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Beat the Clock: Applying to Ph.D. Programs

Sarah Carey

M.A. Candidate, Applied Linguistics

Teachers College, Columbia University


Hi, AAAL Grads!


As we are living through this pandemic, we still have to keep moving forward as graduate students. Some of you are maybe applying for PhD programs, and others might be working on job applications. In the series of blog posts, AAAL GSC invited several fellow graduate students to share their advice and tips for moving forward and transitioning to the next stages. Here is the first one from Sarah Carey.




Beat the Clock: Applying to Ph.D. Programs



As the calendar inches closer to the end of the year, many graduate students are already thinking beyond spring graduation and planning for the next fall semester where they will (hopefully) begin coursework for their doctorates. In December and early January, graduate schools around the country will reach application deadlines for students seeking entry into Ph.D. programs. While completing applications for doctoral studies is a routine, and tedious, task - it’s critical to be prepared so you can make the best impression and meet important deadlines.


First, evaluate your reasons for applying to a program. Why are you interested in working toward a doctoral degree? This may seem like an obvious question, but it’s important to evaluate your motives. Will receiving a Ph.D. increase your income? Improve job prospects? Fulfill a personal goal? Once upon a time, I applied for graduate school simply because I didn’t like my job. After some reflection, I discovered that going back to school wouldn’t fix my dissatisfaction - it would just prolong it into the future. But, once you target your why, it will be much easier to complete the process (like writing your statement of purpose!) and selecting the right program for you.


As you begin your applications, don’t forget to narrow down your research interests. Many years ago, I applied to the same doctoral program, but had little idea about what I really wanted to study. Needless to say, I was not admitted. But, as I near the end of my master’s degree, I’ve learned the importance of specificity in applications. If you’re applying to a linguistics program, consider what makes you “tick” as a scholar and researcher. Are you more of a sociolinguist? Do you want to research effective teaching practices? Maybe you are very passionate about syntax. Review any previous coursework or projects you’ve completed if you’re still unsure - this can be a great help in identifying what your expertise is.


When applying for a Ph.D., collect all required application materials beforehand. Many doctoral applications require numerous attachments in addition to personal information. Before beginning any work, review what is required from the department’s admissions page. Odds are, most universities will require the same documents that you can reuse. This information can be especially helpful if your program requires any tests. If you’re an international student and you studied at an institution in a country where English is not the official language, you’ll need to schedule a TOEFL or IELTS exam several months before the application deadline. If your program requires the GRE, you’ll need to schedule this exam as well. For domestic students, often the GRE is the only assessment required.


Additionally, make a list and compare materials needed between your prospective programs. This will avoid the last minute shuffle for when a program requires official transcripts for an application, but all you have are unofficial copies. Planning ahead and gathering all documents can save time and keep away last-minute panic.


Finally, when applying for Ph.D. programs start early! Though most applications are straight-forward, they can take time when done well. You will more than likely have to write multiple statements of purpose, tailor writing samples, and request references. Just like collecting materials before beginning your application, starting applications as early as possible will allow you enough time to thoroughly review your submission. Most importantly, it’s good etiquette to request assistance from your references early. Similar to applications, reference forms can be lengthy and require lots of writing. It’s important to give your references plenty of time to complete any necessary forms and to avoid a missed deadline.


Applying for Ph.D. programs isn’t exactly an exciting series of tasks, but it is worth it. By evaluating your motivations, focusing on your research interests, gathering materials, and starting early, you can ensure that you can beat the clock and obtain admission into your program of choice.



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