Paul Kei Matsuda

Choosing a Ph.D. Program

It's that time of the year again. I've been talking to various people who are interested in applying to Ph.D. programs. Here are some pieces of advice I keep giving out to help them choose an appropriate program for them.

1. Find out whether doctoral-level work is really for you. The doctorate is, first and foremost, a research degree that prepares people to become knowledge producers. It's not a glorified teacher certification program. (Teaching is an important part of professional preparation especially in my fields, but teaching proficiency or potential is a pre-requisite; training teachers is not the primary purpose of Ph.D. programs.)

2. Learn about the field you are getting into. It is important for a Ph.D. applicant to have a solid understanding of what the field is all about, what kind of research people have done and are currently doing, and what applications (if any) there may be. Familiarize yourself with some of the key ideas, terms and names in the field. Read widely and read a lot. (A master's degree in the same field is not always required, but even with a relevant degree, if you can't demonstrate a broad understanding of the field, getting accepted into a good program can be difficult.)

3. Know what your interests are. At least in the U.S. context, it's not always necessary for a beginning Ph.D. students to have a clear research program at the beginning of doctoral studies. A broad understanding and interest in the field as a whole and in a few areas of specialization would do.

Am I ever going to get to the question of how to choose a program? I know, I know. Be patient. It's not a quick and easy decision like picking the right avocado for making guacamole tonight. If you don't do your homework, you are going to regret it--big time.

4. Read more in the subfield in which you are particularly interested. In this process, you will familiarize yourself with key topics, issues and methodological approaches in association with particular names of authors who publish actively and are cited often. If you have a sense of who's who in the field, you are ready to look at specific programs.

5. Make a list of people whose work you find interesting--their topics, methodological approaches, and their arguments. Leave out people whose work you find incomprehensible or incompatible with your own orientation.

6. Go on line and find out where they teach. By now, you should be able to do this without looking up the information--from your reading of many of their recent publications. Find out whether they teach in doctoral programs and, if so, what kind of courses they teach, in what department, what other faculty members are teaching in the same program, what kind of courses are offered, what and how their graduate students seem to be doing in terms of presentations, publications, dissertation projects, and job placement.

7. Try to get to know these people. You might contact them by email. Be very polite, tactful, and to the point. If possible, state briefly why you are contacting that particular person. Don't ask any questions that can be answered by looking at the program/graduate school web site or by asking administrative assistants for the graduate program. Ask those questions that cannot be answered by anybody else. If possible, arrange a campus visit and meetings with faculty members and graduate students.

8. Try to get to know their students. When you go to conferences (if you don't, then start going to conferences in the field), go to sessions presented by faculty and students from that institution. (If you can't find anyone from the institution at major conferences in the field, then you know what to do--move the institution to the bottom of the list.) Tell them that you are interested in applying to their program and ask them to share their insights about the program, faculty members, financial support, and life in the program, at the university and in the area.

9. If a writing sample is required (as it usually is), choose one that demonstrates your broad understanding of the field and your analytical and research skills as well as the quality of writing. Remember: good writing is not complicated writing. Use keywords in the field, but don't use big words unnecessarily just to impress the admissions committee--they will easily see through it.

10. The statement of purpose or the "personal statement" should focus on your professonal aspirations, not the details of your personal lives. Admissions committee memebers couldn't care less about the close relationship you had with your dog when you were in elementary school--unless you are applying to a doctoral program in, say, animal psychology. The conventions and expectations may vary from program to program, but in general, include: why you are interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in the field (and perhaps what you hope to do in the future), what subfields you are interested in and, most important, why you are interested in the particular program (faculty, courses, quality of graduate student publications, etc.). You don't have to sell yourself too much--this is not a job application. Being a good student and colleague who will successfully and promptly complete the degree and become an active member of the field is sufficient.

Hope this helps. Good luck!

Related blog entries:
PhDing (freshcomp)
App season (Collin vs. Blog)

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Blogger Paul said...

Here is a link to a list of helpful questions--developed by Mike Garcia, one of our own Ph.D. students--for prospective Ph.D. applicants:

Wednesday, October 18, 2006 9:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you have time to answer this question, I (complete stranger) would appreciate your thoughts: with regards to the personal statement, how much or how little should one focus on explaining "breaks from academia"? In my case, I will have a 14-year gap between my BA and MA -- not because I took 14 years to complete it (it was just 2) but because I went off and had an entirely different career.

Following the basic outline in your item #9 (and in all how-tos I've seen for statements), something like this gap isn't addressed. However, I'd feel disingenuous not mentioning the whys and wherefores. Thoughts?


