By Shaquilla Harrigan
Making the decision to apply to graduate school can be daunting. You need to determine which programs suit your interests and career goals, prepare your application materials, take the required entrance exams, and find fully-funded graduate programs so you can earn your degree debt-free. I know first-hand how difficult these decisions can be because I’ve been in your shoes before. After completing an international fellowship, I was at a crossroads in my life and wasn’t sure where I wanted my career to go next.
With the guidance and support of my mentors, I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in Sociology. I’d like to offer you advice on how you can think through some of the reflection questions I discussed with my mentors to decide if applying to graduate school is right for you.
My Journey From an International Fellowship to a PhD Program
When I was in college, I never could have imagined that I would one day be completing my fifth year in a PhD program. Even though my major required me to write an undergraduate thesis, I didn’t think I was cut out for research. My main extracurricular activities were volunteering at after-school programs and writing for the weekly newspaper. I initially thought I would combine my interests by pursuing a fundraising career at an education nonprofit, but that all changed when I completed a Princeton in Africa Fellowship in Nairobi, Kenya after graduation. Though my Fellowship role was in communications and fundraising, I was also exposed to the world of development research and had the opportunity to assist with a few research projects. The research experience turned out to be my favorite part of the Fellowship, and ultimately changed my career trajectory.
After talking to my Fellowship mentors and professors from my University, I decided that I wanted to attend graduate school. I asked them what kinds of programs I should explore to have the greatest impact in the field. Because I wanted a research-intensive job, they suggested I apply to PhD programs in the social sciences. With that initial bit of advice, I started making a game plan. I narrowed down the fields that would best support my interests, drafted a timeline of my application cycle, searched for free GRE study materials and registered for the exam, and set up meetings with my undergraduate advisors. I eventually ended up in a Sociology Doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, where I am in the process of conducting my dissertation research.
Based on my experiences, here are my tips for how you can determine if you should apply to graduate school, and how to narrow down the programs that might be the best fit for you.
1. Does attending graduate school advance my career goals?
This is the most important question you can ask yourself when considering whether applying to graduate school is right for you. While you may want an advanced degree because you’re interested in exploring a subject or topic further, you should also try to link your desire to attend graduate school with your broader professional goals. Graduate school is specialized training in a specific area or field. It’s a huge investment of time and other resources (But remember: you should never pay for graduate school out of pocket!). Ask yourself: Is a master’s degree or doctorate necessary to advance in your field? In your professional realm, does a graduate degree come with increased leadership opportunities and additional compensation? If the answer to these questions is no, you may want to consider what exactly your motivation is for applying to graduate school and what specifically you would gain from the experience.
Once you answer these questions, you will then need to investigate which type of advanced degree (master’s, MPH, MPA, MBA, PhD, EdD, etc.) is the best fit for your interests and career goals. When deciding on a graduate program, it’s very important to consider the type of degree you need to pursue, as some degrees are standard within a field. You’ll need to distinguish whether you need to apply for a master’s level degree, research doctorate, or professional doctorate. Be aware that there are some programs that enable you to begin enrollment in a master’s program and move into the doctoral work following the master’s requirements.
I would dissuade anyone from pursuing a PhD if you’re not passionate about or interested in conducting original research. If this describes you, there are other graduate programs better suited to your needs! For example, if you’re deciding whether to pursue a Doctor of Philosophy in Education (PhD in Education) versus a Doctor of Education (EdD), you will need to ask yourself if you’re interested in joining a University faculty and conducting education research, or if you’re interested in applying your research by working in leadership or administrative spaces within education. The same thought process and research will have to factor into all of the degrees you’re exploring as you determine the right one for you.
2. What types of programs should I consider when applying to grad school?
After narrowing down the type of degree you’d like to earn, it’s time to start solidifying which graduate programs you’d like to apply to. When I was trying to decide which programs worked best for me and my career goals, I was torn between interdisciplinary programs in International Development versus fields like Anthropology or Sociology. I ultimately decided to pursue a PhD in Sociology because that was the discipline that would give me the best training to answer the type of research questions I wanted to investigate.
Part of my reflection process that allowed me to reach this conclusion was examining the following:
- The professional associations of each discipline
- The hot topics in research for each discipline
- Faculty writings and research at each institution
- Which programs had alumni who were working in the spaces that I hoped to professionally reach
Conducting your independent research on these topics will help you think through what each program offers and whether they can provide you with the training and opportunities you need to pursue the career of your dreams. This research was especially important for me because my undergraduate major (Social Studies) was so interdisciplinary. For anyone else who had an interdisciplinary undergraduate major or is looking to switch fields, I highly recommend spending a good portion of time learning about your desired discipline.
3. How do I prepare my graduate school application materials?
Putting together your graduate school application requires organization and time management skills. You’ll need to keep track of which documents you need for each program, and determine who might be able to assist you with each one.
Here is a general list of graduate school application components:
- Personal Statement
- Research Statement (for research masters or PhD programs)
- Statement of Purpose (combines elements of a personal statement and research statement)
- Diversity Statement (many more programs are including this supplementary essay to show a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion)
- Transcripts from prior institutions
- Letters of Recommendation
- Resume or Curriculum Vitae
- Entry Exam Scores
Based on my personal experience of successfully applying to graduate school, here are some of my top tips on completing some of the application materials listed above.
