PREDOC PhD Application Panel
Thursday, July 8 at 2:00 p.m. CDT
- Byline July 09, 2021
The PhD application process can be a daunting prospect. Thankfully, you don't need to navigate it alone. This panel will feature three former pre-docs who are going on to PhD programs as they share how they decided where to apply, compiled their application materials, navigated questions of funding and reference letters, and ultimately decided which of their offers to accept. Join us as we learn from their recent experience and success.
Stephen Lamb: Okay, good afternoon everyone and welcome. My name is Stephen Lamb, I'm a coordinator with PREDOC the Pathways to Research and Doctoral Careers Consortium. I'm very pleased to welcome you to today's panel on the PhD application process. I have three panelists here today with me, Alejandra, John, and Elena. And I will invite them to introduce themselves as we get started. Alejandra why don't you start us off?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: Hello everyone, my name is Alejandra. I am currently a pre-doc at Stanford. I'm originally from Peru in South America, and I also did a master's in Canada. I also worked a year at Chicago, so I've kinda been all over the place. I'm starting my PhD this fall at Yale. And I think that's it.
Stephen Lamb: John go ahead.
John Juneau: Hi everybody, my name is John. I'm originally from Chicago, Illinois, but more recently I spent the last three years working at the Federal Reserve Board in Washington DC as a research assistant. And this past fall, I applied for econ PhDs and I'll be going this fall to UC San Diego.
Elena Stacy: Hi, I'm Elena. I'm from the Bay Area, California and I did my undergrad at UC Berkeley in economics. And I worked as a pre doc for three years, one year at Harvard Medical School in health economics, and two years at Yale econ in development economics. And I will be starting my PhD this fall at UC Berkeley, in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks everyone. So we're gonna organize today's talk into three main sections, sort of before, during, and after for your PhD apps. Before, how to prepare. During, the application process itself. And then after, once your apps are in, a what to expect. I'm gonna start by quickly going through a timeline that the panelists helped me put together. Not necessarily something that's prescriptive, that's gonna be the same for everybody and it's gonna be the right decision for every single program, but something sort of to establish a universe of the different things that have to be done and roughly when it would be a good idea to start them. One of the themes that's likely to emerge from today's talk is that you wanna start this process as early as you can, give yourself as much time as possible, especially if you're balancing what's essentially a part-time job of applying for PhD programs on top of your full-time job of bringing a pre doc. So essentially as soon as you know you want to apply or the spring before you start to apply, start to study for the GRE and (if you need to take it) the TOEFL or any other language exams. You're gonna wanna be taking those exams in July and that's so that you can leave yourself some time to retake those exams if necessary. Different programs are gonna look at the tests in different ways, but as a general sort of way of looking at it, an excellent grade on the GRE or the TOEFL is not going to get you into graduate school, but a poor grade on the quantitative section might be enough to make people concerned about your application. So you wanna give yourself the opportunity to retake the test if you feel that you have to. In July, it's also a good idea to write down a first draft of your CV. That's something that you'll be revising as you come up to the application to different programs. And then decide on a list of schools that you want to apply to. That's gonna be a major decision that you're making and also giving yourself the chance to establish a very organized list of everybody's different deadlines, the different documents that they require. Each program could have a different set of documents that they need from you, and you wanna make sure that you know exactly what you need to submit, and when you need to submit it by. When you get into August, it's gonna be time to decide who you want to be your letter writers, and to approach them formally, to ask them to write the letter. Make sure you have a conversation with them about what documents they need so that they have all the details they need to write a good letter and give yourself the time to put them together and to provide them for them. And then start on your different statements. You may need to write a research statement or a personal statement. Start that process now. It's gonna be something that you're gonna want to continue to refine all the way through essentially the moment that you're submitting. In October, you're gonna find some funding deadlines come up. So the NSF in particular is due in October. We're gonna talk more about funding later in the panel. And then once you get to November and December, you should be in a good place to begin to complete and then submit your applications. It should be just a matter of going through that organized spreadsheet you had of the different things you need to provide to the different institutions and getting everything in to them ahead of schedule. So sort of having established that universe of concerns and roughly what the timeline looks like, I want to start our conversation on preparing for PhD applications. And John, I'd like to start with you just with the question of, as you're making your final decisions to apply to your PhD programs, how do you make that decision to get started? And what's sort of the plan that you start to put together?
John Juneau: Sure. Yeah, so I think generally speaking, the sooner you get started the better. So like, there's a lot of things you gotta do. You gotta take the GRE; you have some other tests you have to take; you have to prepare a whole bunch of materials. Maybe you're applying to the NSF and that requires putting together a whole like research proposal. So starting that as soon as possible is great. I think most of the folks on this webinar are potentially applying this fall. And so you're starting maybe already, maybe you're starting now, it's great. If you are someone who's not applying this fall, starting before July is a great idea because it just gives you more time, you'll be less stressed. I mean, so I think in general, my prior is that sort of your final time to decide is like, when it comes time to ask your letter writers, 'cause you wouldn't wanna ask them and then like bail out. That’d be kinda probably not a great thing for you. It might be good to talk to them and see if you're ready, see if they can write you strong letters. Like, so for me, for example, I was at the Fed, and Fed positions are typically two years. I stayed for three. One of the reasons I stayed for third year is cause I didn't feel like I was gonna get as strong of a letter from my economists I worked with as I would if I'd stayed an extra year, got to do a next year research with them. So like talking to folks who you think will be your letter writers can help to inform that decision about what you do.