Wednesday, October 18, 2006 10:42:00 PM  
Blogger T_Laq said...

I think most of your advice is right on. But I also think some of it is only of use in the best of all possible worlds. Some of the suggestions--going to conferences and getting to know a programs graduate students--are difficult if an applicant is teaching, finishing a thesis, and trying to collect letters of recommendation all at the same time. I also wonder if "choosing" a PhD program is somewhat of a misnomer, since admissions can be so competitive that applicants rarely have little choice but to go where they are offered funding.
I went through the process two years ago, and I took the advice of a professor from my undergrad institution who had been studying and collecting data on the application process for years. He claimed the two most important things an applicant can do is 1)apply widely; 2) study, study, study, for the GRE. I took the advice and faired pretty well--I was offered funding at 6 of 12 programs I applied to. I will say, however, that emphasis on the GREs is a bit sad. We all value critical thinking, and I increased my stock by rote studying for a standardized test. But, if an English department has 400 applicants, I guess you need to start somewhere.

Thursday, October 19, 2006 7:04:00 AM  
Blogger Paul said...

JM: Good question. Unlike a job application letter, gaps between degrees are usually not a major issue. But admission committees sometimes do wonder whether the person wishes to join the academia for the wrong reason--e.g., lured by a romanticized notion of an academic life or a false sense of job security. (Being an academic is not easy or fun unless you are genuinely interested in research or teaching.)

I can think of two ways in which this discussion might enter the application essay.

First, you could mention your decision to return to the academia in such a way that highlights your genuine interest in pursuing an academic career--especially research and teaching--that motivated you to leave your non-academic endeavors.

Second, you might mention your non-academic career if it is relevant to your academic interest. For example, if you have worked in the industry as a technical writer, and if you have decided to become a teacher and researcher of technical communication, that would be a real strength.

t_laq: I agree: I'm shooting for the best. And as you point out, you don't always get to choose which programs to get into, but you can at least choose which programs you can send your application to. The rest, as they say, is up to you. I'm glad to see that you've done well in the end.

Thursday, October 19, 2006 12:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for your reply. The research/teaching angle applies in my case, and your examples make perfect sense to me.

Thanks again.

Friday, October 20, 2006 6:31:00 AM  
Anonymous mary said...

Dear professor Matsuda:

Thank you for writing about applying to Ph.D. programs. May I ask you if you have any advice on current Ph.D. students transferring to another program?
I am currently a Ph.D. student in TESOL. I am just starting this Fall, and I want to transfer to another Ph.D. program. I am a little bit anxious because I don't know how I should present my case. I simply hope to get a better environment and essentially a better education for me.
Thank you so much!

Tuesday, October 31, 2006 7:36:00 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Hi Mary,

Thanks for your comment. Since I don't know about which program you are in and which program you want to move to, I can't give you any specific suggestions. In general, different programs have different policies for transferring graduate credits (number of credits that can be transferred), so I would say check with the director of the graduate program. Other than that, moving to another program at the graduate level would probably mean applying for admission like everyone else. But again, check with the specific program you are applying to.

Good luck!


Wednesday, November 01, 2006 7:32:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, professor Matsuda! I will do as you advise.
Best regards,

Saturday, November 11, 2006 5:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you so much, professor Matsuda. I really appreciate your help and I love to read your blog.
Best regards,

Saturday, November 11, 2006 5:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Professor Matsuda--

Your comments have been so insightful, so I just had to post a question of my own!

I am in my second semester of a doctoral program in education, and I am wrestling with the idea of leaving the program to gain teaching experience. I am in an education program, and I consistently feel a lack of credibility and depth because I don't have formal teaching experience. I am at a very prestigious school, and they obviously believe (as I should) that my experience in child advocacy and policy is valuable to the field. I, however, really want the experience of teaching English before I become an "expert." I have to stay in school full time in order to keep my funding, but I am toying with the option of teaching during the summer. I also thought of transferring to another school and obtaining my master's while teaching.

Do you have any suggestions on how I could move forth? Any thoughts on the importance of previous teaching experience in lending credibility to my future work?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 6:25:00 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

Thank you for your message. I'd like to help, but since I don't know enough about your situation--where you are, what you are studying, what kind of work you are planning to do in the future, etc.--I don't feel I can provide any specific suggestions. To do so would be irresponsible--especially because this is a huge, life-changing decision for you.

You might want to talk to your advisers at your institution to see if they have any thoughts. Good luck!

Wednesday, January 31, 2007 6:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have any (general) advice for incoming Comp/Rhet PhD students? I want to read this post!

Thursday, July 19, 2007 5:43:00 AM  

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