Grad school questions

My daughter has recently started her grad school applications, and something that worries her is she has no clue if she has a balanced list- if that even exists for grad school, or if everything is a reach- and how to gauge her chances. Some of the programs have no info on what percentage are accepted or anything like that. So, my question is… how do students gauge their odds of acceptance for grad programs?

What type of program? Grad school is too broad

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What does her advisor say? I am assuming she created her list in close consultation with her senior thesis advisor who is also providing her main letter of recommendation?

Please keep us all posted on her grad school application process - you are right that there is so little to find out there, especially when you leave the med school/law school environments.

Edited to Add: When D20 started digging into some of the grad programs she is looking at potentially applying to (only willing to apply to fully funded programs) the average acceptance rate was something like 3-6%, depending on size of program. Not sure if your D19 schools have this information available, it took some digging for my daughter to find that info on the websites. She went through webpage by webpage, clicking all links to piece that info together.

I tried to DM you, but can’t figure out how since your profile is private.

Thanks. She’s done some digging but some of the info she found seems so wrong (the Oxford program she is looking at shows a 50% plus acceptance rate?), and others (middlebury in particular) she’s finding nothing no matter where she looks.

She has so many thesis advisors- three in Italian and one in linguistics. The Italian ones have recommended schools, the linguistics one is much more hands off. She’s applying to a mix of Italian and linguistics programs, but only those niche ones that allow her to mix the two disciplines. Her list seems to be all “very big names” but they’re what she’s found for that small channel she’s looking to swim in.

When looking for graduate programs, particularly doctoral candidate positions, the “name” one looks for isn’t that of the institution, but rather of the person that will be their advisor. The research that person does, and their personality are what she needs to seek. Does she know specifically what she wants to do, and who is doing research in that area? Has she reached out to any of them? Do any of her advisors have direct, personal connections to the programs that interest her?

If she has an “in” through a current advisor to a program she likes, that will be a very likely admit, assuming all other things are strong.

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She doesn’t have any “ins” and she did choose programs specifically for people there… I guess we shall see how it goes and be in the dark until she gets results.

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Is she applying to master’s or doctoral programs?

Mentor and mentor interests are important, as others have said. My kid only applied to two schools once fit and affordability were taken into consideration. Canada and the UK/Europe tend to be more affordable in some cases.

It might be a good idea for her to visit and sit down with faculty members who might be good mentors.

She is applying to both masters and doctoral programs. Her subject tutor last year at Oxford is the same person she’d be working with if she is admitted there, so that’s an easy contact. She cannot fly to England to meet anyone at Cambridge, of course. She has one program very local to where she is now, and then a couple of others that are in the same part of the country. Those I’ll encourage her to try and set up visits. The ones much further away will have to stay in the email realm for now.

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Acceptance rates for that sort of program are not really very useful.

For taught masters in Europe- assuming that she meets the stated requirements and her SoP is a good fit for the program- her odds are typically high: same as US these programs are earners for the university.

For PhDs (anywhere) the intakes are small and a big piece is how good the fit is between your research interests and those of the department / supervisor. Also, crucially, what funding available that cycle.

Given that she has a strong idea of what she wants, and it’ a niche subject, acceptance stats won’t be helpful. Your daughter should prioritize the programs that are the best fit for her- regardless of ‘name’. She can use taught Master’s as the Plan B, focusing on programs that will set her up best for the PhD that is the real goal. That is a known and entirely acceptable path for getting to the PhD program you want. Note that many UK language and linguistics students will just do their Masters as a year added on to their UG, then apply for a PhD (often at another institution).

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She is definitely not one who cares about name recognition, and every school was carefully chosen based on her interests and the faculty at the schools, and what they focus on. She wasn’t too worried until her scholarship advisor told her to maybe find one more school with a decently high acceptance rate- but she couldn’t find others so she’s sticking with what she has. The list has gone through multiple comb throughs, both by herself and with her mentors/advisors. The only advice she didn’t take was to apply to Italian universities. She appreciated the vote of confidence but didn’t have the self confidence for that.

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With a first in her Oxford courses and a tutor’s recommendation, she’ll get admitted to the masters at Oxford and Cambridge. They have a high rate of acceptance but many people want funding and that is much, much harder to come by (IIRC you don’t need the money).

But they’ll very likely require a distinction in the masters course before allowing her to continue to the PhD.