Stephen Lamb: And Elena once you've made that decision to go ahead and begin to apply, what are some of the things that you need to get in line to have a successful application season?
Elena Stacy: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the most important things is, kinda like John alluded to, is your letter writers. And this kinda question of like, if you were ready to move forward at a certain point, if you have all of your letter writers in line, and if those letter writers are gonna be strong letter writers. And so I think that that's really the biggest thing, especially at the pre doc phase is, does your PI think that you're ready and does your PI feel like another year would be beneficial to you or does your PI kinda think that you are ready to just jump in and move forward with your applications? And I think it's becoming increasingly common for people to do three years, but it is not necessary. And it will really depend on what your profile is. If you might have any specific concerns about your profile that you feel like you need to strengthen, maybe taking an extra year can be useful for that. But once you're at that point, I think really just hunkering down and talking to your letter writers about what your timeline is gonna be with documents, because they will actually be a big part of reviewing all of your application materials. So you wanna make sure that they are aware that you're gonna be sending them your CV, that you're gonna be sending them your list of schools, that you're gonna be sending them your NSF or your personal statement. And especially if you have a PI who's pretty senior and pretty busy, you definitely wanna make sure that you're not gonna be blindsiding them with those documents. And that they're actually gonna have time to take a good look at them and give you legitimate feedback on those documents. So how much time would they prefer to have in between seeing a document for the first time and the due date is something good to understand and to establish with them at the beginning.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks Elena. And before I proceed onto the next question, I should have said at the beginning, if anyone in the audience would like to ask any questions to the panelists, you're welcome to use the Q and A tool at the bottom of your screen. Alejandra, a question I have for you. One of the big benefits that people have, especially as they're doing a pre doc or of course, as they're a student, is the ability to take courses. And there's a lot of information out there about sort of the invisible curriculum, classes that you have to take as a litmus test to get into Harvard or wherever. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of deciding how to prepare which courses to take, what would be important for getting into grad school?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: Yeah, for sure. So a lot of people do consider that there's like a set of classes that you must have taken before applying. For example, real analysis, graduate level microeconomics, and some sort of econometrics or a statistics course. So it will really depend on your own personal profile on your own conversations with your mentor, whether they recommended that it would be really helpful for your application packet to take these classes if you haven't, or if you have to retake these classes to make up for the lowest grade that you got before. So most pre docs in my experience tend to focus on these ones, like real analysis and either micro or econometrics. Personally, I also know a lot of pre docs, in particular internationals like myself, who like have a master's before doing a pre doc. So you might already have these, like these courses fulfilled. So it's not just about like taking the classes that you need in order to get accepted into a PhD. If you don't need to retake these classes, I definitely advise to explore more like second year or field courses to broaden your knowledge of the fields you're interested in. This will also help your applications, not necessarily by getting a grade, but by helping yourself refine your own interests. It will help you write a more strong personal statement or research statement, as well as look at the different programs and faculty that work at different schools, and will help you choose the programs that you will prioritize over others. So yeah, there is a trade-off between taking the classes that you "need" let's say it like that, and also taking the classes that will help you as a researcher rather than as an applicant. I will definitely say that a conversation with your mentor is the first place to start in order to decide which classes to take. But it will also depend on your own workload and whether your own pre doc program or a internship about what the fed allows you to take these classes. Not all of them are for free, sometimes you have to pay out of pocket or maybe even take it at a different institution. So it's a lot of things to consider when making this decision.
Stephen Lamb: And Alejandra that segues really well into a question I have for Elena. But before I go into that, we had a question from the audience for you or anyone else on the panel. Someone who's wondering what the best way is to talk about and highlight the classes that they've taken as a pre doc on their applications. Is it sufficient just to have it in the transcript or is there anything else that people should do really to highlight that experience?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: In my experience, your own letter writers will be the ones to highlight those things in the recommendations. Like yeah, besides the transcript, there is not like any particular action you should take. Or maybe mentioning it in your personal statement briefly, that your interest economics has led you to take this many classes and it's helped you deepen your interest in the field and therefore that's why you're applying for a private program. But usually, and I forgot to mention this, another reason to take these classes is that sometimes you're looking for like a third or second letter writer. So since that's the interaction that these letter writers will have with you, that’s what they will highlight in the letters.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks Alejandra. And Elena, what I wanted to sort of springboard off from what Alejandra was saying was she was talking about the importance of keeping in mind how you navigate having a full-time job and then potentially taking a really rigorous course on top of that. Can you talk about the ways to find good balance between those things?
