Speaking from my personal experience of applying to fourteen PhD programs in English across Canada (and getting offers at twelve of them) I thought that I could offer some guidelines to the application process to help those who are applying and make it as seamless as possible. I am purposely not saying “make it as easy as possible” because grad school applications, like pimpin’, ain’t easy. Just in case you were wondering, it was not my first choice to apply to fourteen different programs. My hand was forced by the Canadian Resident Matching Service’s (CaRMS) matching day happening around March of every year and most PhD applications being due, at the latest, by February. So, in order to guarantee that my wife and I could live in the same city after she matched to a residency somewhere I applied in every city she did. Let’s say that you’re like me and are applying for PhD programs in your first semester of your MA (my MA was one of the many one-year programs here in Canada) and you don’t know stuff about academia, have never been to a conference, feel completely lost and over your head but still want to pursue a PhD, and need to know what steps are involved/important. I think you will find the following list, if not helpful, at least commiserative.
*Note: I started writing this post thinking, “Gee, Justin, you’re such a swell guy that you can probably sum this up for the nice people in one short and succinct post” but this was not the reality. So, I have broken it up into a multi-part post. I hope you’re cool with that. If you’re not, you could just hack into my blog and make it all into one giant post I guess. I’d ask you not to do that, though, please.*
This is first on my list because it will inform everything else you do in applying for PhD programs. I know it is hackneyed advice, but I can’t think of any other way of saying it: be organized, for the love of Gaia, be organized. If you’re applying for a PhD program, chances are you are or have been in a Master’s program so I’m guessing you’ve got some kind of organizational skill set. This is a good start. What I really mean by ‘be organized’, however, is that you must be on top of all aspects of your application process because nobody, not your supervisor; grad chair; or schools you’re applying to, will do this stuff for you. Nor should they. It is up to you to make sure that all your references are up to date (and know that they’re your references), you’ve got all the proper addresses for the programs you wish to apply to, have a clear idea what project you want to pursue (keeping in mind that this is subject/allowed to change down the road), and you have some idea of the amount of time that will be involved in each application to ensure it is done properly and the best it can be. So, please, make life easier for you and everyone you’re depending on for this application and be organized.
Letters of Reference
Your professors are busy people and they don’t actually sit around waiting for us to ask them to do us the favour of writing a reference letter. Your letters of reference need to be organized well in advance of when they’re due. For instance, most PhD programs in Canada have January – February deadlines (with some as early as December), so that means you need to be on this task fairly early in the fall in order to give your references ample time to write you the most favourable letter possible. Doing this early will also enable you to find alternate references should your first choice be unable to write you a letter. This is either because they hate you or are unable to write you the best letter because they don’t know you or your work well enough. If a prof says no, it is for good reason. I would think almost every student has been told by a potential reference that they cannot write the best reference letter. This is not bad and it does not mean you are bad (or that they hate you). All it means is that this person feels as though they are not the right person to write a letter for you and that they’re just being honest about the fact that somebody else would be a better fit. Chances are, if you were absolutely banking on that person’s reference letter and didn’t have a back up plan, you should probably mull over a little bit why exactly that is.Once you’ve got your references lined up early in the fall before your application materials are due, then is the time to make your referees’ task as easy and seamless as possible. This means that you, o organizational god of gods, will put together a little care package for each of your referees which consists of: all necessary guidelines and instructions for submitting letters of reference (here is my Reference Letter Guide for Referees that I made during my application process — please note that the information contained in this document is probably no longer accurate), all necessary forms the referee must submit along with their letter, pre-addressed and stamped envelopes (on university letterhead, if possible) for those letters which must be sent independently of your application, your own point-by-point instructions to your referees that is clear and easily referred to (this might also include highlighting particular parts of a program’s instructions for applications, so invest in plenty of Post-It notes). Your referee care package may look a bit different than this, but the bottom line is that your referees should be able to simply write your sparkling letter of reference, put it in an envelope (or upload it to your application), and send it off. If a referee has to spend time looking for addresses or instructions on how to submit your letter, this is less time they have for telling the world just how great you and your project are. Though writing reference letters is a part of every academic’s job and takes up a great deal of their time, it is still taking them away from other work. While it is not expected, I think you should feel free to show your gratitude to your referees. I’m no etiquette expert, but I should think a hand-written thank you note and/or some liquor sufficient.
While you’re thinking about your reference letters, now would be a good time to order your official transcripts. You know you’re going to need them, so get them. You should have a supply of all official sealed transcripts at all times anyway since you never know when an awesome bursary or scholarship might just surprise you with a closer than close deadline. Most post-secondary institutions have an online ordering process for transcripts these days so you don’t have to talk to actual people in order to get this done. It’s a win/win! (Not that you don’t already know this, but you don’t need your high school transcripts unless you’re applying for a job at a call centre).
Stay tuned tomorrow for the second installment of Applying to PhD programs. I promise the next post will have more sex and violence.