Advice On Applying To And Choosing A Graduate Program

zandriaDr. Zandria F. Robinson () is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at University of Memphis (see her full biography at the end).  In this guest post, Dr. Robinson offers advice to prospective graduate students — particularly those from marginalized backgrounds — on applying to and selecting graduate programs.  In particular, she emphasizes the importance of being able to survive and thrive in graduate school, not merely the prestige of the program.


Take It From Me: Get Your (Grad Application) Life!

In the fall of 2004, in my second year of a Master of Arts program in sociology at the University of Memphis, I applied to doctoral programs. In 2005, I matriculated Northwestern University, started a tenure-track job at The University of Mississippi in 2009, and earned the PhD in 2010. That same year, I shepherded my first advisee, who recently became ABD at The University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, through the process. I am young enough to still remember (and be jaded by) the ups and downs of the process but experienced enough to have sat on admissions committees myself and helped students through the process. Based on these experiences, here are a few tips gleaned from luck, trial and error, and social and cultural capital, for how to think about your graduate application process.

If you applied to graduate school last fall for the 2015-2016 academic year, you might be furiously scouring rumor mills (Stop it. Now.), drinking even more than usual (Fine…), and/or cleaning out random junk drawers that you’ve left untouched for months as you wait for decisions (Yes.). If you didn’t apply last fall and are planning to apply this year, then this is just the time to choose your vices and spring-cleaning tasks for next year’s agonizing wait. This is also an ideal time to solicit advice about, develop, and edit your list of schools; to begin thinking about how you will craft your statement of purpose, and prepare your letter writers for the fall onslaught. This post is broadly about choosing a program—both ones to apply to (application fees are expensive) and how to select where to go once you have been admitted.

The most important piece of advice I can offer is that you must choose a program that suits you and maximizes your return on investment. Shortly before I applied to doctoral programs, I experienced a family tragedy that, for a brief period, dramatically altered the way I thought about choosing PhD programs. Instead of going to top programs with the best fit for my work, I considering going to programs that were closer to home but decidedly not a good fit for me. Somewhere along the way, Black Feminist Jesus intervened and reminded me that a doctoral program was a serious commitment, and not just the completion of another task that would result in some additional letters behind my name. This was going to be my career, if not forever, for a significant and non-negligible period. And it was going to cost me money and time and sanity, all of which I had in short supply. I had to go best or not go at all, even if that meant some sacrifices. In my view, going best means going to the most highly ranked school possible that is also highly ranked in your area of specialization and a good fit for who you are as an individual and a scholar. Fit—by which I mean the intellectual environment and support available to your distinctive needs in a place; program diversity; and place/community diversity—is foremost and all the things. A top program into which you do not fit is not a top program for you.

Program, Don’t Kill My Vibe

It is essential that you choose a program whose ideals, feel, and values align with your own. This can be difficult for scholars on the margins, as no program will completely reflect our experiences and worldview. This is also difficult when you are just beginning to generate reflexive ideas about who you are as a scholar in a discipline. But here are some basic considerations:

Can you see your work fitting in with the department based on recent faculty work and current students’ research interests and dissertation titles? Does the program purposely or unintentionally foster competition amongst graduate students by awarding funding to some and not others, or through some other intangible means? Are you an ethnographer applying to a highly quantitative program that has only one star ethnographer? Are you an interdisciplinary scholar applying to a program where people do not interact with people in other departments, let alone collaborate with them?

Why these questions? More than other groups, scholars on the margins have to think critically about the endgame: the post-graduation plan. You need as many choices as possible for faculty to serve on your dissertation committee. Faculty are mobile, even at the associate and full professor levels, and if you have put all of your eggs in one faculty person’s basket, their departure could be highly disruptive and disheartening. You also need as many professors to write good, solid letters for you as possible. For predoctoral fellowships. For dissertation fellowships. For assistant professor jobs. For associate professor jobs. Forever. 5ever. I am saddened by the number of students who contact me whose mentors have been unhelpful, sabotaging, and/or unresponsive. To paraphrase those philosophical sages Sugar Hill Gang: if your mentor is acting up, you need to be able to switch and take her/his friend.

What strategies should you employ to figure out if this program will kill your vibe? Ask current and former graduate students. Do as much diligent investigative work as possible. Write to these students and current faculty with whom you might work with a concise elevator speech about your work and ask them explicitly about fit. And most importantly, do not think that you are Special Snowflake of Color. If a POC graduate student tells you something troubling about his or her experience of a program, do not think that it will not happen to you. Because more than likely, it will. Also, most students will not share negative experiences, even if they are planning to leave a program when you contact them or visit. While most of us do not have mind-reading capabilities, you must read between the lines, triangulate, and use whatever data you acquire to assess what you will be getting into.