Elena Stacy: Yeah, so actually just like very similar to what Alejandra said about choosing which classes to take, I think it's very important to talk to your PIs also about the workload that you're gonna undertake in any given semester. And so, in an ideal world, all PIs would be very, very supportive about this and allow you some flexibility. And I know this might not be the case with all PIs, but whoever is in your department that is responsible for balancing your workload would be a person to speak with if you're having a final exam coming up at the same time as like, say like a big deadline for work. And if you need to talk about maybe taking a half day before your final exam, or even a full day off to study before your final exam, things like that. I think many PIs and many people in your department in general would allow you some sort of flexibility in those situations. Because the thing that you need to remember is they know, and they hired you to, under the guise of getting you into a PhD program. And so if you are going to bomb your final exam for real analysis because you weren't given any time to study for that, that's not something that anyone wants. And so if you feel like you're in a situation like that, definitely feel free to talk to your PI or talk to somebody else that you trust in your department. And also just think about the planning for yourself as well though. Maybe don't go and take two math courses in the same semester. If you are somebody who just really didn't take the right classes in undergrad and you know you need to take multi variable calculus, linear algebra, and real analysis, give yourself one semester for each class is what I would suggest. That should be something that you can definitely do reasonably is one semester, one class. I think many pre docs do that, but definitely don't try to overload your plate with multiple classes. And I also just want to add, like Alejandra was talking about, like classes that might be more for your interest rather than for signaling. You may be able to audit classes in your department that are kind of just give you a little, I don't know, maybe highlights your passion for a certain topic or your interests for a certain field and you don't even need to get a grade in that class in order to briefly mention that on your personal statement, you did additional study of X topic, you really delved into X topic. Like I studied development, and so like I had taken introduction to Hindi and I audited that class. And I briefly mentioned in my personal statement, like I tried to enhance my skills as a researcher by learning the language in the country I'm studying, et cetera. So you don't necessarily need to take all classes for a grade and that can also lighten the stress load a little bit if you aren't taking it for a grade, you may be able to miss a lecture here or skip an assignment there, which can really help lighten the load if it's not like really a strong signaling course, like real analysis.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks Elena. And one more question on preparation from the audience, which I'll just put to the whole panel. We have someone who's asking about the importance of having independent research to talk about in the application. So either something that you did during your undergrad, or having found a way to take time during your pre doc to pursue a research project of your own. To what degree do you feel that that's important to the PhD application process? And if you have it, what's the best way to feature it?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: So I'll just briefly try to answer using my own experience. Since I did a masters, I had to do a short paper as part of it. So that would be my own independent research and the most common way that this appears in the application process is via the writing sample. So I guess that's how I would answer that question.
John Juneau: Yeah, something else I guess to mention would be, I honestly, I couldn't say whether like how important it is. I said like, I had some independent research personally, like I had done an honors thesis and I had worked on my NSF application. I don't know whether that's something you need to have or not really, like my gut tells me it certainly helps, probably doesn't hurt. If you don't have that and you think you want to have that, an NSF application gives you an opportunity to do that. By like coming up with a research proposal, you don't fully conduct the research, but you have designed and planned it. And so that gives you a writing sample. It gives you just something to show and talk about it in a personal statement that you've thought about your own research project.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks, John. Oh, sorry Elena go ahead.
Elena Stacy: Yeah, I was just gonna echo that. I think that the NSF is a really good opportunity for this and I know that the NSF is restricted to US citizens. And so if you're not eligible to apply for the NSF, you might consider trying to find a similar opportunity to just submit and prepare a research proposal that that can kinda stand in as that sort of writing sample opportunity and opportunity to indicate that you can think about research on your own. And I will say, I've actually heard that this is very important and it also comes into play with your letter writers as well. Like if you're a pre doc and you haven't had a lot of opportunity to kinda explore how to add things to the research as an independent thinker and things like that, it can be difficult for your letter writer to convince schools that you'll be able to do this on your own. And so I think it's a good opportunity for you to convince your letter writer also that you have the ability to come up with an idea, 'cause maybe they've never really put you in a situation where you've been able to showcase your own creative abilities as a researcher or something like that. So, yeah, definitely just, it's a good thing to consider doing a research proposal of some kind.
Stephen Lamb: Thank you all for that. I'd like to move on now to talking about the actual application process. And John to start with you. I think pre docs have become a lot more common in the past two years. I think most PhD application admissions committees are gonna know what it means to have done one, but there's still the question of how best to present that experience on your CV. What were you thinking through when you put the pre doc on your CV and were telling admissions committees what that work had been for you?
