A Year in the Life of an Average Graduate School Applicant

I believe congrats are in order…to me! I officially accepted an offer to begin my Phd at Tulane University in the fall! After an amazing campus visit, I am pleased to report that the department had everything on my check-list along with extras I didn’t even know I wanted (hilarious department traditions, diverse personalities, and a resident mummy, you know, normal things). It’s been an eventful year for me, and that’s not even considering the time I put into the whole application process.  Luckily I had a lot of support and feedback from amazing friends and colleagues. It wasn’t all luck however: I also had to be quite the savvy, calculating, and determined aspiring social scientist to achieve this goal.  What if you have the drive and dedication need to achieve this goal, but don’t have the network of academics to help?  Turns out once I was accepted, tons of undergrads and other aspiring academics started bombarding me with questions and asking for advice. Well, look no further! I’m here to help.  (I was accepted to three out of the five programs I applied to, and offered funding from each, so I did something right). Below I’ve created a timeline interspersed with information to help with the process.

Approximately 1 year before applications are due (also corresponds to approximately six  months after graduating from undergraduate) 

You need to seriously consider if you should/need to attend graduate school.  It is not a place to hide out until the job market improves. It is not a place to relive undergrad. And more importantly, it is not a place to go just because you have no idea what to do with your undergraduate major. It’s a commitment, and I had to do A LOT of soul searching and take tests to see if I had a death wish/personality disorder (okay, the last two are jokes…but I think the GRE is sort of the same thing). Take the time and energy to consider your options, your ultimate goals, and even your strengths.  I spent time doing productive CV-building and networking activities (visiting sites, working on projects, etc.) as well as getting out of the US to give myself some space. Once you graduate, you find that all your peers immediately jump into new careers and seem to have direction and everything figured out. Being around that can be stressful and pressure you into making rash decisions just so you don’t feel like an unproductive hobo in comparison. To avoid this, I spent time abroad doing not-so-serious things as well. I went on glacial treks. I spontaneously took a 19-hour bus ride to a town I ended up not even liking that much. I worked as a bartender. All of these decisions seem irresponsible (and a little insane), but honestly, I had so much distance and alone time to allow myself to assess what I wanted. In the end, all I could think about was starting my PhD and beginning my career.  Whenever I was working at the bar, I kept talking to people about my research, and made attempts to education people on the archaeology in the region (side note, the number of beers a person consume correlates with how interested they become in archaeology). Trust me, when you have the chance to day-drink every day as a dysfunctional bartender and all you can think about digging in the dirt, you know this is something you desperately want.

9 months before applications are due (after you realize that yes, you want to do this) 

The main draw of a graduate program should be the cohort of professors, funding, opportunities for professional development, and the department’s resources (facilities, labs, collections, etc.).  Yes, I know it would be great to live in a cool new city. Yes, I know that living in the middle of nowhere sounds terrible, but if it is the perfect school, then you have to deal with that. If you are really serious about continue your education, then the city shouldn’t be the deciding factor. That being said, I lucked out that most of the programs I wanted to attend were in cool cities!

Also, to anthropologists, see if the department shares your thoughts and preferences on theoretical approaches…

Additionally, funding is a huge part of the decision. If you are continuing your education in a field that doesn’t have the largest or a guaranteed payout, then try to avoid going into debt. Check out funding opportunities, the competitiveness of the stipends within the department, and for how long you receive funding. Also, it might be worth checking out graduate programs abroad, since they are sometimes considerably cheaper than programs in the US, and are only for a year.

Check to see the application requirements (CV, statement of intent, writing sample, etc.). Some applications might require additional essays. For instance, one school required that my friends write an essay about how they could add diversity to the department. Also, it might take over a month for your undergraduate institution to send your transcript, so take care of that asap.

See what other graduate students are researching. It is similar to your research goals?  Do they seem like they are participating in conferences? Publishing? You want to be around an active cohort of students. Maybe email a few students. Ask them questions about their advisor. I found that I learned A LOT from quick exchanges with students. I wanted to be around a supportive group of scholars, and it is obvious when students view potential incoming students as threats and will not be welcoming. I also wanted to have a supportive, even-tempered advisor. I was lucky that I was able to meet a few professors before applying; some were fantastic and encouraging, and others acted like I was wasting their time. Trust your gut–if you feel uncomfortable around a potential advisor, then you probably won’t get along with them as a student.

