Applying for Graduate School: General Strategies


The purpose of this article is to help you begin thinking the way you need to think before you start pitching yourself to various graduate programs. In addition to providing a set of strategies you should adopt as you research programs and begin writing your cv and statement of purpose, this article discusses the important differences between BA/MA and PhD programs and what that means for your application.

First, a few statistics:

  • Of all of the students who enter any kind of PhD program in the United States, only 50% actually finish (Cassuto).
  • In 2010, a study followed 583 students entering various university PhD programs in Economics beginning in 2002. After 8 years, 59% had earned the PhD, 37% had dropped out, and 4% were still writing their dissertations (Stock 176).
  • Of the 59% who finished, 45% took 5 years. The remaining 55% took 6 to 8 years.

What does this mean?

  • Graduate school is a long-term investment that requires considerable self-discipline, focus, and internal motivation as well as intelligence. Even very, very smart people do not finish. Indeed, many finish their coursework only to stall at the dissertation stage.
  • Admitting a PhD student also represents a significant investment of resources in terms of stipend money and advising and mentorship. The return graduate programs want from that investment is that you will finish and get a good job, thereby boosting their completion and placement numbers and conferring additional prestige. Those who make admissions decisions for graduate programs are looking for evidence that you will do this, which isn’t always easy to tell from your grades and test scores.

Differences between PhD programs and BA or even MA programs:



Success is measured through fairly clear metrics: grades, GPA, class ranking, etc.

Nearly everyone gets good grades (some programs have a policy against giving anything less than a B to PhD students), and once you finish your coursework, they stop mattering entirely. Success in graduate school depends on whether or not you finish your dissertation and how strong that dissertation is when it is finished.

Your relationship to faculty is that of student and teacher.

Your relationship to faculty is more ambiguous. While you will find mentors in your PhD programs, those relationships must be cultivated differently. Many programs see advanced PhD students more as colleagues than students and expect them to behave accordingly.

Supervision is relatively strict. You must do your homework and study for tests in order to pass your classes. Benchmarks are frequent and relatively easily understood.

Supervision is relatively loose. After coursework, you will have little contact with supervisors that you do not establish yourself, and many advisors will not give you specific deadlines or goals. Success is dependent on your ability to set your own goals and motivate yourself to complete them.

As a prospective BA/MA student, you must sell yourself based on your strengths as a student.

As a prospective PhD student, you must sell yourself based on your potential as a scholar, teacher, and colleague.

Things you should be do right now:

  • Develop a general idea of the kind of research you see yourself pursuing in the course of getting your PhD and even later in your career. It is generally understood that these plans and interests will change.
  • Practice explaining your research interests (in writing and verbally) to people who are not your advisor, people who are informed but who do not specialize in the narrow sub-field that you would like to work in. These are the people who will be evaluating your application.
  • Research the programs that have strengths in your field. In is a terrible mistake to simply plan to attend the best university that will accept you.
  • Research potential advisors and identify aspects of these programs that are appealing to you. When it comes time to write your statement of purpose, you will need a better answer to the question, “Why do you want to go to MIT?” than “Because it’s MIT.”
  • Consider doing some freewriting so that you will have material to pull from when you do write your statement. Questions to consider:
    • How did you become interested in the field of economics?
    • How did you become interested in your specialized area within the field?
    • What have you done over the course of the past five years to pursue and develop that interest?
    • What kind of research do you want to do while you get your PhD?
    • How do you see that research connecting to your broader career?
    • What do you want out of your graduate school experience (beyond the letters behind your name)?
    • How do you envision your life post-grad school?
    • How do you see yourself contributing to the profession?
    • How do you see yourself as a potential teacher?
    • What will motivate you to pursue this path when it gets hard?

Final Thoughts:

The best prospective candidates for a PhD program (and even an academic job) are able to tell a story that connects their past achievements, their current efforts, and their future plans to create a total picture of how they contribute to the state of knowledge in their field. The art of telling this sort of story requires reflection and careful consideration. Do not leave it until the week the application is due.


Cassuto, Leonard. “PhD Attrition: How Much is Too Much?” 1 July 2013

Stock, Wendy A, John J Siegfried, and T. Aldrich Finegan. “Completion Rates and Time-to-Degree in Economics PhD Programs(with comments by David Colander, N. Gregory Mankiw, Melissa P. McInerney, James M. Poterba).” American Economic Review 101.3 (2011): 176–187.