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Study The Statement of Purpose Once you have a solid transcript, a polished M.A. thesis, and detailed letters of recommendation, the statement of purpose is what will push you over the top for admission. The whole thing, start to finish, should not exceed 2-3 pages. I'd recommend structuring it in line with the three sections below. If you can keep the first section to a single page, the second to 2/3 of a page, and the third to 1/2 of a page, you’re on the right track. Each section does independent work in determining if you’ll be admitted and if so with what funding. If a program wants you to compress everything into 500 words, it would still be wise to break that into three paragraphs, tracking the three sections below. Section I: Research Proposal The main thing is to spell out a specific research question that communicates your familiarity with the existing literatures and a desire to push an existing conversation in new directions. In other words, your statement should provide good answers to the following questions: 1. What's your question, puzzle, or problem? 2. Who are the 2-3 most recent and influential scholars who have examined this question, and what have they suggested? 3. What is your hypothesis or provisional answer to be explored, and how does it differ from the writers in #2? 4. Suppose your hypothesis or provisional answer is confirmed. Why should anyone care? (The "so what?" question.) 5. How, in the course of your doctoral research, might you pursue that argument or test that hypothesis? What methods will you employ?
Section II: Previous Training Your next step is to lay out exactly how your previous studies have prepared you to pursue these questions further (the related problems you addressed in your M.A.; the preliminary findings you've established; the particular methodological courses you've had; the seminars you've taken on related literatures). In short, this is your opportunity to lay out how your year in MAPSS has prepared you to do first-class Ph.D. work. If you had a distinguished college record/B.A. thesis, you should certainly mention it. By far the greater emphasis, however, should go to your graduate training at Chicago. Any relevant language or work experience can be noted here as well - but emphasize their relevance, and do NOT lay out a collegeapplication intellectual biography. Section III: Why You’re A Good Fit for the Department Finally, to cap off the discussion, you need to lay out exactly how Ph.D. study at that particular institution would give you the further training you need to do professional-caliber work - the two (and no more than two) faculty you'd like to work with, the specific courses you'd like to take (including methods), the ways you'd like to explore this faculty member's work to see if their important insights on X are applicable to Y or if their findings on A are relevant for B. Be sure, in discussing those 2 faculty members, that they are alive, teaching, and not both on leave the year you would join the department (check online). Also, a good strategy is to mention ONE book or article by each and explain exactly how it transformed your thinking about your topic. Do not try to summarize what they wrote, and eliminate the general bromides. You're applying to work with that person, and you need to prove why they're a good fit for your research. Here, as elsewhere, the key is to be specific. If you hazard any general comments on the department (its pioneering work in area X, etc.) you'll need to make 100% sure that the characteristic you
describe remains true of the department today, and that you establish its relevance for your research.
The Writing Sample The writing sample you include should not exceed 35-45 double-spaced pages in 12 pt. font. (Even if the length isn't specified, that's what you should aim for.) Why 35 pages? Because that is the gold standard for article-length writing, and the disciplinary expectation in Political Science and many other fields. Tinkering with the font, spacing, or margins won't help you, because the people reading your work will recognize that tinkering at a glance. The reason it's so important to get everything out in 35 pages is that your reader wants to see whether you can put powerful arguments together within these disciplinary constraints. Be sure that the first 5 pages of your sample frontloads your conclusions, and addresses all 5 of the questions outlined in Section I above. Otherwise, it's very unlikely that anyone will bother reading to page 6. Finally, there is a strong likelihood in Political Science that the first reader of your application will NOT be a specialist in your subfield. For that reason, it's extremely important that your project be as accessible as possible. Would an I.R. or Comparative Politics or American Politics scholar understand the importance of your research? Emphasizing the 'so-whatness' of your interests - in both the sample and your statement - will go a long way in this regard. Letters of Recommendation The ONLY letters that help are those written by Ph.D. academics who are able to discuss your scholarship in detail. You want to make things as easy as possible for them to do so. The expectation is that all of your letters will come from Chicago faculty. Your M.A. advisor's will likely receive the most attention.
Be sure to ask if there are any materials your recommenders would like to see before writing their letters. At a minimum, you'll want to provide them with a polished draft of your statement of purpose, a cover letter explaining exactly where you intend to apply, and concrete directions outlining where the letters should be sent and by what date (use INTERFOLIO). Give your readers at least one month to write the letters, and longer if possible. In addition, I would recommend enclosing a copy of the best seminar paper you wrote for that faculty member (preferably with their comments still on it); a revised copy of your M.A. thesis (with a cover sheet explaining exactly what revisions you've made since the final draft); and a one-paragraph reminder of what you've been up to since that faculty member saw you last. Speaking just for myself, I would advise against securing more than the minimum number of letters. The risk is that the fourth person won't know you as well. If three letter writers say you're outstanding, one of the best they've ever seen, etc., and the fourth says you were an average student in her graduate seminar, a selection committee will discount what the first three said.
Common Mistakes that Students Make in Applying to Ph.D. Programs These are, in my experience, the most common mistakes that students make. Of course, the competition being what it is, even a flawless applicant can run into trouble. Even so, everyone should strive to avoid the following in their applications and statements of purpose: (a) not having a clear research program (b) not showing a solid grasp of relevant literatures for their research question (c) not identifying two faculty in that department they would work with
(d) not discussing the impact those faculty have had on their research with the necessary detail and textual reference (e) not having a transcript that shows evidence of solid exposure to the discipline (f) not having the grades, GRE scores, or detailed letters of recommendation about their scholarship that will meet the very high standards of competition at elite programs (typically, just 30 offers from 500 applicants, with an expected yield of 18-19) (g) not realizing that certain professional subfields (say American politics in Political Science) are extremely quantitative, and require evidence of strong math ability, no matter the specific project the student articulates (simply to read the other literatures in that field) (h) applying to different disciplines (say Sociology and Political Science), which the departments will know from where the GRE scores are sent. Departments are unlikely to make 4-6 year financial offers to students who haven't decided how they want to spend the next 4-6 years of their lives. Getting a Ph.D. involves more than just dissertation writing, which typically doesn't start until three years of coursework and qualifying exams in different subfields have been completed. (i) not knowing anything about the specific character of a department, or its fit for the student's research. For example, some Political Science departments - like Washington University in St. Louis - are entirely devoted to formal modeling, game theory, and rational choice approaches to politics, and accept only 7 graduate students per year. If the student isn't working in that area, and doesn't show a strong desire to develop skills in that area, the application is a waste of time. (j) having a research program that requires language ability or fluency, which the student has not yet mastered. With very few exceptions (rare, exotic, or dead languages), most Ph.D. programs will deny admission until that language ability has been attained. After all, they say, we do many things well, but teaching French/Spanish/Russian/German, etc. is not one of them. And you won't have time, as a student, to do everything else you need to do while taking slow and ineffective language classes in a lab. Far
better to spend a year abroad, or at least an intensive summer in Middlebury's language program, and come back to us when you're ready. Competition for Ph.D. admission is so ferocious that the guiding criterion for applications should be: If this program paid me to spend 5-6 years earning a Ph.D., would I be happy to go? Even the best students should avoid applying only to the very top programs. Nathan Tarcov had a student who won a Rhodes Scholarship, for example, one of the best students he'd ever had, who was nonetheless denied admission to the top 5 Ph.D. programs in Political Theory. The numbers being what they are, these things happen. Ideally, students should aim for 10 programs, specifically tailor their statements of purpose for each, and be sure to include at least 3-4 very good (but not ultra-competitive) programs that have top-notch faculty for their research interests.