Doctoral applications


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One plausible project for the next couple of months is the preparation and submission of applications to complete a doctorate at various universities. I am not entirely sure that I want to to a PhD, but the application process is very long and this would at least give me some more options at the end of it. The aim would be to submit applications in the fall of this year, for possible admission the fall after that.

There are a number of subsidiary tasks:

  1. Select which schools to apply to
  2. Select which programs to apply to
  3. Determine application deadlines
  4. Assemble references
  5. Decide on a research topic and plan
  6. Investigate possible supervisors
  7. Assemble and submit application packages

The plan is mostly to apply to American schools, since they are most likely to have the money to support me during the 4-5 years a doctorate would take. I will probably also apply to a couple of Canadian schools.

I am still somewhat torn about whether doing a doctorate is the best possible use of time. I am sure I would learn a lot more doing an undergraduate degree in the sciences, or doing a more practical degree like law or engineering. Those options would be very expensive, however.

My hope is that I would be able to do my research on something of practical importance, and that I could do useful work of my own at the same time as the doctoral program was progressing. It would certainly be pleasant to get back into a university environment.

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah July 13, 2011 at 10:53 pm

IMHO the only good reason for doing a PhD is because you want to do the research, so if that’s your motivation then it’s worth considering. However, you mustn’t discount professional programs on grounds of expense – they (unlike PhDs) add to one’s earning potential, they’re shorter (thus less lost earnings), and PhDs usually take far longer than promised (which means years of paying tuition and not necessarily getting any funding). If I’d done a 2 year law qualification in 2002 then I’d have spent $15,000 a year on tuition for 2 years and then been earning a decent income, as opposed to spending $3,600 a year on tuition for seven years and living below the poverty line for the best part of a decade.

Some Canadian universities may offer 4 or 5 year funding packages (I think UBC may have switched to this model). You should also research scholarships – it’s always best to have money that isn’t tied to work, and they look good on your CV. Also bear in mind that average completion times are far longer (more like 8 years, I think), so it’s best to have savings to live off for several years beyond your funding package.

Questions to ask possible departments include:
– what are your completion rates for PhDs? how long did they take?
– as a followup, what are the rates & times for your most likely supervisor?
– can you speak to current PhDs in their program, especially those working with your likely supervisor?
– what jobs did PhDs from your program go on to do?
– what are the living costs in that city?

Additional questions / issues may apply if you have a partner going with you, or if you’d be thinking about having kids sometime in the next 5 – 8 years.

Milan July 14, 2011 at 8:19 am

Useful information Lauren sent me:

UBC – Interdisciplinary studies deadline Jan. 16th, Political science deadline Jan. 1st. Minimum of three references required (

U of T – Political science deadline (for last year) Jan. 17th. Must submit contact information for four references (

I think the deadlines for other schools are significantly earlier in the year.

. July 14, 2011 at 8:26 am

UBC Department of Political Science >> Application Requirements

Milan July 14, 2011 at 6:23 pm


The possibility of doing interesting research is one important motivation for doing a doctorate, but it is not the only one. The next few years seem unlikely to involve any significant progress in climate change policy, at least in North America. The job market also seems quite bad. As a result, the opportunities that exist other than doing a doctorate are less appealing than they might be at other times. Another big opportunity is the opportunity to meet new people and be exposed to new opportunities, both personally and professionally. Ottawa is a very static, inward-looking place. I think virtually any university would provide more opportunities to find interesting ways to use my time.

Regarding professional programs, they may increase earning capacity if you want to work in the field. While I think doing an engineering degree would be interesting, and would improve my ability to contribute to dealing with climate change, I don’t think I would actually want to work as an engineer. Something similar is true for a bachelor’s degree in science: it would teach me a lot and be useful, but I don’t think I would want to pursue the careers that would extend naturally from it.

Eight years seems like an excessive amount of time to spend doing one degree – especially given that I could do it in two years at Oxford, if I had the money to pay their crazy foreign tuition and living expenses.

Thankfully, there is no chance whatsoever of me wanting or planning to have children in the next 5-8 years.