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How about virtual visits and/or Zoom meetings?
I was going to ask about programs in Italy but I see she does not feel comfortable with that.

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You are correct, she should have outside funding. One of her recommendations is from one of her Oxford tutors, so fingers crossed for good luck with those apps.

Agree this is all quite confusing. We are going through the same process with our S19, although in a different field. My husband has a U.S. Ph.D. in economics, and we’ve also interrogated our friends in UK academia. Here’s what we’ve learned, although some of this may not apply in all fields. Whereas in the U.S., it is common to apply directly to a Ph.D. program after completing an undergraduate degree, it seems that in the UK, starting with a “taught” master’s program is the usual route, even if a Ph.D. is the goal. Among U.K. master’s programs, there are some that are intended to be terminal and others intended to lead into more advanced research/Ph.D. programs. It is common for students to change schools between the masters and Ph.D. programs, as it is necessary to find a professor with funding for the kind of research the student wants to do as a Ph.D. candidate. With regard to the master’s programs in the U.K., it seems that, similar to undergraduate admissions, if you meet the posted standards for the program, there is a strong chance of admission. The timing perplexes us somewhat, as it seems you can’t really apply until you have grades from the final undergraduate semester, although after that things seem to move quickly. Our S19’s preference is for a U.K. program, as the U.K. is stronger in his field (sports psychology). Like your daughter, he should already be working on any U.S. applications, but I don’t think that is happening. It should all work out so long as he keeps his grades up this year . . .

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The UK degrees are shorter than the US degrees, both for master’s and doctorate, right?

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@collegemom3717 is a great source of knowledge on this.

My daughter went through this process recently. If a professor focused on what she wanted to study, that’s the program she applied for. In the case of Oxbridge, her programs focused on exactly what she wanted to study. She applied to three PhD programs (two Ivies and Rutgers) and one taught masters at Oxford. She got interviews at three of the four. She will soon be starting at Oxford.

Yes, this is the path my daughter is planning to take.

At Cambridge, their system is different and she had to first find a professor who would mentor her. They wanted to know everything about her area of focus before she even got near the application. There were lots of emails to and from various people there. I believe if a professor says they will mentor, it is highly likely the student will be accepted to the course. My daughter’s conversations with people at Cambridge all took place remotely or via email. She didn’t end up applying to Cambridge, though she had found a mentor.

I know you are asking about how she can gauge her odds, but I don’t know if that serves much purpose. I think it’s more important that your daughter has very well defined goals at the programs she applies to, and conveys those goals clearly and convincingly. So I guess she applies to as many programs as she can devote enough energy to creating great apps for.

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She has six programs total (3 phd and 3 masters) because that’s all she could find that fit her needs. She wanted to gauge her odds as a means of knowing how much effort she should be putting into a job search instead. I get it though.

Couple of points regarding PhD programs:

If your daughter is pursuing a PhD in the hopes of a tenured academic career, graduate placement is as important - perhaps even more important - than research fit. Studying with a mentor who’s work coincides with your interests is important, but if the program doesn’t produce grads who land tenure track jobs, it is rather futile.

As to visits, most funded PhD programs (now that schools are back to actual in-person visits as opposed to “virtual” ones) provide paid travel and lodging to accepted students for their visit weekends.

Regarding funding, accepting an unfunded PhD position is generally a no good, very bad idea.

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That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in the UK. Funding there is decoupled from admissions (often you’d find out about admissions before Christmas but not know about funding until March/April). Many people bring their own funding with them from their home country (eg Marshall scholars from the US) and they are in no way treated differently, let alone as second class citizens. In fact they are seen as valuable because departments usually can accommodate more PhD students than they have their own money for. The US experience (where no funding is a signal you aren’t really wanted) shouldn’t be regarded as universal.

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Yes agreed. Oxford specifically says “Unless they already have a Master’s degree, they are normally required previously to have taken the MSt in Medieval and Modern Languages or an equivalent first-year course.”

And this highlights one of the complications: the MSt is a one year research degree that for many UK students can be added as a fourth year to an undergraduate degree (that’s important in the context of UK funding as it means UK students pay regular undergrad tuition rates and get government loans, it is also essentially auto admit for Oxford students if they have a 2:1 or 1st), whereas the MPhil is one or two years depending on subject (2 years for MML) and is governed by graduate funding rules and admissions.

You could potentially save a year by doing an MSt but it wouldn’t be as useful as a standalone qualification to take elsewhere.