John Juneau: Sure. So I think, something to keep in mind here is that, it's like, there's a few things here. It's pretty short, you don't have a whole lot of space and words to work with to be able to describe what you're doing, which means that you're gonna have to, there's gonna be all sorts of probably nitty-gritty details of the work you've done, that you're really proud of, or maybe they just sucked up a bunch of your time. And so you feel like it's important and you just won't be able to showcase that. Like you have to be concise and probably kind of high level. Going along with that, I think it's important to try to not use like overly jargony language, particularly like jargony language that might be specific to the folks you work with, but isn't really ubiquitous in the field. It's like estimating a regression, that's probably language that anyone reading your application is gonna understand and know what that means. But like, for example, I worked at the Fed and my job had to do with fiscal policy and so "scoring legislation" was a phrase that we used a lot among my colleagues and that means nothing probably to most folks outside of that group. So, using that sort of language would not be a good thing to do for me, even though it meant something to me. So thinking about that and really the best way to do it, I think is like draft something, take a first pass, write something up. Think about for yourself, whether it makes sense and whether it describes things well, and then show it to your supervisor and ask them to take a look. This will help you to like, make sure it's not super jargony, showing it to somebody else so that isn't your supervisor can help with that as well. Like, especially if it's somebody who's just not in your workplace, like someone from a university or something. And also you want your letter writers to be on board with what you're saying. So if you're, that's a general thing that really goes outside the CV as well, just like if you're saying you've done something and trying to describe your work, you wanna make sure that your letter writer is saying the same thing. And if there's any gaps you should get on board and get on the same page about those things beforehand.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks, John. Elena, what was your experience?
Elena Stacy: Yeah, I think that, and so with the CV, I guess it really kinda depends on how many things you're trying to cram in there. If you've worked as an RA for a couple years, you probably have a good chunk of content there. But I think it becomes difficult when you may have been mostly responsible for data-related tasks to try to frame your job in a way that's actually relevant to doing a PhD. Because I think we all understand that PhD admissions committees aren't wondering how good we are at STATA, which is very good by the way, we're very good. I think that what's more important is what kind of research are you doing? What kind of projects are you on? And what kind of literature might you have been exposed to? What concepts, like John was saying, that he's been exposed to now that I don't understand, because I didn't work at the Fed. Like he has this advantage in understanding some things about fiscal policy that I never learned doing research on development. And so I have a good understanding of the fact that female labor force participation has a U shape. And that's something that might be attractive to departments that are looking for a strong development cohort. Whereas John might be attractive to a department that has a strong macro cohort or something like that. So I think that just being able to explain the big picture of what you've learned and what you worked on while you were there is useful. And so like my one sentence description of my job on my bullet point is I conducted research on women's empowerment and financial inclusion in rural India. So right there, I explained that I have a niche being built in women's empowerment research and financial inclusion research, and they kinda get this picture of me like having development knowledge, which is more important, I think, than the fact that I know how to clean data. And the other thing that I have in there is that I used an action-oriented statement saying that I conducted research. And so I think that my gut attempt at first was to say like, well, I assisted on research projects and my boss was kind of like, well, you're doing research. Like you are a part of the research. You're doing research, you're conducting research. And so taking a little bit more responsibility for your own contributions and not downplaying your own contributions with even very small language, like saying you assisted versus you conducted, I think is also important in just making your experience sound much stronger.
Stephen Lamb: And I think that brings us well to the question of how you decide which schools to apply to, how you put together that list. And Alejandra, I'd like to start with you. What are some of the criteria you considered when you were putting together your list of where you were gonna apply?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: Okay, well, to begin with, I'll just gave the number of programs I applied to, which is 27. Might sound a bit daunting to prepare applications for 27 programs, but in my experience, I believe other pre docs have applied to as many, if not more. Especially last year, with all the extra uncertainty due to the pandemic. So when considering which programs to apply to, I believe the global context is also important in, how do you estimate, like how will the application cycle be. Like last year, I feel like many of us felt like we have to over apply rather than under apply, just to cover all our bases, but this year it might be different. So it will definitely impact your decision. Like if you had applied last year, you would have probably decided to include some extra programs that if you're applying this year, you might not. It's also a matter of personal preference. If you are set in staying in a given geographical area, then obviously the set of possibilities of schools, you might end up applying to it's gonna be much smaller. If you're also considering applying outside the US, that brings up so many other possibilities. Particularly me as an international, most of us apply to PhDs in Canada and London, other cities in England, and I don't know Spain besides the US and also all over the US because many of us, since we already made a decision to study abroad, don't have like those geographical constraints that I mentioned before. And it also something that might slip your mind is that there is a cost for applications. Regretfully, applying is not free. And the costs add up very quickly. I think on average, it might be $150 to $200 per school when considering the application fee plus sending them your GRE, your TOEFL, and also some like extra cost if you also have to get like translations of certain documents or you're getting your transcripts is not free. It's definitely like really adds up very quickly. So yeah, I guess then you should first start with a budget. How much are you willing to spend on applications? And then you can start looking out towards the school. And that's why before I'm on the topic of which courses to take, I mentioned field classes or other classes that are related to your interests. This is very important when choosing which programs to apply to. Obviously different faculty brought like different programs. So you may have a better match of interest with some program and not others. So I think it's very important to early on start exploring your own interests because it will save you a lot of time and also a lot of money when choosing which schools to apply to.