One significant difficulty in applying may be a lack of current references. At Oxford, my supervisor was the only person who I worked with closely enough that they could write me an academic reference. That would certainly be one of my references, but who could the others be from? I graduated from UBC in 2005, so it seems like a stretch to ask for references from that era. I suppose I will have to if I apply to doctoral programs, however. I doubt they will have much use for references from supervisors in non-academic environments.

oleh July 18, 2011 at 2:35 am

Re “I doubt they (people reviewing doctoral applications) will have much use for references from supervisors in non-academic environments”

I do not pretend to know what people reviewing doctoral applications look for. I have been out of university for 31 year and never applied for a doctorate. However, it does not seem logical to me that references from non-academic environments for someone who has been working outside of academia for a few years would be considered useless by the people review doctoral applications. I do not believe that it would make sense for the people reviewing the applications to be in such an “ivory tower”.

To the contrary,related experience outside of the academic world would seem to be an asset. Therefore references from that world would be quite useful.

R.K. July 19, 2011 at 8:45 pm

It sounds like a big part of why you want to do a doctorate is just to get back into a university environment. Could you maybe just take a course or two?

Sarah July 22, 2011 at 11:22 pm

How about killing two birds with one stone: find a course (maybe more than one) that interests you, and take it. There are an increasing number of online and distance ed courses, plus there may be evening or weekend courses you could take, and it would both get you a current reference and expose you to a different environment.

In terms of new people and opportunities – yes, that happens in the first couple of years when you’re taking courses, doing comps etc. After that most PhDs in the humanities / social sciences spend their weekdays with a computer, huge piles of reading, and minimal social interaction (far less than in an office, in my experience), because nearly everyone finds that the most productive way to get their PhD written. Finishing a PhD is the most isolating thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the comparators include spending a week aid climbing El Capitan, and significant periods in remote mountains.

. March 3, 2012 at 9:48 pm

THE World University Rankings 2011-2012

2 – Harvard

11 – Yale University

12 – Columbia University

18 – University of Michigan

19 – University of Toronto

22 – University of British Columbia

22 – Duke University

28 – McGill University

35 – University of California, Santa Barbara

. March 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

QS World University Rankings 2011/12

2 – Harvard

4 – Yale

10 – Columbia

14 – University of Michigan

17 – McGill University

19 – Duke University

23 – University of Toronto

51 – University of British Columbia

118 – University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB)

. March 3, 2012 at 9:55 pm

US News National University Rankings

1 – Harvard

3 – Yale

4 – Columbia

10 – Duke

28 – University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

42 – University of California – Santa Barbara

. March 3, 2012 at 9:57 pm

Maclean’s 2011 University Rankings

Medical Doctoral universities offer a broad range of Ph.D. programs and have medical schools.

1 – McGill

2 – Toronto

3 – UBC

. March 3, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Academic Ranking of World Universities in Social Sciences – 2010

1 – Harvard

4 – Columbia University

8 – Yale University

10 – University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

18 – Duke University

30 – University of British Columbia

43 – University of California, Santa Barbara

52-75 – McGill University

52-75 – University of Toronto

Milan March 4, 2012 at 8:18 pm

I think the reputation of the school matters a great deal.

Most employers will never look at your grades, publication history, etc. They will just look at the name of the school(s) on your CV.

Milan March 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm

Within the next couple of weeks, schools that have offered me places in their PhD programs want responses. As of now, the choice is between the University of British Columbia, where I did my undergraduate degree; the University of Toronto; and the University of California, Santa Barbara. I am still waiting to hear back from two schools.

. March 9, 2012 at 11:01 am

Political Theory Today: Results of a National Survey

Matthew J. Moore, California Polytechnic State University

Rank Ordering of Political Science Ph.D. Programs by the Quality of Political Theory Training They Offer

Weighted votes – School

921 – Harvard

506 – Yale

277 – Duke

139 – Columbia University

110 – University of Toronto

75 – University of Michigan

10 – McGill University

9 – University of California, Santa Barbara

1 – University of British Columbia

. March 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm

US News Best Graduate Schools

Top Political Science schools 2009

1- Harvard University

4 – University of Michigan – Ann Arbor

5 – Yale University

7 – Columbia University

9 – Duke University

49 – University of California – Santa Barbara

. March 12, 2012 at 2:20 pm

The Global Top 200 Political Science Departments

1 – Columbia

2 – Harvard

10 – Yale

27 – University of Michigan

51 – Duke

84 – UC Santa Barbara

93 – Toronto

115 – British Columbia

Not in top 200 – McGill

. March 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm

anon March 13, 2012 at 11:48 am

About than 1 in a 100 chance of getting any academic job after 7 years of grad studies and an additional 6 years of academic temping. Most of these jobs are 5-6 courses per term (in colleges) for about 40K. Spend your youth more wisely! You can read anywhere.

anon March 13, 2012 at 11:49 am
anon March 13, 2012 at 11:49 am

In 1995, 55% of Political Science Ph.D.s were tenured and another 7% were in tenuretrack positions (see Figure 2).

