inconvenient truth for undergraduates applying to graduate programs

When students come to my office, I give them the “Fabio special.” I tell them that getting a PhD is hard, you sacrifice a lot, and that it really isn’t the right career for a lot of people. Many will say “thank you, I needed to hear that” and then move on with their lives. But a few will persist and ask for more advice about the academic career.

They usually ask about the process and then ask about things like letters of recommendation and extra-curricular activities. This is where I give even more inconvenient advice. It goes something like this:

The core thing about academia is that careers are driven by status. And young people – graduate students and junior faculty – are not evaluated directly in terms of research quality. People instead judge you based on indirect measures of quality like status of PhD programs and journal publication.

The other thing that you should know is that rewards are correlated with these indirect measures of quality. Higher pay checks, better students, research facilities, and nicer work conditions tend to be associated with institutional prestige. It is possible for people from lower status programs to move up, but it is slow and very hard.

So the first thing you have to do is maximize the prestige of your graduate program, controlling for things like funding and other factors.

So what gets you into higher prestige graduate programs? Roughly speaking, GPA and GRE. Why? These are easy for people to evaluate. If you have a pile of 350 applications for 20 acceptance letters/10 program slots, you’re lying if you tell me you are going to read all of them. Instead, people will quickly sort according to GPA & GRE. Then, among the top candidates, they *might* read things like a writing sample or letter of recommendation.

Let’s start with the bad news. Your GPA is stuck where it is. If you did bad, tough. It’s water under the bridge. Also, you are probably over estimating the role of letters of recommendation, writing samples, and research opportunities. It occasionally helps, but that tends to be the exception rather than the rule. I wouldn’t rely on it. Just accept that and move on.

Here’s the inconvenient, but good, news. GRE has a big impact on the odds of admission. And you can control it. And you can do it in about 2 months. You can master basic math skills, makes piles of vocabulary flash cards, and just practice the living daylights out the GRE. If your family is comfortable, you can pay a fancy tutor. If you are of modest means, you can find piles of used cheap test prep books. And you don’t need to quit your job. Every day, take an hour or two to just do endless practice.

If you can succeed in bumping up your GRE, you create a “chain reaction.” By getting a higher GRE, you get into a more prestigious program. In more prestigious programs, you get access to better financial resources and more active faculty. These lead to better teaching and research portfolios, which leads to better career prospects.

Thus, the GRE represents your first professional challenge. It is a concrete and tangible goal that you can pursue that will give you literally decades of benefits. And the costs are relatively low: perhaps the cost of test prep and time spent practicing. If you can’t exercise enough discipline to at least try, then perhaps academia is not a career for you.

Yes, we can argue about whether the GRE is really a predictor of future performance* or whether some people have an unfair advantage. Fair points, but that isn’t why you’re here. We’re not here to discuss why life isn’t fair. We’re here to help you achieve a career goal. Academia is a competitive profession. Learn the rules and do your best. That’s the best advice I can give you.

Then, of course, I agree to write them a letter of recommendation!

*Actually, it kind of is.


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Written by fabiorojas

November 2, 2018 at 4:06 am

Posted in uncategorized

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  1. “So what gets you into higher prestige graduate programs?” You forgot to mention a prestigious undergraduate institution. All things being equal, an application from an elite university will get more attention than an application from a good but not nationally known SLAC.



    November 5, 2018 at 2:59 pm

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