At this point, I recommend emailing professors who share your research interests and ask if they are taking students in the year you plan to enroll. They have just accepted that fall’s new cohort of students, and it’s before midterms/finals for their undergraduate students, so they are less busy (just kidding, they are always busy), and more likely to email you back.  Better point: they’ll have an idea of how many PhD students are leaving, and how big the newest class is, so they’ll have an idea of how many students their department will take the next year. In some cases, students are rejected not because they are qualified, but because there are a limited number of positions. Some departments/professors might not take students in certain years. So if someone doesn’t email you back, or a professor doesn’t encourage you to apply, don’t take it personally. (But spell check and reread your emails, just to make sure).

Work on your CV/Resume. If you don’t have a CV/Resume, make one now. If you have one, great job! Just make sure you update it. This might seem super far in advance, but trust me, if you don’t read it at least 45894076 times before submitting it with you application, there will be the smallest, stupidest mistake on it. Keep it simple, NO crazy fonts (if you write it in Comic Sans, congratulations, you are the Jerry of your friends). Bold and capitalize all headers, avoid italics (they are annoying), and make sure you have everything in order according to date (higher- more recent, lower – older). As for placement:

1) academic history

2) awards/honors

3) field/lab research

4) publications (if several, maybe put this before field/lab research)

5) conference posters/symposiums

6) leadership

7) volunteer work/community service

Depending on the nature of your graduate work, some of these things might need to be reshuffled. If you are going into public health and you volunteered at a clinic for 2 years, then you should considering moving that up the list. Basically, the items of highest importance should go first. 

6 months before applications are due 

TAKE THE GRE (and/or required tests). Some studies say you should take the GRE while you are still an undergrad because you are better at studying and retaining information while in school. Other people say that you should take it when you have more time to study, so wait until after you leave school. Then some people don’t take it seriously at all, manage to get a decent score, and get into their first choice. Those people are the worst. Kidding! It simply depends on your personal study habits. Personally, I could only study for a few hours a day before I’d collapse in on myself like a dying star, so I would spread out my study schedule. I suggest to take the test as soon as you are sure that you are applying to graduate school. It is NOT fun to schedule the test close to deadlines only to realize that you won’t have your scores before a deadline and have to spend $50 to change the date. Trust me.

Email and ask previous professors/employers if they’d be willing to write your recommendation letters. I cannot stress this enough, DO NOT leave this to the last minute. That being said, it is almost 134% CERTAIN that your recommenders will turn in their recs last minute. That’s okay, they are totally used to doing that, but you cannot expect them to drop everything and write your recommendation 2 days before it’s due. You will be expected to supply 3 recommendations (maybe less depending on the program). Have three back-up recommenders. If possible, pick recommenders who have a connection to your potential advisor’s research and to the department. If you took a few classes from a professor who is an alumnus from your grad school, it would be a good idea to have them write your rec. Ask professors who know you best, they will write the most personal recs that will stand out from other generic letters. Not to sound simplistic, but applying to grad school is like a game, you have to play your strengths and take advantage of your resources.

Ask current graduate students for their statements to get an idea of what professors look for in statements of intent. I read dozens of statements, and everyone’s was different. I was able to express myself while following a well-organized format.

3-1 month(s) before applications are due

If you haven’t already, starting writing down ideas for your statement. I recommend that you start seriously writing your statement about two months before applications are due. You will need to revise it several times. You will need people to read it. For my first statement, I had several people read it. After I had it completely edited, I used the outline to write other statements, but still had people read those statements as well. Ask for help! The more people who read and edit your statement, the better. Ask people who know you well to read your statement since they have a better idea of your writing style and long-term goals.

Some schools give a page or word limit. One school asked for 3-5 pages, then another school wanted 750-1000 words. Even better, some schools don’t tell you anything.  In general, your statement shouldn’t be longer than two pages. Mine were at least two pages, single spaced, double spaced between paragraphs. Your potential advisor (and the rest of the department) have to read hundreds of statements a semester– so be succinct, eloquent, and get to the point.  Your primary goal is to demonstrate that 1) you have the experience 2) you have thought out a specific research goal and 3) you have shown that you are a perfect fit for the department.

Basically a statement should include…

-Introduction (your name, where you went to school, who you studied under, what you want to study, and who you want to study with)

-Your background (what have you done in the past that has lead you to apply for grad school, so list all relevant experience)

-Your research focus (should be like an upside-down pyramid, with big picture, then narrow down to your specific topic)

-Why this particular school would be perfect for your research goals (it has these professors, these facilities, etc.)

