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Applying to Grad Schools (MA/PhD programs) in the USA?

Admission season has already kicked off, and my friends have started asking me questions about the graduate programs in the USA that I wish I knew the answers to before I applied.

This blog post is the first in a series of posts on the process of preparation,  selection, and admission to the (political/social sciences) graduate programs in the USA.


What is a Grad(uate) School?

Graduate schools are establishments within the American universities that offer MA and PhD programs. Graduate education is the level of higher education after the undergraduate education – the 3-4 years long university education after the high school. While the graduate level is divided into Master’s and Doctorate degrees in the rest of the world, universities in the USA tend to combine those degrees at the graduate level. So:

When you apply to a graduate school, you are basically applying to a master’s program leading to a PhD. Graduate programs often span 5 years, and are divided into a 2+3 years scheme. You are entitled to earning a master’s degree by the end of your second year, which also is a milestone in your journey to earning a doctorate degree eventually.

Nonetheless, many universities also offer standalone master’s programs. However, those programs are usually self-financed and specialized ones. They are naturally more appealing to aspiring professionals. To become an academic, you need to earn a doctorate or PhD.


Who can apply?

Anyone with a bachelor’s degree can apply. Yes, that means you can apply directly to a PhD program without having a master’s degree.

If you have already earned a master’s degree or you are about to, then you are better(?) prepared for a graduate program in the USA. You can turn this experience into an advantage in your application process, and the selection committees also look positively on the candidates who have already earned their master’s.

Does that mean that I necessarily have to go for a master’s before applying to a graduate program in the USA? No. If you are good enough, you can certainly get into a graduate program directly.

Remember: graduate program = master + PhD = 2+3 years


What to expect from a graduate program?

Once you are finished with you doctorate, you’ll have earned the skills to spend the rest of your life in research and academia.

What will you learn in a graduate program?

Skills and ideas. Skills mostly.

Social scientists usually familiarize themselves with advance statistical tools and research methods to substantiate and communicate their research over the course of their graduate studies.

You’ll learn to formulate your independent research, collect new data, and use statistical/formal model to substantiate your theories,  and describe your research findings. Meanwhile, you’ll read a lot, present your research at conferences, write academic articles, get a chance to teach, help faculty members in their research, and so on.

Remember: you’ll be treated as an adult who already knows what he/she is doing or going to do, and only needs supervision and skills to develop his/her research agenda.


When to apply?

The deadlines usually fall around November and February every year.

The best schools have deadlines between 1-15 December.

The good schools have deadlines between 1-15 January.

The average schools have deadlines between 1-15 February.

Other deadlines may fall on random dates throughout these months. Do not forget to consult the website of the program you are applying to for a accurate date.

There are usually two deadlines mentioned on the webpages, and that can be confusing.

Early deadlines: these are generally in December and January. If you are seeking departmental funding, you have to meet this deadline.

Late deadlines: these are basically for self-financing candidates or candidates with external funding. You wouldn’t want to delay your application unless you are not interested in the departmental funding.


What is next in the series?

I’ll be writing separate blog posts on other topics including the basic requirements, types of funding, writing statement of purpose, identifying the right program, and similar stuff. Feel free to ask me questions. Meanwhile, stay posted:

Do let me know if you find any mistakes in this post. I’ll be updating it.

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