have time. Thanks.

    Trying to get in

    February 24, 2012 at 4:52 pm

  38. @Trying: You case is fairly common. Most college transcripts (including my own) have a not great first year. With not great ranging from C’s to F’s.

    The question for many readers is “how does the package look.” In the past, when I’ve seen cases like that, I ask “is it just being a young person? or is it a real issue?” if the trajectory is up, then I’m willing to vote yes. So what makes me feel good? Mostly good grades in the senior/junior years; good GREs; good writings samples. If the “bumpy period” was *really* bad, I’d want to see a decent MA thesis.

    Hope this helps.


    February 24, 2012 at 6:15 pm

  39. Thanks for the feedback Fabiorojas! Could you comment on how graduate course experience might look to an MA program’s adcom? I’m using some very deductive logic here, but I was hoping that if they could see I can ace graduate work, then it would ease a lot of worry about my past. Then again, I took undergrad credits too on my make up semester because I read, in many places, that adcoms respect undergad grades because they are graded more harshly than grad.

    Trying to get in

    February 24, 2012 at 6:24 pm

  40. MA programs tend to be more forgiving. First, the whole point of the MA is often to be the stepping stone. Also, MA programs only deal with you for a year or two. A PhD student is an enormous commitment, which is why we are really, really cautious. Good luck!


    February 24, 2012 at 6:37 pm

  41. @Trying. I’m a second-year student in a M.A. program and I would definitely recommend it if you want to go onto Ph.d. It’s harder than undergrad but at the same time a much more “nurturing” environment than Ph.d, from what my professors at the M.A. program tell me. The M.A. helps you improve your GPA, of course, but is also harder enough than undergrad to simulate some aspects of the Ph.d program. in this way it filters out a lot of people who thought they wanted a Ph.d but found they don’t. the way that that happens are:

    1) the courses. there are way more readings and the classes are organized as seminars in which students lead discussions and the professor only moderates (if at all). you have to really know your stuff in order to talk (or else you’ll get called out or simply look dumb). the amount of reading and writing involved and the fact that professors tell us to expect way more of this in Ph.d dissuaded a lot of my classmates. Not me, I loved it! the professors also try to steer the discussion toward more rigor (theory, discussion whether the methods are appropriate for research goals or whether data actually supports thesis), so you can’t just sit around and talk about your topical interests (gender, race, inequality, etc.) in a general way or use the discussion to talk about your politics.

    2) the M.A. thesis. The M.A. thesis is a lot of work: it requires you to do a lot of reading (that might not yield anything for you in terms of citations – for each book or article you cite, there are 10 more that you read that were useless for your thesis purposes). it also requires you to read up on and think pretty hard about methodology and how you can prevent yourself from “fixing” the results you “want.” (I worried a lot about this and still do) you also have to apply theory much more rigorously than most undergrads are used to (the professors will shred bad hypotheses). out of my cohort of about 20, only about a quarter, if that, chose to go the thesis route. the rest decided that the M.A. program made them decide they didn’t want anymore school and that a dissertation was definitely out of the question since they didn’t want to do the M.A. thesis.

    Also keep in mind that M.A. programs, like Ph.d programs, vary greatly in quality, departmental culture and “temperament” (Prof. Rojas’ department ideal types in his Grad Skool Rulz is useful: i.e. “toxic department,” “benign-neglect department,” “fully supportive department).

    From what I hear, my M.A. program used to be somewhere in-between “toxic” and “benign neglect,” as the faculty were all near-retirement and had been hired decades ago primarily as teachers – thus they hadn’t done much research and didn’t keep up with professional developments. They hadn’t hired faculty in many years and started hiring like mad several years ago to prepare for retirements. The new faculty were from very good places like the University of California schools as well as Ivies and they’re all very driven and energetic in their teaching and administration/service activities as well as in research. They butted heads a lot with the older faculty in trying to transform the M.A. program to what it is today, which I would characterize as “fully supportive.”


    February 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm

  42. The M.A. program is also good as a ‘safety valve.’ The reason is that, as I’ve said, most students choose not to go the Ph.d route after being in an M.A. program. What they do instead is become researchers for private sector companies or NGOs as well as going into social services. More common, however, is the lecturer route by which you teach classes at local universities as well as at 2-year community colleges.

    If you want to get into a Ph.d program, you have to think THESIS THESIS THESIS from the moment you get in, and everything you do will be with preparation for Ph.d in mind. You should plan to publish your thesis in some journal (doesn’t have to be a top one, just well-known regional generalist journal or topical specialist).


    February 24, 2012 at 7:50 pm

  43. @ Andy – Thanks for the helpful words, it is really nice to hear from someone in a program and what they think :) The MA program is a dead set for me, I’m an American applying to Canadian universities and you need an MA before you can go to PhD there. I took a few grad courses, did a research essay and lit review, facilitated an undergrad lecture, and am presenting a paper at a conference next month (non-soc). You are right about that level of course work weeding out people who don’t want PhD. I really enjoyed my time taking grad classes as you had to speak your mind, defend your thoughts, and stand on your own feet amongst others. Part of the reason I did bad in undergrad was I just hated half the classes I had, all passive learning and no application of theory in a creative way. Your professor says this about how to apply theory, you just remember what they said and re-write on test. The department of my undergrad was half almost near retired professors, half really bright researchers in the middle of their careers who wanted student to engage their work and expand upon it. How do you think showing I have taken grad courses will look to an adcom? Any thoughts?

    Trying to get in

    February 24, 2012 at 8:07 pm

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