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Alumni Advice – You’ve decided to get a PhD. What’s next?

NOTE: This guest post was written by Alina Ivette Fernandez. She is part of the inaugural cohort of students in the doctoral program in Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Before beginning her graduate studies, she received her B.S. in International Relations and Diplomacy and Latin American and Latino studies from Seton Hall University. Her research focuses on political and civic engagement within Latina and Latino Greek organizations.


You’ve decided to get a PhD. What’s next?

1. The GRE: Start studying now.
Literally, stop reading this post and go study. I’m kidding, but there are a few steps you should follow to minimize stress and maximize your success on the GRE.

  • Select an early test date. It may seem like a no-brainer, but your exam date should be early enough to ensure that that if a retest is necessary your scores would still be received before the university’s deadline.
  • Don’t retake the test. The exam is costly ($195) and takes just under 4 hours to complete. It is a draining experience after which only copious amounts of takeout can replenish you. The easiest way to save money and time is to make sure you are adequately prepared the first time, which brings us to our next point…
  • Study early and often. Treat your studying like a job, make a schedule and commit to it. The overwhelming majority of PhD programs require a GRE score for their application; even if you have not yet selected a test date you should begin to study for the exam.
    • You do not need to spend money on an expensive test prep course; the Educational Testing Service (ETS: the company that proctors the GRE) offers a wide range of resources to help you prepare for the exam including free timed practices exams. For math prep, I like the Khan Academy, which the ETS links to, and Keshwani Prep, which can be found on Youtube (and you won’t ever need the book he talks about).

2. Where should you apply?
While program names and rankings can help you decide what programs to consider, there are a few more factors to take into account when making your selections.

  • Courses: What courses does the department offer and how regularly? While the name of a department might make it seem like a good fit, reading through their list of course offerings, especially the core curriculum, will help you decide if your experience there would be sufficiently engaging.
  • Faculty: They should be a huge factor in your decision, as much of your success in a PhD program is dependent on the support of your faculty members.
    • You’re looking to engage with scholars with overlapping research interests. A program may be a good fit if you can see yourself working with several members of the department.
      • Overviews on the department website will provide you with a broad overview of faculty interests, but the best way to determine if a faculty member’s research areas align with your own are to skim through a few of their more recent publications. Remember, your interests do not need to be identical. In fact, the academy values fresh perspectives.
    • Keep notes on which professors and what aspects of their work you are interested in. This information will help you craft your responses on the physical application.
  • Events Calendar: You’ll want to check out what speakers are visiting and what conferences are being held. Be sure to check outside of your department’s calendar. This will help you gauge whether or not the campus is actively engaged in your potential research area/ related areas of interest.

3. Applications:
The application process can be tedious; I suggest following these steps to streamline the process:

  • Create a timeline with all of your deadlines, including those for supplemental materials.
    • Make sure to build in a date to check and see if your supplemental materials have been received. If you are still missing a letter of recommendation, use this date as an opportunity to send a friendly reminder.
  • Request your transcripts from the registrar’s office ASAP. Here is the link for Seton Hall.
  • Read through the applications before starting to fill them out; this will help you organize your thoughts.
  • Edit your work by reading it aloud. When you think your application is perfect, schedule an appointment to review it with your advisor.

4. Congratulations! You’ve been accepted!

  • GO TO ALL OF THE OPEN HOUSES: Your experience there will be one of the largest factors in your decision. If your invitation does not explicitly mention it, ask if the department will reimburse your travel expenses.
  • Take Notes: You will be touring several schools in a short amount of time and receive LOTS of information; you do not want to leave such an important decision to your memory. I suggest writing down
    • The things you like and dislike about the campus
    • The way faculty and staff interact with each other
      • Inconsequential conversations can tell you quite a bit about the climate of a department.
    • Are their graduate students happy? Well funded? Overworked?
    • Location: I did not factor location into my decision when I was selecting a graduate program, but I think it is worthy of consideration. I might have given other programs a second look if I had thought about the impact moving 3000 miles away from my family would have on me.

5. Negotiate:
Some schools will wait to give you your funding offer until you are at the visit. But do not commit to anything until you have gathered your other offers and reviewed your notes.

  • The best program for you may not come with the best funding package. If your heart is set somewhere that your wallet is not, try calling your dream school and asking them to match your other offer.
  • Finally it is time to choose a winner. I know you will choose perfectly; you are a Pirate after all.
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