By Sarah Blanchard, Class of 2008*
Enrolling in a Sociology Ph.D. program after completing a B.A. at a small liberal arts university can be a bewildering experience for many students. One must acclimate to a new institution, different coursework expectations, begin conducting original research, and develop a teaching skill set—all while balancing responsibilities as a teaching or research assistant. In many ways, graduate school is an elite trade-school preparing students for future careers as researchers. Along the way, students are socialized to academia (for better or worse) and gain skills to flourish in the classroom. As I am now beginning my fifth year in a sociology Ph.D. program, these quick tips represent some of my hindsight advice for students interested in someday earning their velvet stripes.
Do your homework.
Your mentors in the sociology department and other fields can be an excellent resource for identifying if grad school aligns with your goals and what factors to consider when choosing a program. Different universities have unique departmental cultures, research focuses, and perspectives on Ph.D. training. Therefore, trusted faculty can provide valuable sources of insight. Furthermore, learn what to expect in graduate school by contacting Ph.D. students that you or your mentors may know, or better yet, future scholar, go to the literature. In particular, a large-scale survey of Ph.D. students at institutions across the country was recently conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts. The full report, as well as advice for prospective students by field, is available online at http://www.phd-survey.org. Finally, look at the admissions pages of various universities that you may be interested in and find out about their departments. What are their degree requirements? What type of work do they do? Where do their students get jobs? How long does it typically take students to finish the Ph.D.?
Get in the trenches.
Gaining skills as a researcher is likely the most emphasized component of graduate training. Take rigorous statistics and methods courses as opportunities to get your feet wet and bear in mind that a polished term paper makes a great writing sample submission for grad school admissions. Additionally, it is extremely worthwhile to gain research experience with a faculty mentor at Villanova who can ‘show you the ropes’. Ask sociology faculty about their research, how they get ideas, what methodologies they use, and how they typically share their work. Keep an eye out for summer research programs for undergraduates at universities across the country. Some, like the one at my university, pair undergrads with a senior graduate student and faculty mentors who help them develop an original research project for presentation—it even provides a stipend. Beginning your research experience early in your undergraduate career is a great way to establish a scholarly trajectory and gain an edge during admissions.
Before committing to graduate school, evaluate your other options. Graduate students typically graduate in 5-8 years but sometimes longer. Some choose to pursue post-docs and for those lucky enough to land a tenure-track faculty position, a minimal five additional years of tremendous stress and hard work are required to obtain job security – talk about delayed gratification. The good news is that if you can think of nothing better to do with your twenties than live on minimum wage and sociology, then grad school is for you! Grad school is not an ideal place to soul search, and taking time off after finishing your B.A. is a great idea to gain some focus and weigh your options.
Apply for fellowships.
If you’re ready to commit to the Ph.D., consider applying early for fellowships. As one example, the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship is a lucrative three year fellowship aimed at high-potential students with less than two years of M.A./Ph.D. level training. Applications are due in November and require many of the same materials you’ll be preparing for admissions committees anyhow. While you’ll need to be able to articulate a clear picture of yourself as a budding sociologist, you’re not expected to have it all figured out. Rather, the process of completing such an application is a tremendously useful exercise for focusing yourself before arriving at graduate school. Finally, from an admission’s perspective, there’s nothing better than a highly-driven grad student who will potentially bring their own funding with them to the department.
*Sarah is a Villanova alumna and doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org