Place Matters

You are a person of color or otherwise a scholar on the margins. You are not built to survive in Whiteheterolandia. You need community beyond your graduate program, and you will not have very much time or mental space to be intentional about building community. And even if you do, you should not be using that time to build communities. You should be using it to publish. Do not believe that lie that graduate school is only x number of years and you can survive in White Mayo Bumfuckery Township for that bit of time. Maybe you can, maybe you cannot. The question is, what piece of your soul will it cost you, and can you afford the fee? Can you wait until you go back home to get a decent haircut? If you can’t get a decent haircut, you probably can’t find a decent friend or date either. Place matters.

Sorry, Jill. One Is Not the Magic Number!

You are not a unicorn. You are only a unicorn in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, and transphobic structure. Don’t go to a program where you are the only one. You ain’t got to be the first one to integrate a thing. This is a warning sign and reflects one of two realities. First, scholars on the margins have looked at the demographic profile of Whiteheterolandia and decided that this place is not even worth it; and/or the program has not made effective efforts to recruit scholars from a multiplicity of backgrounds. This goes for the faculty and the graduate student body. If a program has not made the recruitment strides, then it certainly cannot make the retention strides.

Closing Thoughts

To reiterate, as you are entering the process and making choices if and when you are accepted, take careful inventory of who you are as a person and a scholar, as well as who you would like to become and what you would like to do with your scholarly awesomeness after graduation. Then, match that reality with all of the information you can gather about programs in which you are interested. Don’t dwell on the negatives. But don’t shy away from them either, even if they complicate how you think about a particular program in which initially you had been very interested.

And if you do not get in this year, don’t fret. Strange things happen in admissions deliberations, and this is on top of racism, sexism, classism, elitism (everyone in my cohort had gone to a top 20 and/or Ivy institution save for one other person), homophobia, transphobia, and quota politics. Admission, or lack thereof, is not a reflection of who you are or the value of your work. But, tackling questions of fit and doing your homework on departments will increase your odds in the crapshoot, and will moreover help you rest assured that you did, and are doing, the right thing in your application process for yourself and your vision of the endgame.



Zandria F. Robinson is a native Memphian and Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Memphis. She earned the Bachelor of Arts in Literature and African American Studies and the Master of Arts in Sociology at the University of Memphis. She holds the PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University. Her research interests include urban and cultural sociology, black feminist theory, and popular culture. Her book, This Ain’t Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014), focuses on the intersections of race, class, gender, and region in African American identity. Robinson blogs about race, region, and popular culture at New South Negress and tweets about all manner of things .

3 thoughts on “Advice On Applying To And Choosing A Graduate Program

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! As a first-gen student who is finishing their master’s degree and contemplating PhD work, I found this post to be incredibly helpful. I would definitely love to see more tips/guidance on the difference between applying to master’s programs and PhD programs. Thanks again!

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  2. Thanks for reading, Sierra. I will first say that with the MA, assuming that your experience is fairly positive, you are in many ways far ahead of some of your counterparts who will not have had previous graduate training, even if they have had work experience. At the end of the MA, you should have more of a solid sense of who you are as a researcher and scholar and should be better able to articulate it to an audience of professionals in your discipline. You’ll also have a solid writing sample and letters of recommendation from graduate faculty. You may even have a publishable piece of scholarship that you plan to build on in the PhD.

    Second, the application processes are fairly the same. However, PhD programs receive more applicants compared to the number of spots they have available, and fit is even more of an issue. I think the main difference in the process is that the statement of purpose really needs to be on point. For the PhD statement of purpose, programs are going to want you to be able to articulate a research program pretty clearly. That is, what are your research interests, how do they fit within established research areas in your discipline, how do they fit within the context of the department to which you are applying, what kinds of research inquiries and projects will you pursue, and with what data and methods? Lay out your plan there. You will be strategically positioned to do this well because of your experiences in the MA program. Say what you’ve already taken, how those courses influenced your intellectual development, what interesting research or course papers you produced, and how you plan to build on (or change direction from) those things in the PhD. Your statement of purpose should indicate how the PhD, and pursuing the PhD at that institution in particular, is a natural progression from your MA work.

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