-Future career goals, and summary (I find that putting these two together in the final paragraph made for a neat and orderly ending)

Me writing my statement

A lot of people have different styles and want to stand out. Here are things you should avoid…

-Don’t point out your weaknesses in your statement. This might seem obvious, but I’ve heard that this is actually a huge mistake students make. Don’t apologize for a low GRE score. Don’t point out that you have a terrible GPA. Don’t tell the professor that you have little or no experience. Your statement is meant to demonstrate that you are a perfect candidate for this program, so it should have nothing but positive information.

-Don’t write a long statement. Stick to the program’s guidelines.

-Use appropriate language, don’t “beg” your potential advisor to read your statement (avoid words like “please”). Avoid diffident and passive language (“I would like to study *blank*”), and instead use strong, confident phrases and active verbs (My research investigates *blank* /My research focus is *blank*).

And last…remind your professors to write their recommendations! In fact, send reminders at least once a week until applications are due! Don’t worry if they don’t send them right away, I know for a fact that graduate schools expect professors to send in recs late, so if they take a few extra days, don’t flip out.

Last but certainly not least, send a quick email to your potential advisor letting him/her know that you are still interesting in their program and you look forward to submitting your application for consideration. Basically, remind your potential advisors of who you are. 

Week applications are due

PROOF READ!!!! Harass you recommenders to submit their recommendations! (just kidding, politely remind them, they are doing this as a favor to you after all.) Call the graduate school and make sure all documents are were they are supposed to be. 

After submitting your application

Enjoy the brief moment of elation and then freak out. This is really happening! Send thank you letters/emails to your recommenders. Let them know that what they did for you was very nice. Plus, if you don’t get into any programs, then they’ll have to do this whole, fun process again! But that won’t happen since you followed my helpful advice!

My last bit of advice…BE YOURSELF! I cannot stress this enough. Don’t say what you think the professors and department want to hear. State what you want to research and what interests you most. Be candid and passionate about your ideas and goals. It is glaringly obvious when a student has no idea what he/she wants to study and when he/she is saying what they think people want to hear. Do yourself a favor and take the time and energy to shape your ideas and set some goals. It will pay off! Now go apply to graduate school!


Archaeology: What People Hear vs. What Actually Happens

During the summer after my freshman year, I’m going to spend three months excavating Neolithic domestic structures at Çatalhöyük with my professor! 

What People Hear

I’m going battle soulless looters over rare and priceless statue of Çatalhöyük’s more revered deity, while dogging bullets fired by the lawless militants  who swarm the site once a week just for the hell of it. My peers and I hatch a brilliant and daring plan to overcome those dastardly militants and cowardly looters.  As we begin to overtake these fiends, the national military intervenes and drives out the hooligans for good. We are given special peace-keeping and artifact stewardship medals of honor from the president of Turkey. We remain friends with him to this day; he endorsed me on Linkedin for “archaeological heroism” and as “guardian of the past.”

What Actually Happens

You are soaked in your own sweat after digging, hauling, and sifting artifact-less dirt to “level-out” the unit for 9 hours a day while the experienced graduate students excavate the “important stuff”, aka pottery sherds and the occasional animal bone, or whatever is directly relevant to your professor’s research. You’re living in the middle of nowhere, so you get fazed every single night and the next day, everyone can smell you as you sweat out the alcohol from the night before.  You can’t remember the last time you bathed in warm water. Also, you will probably accidentally damage the most important artifact found in the site.

This semester, I am going to be a research assistant in my professor’s lab! 

What People Hear

While studiously examining bones under a microscope during a late night shift, you suddenly discover a metacarpal from a very early Australopithecus that proves Australopithecus afarensis’ (aka Lucy’s) ancestors were almost bipedal. You immediately call your professor at 2am with the news. He rushes to the lab, squeals with excitement, and calls up the Leakeys (old family friends and colleagues of course), Svante Pääbo of the Max Plank Society (he is a friend too, obviously), and National Geographic with the exciting news. NatGeo flies to your lab the next day to conduct an extensive interview about the discovery. You, your professor, and the toe bone make the cover of October’s issue. You are co-author on your professor’s journal article and graduate schools are begging you to join their cohort.

Just some BFFs. Casual.