Personal Statement Tips
My advice would be to start your personal statement as early as possible. This essay is a preview of your personality and academic capabilities, and will provide insight into your post-graduate plans. In this essay, you’ll want to make sure you have a clear narrative that connects your undergraduate experiences and work experience with your desire to attend graduate school, and conveys how the program you’ve chosen will enable you to achieve your overall goals. Be sure to share drafts of your statement with your recommenders writers and staff at your University (or alma mater) career services office.
When I was applying, I found these tips directly from a University Sociology Department’s website extremely useful. I also made appointments with a graduate school admissions counselor at my University’s Office of Career Services to discuss the application process and receive feedback on my essays. I highly recommend receiving feedback from as many professionals and mentors as possible to ensure that your final draft is polished and error-free!
The Letters of Recommendation
After getting started on your personal statements, I recommend contacting your recommenders. You’ll want to give them plenty of time to write a glowing recommendation on your behalf and provide feedback on your other application components. You may feel awkward reaching out to undergraduate professors to ask for a recommendation letter, but I promise you it’s part and parcel of being in academia. In your email request, I recommend sending your most recent CV, a link to the letter submission portal, and important deadlines.
I also recommend asking your professor if they feel comfortable writing a strong letter on your behalf, and choosing faculty who are either in your field of graduate study or can speak to your skills in your field of graduate study. You don’t want someone to write a generic letter that doesn’t speak to your unique experiences and qualifications. If a professor says they do not feel they can write a strong letter for you, try not to take it personally — they may not know you well enough to feel comfortable writing an excellent letter for you. Luckily, you have plenty of other people in your corner who would likely be more than happy to advocate for you!
Diversity Statement Tips
Next, I’d like to turn to the diversity statement. Think of each essay in your application packet as another opportunity to show yourself off. While you’ll want to highlight consistent themes across your essays, you don’t want to be redundant in sharing the same story over and over again. The diversity statement is the section of the application where you’ll have the opportunity to share how you engage with others of different backgrounds and how you’re committed to supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion at your new institution.
Remember that one person isn’t “diverse,” but that we all have different backgrounds, attributes, and skill sets that contribute to the diversity of a group. In your essay, you may want to focus on your race, ethnicity, class, or gender and how it shapes how you view (or are viewed) within your field. Additionally, if you are a member of a majority group within a space (e.g. white men in STEM), think about how you could use your privilege to benefit people from marginalized backgrounds, or discuss any time when you’ve been in the minority of a specific group. Sociologist Tanya Golash-Boza provides advice for writing a diversity statement for faculty-job seekers, but many of these tips are also relevant for graduate school applicants.
4. How can I prepare for the GRE and other graduate school entrance exams?
One of the most daunting parts of the graduate school application is taking the GRE, or any other entrance exam required for admission to your desired program. There are many free or low-cost resources to help you do well on your admission exams. My biggest piece of advice is to familiarize yourself with the types of questions that will be asked on your test. This will give you more time to answer the questions, and you’ll be less likely to get tripped up on obviously wrong answers if you can detect patterns. I signed up for Kaplan’s GRE Question of the Day and watched YouTube videos on test-taking tips to prepare for my grad school entrance exams. If you’re a nervous test taker like me, I recommend scheduling your exam with enough time to take it twice before the application deadline.
Be sure to pay careful attention to the application requirements for your desired program. Some graduate programs have either expanded the type of test required (e.g. some law schools allowing applicants to submit either their GRE or LSAT scores) or have waived admission exams altogether. Check the department’s admissions guidelines for the most up-to-date information regarding testing.
I remember feeling like the standardized exams were the component of my graduate school application that I had the least control over. However, I kept reminding myself that my test scores were just one component of my application, and that while it’s important to prepare and do well, graduate school and PhD programs are really focused on your holistic background and research potential.
5. Can I afford graduate school?
Unfortunately, the cost of a graduate school degree is what holds so many qualified applicants back from continuing their education and pursuing the career of their dreams. ProFellow has a wealth of resources available online (for free!) to help you find fully-funded PhD and Master’s programs that will actually pay you to join their programs. Be sure to check out ProFellow’s free database, which now lists more than 600 fully-funded PhD and master’s programs. These are programs that offer incoming graduate students a fellowship or Graduate Assistantship that provides an annual stipend and full or partial tuition waiver. It’s also important to inform yourself early in the graduate school application process about different funding sources, and how and when to apply. Many people make the mistake of searching for funding only after acceptance, but at this stage, many funding award deadlines have passed!
I recommend not accepting any PhD offer that doesn’t cover your tuition and provide a basic stipend through scholarships, fellowships, grants, research assistantships, and/or teaching assistantships. There are many programs out there that are willing to invest in your education because they believe in your potential as a scholar and researcher — it’s just a matter of researching to find those opportunities and putting the work into creating a winning application, using the tips above, to earn them.
Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.
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