7 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Applying to Grad School

Some unsolicited advice from a survivor of the trenches.

Students pass in front of Harvard's Widener Library on Oct. 10, 2003 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (William B. Plowman/Getty Images)
Students pass in front of Harvard's Widener Library on Oct. 10, 2003 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (William B. Plowman/Getty Images)

Fall is the season when leaves change color, pumpkin-spiced drinks conquer Starbucks, and people decide whether to delay the start of their professional careers by attending graduate school. Whether one chooses to make this personal and financial commitment can play a significant role in influencing their life’s trajectory. Graduate school can open doors and expand horizons over the long term. It can also induce years of frustration and destroy relationships in the near-term.

I’ve experienced all this firsthand during my own challenging eight-year graduate school experience, and lived to tell the tale. Here’s some unsolicited advice to help decide if attending grad school is worth it for you. (A caveat: these seven questions are tailored narrowly for those considering a Ph.D. in political science or international relations.)

  1. Can you write well, and do you enjoy writing? While reading is the most time-consuming thing you do, writing is by far the most consequential. You get no credit for hiding unique scholarly insights between your ears. It is only by submitting written content to professors that you demonstrate you engaged with the required readings and lectures. You will write constantly — short memos, literature reviews, 40-page research papers, and perhaps eventually a dissertation. So, if you are comfortable staring at a QWERTY keyboard and composing hundreds and hundreds of words each day, then graduate school might be for you.


  1. What is your dream journal to be published in? This question — perhaps more than any other — reveals whether a prospective grad student knows the field they may enter. If you cannot answer this, spend time reading recent articles until you find an outlet best suited to your future topics, writing style, and methodological approach. Nine journals I frequent: International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Security Studies, Journal of Peace Research, International Organization, Journal of Strategic Studies, American Political Science Review, and Terrorism and Political Violence. Articles behind paywalls can often be found in earlier form online by checking the author’s personal webpage, emailing the author to ask, or asking a university student or employee with library privileges.


  1. What is the environment of the department? Whenever somebody asks where you earned your Ph.D., you reply with the name of the university. But in reality it is the department that serves as your family and defines whom you worked with and what you accomplished. To accurately characterize the state of your potential department, collect as much information from as many sources as possible. Talk to current and former students, including those with positive and negative experiences. Find out if they provide an adequate stipend, offer research and travel grants, and have a track record of placing their students in academic and nonacademic jobs. But most important, determine if there are reliably helpful professors who can serve as a dissertation advisor or on your committee. If the answers are “no,” this department is not for you.


  1. What is your preferred social life? In graduate school, the majority of your waking life will be spent alone — reading, re-reading, outlining readings, and slowly writing. In particular, during the six months leading up to your comprehensive examinations, you must deeply immerse yourself in all of the literature that appeared on every course syllabus. If you look forward to being social at work and collaborating within teams, then you will probably not enjoy the often monastic lifestyle that is required throughout the entire process.


  1. What is your relationship status? Because doctoral programs are so all-consuming, if you are married or in a serious relationship, your significant other will unwittingly suffer in solidarity with you — for a period of five to eight years, or longer. They will be forced to support you financially, logistically, emotionally, and as a proofreader, but also give you the space and autonomy to pursue your studies. The sacrifices and opportunity costs are shared, with the greatest strains felt by mothers and fathers with young children, or those taking care of a sick relative. If your partner has your back, it increases your chances of moderate happiness and success, but they should be fully aware of what you are both signing up for.


  1. Do you suffer from hyperbolic discounting? This cognitive bias refers to the tendency for people to accept smaller, immediate rewards over larger, later rewards. Our brains are wired to take $100 today over $110 in one week, even though that latter choice is more profitable. While in graduate school, you will watch your peers pass you by in terms of their relative seniority, responsibility, and salary. You can earn a more lucrative living in the near-term with a full-time job, but you will potentially earn far more money and be deemed qualified for far more positions if you stick with it and earn a doctorate. But it requires not being lead astray by your peers outside of graduate school.


  1. Are you resilient and capable of living with imperfection? Approximately one-half of people who enter a Ph.D. program complete and defend their dissertation within 10 years. There are numerous hurdles that knock people off track. The most common: Financial costs and accruing debt compel you to take an outside job, which reduces the time and mental energy available for research and writing, or distant dissertation advisers do not provide helpful or timely feedback on your prospectus, which wastes your time and leaves you frustrated. Or you can get stuck in a hole. I spent 18 months on a topic that I eventually scrapped (try to avoid this), which was my lowest point. But my advisor counseled me by saying, “You don’t have to impress me, you just have to satisfy me.” I eventually found another topic and wrote and defended a dissertation, one that was underdeveloped theoretically and flawed, but adequate.

How you think through these seven questions should help you decide whether to make the initial commitment to apply to graduate programs. In the meantime, go online and read the syllabi of the courses that you would be most excited to take. Ask yourself the most basic questions of all: Are these the sort of books and articles you want to read repeatedly? And do the writing and presentation assignments look like your idea of fun? If so, then you may consider pursuing a Ph.D. But even then, the experience, accompanied by delays and exhaustion, as well as intermittent research discoveries and breakthroughs, won’t be for everyone.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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