Trying to figure out which graduate schools to apply to

Hey folks- I am a college junior who is currently making a list of graduate schools I want to apply to in the fall, and I was wondering if y’all had any suggestions regarding what schools could be target schools for me. (For context: I want to pursue a PhD in American Politics or Political Methodology.

I currently attend a small liberal arts college, where I am majoring in Political Science, Public Policy, and Women’s Studies. I also am minoring in Justice Studies.

GPA: 3.54/4.0 (there is a medical explanation for the low GPA that I will be including in my statement of purpose). Major GPA is around the same, although I have a higher major GPA in WGS (3.72).

I haven’t taken the GRE yet, will be studying for it over the next few months and taking it in September.

Research: I received my school’s most prestigious research fellowship the summer after my freshman year, which I used to study social conservatism in women. I worked as a research assistant to one of my professors the following summer. Currently, I am doing a research internship with an issue-focused national think tank, with whom I’ve contributed to two reports (my boss here is the one who talked me into directly applying to PhD programs instead of Master’s). I have not yet been published in an academic journal, but currently having one pending and plan to submit to other journals over the next month.

Internships: As said above, I am currently interning with an issue-focused national think tank. I also work with a national organization that helps women run for office. When these internships are finished, I will be starting a new one with a national nonprofit combatting sexual violence.

Other Involvement: I am on the advisory boards for two of my three majors, and hold the senior student position on one of them. I also hold municipal office in my hometown, and have certifications in graphic design (which I got in preparation for my internships).

That’s about it, I’ve got some extracurriculars too but I don’t think they’re really relevant to graduate school. Please tell me what schools I should be considering; right now I’m looking at George Mason, the University of Minnesota, the University of Maryland, and Rutgers (if you have any insight on my odds at any of these places please tell me, I plan to apply to a lot of these schools GRE optional anyways as testing has never been my strong suit). I’ve been told 10 is a good number to apply to, but I want to have a few more to look at before I decide where to apply.

Do you have an advisor or mentor at your college? Many times, these folks can be a great source of specific information for their students…because they know you!


I have three advisors who all say different things :laughing: My advisor in my field tells me to apply wherever I want and “we’ll make it work”. One of my other advisors tells me there’s still time for me to become a lawyer and will only give me law school suggestions. The other tells me to take a year off and travel the world (she somehow missed that I come from a working class family, which all of my other advisors know).

With grad school, your Ph.D. advisor matters at least as much as school reputation overall. So – are there particular fields within Poli Sci that interest you, and if so, can you figure out who’s been publishing well-regarded work in those fields? If you’re looking at rankings to try to find programs, remember that an overall department ranking may not reflect its strengths or weaknesses in your field of interest, so you really need to look closely at who’s working in various departments. Are there schools with institutes in some facet of political studies? That might suggest rich opportunities for grad students at those schools. You will also want to look for Ph.D. programs that offer training for non-academic career paths. An academic career might be your first choice, but the job market is terrible and will be for some time. Some schools are better at recognizing that and offer applied field work opportunities that could provide an exit ramp from academia into a relevant career if you need/want that after you’ve finished your degree. And finally, remember that the members of the department (not the admissions office) make final decisions about whom to allow in the program. So once you identify some potential Ph.D. advisors, it might work to your benefit to schedule phone calls/Zoom meetings with those professors to explore each department further.

It sounds like 2 of your 3 advisors are not encouraging you to pursue this option. As noted above, think carefully about why you want to and what you expect to do with the degree.

1 Like

Thanks for the advice! I want to research women’s political participation and the impact of religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity, on political culture and psychology. I plan to write my thesis about the development and perpetuation of Christian nationalism by American women in the late 20th Century. My plan is to pursue a job as an Assistant Director (eventually Director) of Research for an organization like the one I am currently interning with.

The best school to study women in American politics is Rutgers, but I genuinely have no idea if I am a good candidate for Rutgers. The other school that is good for this is American University. American is honestly my dream school, but I almost guarantee I am not a strong enough candidate for AU even with my existing contacts with the Women & Politics Institute (I applied to the WeLead Program and got deferred).

I am being advised against it due to the low number of jobs in academia. They have both said it would make sense for me to pursue a doctorate, but one is concerned about me getting a job afterwards and the other believed I came from a wealthy family until a week before my Fall semester ended and was upset with me for deciding to go to Washington DC for my semester off campus instead of abroad.

