Rule Number One For Graduate School Applicants

by on 2013-03-28 in Duck- 6 Comments

Spring (where it exists) is the time of year when applicants to PhD programs find out the outcome and decide where, if any place, to go.  While there are many factors that one must take into account, including what might happen if your preferred adviser leaves (Will Moore’s take and mine), there is something far more fundamental: are you going to get funding?*  If the answer is no, then the decision is painful but easy: don’t go.

*  This post is inspired by a question asked at Political Science Job Rumors.  Even if the poster was really trolling, it is an important question.

While much of the discussion can and should center on the accumulation of debt and the uncertain job market at the end of the degree, I will focus on just one aspect.  If you are not funded, you will have to compete with other graduate students for whatever scraps of funding there are.  This will create a most unfortunate environment where your peers are not collaborators but competitors.

When I was finishing grad school (where I had guaranteed funding for four years–the standard seems to be five these days), I would meet people from grad programs where only some folks were funded.  Their experiences and mine were night and day.  They tended to hate some or many of their colleagues, whereas I found my peers at UCSD to be an incredibly supportive community.  To be sure, it was not just about funding, but we are social scientists and incentives do matter, shaping the culture of a place.

We played soccer (although I sucked), basketball (I really sucked), and softball (I was more than a dead pull hitter–3rd base coaches beware), and we played poker (I am no longer the fish I was then).  We helped each other through comprehensive exams.  We gave each other feedback on our dissertations and on our practice job talks.  Oh, and we celebrated each other’s big moments (that would be bachelor parties).  While I do not fully remember my own bachelor party, I do appreciate that they threw it for me and took care of me, getting me drunk and dealing with the resulting corpse afterwards.

While I was eager to get out of grad school and start making real money ($25k at my first job–woot!), I knew I would miss not just the beaches, the weather and the sea lions of San Diego but these folks.  Luckily, I have managed to keep in touch with many of them, including co-authoring the NATO and Afghanistan book with one of them.

But this gets to the larger point–grad school is not just learning in the classroom but the development of a safety net and a network of friends in the discipline.  If you go to a program where everyone has to compete with each other for funding, you not only face an ugly five or seven years, but a disadvantage for the rest of your career.  I can always call or email one of my friends from grad school (or even successive generations since we all have good will towards the larger community) if I have a question or need a hand on something.  Those that go to grad school where funding is not guaranteed for all do not.

Someone tweeted at me that professing in political science is a calling, so damn the grad school environment, full speed ahead.  And I would say that may be the case, but many folks with such beliefs hit the rocks and drop out.

I cannot be clearer: if the choice is a PhD program without funding or not going to grad school, I strongly, strongly advise not going to grad school.  Try again next year, do stuff to improve your application (get an MA that might lead to better recommendations and grades), or seek an alternative path.

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6 CommentsAdd yours

  • DuckPM - 2013-03-28

    Although perhaps impolitic, I will offer a corollary: Departments shouldn’t offer admission to unfunded students for these reasons. Loading students with debt that will take decades to repay and creating a less-than-collegial atmosphere is simply not worth it.

  • Stephen Saideman - 2013-03-29

    Concur. While anarchy may be what states make of it, a department shapes its culture, the behavior of its students, and all the rest through how it treats them. The school that was notorious in the early to mid 90s for being a snakepit started funding all of its PhD students, and I think that made a big difference.

  • Leslie - 2013-04-04

    Your anecdotes imply that the real question is not “Will you be funded?” but “Will you *and most of the other members of the incoming class* be funded?”

  • DRDR - 2013-04-04

    It’s common in Econ to deny first year funding while later funding is pretty much assured if not outright guaranteed, and job prospects are generally better than other fields, so the main argument about classmate competition is less relevant. The decision to reject an unfunded offer from a top program is less clear cut, though it’s still much debated on PhD forums.

  • Gabriel - 2013-04-04

    As DRDR suggests, this is not universally good advice for economics PhD programs. There is a high premium on going to a top 7-or-so economics program. If you are going to study an economics PhD, you should make sure you go to one of those programs at all costs. Because most universities have large numbers of undergraduate econ programs, typically it is not difficult to get TA positions. My choice for my PhD was between a top 15 school with 2 years of fellowship funding and guaranteed TA work vs. a top 7 school with no funding at all. I went to the top 7 school, borrowed money for the 1st year, and after the 1st year found a combination of TA, RA, and fellowships. I would have greatly regretted my decision if I had followed the advice here and gone to the lower ranked school.

  • DuckPM - 2013-04-04

    The Duck of Minerva is well known as a forum for Econ Ph.D.s :) More seriously, thanks for the reminder that some aspects of the process are universal and some are particular.

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