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  • PhD Q&A: Applications and Financial Aid

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    We interviewed PhD students from several schools around the country to find out about their experiences getting in, getting adjusted and getting the most from their programs.

    The students are from a diverse range of fields; all are recent PhD recipients or current PhD candidates. Here's what they had to say about applications and financial aid.

    Do you have any tips for writing a successful statement of purpose?

    Art history: Be very clear about your goals and how the specific program you are applying to is the best place to achieve them. Be as articulate and straightforward as possible; the committee will be frustrated by overuse of jargon or overly complicated wording.

    Bioengineering: Because graduate study is such a long-term endeavor, it is not likely you will be able to spell out your research plans down to the smallest detail. Instead, address the anticipated impact of your research on the field of relevance to you, as well as the expected impact of the program to which you are applying on your personal development.

    Computer science: Graduate school is all about research. If you have significant research experience, your statement of purpose should demonstrate your abilities. Explain the project you worked on and the results.

    English: Use the word limit to your advantage and try not to go over it—it's an excuse to polish up what you have, and, after all, the statement of purpose is another piece of your writing that will be seen by the admissions committee

    Religious studies: I think when writing a statement of purpose you want to be broad and specific at the same time—you want to show that you have specific research interests that you'd be able to dive into immediately, but you also want to show that you're flexible. After a year or two of coursework it's more than likely you'll no longer be all that interested in what you first thought you'd work on

    Sociology: A statement of purpose should highlight your research experience and potential as well as the match of your particular, unique interests to those of faculty members in the department.

    When choosing recommenders, did you ask well-known professors with tenure or junior faculty who may have been more familiar with your work?

    Art history: My recommendations were written by tenured professors who knew my work well. If you cannot find big-name clout and familiarity with your work in a single reference, solicit references from both camps.

    Bioengineering: The most effective recommendation is one from a faculty member who knows people on the admissions committee at the school of your choice. Tenured faculty tend to know and be known by more people on those admissions committees. However, if they don't know you well enough to fill a page-long evaluation, their letter can do more harm than good.

    Computer science: It's much better to choose a professor who can speak specifically about why you will make a good researcher.

    English: Usually institutions will ask for more than one recommendation letter, which gives you the chance to go for both an adjunct and a tenured faculty member. When in doubt, always choose a professor who knows you and your work well, regardless of their status.

    Religious studies: My recommenders were: a PhD student who had led my study abroad program the year before, a non-tenure-track visiting professor, and a tenured professor who didn't know me all that well. The professor that I was hoping to work under personally knew the first two. So although they weren't tenured, they probably ended up being more helpful.

    Sociology: I had three letters of recommendation, two from associate professors and one from an adjunct professor. The more specific a letter is, the more informative readers will find it.

    How might a student who doesn't initially receive an ideal financial aid package go about obtaining a better package?

    Art history: I had no funding when I was admitted, but was able to obtain solid scholarships in subsequent years. Securing funding is an ongoing process, so be prepared, no matter what your initial award, to write a number of grants each year. Although the grim facts are rarely advertised, graduate students in the humanities are likely to spend some semesters or years without adequate funding.

    Bioengineering: This can be difficult. Usually, the best option is to apply for external support such as the graduate fellowships offered by many government agencies. Faculty members are not known to take on students who they cannot support initially.

    Religious studies: Look for other sources of funding within the university. A student who's offered $8,000 per year from the Religious Studies Department, for example, might be able to earn $12,000 per year working as a writing tutor or in some other department in the university.

    Sociology: Most schools offer the opportunity to teach—either as a teaching assistant or as an actual course instructor—as a way for graduate students to support themselves. There are also lots of research projects going on in various departments, many of which require some "grunt work"—collecting or coding data, doing library searches, performing other tasks. These faculty projects are good places to find work for pay. In a perfect world, you'd find research assistant work in an area of interest to you and have access to the data for your own use in the future. Finally, keep an eye out for opportunities from various research institutes, both on and off campus, and talk to your advisor for other suggestions.