Stephen Lamb: Thank you Alejandra. And one thing I'll mention on top of that, for people who are facing budgetary constraints, is that different programs may have waivers for their application fees. So if you are facing those constraints, be sure to check with individual programs and see if that might be an option for you. Elena, can you tell us about what your process was like coming up with your list?
Elena Stacy: Yeah, so I think that coming up with a list is one of the most fun parts of the application process. You kinda get the opportunity to picture yourself studying at a school and see whether that would be a good fit for you or not. And I think, yeah, it's just really a great opportunity to check in with your own interests and also kinda check in with your PI about your current profile, how strong your profile is for different schools and for what reasons. And so you might start preparing your list of schools on your own and determine what schools you're interested in for geographic reasons like Alejandra mentioned and also maybe you would consider ranking reasons and just general research fit. So once you do that, you should really give that list to your PI. You should make sure that your PI agrees with you on what's in your range of schools because you don't really wanna be in a situation where your PI is writing your letter for Harvard Econ, but your PI doesn't know if you're a good fit for Harvard Econ. You should make sure that your PIs are comfortable with what's on that list because they are at the end of the day gonna be recommending you as a good fit for the school. And so if your PIs are very comfortable with what's on your list and they feel like you have a good chance at all of the schools on your list, then I think that they will write you a stronger letter. And so that's just really important. And you should really talk through your list with whoever is your main PI. And then you should also give it to the rest of your letter writers before, when you're asking them to write your letter, give them an idea of where you're applying. Would you be comfortable writing a letter for these schools? And if they have any additional schools they'd like to recommend because they know what your interests are. I know that some of my PIs recommended schools that I didn't consider at the beginning, and then I looked at them and I was like, oh wow, you're right. That'd be a really good option for me. So they've been in this field for a long time and they know who's at each school and they've worked with some of these people. And so if they're writing a letter for you and they're like, really good friends with someone in the department who's in the same field as you, like that's a good thing for you. So definitely heed what your letter writers are suggesting in terms of schools to add on your list. And also, I would say consider potentially going a little bit outside of econ. You might be interested in exploring, I mean I'll be attending an agriculture and resource economics department this fall. So I'm definitely really interested in that. That's a good fit for people who are interested in development and environmental econ. Maybe you would explore some poli-econ departments or public policy departments, if you're interested in applied policy work or poli sci departments; it's really up to you. But you can get an idea of whether these might be a good fit for you by looking at the faculty members that are there and what kind of research they're doing. And this might seem like a lot of work, but I think that once you get down to actually finalizing your lists, it is very good to make sure that you have at least two or three faculty at that department that are doing something you are interested in. If you don't have anyone in that department that does work that you're interested in, it might not be a school that you should be applying to because you won't have anyone to work with there. And of course, faculty shift and change, and it's not set in stone who's gonna be at that school for the next five to six years. But it does kind of indicate what that department is strong in and what the department values. And so you might have a department that always just has a lot of good macro people. And even if some of those macro people leave, they'll probably hire new ones because that's just the kind of department that they are. So that'll be really important for getting in as well because the school will be more likely to let you in if you are gonna fit in well there based on what you're writing in your personal statement. I'll leave it at that for now.
Stephen Lamb: One could go on. Thanks Elena. John, how about you? What was your process like?
