So, you’ve decided to pursue a PhD. You’ve heard the advice, “If there’s anything else you want to do, seriously, do that instead” and pondered it thoroughly. You’ve searched your soul, talked it over with those important to you in your life, and have confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that an academic life is the career that will fulfill you.
Congratulations on getting to this point. Now, you have to apply to programs and get accepted, which in this academic and economic climate, isn’t easy. While there’s no magic number for how many programs you ought to apply to, somewhere in the 6 to 12 range works well.
You might have already gone through some of these steps, but here is a four-step plan to finding the right PhD program for you and increasing your chance of acceptance—with some special advice thrown in for food studies students.
Step 1: Choose the right field of study.
For some, this first step will be a no brainer. You might get a PhD in the same discipline as your undergraduate degree or maybe you’ll get to a point in your career where a PhD in a particular field will help you to advance or change course. If that’s you, go ahead and skip on down to step 2.
If you’re planning to do food studies research, however, choosing an academic field can be a bit more complicated than someone who clearly fits into a discipline, such as English, History, or Anthropology, though you can do food studies work in any of those departments. There’s only one Food Studies PhD program in the US (at NYU), so you’ll likely need to explore other options as well.
If your food studies methodology of choice favors a single discipline, you might be best served applying to discipline-based programs. If anthropology is your gig, check out the Anthropology PhD program at the University of Indiana, which has a food studies concentration. Myself, I go crazy without interdisciplinarity, so I applied to American Studies and Cultural Studies programs—”studies” programs similar to food studies in that they allow and encourage theoretical and methodological freedom, flexibility, and innovation that can be inter- and multidisciplinary, as well as cross-departmental.
No matter what discipline or “studies” program you choose, ascertain the program’s specialty, experience, or at least openness to a food studies topic. If you have little background in food studies at this point, you might want a program with a critical mass of folks interested in, researching, and teaching food. If you have some, or a lot, of expertise already, you could alternatively seek out programs where the faculty can help you to grow in other ways, fleshing out and adding context to your focus, as well as challenging you to look at food-related topics in different ways than you have before.
Step 2. Find the programs that fit you—and that you fit.
Once you’ve decided upon the type of programs to which you want to apply, you have to find the ones that fit you. To accomplish this, you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time reviewing program/department websites, talking to current students, and corresponding with the faculty with whom you would want to work to gauge their interest in working with/mentoring you. You’ll want to start doing this at the very latest in the late summer or early fall before the cycle you apply.
Association websites often list (and may rank) graduate programs, such as the American Studies Association’s directory of domestic programs, and can be a great starting point in your program search.
Step 3. Talk to as many people as possible.
In this process, you’ll be sending out tons of emails, so it can be helpful to draft succinct and humble form messages (one for graduate students, another for faculty) that you can use over and over again, with personal touches, of course, especially for faculty with whom you want to work. Briefly introduce yourself, your academic background, and what you propose for your dissertation project.
For faculty, you may only want to ask something like, “Given the similarity in our research areas, would you be interested in working with me should I be accepted to ‘X’ University?” For graduate students, you’ll likely want to ask specific questions. It can be helpful to talk to current and recently graduated students to get different perspectives.
For any email, use a descriptive subject line so that busy folks will consider opening, reading, and responding to your email. Always say thank you for their time in responding, and if you’re so lucky to receive a response, always reply back and continue the conversation, even if just to say thank you again. Overall, the more people you can talk to the better, so you’ll have a full picture of the program and can have a better idea if the program is a good fit for you.
Step 4. Take your time, energy, money, and emotional health seriously.
In the end, it’s up to the admissions committee to determine if you’re the right fit for a particular program, but if you follow these steps, at least you’ve given it your best shot. Don’t just randomly apply to programs without doing your research and talking to as many people as you can. There’s a very good chance that you’re throwing your time, energy, and money away. And between application fees, the GRE, transcript requests, and priority postage, grad school application costs are no joke.
Just keep in mind that the more effort you put in up front the more acceptances you’re likely to receive.
Best of luck!
And for more tips, visit again next week for some thoughts on how to write a winning statement of purpose.