Grad Applications 101: Give yourself time!

By Emily Elia: For many programs at Rice, applications open on or around September 1 each year.

Clock and calendar on a blue background

As Fall 2020 approaches, many undergraduate students and current professionals are preparing for the next cycle of graduate program applications. For many programs at Rice, applications for the Fall 2021-Spring 2022 academic year open on September 1st. The end of summer is a great time to begin getting materials ready for graduate school applications, especially because graduate school applications take a lot of time to put together! As many current graduate students can attest, applying to grad schools is often more laborious than applying to undergraduate programs because of the time it takes to identify specific universities, programs, and faculty that are right for you.

It is important to give yourself time to research which programs are a good fit and then compile a list of programs to apply to. One strategy is to narrow your list down in stages: First, which kind of programs should you apply to? Second, which schools might be a good fit? Thirdly (and especially for those pursuing research-based degrees), which schools have faculty that focus on your areas of interest? If you think this sounds like a lot to sift through, you’re right! Giving yourself adequate time to research programs and make smart selections is crucial to having a positive application experience. This article expands on these three mental checkpoints and offers some guidance to make this process a little less overwhelming.

Which Program is Right for You?

As you begin preparing your grad school applications, you will quickly learn that the amount of graduate programs and degrees offered at universities across the US seems endless. Furthermore, there is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all application for graduate programs, as many programs have their own application portals and unique lists of required materials. Rice has a myriad of graduate programs, and every program at Rice has specific information about what is needed for its own application process. When applying to undergraduate programs, many students used the Common App for a large portion of their applications, and this helped streamline the process a bit. Unfortunately, there is no Common App for graduate school, so make sure you give yourself ample time to research which type of program best fits your needs!

If you are unsure of which graduate program focus is best for you, you may want to think about what you want or need your degree to do for your future. Some graduate programs will be a better fit than others based on the career aspirations you have! For example, a master's in public administration may be a better fit than a master's in political science if you're planning a career in civil service. The type of degree you pursue is another factor to consider. Some careers require a doctoral degree while others require a master’s degree. Rice offers research-based programs leading to M.A., M.S., and doctoral degrees as well as professional master’s programs which lead to degrees in specific disciplines. If the career you want to go into does not typically require a doctoral degree, or if you are not particularly passionate about research, then a master’s degree may be a wiser investment. In contrast, some jobs require doctoral degrees, and so you may find it necessary to enter a doctoral program right away.

To determine which kind of program and degree are best for you, it may be worth speaking with people working in your dream career. What did they do to get the job they currently have? What kind of degrees do the new hires in their field have? What advice do they have for you? Speaking with people who occupy positions you would like to occupy someday is a great way to get specific, applicable advice.

Admissions offices at schools you are interested in are another great resource! Rice’s Applicants page contains lots of information about applying to graduate programs. You can also fill out an Interest Form to receive materials from Graduate Admissions directly.

Does The Program Have Any Relevant Specializations?

Not every program is cut from the same cloth even if the degrees are identical on paper. Certain programs and institutions often have specializations, typically determined by faculty research, that should also factor into your list of potential schools. For example, if you want to pursue a PhD in Anthropology and know that you want to focus on the North American region in your research, an institution with a strong reputation of research focusing on North America may be a better fit than an institution with a strong focus on Subsaharan Africa. This does not mean that an institution with a strong focus on Subsaharan Africa is not a great program, but your application may be a better fit elsewhere. There is also a higher chance that you will find better faculty matches at schools that specialize in areas of focus that you are interested in simply because there will likely be more faculty members with research agendas similar to your own.

Of course, not every program will necessarily have strong specializations. Some programs, especially larger programs, have faculty that cover a very wide range of areas. Other programs, though, are smaller and often have a handful of areas of focus, and thus they gain reputations for specializing in certain domains. It is also important to remember that professionals in the field you wish to go into—whether they be in private industry, the public sphere, or academia—are often aware of institutions’ reputations, as well.

For Research-Based Degrees, Faculty Matches are Important!

When deciding which schools to apply to, faculty matches can play a big role. A “faculty match” refers to the presence of a faculty member in a program whose research interests align with yours. It may help to think of this faculty member as a potential advisor. If you look at a list of faculty and their research and find that nobody seems like a logical choice to be your future advisor, then that program may not be a sensible fit for you. Faculty matches are important because many research-based graduate programs want to admit students who are interested in areas that their faculty study. Many students directly mention the faculty they would like to work with in their Personal Statements, Research Statements, etc., in order to signal that they have done the work to determine if and why they would be a good fit in the program. If you apply to a program and express that you want to study X but not a single faculty member in the department studies X, then you will not seem like a good fit for the program.

Identifying faculty matches can take a lot of time during the application process! Many students look through the faculty pages on their narrowed-down list of schools, read up on what faculty research, and select out a few faculty members who match with and/or complement their intended research agenda. Needing to pay careful attention to faculty at programs is a prominent reason why grad school applications can be a lot more involved than undergraduate applications. However, selecting schools that have good faculty matches will strengthen your chances of enrolling in a graduate program that will fit your own research needs well. Read here for more guidance on finding your future adviser!

Choose Programs That Will Be a Good Overall Fit.

After considering all the nitty-gritty details about programs, don’t forget to think about where you will be happiest in 1-2 years! Grad school, especially PhD programs, are a long-term commitment; position yourself to be successful, but also consider where you can be happy. Every program will have its own “culture,” largely impacted by the other students, the faculty, and the administration. Grad school is a challenge, but it is made more bearable when you’re surrounded by supportive and friendly people. Are the students in this program happy? Do people care? Is the atmosphere collaborative or competitive? Grad student life is an important thing to consider.

Location is also an important factor: where do you want to be living for the next 2-6 years? Do you want to live in a city or a smaller town? Do you want to endure harsh seasons, or would you prefer to live somewhere more temprant? If you're going to be happy in snow, that's great - but if you know it will be an icy 5 years for you, consider places you'll be happier. You will be building a life beyond your graduate program during your time in school, and so it is important to consider which areas you are comfortable living in. When research graduate programs, take time to also research the city or town the university is located in order to get a sense of what life may be like if you end up living there for 5 years.

Give Yourself Time So Your Applications Can be Strong!

Taking the time to research which graduate programs are best for you can be a lot of work, but it is well worth it! Making wise program choices can help you put together strong applications. Summer is a great time to begin researching graduate programs and organizing your list of schools to apply to. Remember, at Rice, most program applications open around September 1st. The Programs of Study page will have more information on when each program’s application opens specifically.

If you would like more information about preparing applications, be sure to check out how to apply to most programs at Rice here. You can also check out the Applicant FAQ page for specific questions, or reach out to the Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies Office! A template for a grad program comparison chart can be copied here!

Further Reading:

Grad School 101: Matching with an adviser

Grad School 101: Discover your research interests

Grad School 101: Getting letters of recommendation

About the author: Originally from Massachusetts, Emily Elia is a second-year Ph.D. student in political science. She graduated from the University of Alabama in 2018 and currently studies comparative politics with a focus on Latin America.