#PhDORBust: Tips for Students Preparing Graduate School Applications

This advice is mostly geared toward prospective graduate students who intend to get their PhDs. This advice may not be applicable to terminal Master’s degree aspirants. Also, I come from a social science background, so this means my definition of “research” differs. I have done quantitative research, as well as inter-disciplinary historical research. This advice will be largely geared towards those who are applying to traditional campus-based programs, that is non-online graduate programs. For those who are taking the distance learning route the website Online Graduate Degree Programs and US News’ Online Education Resource have more information on how to prepare for online programs and applications. For those who are going for the full academia experience with real life faculty and colleagues, read on.

In my experience, my professional appearance in the classroom or lecture hall makes an impression on professors. (Read: Pajamas are not the business.) Professional appearance & demeanor is important when making contact w/ professors. In class, I suggest taking “participation” seriously. Be visibly teachable. Read ahead of class, and demonstrate an understanding of the material- better yet- engage the material. Ask questions that contribute to the discussion.

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(Pics from my visit to University of Pennsylvania)

Another factor to consider: Meaningful contacts w/ professors in undergrad make good practice for networking pre-grad school apps. You can’t just approach professors any old kind of way. They’re busy people. Keep it focused, concise. I call it the “elevator pitch.” Know what you’re talking about. OWN it. In terms of timing, I suggest approaching the professors before or after class or going to their office hours. I volunteered as a research assistant for a professor who wrote one of my letters of recommendation.

You want to get a sense of the culture and environment of the program to which you are applying. The pedigree of the school matters little if the program you’re in does not foster learning, constructive engagement and growth. In fact, the environment is often a factor in graduate student retention. This is why I strongly suggest getting in touch with current and past graduate students in every program that you are considering. Keep in mind that students might fail or drop out because they were in a racist/misogynist/homophobic/transphobic/classist/ableist environment. This does not make them weak. Even “strong” people are broken by oppressive environments without social/pshychological support (if anything, this shows how important community and chosen family is for members of marginalized groups). Also, note that people who drop out of graduate school are not necessarily deficient or lacking- many have financial, social, health-related or personal reasons.

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(pics from my alma mater- U.C. Berkeley)

Also, if you plan to apply to graduate school, be intentional about establishing meaningful, fruitful contact with professors at schools/programs that you’re interested in. When approaching professors at graduate programs you’re interested, don’t shy away from emailing them about your research. It helps to put the words “Prospective Graduate Student” and “Research Question” in the title of the email- those words really grab the attention of busy professors who scan their emails.

As for the email itself, keep it concise and focused. Demonstrate knowledge of the professor’s research interests, and demonstrate why your prospective research is relevant. Not only are you looking for a program that will allow you to learn, research and teach, but you are looking for an advising professor. Sure, you can say “I don’t need to start looking now- I haven’t even found the right program…” But I am saying this- it’s not too early to start looking and asking questions. Having faculty who want to support your academic endeavors is invaluable.

Which brings me to this point: Professors are the admissions council. Making meaningful contact with them is doubly important for this reason. If you are able, email professors at programs you are interested in, and see if you can meet them face-to-face on campus or at a discipline-related conference. In my experience, I’ve been asked to call professors for a chat, and given the opportunity to meet them for coffee.

(to be continued… next time I’ll talk a bit about the personal statement/statement of purpose and funding)


  1. I just stumbled on your blog and this is awesome advice. I come from a social science background and make similar recommendation on getting into grad school with applicants that I work with! Good luck with everything…. I know grad school app season is almost right upon us. I’ll be looking for your next installment.

    1. Hi Khia!

      Thank you for reading & commenting! I’m looking at your blog & getting lots of ideas for my next installment. Thank you in advance for the inspiration. :) I’ll def be hyperlinking your site in the next blogpost.


  2. This is really fantastic. I’m glad to read your journey as you pick out programs! Have you narrowed it down to any schools? Grad school applications seem really intense – I definitely didn’t put this much work into my undergrad. :3 But I guess few people do. I had a friend who applied to like ten undergrad programs/schools since he didn’t know where he wanted to go. But I know people do this with grad school, but moreso for acceptance rating purposes versus lack of certainty. :D

    I loved all your photos! So awesome! How did you get it to that?

    1. Thank you for reading & commenting! :)

      As for the pics, I have no idea how they turned out that way =/ I was trying to get it all to be a slide-show…

  3. I found your blog today in my pre-application advice search and I just want to say THANK YOU. Your #PhDorBust posts has helped answer so many questions that have felt too insignificant to ask my mentors in my MPH. Side note, my sociology major self got very excited to see your equity-focused spatial epi work.

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