John Juneau: Okay, sorry about that, I was muted. Yeah, so this has already been said, but I guess I'll start here. Obviously your application budget is gonna determine how many schools you can apply to. It's expensive and it adds up really quickly. I would encourage you to apply to more and like to the extent that you can be a little, save a little bit more and push the number up a little bit. I think it's worthwhile. So my experience was a little bit, I think probably many others as well, who applied last cycle was a little different because last cycle was weird. And so all of my letter writers and supervisors encouraged me to apply to unusually high number because they were concerned that weird things could happen with the admissions, which turned out to be really great advice. So I ended up applying to about 35 schools, which was a ton. And maybe you don't need to play that many, I think in a normal year I would have applied to more like 20 to 25. But I'm really glad I did. So obviously I'm going to UC San Diego and that's very exciting and I'm very excited about that. My initial sort of choice set of schools I got into was not UC San Diego, it was most predominantly schools that I originally envisioned as being like safety schools. And I was getting hard rejected everywhere in the top of my distribution of schools. I applied to both reaches and schools that I thought were really good, well targeted. And it wasn't until I got the NSF that I got into sort of a handful of places that I thought were well-targeted to begin with. Which is to say that up until April 4th, I was very, very glad that I applied to the 35 schools I applied to. And I think based on just perusing the forums that exist, it seemed like there were a lot of people in at least this last cycle who regretted not applying to more, and that they ended up getting kind of shut out. Or at least they didn't have as many options as they would've liked to have had. So that is an anecdote to just say that, I think it's worthwhile to apply to as many schools as you can, cast a wide net. I think that to the extent that you're, I mean, obviously don't apply somewhere if you absolutely wouldn't wanna go there, if that was the only place you got in. But to the extent that you need to think really hard about that, I think you can kind of wait until you actually get in to think really carefully about, do I wanna be there? Yeah, I mean, maybe not, different strokes different folks there, I guess. But I would cast a wide net and see how that shakes out. Something to think about in terms of knowing whether you would wanna be there or not is obviously fit. I think Elena mentioned this, that some programs have a very distinctive, the subfield interests. And so if that doesn't work for you, then don't apply there. Frankly some programs have reputations of being really great. Others have reputations of maybe being not so great. Take that into consideration. Try to talk to folks that are there or recently been there if you gonna put any signal behind those things, I think. Location matters. If you think you would be really, really unhappy living in a very cold climate, because you're not from a cold climate, then that should probably factor into whether you apply somewhere that's gonna have 12 inches of snow, five months out of the year. 'Cause you're gonna be there for five to six years. So like that's a long time. It's a lot of your life and if you're gonna be unhappy, you will not succeed in the program. I think that's what I've been told and I buy it. It seems true to me, so yeah. I think that's kinda all I have at this point. I'm sure we'll circle around a thing so.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks, John. And I would like to go ahead and move over to the personal statement. Before we get in depth onto it, there is a question from the audience I actually want to put to the whole panel. Someone was interested in hearing how each of you sort of defined yourself as a researcher in your personal statement, whether that was a question that you defined or a field that you articulated. So if we could just sort of go around the room and say, what was the bottom line of your personal statement? And John since you’re unmuted, I'll pick on you to start first.
John Juneau: Okay, I think I understand the question, but maybe I don't. As I understand it, basically I expressed an interest in labor, public, and applied microeconomics as sort of subfields of specializations. And in particular, I talked about how my interests pertain primarily to topics of inequality and poverty and mobility. And those were sort of subfields where a lot of work in those topics. Does that answer the question?
Stephen Lamb: I think so. Alejandra, how about you? What was sort of the bottom line of your personal statement?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: Okay, so this might appeal more to people like me who before doing a pre doc have like an office job. I worked at the central bank of my country for two years before moving on to doing a master's and then a pre doc. So what I actually highlighted in my own statement is that I have a quite a considerable amount experience in various fields and to various levels of education. So I highlighted that I had the preparation and the actual hands on experience in different topics to be able to tackle research on my own once I was in the graduate program. And then I did highlight my interests, but it was only like a paragraph. I tried to, my whole personal statement was more about my past experience and how this has shaped my current interest and that I would like to pursue.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks. How about you Elena?
Elena Stacy: So I think that my approach was I had written the NSF first and so I kind of stole content from my NSF to put into my personal statement which was basically let me craft my, kinda Alejandra says, like how my experience leads me to where I am interested in now and then explain what that is. And so that was kind of like, look, I have taken these, I focused on development in undergrad and I kinda did a little bit of health, but then I went back to development. And I've done field work and I've worked on these topics in development and here's where I see myself moving to in graduate school with development, which is I would like to focus on climate change in the developing context. And so that was what my NSF was about. And then I tell them what I asked in my NSF and what my NSF research question was. And I literally just gave them, here's my research niche, which is climate change and development, and here's an example of a research question that I recently proposed for my NSF and an example of the type of project that I will be doing during this program. And now that is very specific and it's not necessarily, we all know it's not binding, but it does, it just allows them to kinda see, to picture you there. And to picture you coming up with these types of ideas and what niche you might be in. So that's kinda how I approached it. Even knowing that this research question I hadn't done it yet, it wasn't a project that was ongoing, it was just like an idea, literally an idea that I have and I show them that I can craft that question.
Stephen Lamb: And Elena sticking with you, can you tell us more about the actual process of writing the statement?
