Preparing for Graduate Studies

If you are considering graduate studies in political science, you should speak to a faculty member or undergraduate advisor.

Why go to graduate school?

Graduate school involves a higher level of competition, a more specialized knowledge base and skill set, and a multi-year commitment. The decision to go should not be taken lightly.Students are under increasing pressure to consider moving on to a graduate degree. 30 years ago, you could graduate with a BA and directly into a good professional career. That is no longer necessarily the case. Not only have the number of BAs increased, but the expectations of employers have as well. A graduate degree may or may not be the best answer to these pressures. Before taking the plunge (and acquiring more debt in the process), you should think very carefully about:

  • whether this makes sense for you now;
  • whether it is feasible and how to prepare; and
  • what is the right type of graduate program for what you want to do.

Students who do not know why they are in graduate school typically struggle to finish and to prepare themselves for what they will do after they graduate. You have to look at graduate school as an important investment in your future, one that will cost you time and money, but promises a long-term return in the future, including promoting you onto a career path and helping you to realize your intellectual potential.

Preparing to apply

  1. Look at your grades. Be realistic. A rule of thumb is that if you have a B+ average (3.33 CGPA), you are a "marginal candidate”. Top-ranked schools in North American usually require at least an A average (4.0 CGPA). If you are not a top student, don't despair. There are non-traditional degree programs and private universities in the US where acceptance criteria (such as work experience and publications) may be more flexible beyond GPA.
  2. Know your career goal. Going to a graduate school is one means to achieve that goal. If you do not know what you want to do in your life, then, you will not find it in a graduate school. You will be unlikely to get admitted in the first place because your file is likely to be weaker than other files. Ask yourself: why do I need more training? Remember, since there are limited places in each program, the university and faculty are making an investment in you, too.
  3. What about finance? If you could win an entrance scholarship, that would be great. But the competition rate is high. Approximately one-third of students in Canada who are offered admission get some form of scholarship. Of course, you have to win the race for admission first—admission rates alone normally range from 40 per cent to 10 per cent (that is, one to four students are admitted out of ten applicants). Also, you want to think about the potential financial opportunities that you will be missing once you are in graduate school. 
  4. You can improve your chances by thinking about these things early in your undergraduate study, and steadily gathering information and experience. Talk to people who are doing jobs you would like. Do an internship. Try classes in different areas. Develop a second language, do a co-op, study or work abroad. Explore the topic with faculty and graduate students. Many students are in a hurry to finish their BA and get distracted with many different commitments. Remember, in the long-run what you learn and the skills and knowledge you develop will be as important as passing through the courses as easily as possible. Oftentimes courses that are highly demanding will be the most rewarding to you in the long-run in testing out whether you will be interested and ready for graduate school. Try cutting back on your outside workload and focusing on learning as much as you can from your classes. Find a prof and authors you like and develop some knowledge in that area. Go to speakers' series and follow current events. One of the best things you can do in the Department of Political Science is to complete an honours' thesis. This will serve as an important writing sample for graduate applications.

Where to apply

If you still want to go to a graduate school after considering the above points, then, consider the following:

  1. What type of graduate school? A political science degree is ideal preparation for law school, a career in the public sector, teaching at the pre-university level, or a graduate degree. Political science trains students in a variety of important analytical tools and provides excellent writing skills. We offer several joint majors (such as economics) that would expand your possibilities enormously. You need to decide whether you would like to follow a professional career path as a lawyer or work more on social science. One thing that is worth emphasizing is that the main reason for doing a PhD is to teach at a university level.
  2. Do the necessary homework. Can you articulate why you want to go to a particular graduate program? To answer this question, you must know not only your career goal but also the content of the graduate programs you are applying for. If you want to become a Middle East specialist, why apply for a program that has no Middle East specialist? You will have to write up "a statement of purpose" where you can articulate your rationales for applying for the program you are applying for. Make sure that you know the names of the professors you want to work with at various programs. Does this program have an affiliated research institute? A specialized program relevant to your research interest? What are the requirements to finish a degree? How long does it take? Find answers to these questions as a starting point.
  3. Narrow down potential graduate programs you want to attend. You also want to have a back-up plan. You should make sure you are going to a graduate school that has a good reputation, and professors in your area of interest. Ideally, you want to apply to at least five programs. If two schools (out of five) accept you, then, consider yourself a lucky person.You just do not know what your chances are. So, you also need to make alternative plans for if you do not succeed in getting into graduate school.
  4. Identify admission deadlines and design your timetable. If you have to take the GRE, you will need more time for preparation. Obtain application kits from the schools that you are interested in.

Preparing your application

  1. Assemble your application kit for each graduate school. That involves: ordering transcripts, writing up your statement of purpose (assume that you have to revise it 3-5 times to sharpen your rationale for applying to a particular school), rewriting/editing your best writing work, and asking three professors to write letters of recommendation. As you can imagine, this process takes a long time. Also, you have to continue your course work while you are assembling your application kits. You want to tailor each application package for each university, to bring out the fact that you are a very good fit for a particular program.
  2. Select professors who are willing to write letters of recommendation for you. Remember that from the professors' perspective, writing such letters is purely volunteer work. One letter may take as much as 2 hours of work. Make sure that you give them enough time and all the material they will need, including a transcript, writing sample, statement of purpose, and any other relevant material (e.g. work experience, foreign language capacity). If professors do not know you well, they may simply decline. As a general rule, you want to choose professors who are tenured, with whom you studied in 2-3 courses, and with whom you feel comfortable. Talk to potential professors early on and ask politely if they are willing to write letters on your behalf. If a professor says "Yes," give him or her a package that consists of a photocopy of your transcript, statements of purpose, and your resume/CV. Give him/her one month to write letters. This means, to meet a January 15 deadline, give him/her a package by in early December.
  3. Make sure you follow every instruction very carefully when completing your application forms. Remember that there are a great many application files that admission reviewers must go through, and the last thing you want to do is to undermine your file with careless errors. Make a checklist and make sure that every file is complete.
  4. Upload your application kits to meet deadlines. If you miss deadlines, graduate schools will accept no excuse whatsoever and simply reject your applications. Be aware of the fact that your file will not be looked at all until it becomes complete.
  5. Cross your fingers and wait! If you get 2 or 3 admissions, then, you can pick and choose. But do not start to do this until you do get admission decisions. You should hear your results in March/April. If you do not hear anything from a graduate school, you can telephone and ask politely when you should know your result. If you don't make it, you need to investigate why and decide whether to re-apply (and where) and consider all your options again.

Alternatives to graduate school

Today in Canada there are many opportunities for skilled work that do not require a graduate degree. There are also important ways you can build up experience that is as or more valuable than graduate school while exploring career paths. For example, you could do a legislative internship; work for a political party; run for local office; or do a volunteer/internship or teach overseas. You could consider doing a non-traditional training program, such as an apprenticeship or learning another language. There are many options to consider while you are at a stage in life with few personal commitments.

If you are not sure what you want to do, why not try a few things? You could take a course or two to explore a topic. You could go to some academic conferences. You could do an internship. Whatever you do, you should be clear about what you want to accomplish.