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With PhD applying season soon upon us, I thought I would revisit my earlier posts on applying to PhD programs and combine them into one enormous 4300+ word post just to impress you. If you’re not impressed, it will suffice if you just read the information and get something from it (I guess). Also, if this is just too much you can still access the post in its three original easy-to-read pieces. As always, I’m happy to answer specific questions about the process. I probably won’t edit your application, though. Or maybe I would. Depends on my mood and whether you want that, I suppose.

Part 1
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.*

Be Organized
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.

Part 2
This is the second part of a post on applying to PhD programs because it was way too long for a single post. You can read the first part here to get up to speed if you haven’t done so already. Otherwise, enjoy and please feel free to leave comments below or keep them to yourself I don’t care (actually I do care…a lot).

Have a Project in Mind That You Can Discuss and that EXCITES You
As I said above, you don’t necessarily have to stick with the project that you propose when applying for a PhD (I am speaking only on behalf of the Humanities and English, in particular, and I don’t know if this is the case in all academic disciplines). It is important, however, that the project you propose in your application is something that interests you and not simply something that you think will get you into a particular program. Most programs will ask for a statement of intent that includes your project outline and reason(s) for wanting to attend their program. You will usually have between 500 – 1000 words in which to make your case so you’ve got to make every word count. I am certain that every academic who has ever had to review applications can tell the difference between a proposal that has passion behind it and one that is done proforma to tick a box. Also, if your proposal is on Modernist poetry (or whatever) and you hate Modernist poetry, chances are you will not have a great time switching fields completely to Anglo-Saxon chronicles (or whatever) and find that the program that accepted your Modernist proposal is actually fairly weak in the thing you really want to do. I’m not saying that a change this drastic has never been done or that it is impossible, but your initial proposal should at least be an honest portrayal of what interests you, even if you don’t end up doing the exact thing that you wrote about. In fact, I doubt you will find anyone who did the exact project they proposed when applying for a PhD. Interests develop over time and they can go in all sorts of weird ways. Go with it, but be honest from the outset about what curdles your cream.

Because I like you, I am sharing with you the actual letter of intent I sent to UBC with my application. I found when I was applying that the most difficult task in writing one of these was that there was no standard format. Some places, as mentioned above, wanted as many as 1000 words and gave very little instruction as to what you should include. UBC gave fairly detailed instructions (included in the document) and even little hints on how to compose your letter, like suggesting that it be an abbreviated version of your Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Statement of Study. Below you will find my UBC letter of intent, word for word (except I didn’t include the instructions on the copy uploaded in my application). I have since changed topics slightly, well pretty drastically actually, but I am still interested in all the things I wrote at the time and I am incorporating some of the same ideas into my present research.

Justin O’Hearn Letter of Intent for UBC English PhD
Research the Faculty You Might Want to Work With
and then contact them to see if THEY want to work with YOU. This is probably one of the most important parts of your application. Like your letters of reference, you need someone who is enthusiastic about your work at the institution(s) you’re applying to. Funny that, eh? So, like your referees, you need to contact your dream supervisors early. How early? Like late summer/early fall early so…early. First thing you need to do is – apart from being organized and having something to actually say to a potential supervisor – get over your fear of the cold email. I think it used to be the case that students would call potential supervisors on something called a telephone, but I don’t know of anybody in the past five years who did that as an initial communication. I got responses from every person I contacted and they weren’t all positive or supportive either, so get ready for that little dose of reality. The major point here is, you can’t pussyfoot around when you’re talking about potential supervisors. You’ve got to seek out the person or persons you think will be the best fit for your project and look at their research and work and then contact them. The same rules apply for the cold email as the request for a reference letter: the professor may not feel they are a good match for what you’re proposing, but they will often recommend somebody who is. I have found many academics I have contacted to be friendly and obliging in this regard. There are a few who don’t care about you and will hate you simply for existing, but I think that is true of people in general and not specific to academia. If you are sending out a number of cold emails, I would suggest you adopt some sort of a proforma email that looks something like this:

Dear Dr. [SOMEONE],

I am applying for entrance to [SCHOOL’s] PhD program for [next year] and I am interested in your work. I believe our research interests are complementary and I am trying to gauge the level of interest in research like mine in [SCHOOL’S] department. I have also contacted [SOMEONE ELSE IN THE DEPARTMENT] regarding my proposed research in the hope that I can get a good feel of the type of work being done at [SCHOOL]. If you could suggest other faculty who may have interest in my research it would be great if you have time to look over my proposal, I have attached it to this email for you to peruse. Please let me know should you have any questions or require further information.

Thank you in advance.

-Eternally grateful PhD hopeful

You’ll obviously want to replace the things in brackets with specifics. You’ll notice that this email mentions your contacting someone else in the addressee’s department. This is a good practice because you have to have backup plans as well as keep in mind that you will need to form supervisory committees when you actually get into a program. It could also help you if two or more people in the department start talking about you because, to paraphrase my homeboy Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So, having two or more potential supervisors or members of a committee gunning for you is a great thing. Also, if the people you email with your query and project proposal are really enthusiastic about working with you, they will advocate on your behalf during the selection process thus rendering you more likely to be accepted than the guy (or girl) who just sent all the application materials in without contacting a single person at the department.

Also, if the potential supervisors you contact are interested many of them will respond by telling you that you can mention their interest in you when you send an application to the department. This is a very good thing. Some may want to have further contact with you on the phone or in person, though this never happened to me. It couldn’t be me, could it? Some may also ask for another writing sample or further information on your project. This is not because they doubt you, it is because they are interested in you (or at least your work). This supervisor/student thing is a two-way street, folks. You need them, but they also need you. Once you’ve found a potential supervisor and committee members, you have to make sure that you work those connections when filing your application. Mention exactly whom you have spoken with regarding your project. This will serve two functions: 1) it will tell the people doing the accepting that you are a good fit for their department and 2) it will jog the memory of the person(s) you contacted. In my experience, I didn’t have a great deal of contact after the initial “Dear Dr. Someone”, their response, and a followup thank you email, so reminding them of how great they think you are can’t be a bad thing.

I feel I must add one last point in the hunt for supervisors. Rock star academics don’t necessarily make the best supervisors. You all know who I mean. Don’t get me wrong, it would be a truly awesome (in the Biblical sense) to have someone like Judith Butler as a supervisor but the reality is that probably will never happen (to many). I’m not saying that Butler would be a bad supervisor, but you have to take into consideration why you want this person as a supervisor. Is it because of the name alone? Do you think they will be able to devote an appropriate amount of time to your project? To this end, it is not an unfair question to ask potential supervisors how many students they are supervising at the moment and how many that they have supervised are placed in academic careers (this is also a good departmental question). Basically, the more students your person is supervising the less time they will have for you (most of the time) because it is a time-consuming kind of relationship. When you take into consideration how busy a professor’s job already is, think about that rock star who flies around the world giving talks to gaga grad student fanboys/girls, keynote addresses at conferences, teaching, and other important person stuff. Will they really have the time to devote to you and your project? Choose your supervisor wisely and for the right reasons. Since we are on the topic of Judith Butler, why not check out the podcast of the excellent talk she gave a while back in my ‘hood of Vancouver.

In conclusion, mine is not the only advice on this topic by a long shot. You can also check out this post on writing to potential supervisors by Faye Hicks (I had originally misattributed this post and I apologize for that).

Okay, this is running way longer than I anticipated so stay tuned for the third and (I hope) final installment. Thanks for reading and commenting! -J

Part 3
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.

Referee Checklist

□     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)