Elena Stacy: Yeah, so like I said, I think it's really useful if you're doing the NSF to do that first, which as we know, that's due in October, so you'll need to be working on the NSF early. And the NSF requires a research statement and a personal statement basically. And so you'll kinda already have a personal statement drafted for the NSF, albeit with a much longer word limit and your PIs will have already read that. And so I think that's definitely a good base if you're doing the NSF. And if you're not doing the NSF you'll start from scratch and I think if you're starting from scratch, and with the NSF as well, it's really good to seek out examples from previous pre docs or current PhD students, maybe in your department. So if you're pre doc-ing at Stanford right now, and you don't know any old pre docs from before or whatever you can ask first year PhD students in your department that you may know if they can pass along their personal statements or their NSFs, and that gives you sort of a blueprint for like, okay, well, how does this really look. 'Cause we've been told and we know that it's definitely very different than a college personal statement. And so it might be kind of daunting at first with like, well, how do I even start? So I'd just recommend try to obtain some kinda draft from somebody who's been successful in getting into a PhD. And once you have that, you can kind of fill in, almost a fill in the blank. Like here's what I did and you wanna explain why you're qualified, you wanna explain what your interests are, and you want to emphasize anything that you might've done that showcases your independent abilities, which is something we kind of talked about earlier. Did you need independent research or what, and so if you did a thesis, like talk about that thesis and what your process was. If you were able to do any independent research during your pre doc or if you were able to take any, maybe not a fully independent project, but if you were given the reigns a little bit on any project, or if you made any significant contributions to a project, like kinda take ownership for those and emphasize those in there because those are the kinds of things that won't necessarily be clear from your resume. It just gives you an opportunity to articulate it a little more like how you are as a researcher independently. And then obviously, like we said before, just give your PIs ample time to read that and to review it. And my PI definitely had significant inputs to my first draft. She was like spend less time talking about this, or why didn't you mention this other thing that I know to be true, which would be useful for them to know or et cetera. So things like that. Definitely give them time to look that over and hopefully if your PI doesn't have as much time to really give you meaty feedback, you might wanna pass it along to another PhD student or a previous pre doc or someone else who has succeeded in that as well, to give you just like more substantial feedback on how to really hit home. Like, you're amazing; they should 100% let you in because look how great you are. That's really what the personal statement should say. Yeah, don't be modest.
Stephen Lamb: Thank you, Elena. And as we enter our last 10 minutes here, I wanna make sure we have the time to hit a few more topics. But Elena, there was one follow up question for you from the Q and A. How important is it to tailor your personal statement to individual programs or to what degree can you have sort of a general statement that you submit to many?
Elena Stacy: So if you have selected your schools well, you should really be able to use the same general content for each school because you won't have to convince one school that you're like a macro person when you're not, if you didn't apply to that kind of school. So if you selected your schools well, you should be able to say like, here's my research agenda and why I'm good and why I'm a good fit for your school. And that should kinda apply to every school on your list to a certain extent. And then this is where it kinda varies based on personal preferences. I really like to provide just a few sentences that are personalized per school which just said something like, here's like three faculty members at your school that would be like really great fits for my interests and I would love to work with them because of XYZ and because your department is super strong in my field or whatever. And I think that is something, some people don't really believe is necessary. And PIs will flip-flop on that as well. So it depends on you I guess. But I found that to be really useful for myself and I hope that it was also really useful for the Ad Comms. Because like I said earlier, if you can't find faculty at a school that fit your interests that you'd like to work with, maybe you shouldn't be applying there. And so it's a useful exercise for yourself to say, okay, well, here's three people I'm really excited about at this school like, I definitely know that I would like to go here and I'd be a good fit there. And I think it can go both ways. It convinces you of that and it also gives the Ad Comms an opportunity to see like, oh yeah, we do have a bunch of people doing that, like this person could really strengthen the department in that way by contributing to these ongoing research projects that we already have going on in the department. That's my personal take on it.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks Elena. I do wanna spend a few minutes talking about funding. We've been talking a lot about the NSF and how important that is for a lot of applications. Of course not everyone is able to apply for the NSF. So I want to turn this next section over to Alejandra to talk about, Alejandra, your experience, applying for funding and what that was like?
Alejandra Rodriguez Vega: Well as many international students, such as myself, that need a visa to study in the US, you probably know that you need to prove that you have the funding for your tuition and living expenses in order to get a visa and be able to enroll. Therefore funding becomes very important. Nowadays I think most if not all programs will offer their funding both to US students as well as internationals. So it's not like, oh, because you're not a US citizen, you will not get like a funding package. But it's true that we have different constraints in regards to which scholarships we can apply to like or fellowships, like obviously, NSF is out of the picture which is kinda sad because a part of the NSF is preparing this research proposal, which as Elena and John have mentioned will definitely help a lot when you're writing the personal statement. So for internationals, you will definitely have to look, given your own situation, which funding opportunities are available to you. A lot of governments have their own scholarships and also loans, advantage loans programs, as well as some other institutions, such as the World Bank. But many of these scholarships will have certain requirements, like after graduations, you have to go back to your country and we can work there for two years. And so it depends with the PhD, because it's such a long time, five or six years. It's really hard to predict exactly in what situation you will find yourself at the end of it, both professionally as well as personally. So I definitely would recommend taking the time that if you are unsure about getting funding directly from the school and you feel like you will need to get an external scholarship to cover for example, living costs, relocation costs or a similar stuff to really carefully examine what are the requirements of the funding you're applying to and what are like the exit options. What if you find that after you graduate, you cannot fulfill this clause that says that you have to go back to your country because I don't know, you decided to take a job another place or because your family situation demands that you stay somewhere else. So what are the options then, how do you repay this money or what impact will this have, for example, in your immigration status. Like I've seen the Fulbright, like if you don't fulfill the Fulbright laws of going back to your country, it might impact your future visa application processes. So those are things to consider. But personally I didn't apply to external funding and I found that other pre docs in my situation for the schools that they were accepted to, they got the full financial packages. So I don't find that it's a limiting factor to not be a US citizen, for example, not be able to apply to NSF when you will still be able to secure the funding that you need.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks, Alejandra. And John, can you give us just a few words on the NSF application process?
