This is the final part of the three part post on Applying to PhD Programs. You can see part 1 here and part 2 here to get yourself up to speed if you haven’t already done so. Even though this is the last official installment on the Fairly Serious blog, it is by no means the last word on the subject (but you knew that, didn’t you, smarty pants?). There are lots of other great resources and blogs available to you, the potential PhDer and some can be found in the blogs I follow, so I urge you to check them out. A couple that I have found particularly useful are Dr. Karen Kelsky’s The Professor Is In and Tufts University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Gradmatters Blog. You can also find a ton of useful stuff on Twitter using #phdadvice, #phdchat, and #gradchat. That goes for all topics relating to grad school, and not just the PhD. Without any further ado, let’s get down to the business of applying to your dream PhD.
The Application Itself
Okay, so you’ve done all the preliminary work in sourcing your reference letters, potential supervisors, and whatnot. Also, you’re organized, right? Right. The next thing you have to do is the application which should be the easiest part. Well, yes and no. Because I applied to almost every university in Canada that had an English PhD program I can honestly say that there is so much variation between schools’ applications that it really takes some doing to figure out exactly how you are going to tackle each one. Most programs’ application materials are found online these days and if they aren’t, I’d like to know what school you’re applying to because it’s from the before times and that might be worrisome.This next advice might seem self-evident and even a little bit patronizing, but READ ALL INSTRUCTIONS ON THE APPLICATION BEFORE YOU FILL IT OUT. Now that caps lock wasn’t me yelling, just highlighting how important that step is. If you are applying to more than one program, which most people do, and they all have different forms and questions to answer it’s important that you know what you’re doing before you begin filling it out. The easy stuff is always a no-brainer, things like your name and address. These applications get tricky because some might require you to upload your writing sample (either copy and paste or as a file) and other documents such as your transcripts. Some programs also want your letters of reference electronically and this is something you have already looked into for your referees (because you’re organized!), see the first two points in part 1 of this post. Okay, by now you have had a look at all the application materials and filled everything out properly. You might even want to get someone to look over what you’ve done to make sure you didn’t make any simple mistakes.
Most programs will require some sort of paper-based portion of your application. Some want all your stuff electronically and in paper format. These are things you need to know in advance. Once you’ve got all necessary items for your application completed (hint: some university websites have handy little checklists that you can print out. Memorial University of Newfoundland comes to mind here: MUN Application Checklist) it is time to, likely, mail it off. It’s important to remember here which programs want your reference letters and transcripts sent directly by the department/university. This is not an optional thing. Also, not every program will ask for a CV, but I included one anyway; just the one page version. They don’t need to know about your years of devoted service to the Lick a Chick in North Sydney, NS but they will want to read about any and all academic achievements. Or not. Maybe they just toss the CV if it’s not required, but it made me feel like my application was ‘complete’ by including it. Also, I am just a big fan of Garamond.
All programs will ask for a writing sample. Usually they’ll want to see something between 15 – 20 pages, but this varies. If you’re applying in your first semester of a Master’s, this might be a bit of a difficult task because I believe the writing sample must be a graduate piece of writing (though I’m sure your paper on Ralph Waldo Emerson and death from senior year was brilliant) and so this is something you should keep in mind when you’re writing papers for your courses. The writing sample should be an example of your best academic writing, not creative writing. I would love to see the committee’s faces when they get an application with an acrostic poem as the writing sample, however. If you know you will be applying to PhD programs, you should discuss with your MA supervisor (or trusted MA professor or grad chair) what your options are. Chances are, your professors will help you figure something out or adapt a class essay for your application. The chances are also good that your piece of writing from a grad class will also have been taught by one of your referees, so it is in their best interest to make sure you have the best possible outcome. Ask for help, most academics are all too ready to give it. It’s their job. It’s also their job to be upfront and honest with you as well. This does not mean they should belittle you, but they should have enough professional courtesy to tell you the strengths and weaknesses of your application and/or writing.
Once you’ve got everything figured out you will learn how to use your country’s mail system. You will go to the post office, armed with all the correct addresses of your prospective graduate schools, and send your applications via post WITH A TRACKING NUMBER. If you send your packages without tracking numbers it is impossible for you to know if the thing ever arrived and you will have no recourse when you don’t get accepted because, well, they didn’t receive your application package. You should also splurge and get the signature option while you’re at the post office. This costs another $1 in Canada, I think, and what it does is gives you an electronic copy of the person’s signature who physically received your application. The other thing I did when sending my applications was to put all my papers in a manila envelope and then put that inside one of the post office’s fancypants cardboard mailers. This helps protect the contents of your application and it looks fancy when it arrives. Anything that helps you feel like a professional is a good thing, I think, because too many of us grad and potential grad students feel like imposters who aren’t good enough. I mean, you’re reading a blog post about how to send mail, after all.
I think that just about does it for this post. I will likely revisit this topic as I remember things that are important about applying for PhD programs. If you think that it is a lot of work doing each of these applications, then you are absolutely correct. I really didn’t count how many hours I spent on each one of mine, but if you’re doing it right you will want to sleep for a long time after they have all been sent off. I think that between 6 – 10 hours per application is about what you should expect to invest. Please let me know if you have any questions about this or if you have comments about things I may have neglected.
Below you will find the checklist I used to make sure my referees had everything they needed to complete my letters of reference. Again, it is important that all they need do is write the letter and send it. No extra work for your referees ensures they will be able to spend more time on what’s important.
Thanks for reading.
□ Addressed and stamped envelope
□ Necessary paper referee forms (others emailed)
□ Reference letter guide
□ SSHRC proposal
□ Academic CV
□ Statement of intent
□ Current writing sample (if applicable)