It’s remarkable how many aspiring academic researchers do little or flawed research when applying to doctoral programs. Pity your authors here, who in the early 1990s had to do all their program research on paper, looking up addresses and sending snail mail inquiries for brochures. In the online age, the dilemma is working through the cascade of options, so we’ll have some pity for you, too. There are so many choices. How do you even decide where to apply (and send your application fee)? As we said, you need to approach grad school with a plan—a plan that has some options. With that in mind, you can start thinking about initial parameters to consider when sorting through programs.
Canadian vs. international: PhD programs are different in each country, and prospective students do not always realize this until they show up. Coursework is typically more extensive and longer in American PhD programs, where it is standard to admit students directly from the bachelor’s program. At the other end of the spectrum, British and Australian PhDs traditionally have no coursework at all, throwing students immediately into the dissertation (although some have introduced coursework and comprehensive exam requirements). Canadian PhDs are in the middle: shorter with less intensive training than American programs, but longer with more preparation than British and Australian ones. And that’s just the start of national variations. All of these can be great choices—just keep the basic distinctions in mind as you do your research.
Broad vs. specialized program: Doctoral programs are becoming ever more specialized and niched, meaning somewhere there is a program that probably exactly matches your interests—at least, your current interests. It’s obviously exciting to think, “This is exactly what I want!” But there are two risks here: (1) your interests can change, and (2) getting too specialized too early means you might not realize your interests have changed, and then wonder why you feel increasingly trapped and miserable. In contrast, a broad, disciplinary-wide program gives you more options and freedom to grow … grow, or flounder, that is. Give careful thought to which is best for your career aspirations: A specialized program may lead directly into a related professional field, while a broad program allows more flexibility and a chance to grow and adapt in new directions.
- Big or small: Small PhD programs usually mean more faculty attention and a more intimate community, often around shared interests. Large programs have a richer selection of faculty and colleagues. Your fellow PhD program travellers are important here, as they have the potential to be important connections both while you are completing the program and in the decades that follow. Some will be future key professional contacts, working in industry, government, academia, and the not-for-profit sector; some will be future lifelong friends or nemeses. Small programs will naturally have smaller student cohorts (in some cases tiny cohorts), which can mean fewer contacts but the potential for tighter bonds; the reverse is true for larger programs, though you’re then not stuck with the same three people for the next 4+ years.
- Academic vs. professional: Doctoral programs fall into three (sometimes overlapping) categories: traditional disciplinary PhDs, interdisciplinary programs, and professional doctorates that explicitly or implicitly market themselves as being for people aspiring to non-academic careers. Most universities offer a mix of these with varying degrees of overlap (e.g., professional programs are also likely to bill themselves as interdisciplinary, and faculty may teach and supervise in more than one program). The traditional appeal of the disciplinary programs is that they prepare people in depth for strong academic careers in the core of the discipline; the knock against them is that this is the only thing they tend to do. Interdisciplinary programs are argued to be more innovative; a downside here is that graduates who are interested in academic jobs struggle to position themselves since they don’t quite fit in several different disciplines at once and academic hiring committees often want candidates that can teach broad disciplinary courses.
For many, the big question is between the academic and the professional programs, with a fear that choosing one cuts off opportunities in the other. The good news is that this is mostly not true: Universities sometimes hire people with professional PhDs, and individuals with academic PhDs flourish in a wide range of sectors. It mostly depends on what you actually do in the PhD – the breadth, depth, and skills you acquire and how you position yourself, which is what this book is all about. If one option strongly resonates with you, go for it. Having said that, traditional academic disciplinary PhDs are the normal default choice.
Having formed a general idea of what sort of programs you are drawn to, you can now sort through which programs to apply to. Here are some things that might influence your decision:
- Name brand: Prestigious universities have many strengths— international recognition, deep pools of eminent faculty, fat endowments, and so forth. These can all be good for your grad school and long-term career. On the other hand, prestigious universities can be coasting on their reputations or be such vast operations loaded with egos that there’s little time or attention for lowly grad students. They also sometimes offer less funding, since they feel less pressure to compete for students.
- Bigshot name: You dream of going to University X to study under the great Professor Y. Nothing wrong with that, and ideally it will be a life-changing experience. But sometimes the dream is rudely crushed. The great scholar may be so busy and overloaded that they barely learn your name, with supervision effectively delegated to a subordinate. And you may discover that the great thinker has an odious personality.
- Bench strength: Whether or not there is a Mighty Famous Bigshot, you need to also look at the rest of the faculty in the program. (Be sure to distinguish between different programs on the same campus.) Are there names you recognize or whose research areas look interesting? You want to be sure this is a place where you can feel at home and form a strong supervision committee. Beware again of the above perils of big names, as once you arrive you may well discover a wise mentor who you didn’t initially notice. But a good rule of thumb is that if you don’t get excited scrolling through the list of program faculty and their interests, the program is not for you. In social science and humanities disciplines, students are often admitted into the program as a whole, then set loose to wander up and down the halls to find a supervisor. (Sort of.) Given this, you want to have a reasonably target-rich environment. This doesn’t necessarily mean a long list in your specific subfield, which may indeed just have a couple of people. But they should be backed up by others who can also be of use to you.
- Program requirements: While the formats of social science and humanities PhD programs are common enough that we’ve gone ahead and written this book about them, there can be significant differences even within the same discipline, and even more for interdisciplinary programs. Research these as much as you can, such as what courses are required and how comprehensive exams work. Admittedly, it may be difficult to know what to do with this information, especially if you’re just reading it off the program website with no insider knowledge. However, you may come across important or striking things that affect your choices or encourage you to make direct inquiries to the program (“Is it true that every doctoral student has to learn three languages to pass their comps?”).
- Past degrees: Students are often advised to complete their bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD degrees at different universities. The reason is that moving between universities exposes students to more faculty, diversifying the students’ influences, networks, and opportunities. While this is not possible for everyone, there is general wisdom in this advice, and you should consider looking at options beyond your familiar stomping grounds.
- Personal: This is the tricky one. Do you have personal reasons that place geographic restrictions on your choices? The toughest challenge is balancing your interests with those of a partner; you may also have other family obligations or reasons. There’s no simple answer here since only you can decide the sacrifices you are willing to make.
There will be tradeoffs among these six considerations for deciding which programs to apply to, and we cannot tell you which is most important. But we can say that your decision should not rest overwhelmingly on just one. We are going to say that again—don’t make your decision based solely on any one of these. It’s fine to have one be the key reason … as long as others are also supporting your decision.
About the Authors:Jonathan Malloy is chair of the Department of Political Science at Carleton University and Loleen Berdahl is a professor and Head of Political Studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Learn more about building your graduate career in their book Work Your Career: Get What You Want from Your Social Sciences and Humanities PhD (University of Toronto Press, summer 2018).