John Juneau: Sure. Yeah, so for the NSF, I think that the best advice is to get started like yesterday on it. I think you wanna give yourself as much time as possible. And part of that is because in order to credibly demonstrate that you can advance the frontier of knowledge in your field, you need to know what that field already knows about the topic, right? And so reading the literature that exists can be really helpful and it can really help you to form good ideas and see how folks are already doing research on those topics. It gives yourself time to strike out and start over. You might have an idea that you'd like, and you wanna play around with and after spending some time with it, you decide it's not the right fit, it's not a compelling story, or it's not gonna, you just can't do anything with it. You need to move on. So the more time you give yourself to do that the better. As you actually get going, you wanna to make sure you're talking a lot with your letter writers. And if you have just generally folks who are willing to read your statements and give you feedback and help you revise. I wrote a lot of drafts of my research proposal and my personal statement and they got better each time and being able to present to folks and hear what folks have to say was super, super valuable. The kinda last point there is, you're probably gonna spend a bulk of your time on the research proposal, and that's probably good, but don't sleep on the personal statement. I think that is also very, very important. And something to keep in mind is that you're trying to tell a story about who you are and what sort of research you wanna do. And your research proposal is an important part of that, but so is your personal statement. It's a compelling piece of the story. And so if you sleep on the personal statement that could probably affect you adversely. And the benefit of doing writing a really great personal statement for the NSF is then you get to use that for your applications, as others have mentioned.
Stephen Lamb: Thanks, John. We're coming near the end of our time and I know there were a few things we wanted to talk about when it came to, the period, once your applications have been submitted. In the interest of time, John, I'm actually gonna stay with you and ask you, what's probably gonna be our final question for the afternoon. Once all this has happened and you've been admitted to a bunch of places and you have all these sorts of difficult decisions to make, how did you decide which program to attend?
John Juneau: Yeah, so I think the best thing you can do is talking to people who are there, or who have recently, previously been there. So whether that's students, talk to the current students in the cohorts above you, or who would be above you. Talk to faculty. If you know folks who came out of there that are at whatever institution you're currently at, talk to them. And you wanna get a sense for like what the culture of the program is like. Is it cutthroat? Is it very collaborative? How well does the program support its students? Hopefully all programs are doing a great job supporting the students, but I think it's the case that there are maybe some programs who put a particularly big effort into supporting the superstars of the cohorts. And you may not be a superstar of your cohort. You wanna know that your program’s doing a great job supporting its median student 'cause that could be you. So trying to get a sense of that. Another sort of read to get is on placements. So looking at placement history, all the programs have this posted and if they don't have it posted, you can ask for it and they'll give you the info. Where are people ending up when they leave the program? Are they going into academia? Are they going into industry? Are they at some sort of public institution or a think tank? What are the proportions of those things? As those proportions that you feel pretty good about because you think you wanna do the things that are maybe the most likely. More specifically, try to get a sense of like, are the people doing the research you wanna be doing going to places you wanna be going? If a program sends all of its macro students to the jobs that you would want, but you're not a macro student, maybe those placements aren't good signal for you about how well you'll do on the job market. You might notice that some programs seem to have particularly strong connections to particular placements. So I know that there's places that seem to have strong connections at places like Federal Reserve Banks or other sort of public institutions. Knowing that and knowing whether you would wanna be able to exploit that for to your benefit is good. And then finally thinking about like, are you gonna be happy there? Happy is maybe everyone will be somewhat unhappy in their first year and hopefully happier after that. But whether you can and sort of have a good mental health and whatnot and in a place, and that's gonna be affected by the location, whether you're close to where you're from for some folks, close to family, weather, all that stuff. I think that stuff matters. And so I mean, typically you wanna go with the place where you're gonna get the best outcome afterwards, but you wanna make sure you can get through the program. And so if you're kind of choosing between, to go to the place you're gonna be happier.
Stephen Lamb: Great advice. Thank you, John. And thank you, Elena and Alejandra. We could obviously keep talking for a long time about all these questions. There are some great questions in the Q and A that we haven't had a chance to get to. But we are at time I'll remind our audience that we will be putting the recording of this webinar up on the PREDOC website. And I encourage all of you to keep visiting back to predoc.org to maybe find some of the answers to the questions that you asked and we didn't have a chance to get to. To see the new resources and programs and events that we're going to be putting up there. PREDOC is just a year old at this point and we have a year of exciting growth ahead of us. So please do check back in to to see everything that we've got going on. But one last thank you and virtual round of applause to our panelists and thank all of you in the audience for coming. Hope we'll be seeing you in another pre doc event soon. Thanks.