I am currently in my second-to-last quarter at UCSB, and have taken a brief hiatus on my research to apply to graduate school. Many of you currently interested or involved in research are probably thinking of pursuing a Masters or Doctorate, so this may be part of that process for you. Knowing that my future career goal was to become faculty at a research institution, I wanted to apply to top-ranked graduate programs so as to get the best educational experience possible and be competitive for job openings. My list consisted of schools like Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, but what I found is that while school ranking is important, there are many other factors that outweigh it. Here is how I narrowed down my list of schools.
I started by identifying what I was interested in within my discipline. My research in the McNair program really helped me to see that I was interested in gender and sexuality as an area of focus within Sociology. Still being concerned with ranking, I now looked at what schools had a strong gender and sexuality emphasis in their Sociology programs by looking at rankings by specialty. This drastically changed my list. What I found was that a lot of the schools I had wanted to apply to had almost no faculty representation in the areas I was interested in researching.
Using that list, I went onto each school’s Sociology website and looked at the Faculty’s interests and CVs. This helped me to see what they were interested in within the category of “gender and sexuality” so that I could see if we had any overlap in our interests. Gender and sexuality are broad categories, and so those schools which had good reputations in those areas often had faculty members conducting research on topics totally unrelated to my own interests. I jotted down names of the faculty I was interested in working with at each of these schools so that I could mention their research and my interest in working with them in my Statements of Purpose.
With a new and revised list, I then met with Faculty here at UCSB to discuss my list and get further recommendations. (As an aside note, faculty may personally know the people you are interested in working with at these other institutions, and it never hurts to have that connection.)
I felt like I had my final list at this point, but I was still in for further revisions. I started contacting the faculty members I was interested in working with, and most of them were happy to meet with me in-person (assuming the school was within driving distance) or over the telephone. I came prepared to these meetings with a copy of my CV and my article, and questions to discuss their program. In one of these meetings, the faculty member I wanted to work with told me that she would be retiring shortly, and that there weren’t a lot of other people who studied similar subjects to what I was interested in. This meant that I wouldn’t have the faculty support I might need to do well in the program, which helped me to decide not to include this school on my list. Other faculty members gave me personal recommendations on things to do and to avoid within my application, to strengthen my candidacy.
While some of the schools on my original list still made it to the final one, many were replaced during this process. Of course, during all of this, the location of the school and funding came into consideration, but ultimately, you have to find a school that is a good fit for you personally and academically. You’ll be spending a lot of time with the faculty and other graduate students, so you have to be happy where you land.