You are getting sound advice-- there are very few jobs in academia, and if your advisors are suggesting other paths, you should take them seriously. They have a much better feel for the competitive pool for grad school, the academic job market, AND where you stack up vs. your peers.

If you can’t get in to one of the top programs, it is the universe signaling to you 'Don’t spend the time getting a doctorate".


Ooh, good topic! (I’m a religious historian who also writes about gender, so I’m partial to it.) You should also look at universities that have strong religious studies and gender studies programs that include faculty who are doing relevant work in politics. You’re right that Rutgers is a good possibility. You should look at Wisconsin, Indiana, Boston University, and Claremont Graduate School. Until recently, I would have recommended Florida State, but, well, not anymore. They have a tremendous religious studies program, though. If you look beyond Poli Sci departments, you might be able to find what you’re looking for, and because you’ll be considering interdisciplinary graduate programs, you’ll still be able to research in politics and political science.

That’s the thing- my boss at the think tank I’m at is very adamant that a PhD should be my next step, and my advisor in the field I want to pursue says he thinks I should be fine at most places. It’s my advisors outside of the field that are saying I shouldn’t pursue the field. It’s just confusing because I value their opinions, but at the same time- if the people in the field say my goal makes sense for me, I feel like I should move forward with it.

Thank you so much. Wisconsin and Boston are schools I’ve looked at a bit and am considering, and I’ll have to check out Indiana and Claremont.

1 Like

For grad school, it really doesn’t matter what you think the odds are at a particular favorite program. Grad admissions is done by the faculty in that department, not by admissions specialists who are trying to suss out the personal traits of 18-year-olds.

You should have a strong idea of faculty who are currently publishing research that is in your specialty, and whose approach you jive with. It sounds like you have a specific idea of what you want to research, so you’re most of the way there. Pay attention to the faculty who are at relatively large and generally well-regarded institutions. Don’t try to parse the list further by a fine-grained ranking. Your goal in grad school is to jump the hurdles of intro coursework and qualifying exams so that you can start the real work of producing research under your advisor’s guidance. So who that person will be is all important.

Even more so than undergrad, this is a case of love the one that loves you. You should receive a multi-year fellowship with a stipend that covers your living cost. Anything else means that your prospects are poor for ultimate success (even at the “number one” school).

The job prospects will be poor for a job in academia no matter where you go. You should go because you have a strong desire to create original research about your topic, and don’t mind spending some years doing that at the cost of forgoing some other opportunities. If you’re incurring no debt doing something you have a passion for, it is not a bad deal even if it doesn’t lead directly to a job.

I guess I am just saying don’t worry about gaming the system and pursue your true interests.

1 Like

The point about support is sometimes but not always true. In my Ph.D. program (history, UW-Madison), very few people started with guaranteed support. But most people got support eventually (after a semester or two) in the forms of fellowships and assistantships, which included full tuition remission, stipend, and benefits. That may have changed now that they’re admitting far fewer people, but back then, people who entered without full support were as likely to succeed as people who were offered fellowships from the outset. It really depends on the program.

I appreciate this advice a lot, thanks so much! I’ve mostly been scrolling through faculty lists at different flagship state universities to see who’s publishing the most on gender and political behavior.

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the foremost scholar in my specific field is actually the CEO of the think tank I am currently interning with :laughing: and when she does teach, it’s at a small liberal arts college, so there’s not really a chance she’ll be my academic advisor. Guess I’ll have to figure out who #2 is.

At first I thought you may be considering the GVPT PhD at UMD.

Have you considered the School of Public Policy at UMD?

So…what connections does this boss have? Who might she suggest you study with…and where. If she is the foremost scholar in this field…she has much better info about this niche area than any of us here do.

Ask her!

1 Like

According to her, most roads lead back to Rutgers University and American University. That’s where she knows people and where the best resources for my field of study are. I just want to make sure I am applying to enough places.

You only need one—if it’s the right one! You say that you are in a niche subject and the #1 academic in that field is writing you a strong LoR. That, plus a strong statement of purpose and a decent interview are what will make the difference.

Anecdotal, but relevant: I met with a prof that I was interested in having as my supervisor before I applied. By the end of the meeting it was clear that our research interests aligned well and that we would be able to work together. It was a one-and-done app!

ps, the posters who have said your supervisor is the single biggest variable in your program are right. Figure out their supervision style before you say ‘yes’ to any program- and figure out how good a fit that is for you. Know before you go! even the fanciest brand name isn’t worth a bad supervisor relationship.