What Really Happens 

You pretty much spend 7 hours labeling photos taken from your professor’s past 13 excavation season. After labeling photo # 75489, you realize that you skipped the number “3” and have to start over. You never meet the Leakys. Once you tried to talk to Svante Pääbo after one of his many talks, only to say “you’re cool” and then bolt, because your brain decided to fall out of your head. NatGeo doesn’t know who your professor is. Graduate schools have no idea who you are.

This summer I am working on my senior thesis in Ecuador at a site that is over 1,500 years old!

What People Hear

My team and I will trek through the Andes when, suddenly, there will a massive rockslide. We will manage to dodge what surely would have been instant death by ducking into what we believe to be a cave. Once inside, we  discover a classic Inca-style doorway, through which is a great masonry chamber. All along the walls are gold and silver statues, copper and turquoise jewelry, and intricately woven textiles. At the end of the hall there will be a figure sitting upright, with its arms crossed over it’s chest. It was wrapped in the richest robes and draped with precious jewels.  It is a mummy! We realized we had discovered the tomb of the long lost Inca emperor, Atahualpa! We reach out and touch the figure. The moment our hands touch the dry skin, there is a loud rumble. The chamber is about to collapse! We grab the mummy, my team manages to grab all the artifacts, and we escape unharmed. I will write my thesis about the miraculous escape and fill the document with amazing photographs of my amazing discovery. I will not only receive the highest honors my university offers, but also receive several tenure track offers at the best universities in the world.

What Really Happens 

You spend seven weeks with your head inside a tiny tomb pulling out thousands of disarticulated bones in the middle-of-nowhere South America. You are torn between excavating as many bones as possible or carrying only what you can manage because, guess what! You’re about a 45 minute walk from the field house in 3100 meter high mountains. After excavating, you spend months writing you thesis about what you found, only to discover you found basically nothing. You are a fit of nerves. Instead of spending the weekend before your first draft is due to your adviser, you go to Mardi Gras with your friends instead. By the end of the semester, you hope to at least get the basic “honors.” Somehow you manage that. You step out in to the world with glorious optimism only to realize absolutely no one wants to hire you. To cope with unavoidable doom, you go back to Mardi Gras, the only place where the world makes sense.

…head first into tarantula's nest? cool beans.

…head first into tarantula’s nest? cool beans.

I was accepted to a PhD program with a stipend and research assistantship! I can’t wait to get started! 

What People Hear

I am an exceptionally talented, special, and brilliant scholar who is excited to contribute to the treasure trove of anthropology knowledge. With my work, I will enrich our daily lives with profound and nuanced investigations of human nature in the past, present, and future. I will talk about my fascinating research documenting the reciprocal trade and gift-giving interaction networks among the remote smale-scale societies living in the Amazon rainforest in order to expand students and the public’s perception on our modern-day economic systems and social media networks. I hope my research will elucidate the trajectory of our technologically advance society.

What Really Happens

After accepted into your graduate program, you experience about three months worth of unprecedented elation. The sky is bluer, the grass is greener, and you happy-hour beer tastes richer.  You arrive to your new campus, positive, hopeful for the future, and with what the more seasoned grad students will call, “an obnoxiously annoying spring” in your step.  The first day of class, you realize that while you were the smartest anthropology student in your undergrad’s department, so was everyone else. Suddenly you realize, “omg I have to actual research what I said I’d research” and “how do you write a grant? Say ‘gimme money plez? kthanks?'” After the first several meetings with your advisor, you realize that you somehow tricked a handful of real adults into giving you money to read about cemeteries and obscure theories written by long-dead anthropologists. What is a lit review? What is savings? When is happy hours? Who am I? You are completely befuddled (yes, befuddled).

Is my research relevant: The Barstool Test

I’ve previously discussed the necessity for prospective graduate students to articulate how their research must contribute to the field as well as the greater good of the public. Last time it was mostly me rambling about my grad school-related fears, this time, however, I’m concerned about the relevance my research has outside the field. My fears of academic irrelevance recently resurfaced after reading archaeologist Dr. Michael Smith’s blog and a book chapter he recommended called From Studious Irrelevancy to Consilient Knowledge: Modes of Scholarship and Cultural Anthropology (Pascal Boyer). Boyer argues that cultural anthropology is, “too busy with obscure academic fads and self-inspection” to address public debates, such as gay marriage or immigration (114-115), and, ultimately, “has gradually narrowed its focus to a few obscure problems,” with the goal to make novel, salient connections because, “saying something new…is what matters.” (123). Smith aptly remarks that you could easily put “archaeology” in place of “cultural anthropology” as archaeologists face similar issues.