The Usefulness of the Ph.D.

The survey asked respondents whether they thought completing the PhD was worth the effort or not. The vast majority of individuals reported that earning the Ph.D. was “definitely worth it” (80.%).

The survey further asked Political Science Ph.D.s., “knowing what you know now, if you had to do it over again, would you get a PhD again?, a PhD on your field? Or instead another degree.

Table 8 shows that a large majority would not only choose to pursue the Ph.D. again, but would choose to do so in Political Science (78 %). Only 11% would opt for a PhD in another field and another 7% would get a professional master’s degree instead.

Overall, individuals who earned the Ph.D. in Political Science were working in the academic sector in large numbers. However, only about half were tenured ten plus years after degree completion. And although the tenured faculty reported a high overall job satisfaction rate, they placed third behind managers and executives in the BGN sector who reported the highest job satisfaction rate (91.5%).

Surveying PhD recipients in political science ten years after degree completion provides rich information about the career paths, job satisfaction, and their retrospective evaluation of the usefulness of the PhD. Understanding the variety of educational outcomes and the high job satisfaction of PhD recipients outside academia, leads us to conclude that a too narrow focus on the academic job market in doctoral education leaves a large proportion of doctoral student unprepared for a variety of intellectually satisfying careers.

. March 13, 2012 at 8:04 pm
. March 15, 2012 at 11:49 am

World’s top 100 universities 2012: their reputations ranked by Times Higher Education

1 – Harvard

10 – Yale

12 – University of Michigan

15 – Columbia University

16 – University of Toronto

25 – University of British Columbia

25 – McGill University

33 – Duke University

51-60 – University of California, Santa Barbara

. March 15, 2012 at 7:35 pm

I am a Junior at NYU who is graduating a year early. Politics major, chem minor. I was admitted to both NYU Grad and UCSB (UC Santa Barbara) for an MA in Political Science for this fall. 20 year old female. These were my top two choices. This might be a no-brainer for some people but I have been beating myself up about this all week. Here are my particular factors/preferences:

. March 18, 2012 at 1:54 pm

There are only three of these that even try to run like top-tier US R1, from East to West: McGill, U of T, and UBC. The departments at McGill and UBC are quite small, but are also very strong in specific niches. Their faculty size means they will never likely stack up that well against places with 3 times as many FTEs, North or South of the border. U of T is very strong in Theory and many areas of IR and Comparative. No one says these schools are any better than HYP, Berkeley, Chicago, Michigan, or Stanford. But they do compare reasonably well against just about any other US departments.

Milan March 18, 2012 at 3:53 pm

For someone who doesn’t fly, Toronto has an advantage in terms of being closer to places where conferences are likely to happen.

In 2012, the American Political Science Association conference is in New Orleans.

In 2013, it will be in Chicago. In 2014, Washington D.C.. In 2015, San Francisco. In 2016, Philadelphia.

Alex March 18, 2012 at 4:14 pm

International Studies Association annual conventions:

2013 San Francisco
2014 Toronto
2015 New Orleans
2016 Atlanta

Milan March 20, 2012 at 7:49 pm

One definite consideration is that Canada’s greenhouse gas emission trajectory will largely be determined by the rate of growth in the oil sands.

If enough export pipelines can be blocked, that rate of growth can be limited.

Vancouver might be the ideal place to contribute to that effort.

Milan March 20, 2012 at 7:53 pm

Climate in another sense:

. March 27, 2012 at 9:03 pm
. April 16, 2012 at 8:19 pm
. October 3, 2012 at 11:33 pm

The presidents of Canada’s most prominent universities are issuing a call to action after six of the country’s eight top-ranked schools lost ground in the latest edition of one of the most influential university rankings.

The University of Toronto fell out of the top 20 in this year’s Times Higher Education World University Rankings list, dropping two places to 21. Last year, it was the only Canadian university among the first 20 spots. Other renowned Canadian schools fell farther, losing anywhere from six to 21 places.

David Naylor, U of T’s president, said the drop may be due to Canada investing less aggressively in its post-secondary sector than other countries are, particularly some in Asia. “This is a case where standing still meant losing ground,” Dr. Naylor said.

“Every Canadian who cares about the future of higher education and advanced research should be asking themselves whether this is the beginning of a trend,” he added.

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