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Advice from Jarvis C. McInnis

McInnis

Assistant Professor
English 

How do you start researching PhD programs?

The most important factors to consider are your research question(s), preferred discipline and/or methods, and faculty mentors. Ask yourself: What is the question or problem you want to address in your graduate studies? Then, you’ll want to consider which discipline(s) and/or methods will best equip you to answer or address said question or problem. Finally, identify faculty members who are either doing similar work, or whose research will equip you with the necessary training to answer your unique research question or problem. 

What should you look for in a PhD program?

The answer to this question depends on what you plan to do with the PhD. Ideally, you should select a program that can support you in reaching your research and career goals, and where you can thrive both professionally and personally. Make sure that there are at least 2-3 faculty members with whom you can work within the department or at the university. It is often the case that students’ research interests change or their relationship with their primary advisor is less than optimal. So being in a place with multiple potential advisors/mentors is ideal. Additional factors to consider include: supportive mentorship and advising; funding for graduate student research; and opportunities to cultivate the skills needed for career success (e.g., opportunities to teach, if you plan to enter academia). 

One of the most important factors to consider is whether the university’s location is conducive to your life and work. Are there opportunities to engage in your hobbies or the various activities or communities that sustain you beyond your research? Try to imagine your personal and professional goals over the next 5-7 years (or however long it typically takes to complete the program), and ask yourself if the university/location under consideration will enable you to achieve them. 

If you are a woman, person of color, queer person, or another underrepresented minority, consider the university’s and department’s track record with people whose identities are similar to yours. Do they tend to thrive there, or do they tend to leave the program prematurely? You should also inquire into the department’s job placement rate and the average time to degree. This information can speak volumes about how well the department prepares and supports its students (the economy and the changing landscape of the academic job market notwithstanding). 

What questions should you ask in your campus visits?

You should always ask current graduate students at different stages of the process (from course work to dissertation writing) if they are happy and feel supported in the program and at the university. Ask about all forms of healthcare (physical and mental) and whether the living stipend is sufficient to cover expenses. Current students’ experiences are often the best indication of whether the program will be a good fit for you. You should also ask faculty members about their approach to graduate advising and mentorship to determine if their style matches your needs. You might also ask them if they plan to leave the university during your tenure there; losing an advisor can be most disruptive. Time to degree and job placement rates are important factors to consider as well. If your work is interdisciplinary, ask about the possibility of taking courses in other departments and including outside faculty members on your committee.

What are some common pitfalls to avoid in the application process?

Be sure to articulate your research question, problem, or intervention clearly, as well as why the faculty, department, and/or university are the right fit for your proposed project. Refrain from writing about your “passion” and instead focus on your intellectual contribution. Reviewers are far more interested in your ability to think creatively and solve complex problems than what moves you. If you have a blemish on your transcript or below average test scores, address it in your personal statement (e.g., perhaps you had a family crisis that semester, or you have test anxiety), but don’t belabor it. Simply acknowledge it and assure readers that it has no bearing on your intellectual ability or future success in the program. Make sure to ask recommenders to write a strong or favorable letter of recommendation; even lukewarm letters can be a red flag to admissions committee members. Finally, please be considerate of reviewers. They are often reading hundreds of applications, so please adhere to application guidelines regarding the length of materials such as writing samples and research statements.