How to Apply to Grad School…The Richard Smith version…
As with all of my advice, this should be taken as supplementary to the official advice you can get from the University Dean of Graduate Studies web pages and our own School of Communication web pages for graduate students.
I have no secret recipe for getting into grad school, I am afraid. The best advice I can give is to go to the school’s pages for grad school as well at the pages maintained by the Dean of Graduate Studies and read them carefully, follow all the instructions, and ask lots of questions. Denise Vanderwolf, the grad secretary in our department is an invaluable resource as is Gary McCarron, the grad chair.
Beyond that, I suppose the single best bit of advice I could give anyone would be to visit the school, speak to current graduate students, and make appointments to meet as many professors as you can. Obviously this isn’t feasible for people who live far away, but you can sometimes engage people in an email dialogue. And it is more important if you are applying for the PhD program than the MA.
Time: Don’t take too long!
As a rough guideline you should think of yourself as making good progress if you are ready to write your MA thesis by December of your second year (presuming you started in September of 2007, then be ready to start that thesis in December of 2008, for example.
PhD students: Getting from courses to comps
I have a separate section on comprehensive exams, so I won’t cover that topic in detail here, but there is definitely a trick to getting from the courses stage to the comprehensive exams. Sometimes it seems obvious what to do, other times it seems like an insurmountable hurdle. Here are some suggestions for getting past that blockage:
First of all, try to take some time to reflect on what you’ve learned in your courses and in your previous degrees and life in general. What does that tell you about your perspective on the world and how knowledge is created? Imagine yourself in a life of scholarship. What approach would you take to a series of problems – since the dissertation is bound to be the start of your career, not the end of it – and how would you like to spend your time solving those problems? In other words, what is your theoretical perspective, or stance, or position on things and what method do you want to use to do your work? Having clarity about theory and method ensures that the next step, selecting a research topic or question, is grounded in what is feasible and worth doing.
With your theoretical perspective and methodological approach in hand (or at least a recognition of your personal preferences/biases), you can now try to select a research topic. Try to pick something that you care about enough to stick with for at least a couple of years. You are going to get tired of this topic eventually, believe me.
Writing your comprehensive exams (PhD students only)
As with my general advice on making progress, don’t let the comprehensive exams grow into a mountain that you cannot see yourself climbing. You don’t want to take forever doing this. It is just a step you have to take in the path to getting a PhD. It is something that every PhD student has taken, and it doesn’t need to be that scary. A semester to prepare and a semester to finalize your reading and then write them (i.e., 8 months) is all you need. Don’t drag it out. Seriously.
I think a very good approach is to do a theory comp exam and a methods comp exam. In each one you should consider the following three elements, at least: the origins, including “classic” authors in the field, the current “state of the art,” and the emerging issues.
In terms of length, I usually advise my students to prepare their comp areas as if they were preparing a course for a group of senior undergraduates or new graduate students. Cover the material that could reasonably be covered in 13 weeks – in other words, no more than 2 or 3 articles, chapters per week. Prepare a “lecture” for each week, that covers the material in the readings and draws out the main issues. Prepare an opening statement, as you would in an introductory lecture, and a closing statement – perhaps akin to the wrap up before a final exam. That kind of preparation has several benefits. First of all, you contain the project and your comp doesn’t grow out of control since you have to think about what can be learned in a single semester by a group of students new to the topic. Second of all, you are preparing something that you can actually teach when you do graduate. Nothing like having a couple of courses “in hand” when you go on the job circuit. In the case of my students I ask that they actually prepare the course outline and all the lectures. This is outside the bounds of what is required in our department, so not all of them do it, but I think those that do find the investment of time well worth it.
I often work with my PhD students to see if they can actually teach one of these “comp courses,” so it isn’t just an academic exercise. This has worked very well in the past and I continue to encourage students to do this.
Many people like to think that they would prepare their comps as if they are chapters in their thesis. I think this is false economy. You inevitably change your topic/orientation and so the “chapter” you have created doesn’t survive into the thesis and if it does it does so in a “cut and paste” form which results in a choppy and ill-formed document. And believe me, no one at a job talk wants to hear a chapter from your thesis…
Writing your thesis: Don’t overdo it!
Your thesis is where you shine, but it isn’t the END of your career, it is the beginning. So don’t try to pack everything into it. Focus on an interesting problem, something that you really care about, do some research in which you can conceivably come up with results in a reasonable amount of time (less than a year, is a good bet for a PhD, a semester for an MA), and write it up clearly and concisely in a way that other people can read it. You are, after all, engaging in public scholarship at this level and your work will go into the library.