Additionally, today in Anthropology News, contributor and lecturer Angela C Jenks asks the field to “reimagine” the typical anthropology student in the classroom by creating assignments that allow students to apply anthropology’s holistic approach to contemporary social problems.  There seems to be a disconnect between the anthropologist and the public. We need to eloquently and succinct communicate how anthropology, and its subfields, is useful for understanding and hopefully remedying social and economic issues.

The goal to contextualize our research to address a greater issue is noble, yet, utterly overwhelming. How on earth can I make a connection between research brought to you from a random tomb in the middle of nowhere South America? I jest, but still, my fears are legitimate, and in order to get funding (esp from NSF), research ideas have to be needed, appreciated, and easily communicated. I have been so immersed in my world of academic jargon and concepts that it almost seems like I can speak another language. If I want to be a part of this scholarly world, it is imperative that I can articulate my research and its relevance to the specialists and novices. Specialists are intimidating and basically terrifying, but I at least feel semi-confident in my ability to speak to them.

The novices are who worry me. I didn’t used to be as worried as most people are aware of archaeology and think it’s pretty cool. Even those people who ask me if I am Indiana Jones or like digging up dinosaurs present a (desperate) need for my field!

But I’ve recently discovered that there are several people who, shall we say, need more convincing. So while bartending last fall in Peru, I developed something similar to the “90-second elevator speech” that I called the Barstool Test; an exercise that required me to determine (1) if I can articulate my research goals in a coherent manner to any individual who sat down at the bar, (2) whether these individuals find these research goals relevant. I would only have the duration of the beer/cocktail/quesadillas to state my research, capture their interest, and ultimately explain why I thought such questions were relevant. It sounds a little ridiculous, why on earth would I bother these weary backpackers? But I engaged in the “backpacker small talk” on a daily basis: “where did you just come from? Where are you going next? Where are you from? Did you like Cusco?” It was a little repetitive, so most people welcomed a change from the normal dialogue.

In general, I met a surprising range of people…young artists living a penniless existence; recently liberated cooperate captives who were taking some time off to find themselves; and even academics who finished with graduate school and wanted to take time off before starting their Phd or applying for jobs. I met someone who studied molecular biology and was applying postdoc position in South Africa to work with AIDS patients. I became friends with a girl who graduated from high school and decided that she wasn’t ready for college, so she was volunteering in a local orphanage instead. All sorts of people passed through this bar, with different goals, backgrounds, worldviews, you name it. Everyone found archaeology fascinating. Granted, most of these people came to Peru to see Machu Picchu, so you would think that these people had some interest in archaeology. I thought I had an unfair advantage.

Or so I thought.

One afternoon, I was working the bar when this seemingly friendly and outgoing guy came into the bar. I asked him his name, what he did, etc etc. He was from London and worked as a consultant to an oil company. He then asked me what I did, so I gave him my, “I’m an bioarchaeologist” blurb. Andes, bones, empires, tombs, cultural heritage, historic preservation, tourism, museums, etc. etc.

I couldn’t believe what he said next, “I personally don’t understand the purpose or appeal of archaeology.” I thought he was kidding, I thought this was a prime example of dry British humor, but he was serious. I had to say, “Right, tell me, did you enjoy your trip to Machu Picchu, you know, the most well-known archaeological ruin IN THE WORLD.” Maybe he was just one of those people who doesn’t really travel foreign places to experience “the other”, but just wants a picture of him standing in front of the famous pyramid/cathedral/temple/volcano/tower and updates his status from his iPhone complaining that no one speaks English while standing in line at the nearest McDonalds/Starbucks. Luckily, other patrons and the bar staff all soon realized that he was a jerk, so I didn’t feel like I completely failed the Barstool Test.

Guy rushing through Raphael Rooms recording everything he saw rather than take his time and enjoy the art.

Guy rushing through Raphael Rooms recording everything he saw rather than take his time and enjoy the art.

I have numerous memories of positive experiences: people who were interested in my research, asked questions about archaeology, and others who took recommendations from me to visit lesser known sites. But the memory of that guy will stay with me forever. It’s annoying, true, but that encounter taught me that I might be pitching my ideals and goals to people who couldn’t care less. Do I need to rewrite my 90-second elevator speech or simply ignore those who refuse to have their minds changed? That is the challenge we anthropologist face.