Webinar: What is graduate school?

I gave a webinar today about humanities and social science masters and PhD programs in the US, as part of a series sponsored by the Mellon Mays Fellows Professional Network. I covered the differences between masters and PhD programs, how to select programs, and how to prepare application materials. The slides are available here in PDF format. The presentation might be useful for undergraduate students who are considering further study but are unclear on their options.

I give presentations on similar topics several times a quarter in my role at the Undergraduate Research Center. This was my first time presenting the information as a webinar, though, so please kindly ignore the microphone rustles and unexplained silences where I was trying to figure out what button to press next!

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Fellowship application tips, part II: writing the essay

CDG_moneyTwo weeks ago I wrote a post with a number of tips for early stage US graduate students applying to fellowships. I realized after I pressed “publish” that I didn’t address what the essays themselves should look like. Today’s post fills in that gap. How do you go about convincing the review committee that your application deserves to be funded?

I’ll be using examples geared toward qualitative social scientists applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Many entering graduate students in the social sciences hear “National Science Foundation” and think (1) that they’re not in a field supported by NSF and/or (2) that qualitative approaches are not eligible. Neither is the necessarily the case, though do be sure to check the list of eligible fields to be sure that your field is in there. My own application used interviews and qualitative comparative-historical methods, and other grantees I know applied with ethnographic and other non-quantitative project designs. Regardless of what fellowship program you are applying to and how you are approaching the research question, however, these general keys to success should apply.

1. Flag the juicy bits

You should examine very carefully what it is that the application prompt is asking of you. Make sure that you address everything in the prompt, and make it as easy as possible for the reviewers to find what they’re told to look for.

Reviewers are given a small list of criteria on which to evaluate applications. For the GRFP, these criteria are covered under two umbrella terms: intellectual merit and broader impacts. Keeping in mind that reviewers have very little time to evaluate your application, make it as easy as possible for them to match your essays with their criteria. Use their language in the same way that they do. Sprinkle in “intellectual merits” and “broader impacts” when appropriate. Don’t be afraid to point out that you are helping the funding body meet its specific goals. If your broader impacts include things that NSF is especially and specifically concerned about (e.g. participation of women and minorities in science), spell it out that way. And if you’re repurposing the essay for another application, keep in mind that other funding bodies or other programs care about different things!

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Fellowship application tips for prospective and early stage graduate students

For the past few years I have been working as a graduate student mentor for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program at UCLA. My main job there is to guide the fellows through the process of applying to graduate school. In the summer between junior and senior year, the fellows are drafting statements of purpose for MA and PhD programs. At the same time, they are applying for fellowships like the Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, and the Fulbright research abroad fellowships.

Here are some of the fellowship application tips that I give to Mellon fellows and to first year students in my department. The advice here should be general enough for most applications for US graduate school fellowships. (Note that the programs listed above are open only to US citizens or permanent residents at US institutions.)

1. Start early
Summer is definitely the time to start working on US fellowship applications, most of which are due in November. Those of us on the quarter system are at a special disadvantage here. If you wait until late September or early October to begin working on your applications, you won’t have very much time to get them all together.

2. Apply to all the things
Apply to anything and everything for which you are eligible. This is easier said than done, of course, so do prioritize applications at your discretion. You never know what the outcome might be. One of my biggest regrets from my first year in graduate school was not applying for the Ford, thinking that it was just too much work. In reality, the essays were very similar to the other fellowships I was applying for that year. It would not have taken more than a few hours to modify them for that application.

Furthermore, the application process itself is incredibly helpful when you are just starting out. It forces you to think about your project in a sustained manner before a very concrete deadline. It also encourages you to build relationships with people who can give you research advice and letters of recommendation. Too intimidated to reach out to professors? Don’t know what you would say to them? Research proposal drafts can help break the ice.

Continue reading “Fellowship application tips for prospective and early stage graduate students”