Kuan-Sheng (Charles) Wu 
While many Taiwanese students pursuing graduate degrees in the United States study subjects such as computer science, engineering, and business, few have chosen to work in the social sciences in fields such as sociology, psychology, political science, and economics. Therefore, there are less people sharing their knowledge of applying to graduate school in these areas. As a result, prospective students are often hampered by a lack of information. This article, conducted in a Q&A fashion, is both a reflection of my experience applying to Ph.D. program in political science in the United States and an attempt to address the lack of references for future applicants. Since my experiences lie only in application to political science programs, the advice might be less valuable, though I think they can be applicable, to some extent, for students interested in applying to other social science programs. At the end of my discussion I include a list of information that I think is useful for future applicants.
Q1: What do you need in an application?
Similar to most applications in other fields, most, if not all, applications to graduate programs in political science can be submitted electronically via a website. The specific requirements may vary, but what most schools require, in addition to the application form that contains your basic information, is copies of test score (GRE and TOEFL), a statement of purpose (SOP, sometimes called a personal statement), transcripts from your college and graduate school (if applicable), several letters of recommendation, writing sample(s) and a copy of a financial statement.
Q2: How long is the process of the entire application until result?
Most of the applications will be due from the end of November to early January, at the latest. Some applicants who submit their applications early may receive their results in early December or January, but in general, most of the results will be released from mid-February to late-March. As schools send out their acceptances, many will plan an “open house” event to welcome admitted students for a campus visit to talk with current students and professors. School visits provide a first-hand opportunity for admitted students to grasp what it is like to be a student at the institution.
In addition to the admitted list, some schools will create a waitlist of applicants. Students on the list will often be accepted after those who are accepted decline their offers. Programs will often notify students on the waitlist after they send out their acceptances. Although some fortunate applicants on the waitlist will be admitted right after an already admitted student declines an offer, most will have to wait until April 15th –the official date that many schools set for admits to confirm their acceptance—to be told that they are off the waitlist or are rejected. Such a wait is often quite nerve-racking if a student does not have a single admission at hand.
As you can see, the application process is long, and it requires patience and courage. I myself experienced two full cycles, and I know many who tried more than twice to get into a program. The rule of thumb for applications is just like preparing for anything else in life—if you know that you want to apply to graduate school in the U.S., then start thinking about what you may need and prepare as early as you can to allow enough time for every hurdle. You will feel more confident in going through the process when you have all the requirements ready at hand. At a minimum, I would advise you give yourself at least six months to one year for you to finish all the requirements before starting to fill out an online application.
Q3: Would contacting professors before your applications help your application?
This question is hotly debated among American applicants. Professors are busy people, so they are often less willing to spend their time and resources on students that are not in their institutions. However, this does not mean that contacting them would necessarily bother them and hurt your application—if you do it right. Instead, I would argue that contacting professors is a powerful way to boost your chances for admission.
If you are still quite skeptical about contacting professors, I would recommend emailing the graduate coordinator or director first to ask whether it is frowned upon in their institution if a potential graduate student contacts a professor. Most graduate coordinators or directors I contacted gave me positive responses for doing so. The rationale behind contacting professors is that, professors, like employers, are always looking for students with great potential and interest in their work, so they have an interest in learning from you if you are qualified and are seriously considering applying to their institution. Actively contacting them gives you an opportunity to make a positive impression and stand out from your peers.
Judging from my own experiences, contacting professors seems to have played a major role in the institutions that I have been admitted to. So how exactly do you do it? I would suggest that once you are roughly certain about your research interests, start navigating all the schools and programs to check the profile pages of professors and find those that match with your research interests. Once you find them, familiarize yourself with their most important or recent works and think about how your current research interests and topics can be of interest and perhaps beneficial to them. Afterwards, draft an introductory email asking if it is possible to meet with them in person or via phone for them to 1) help answer some questions you have about the graduate program in general, and 2) answer some questions you have regarding their research.
However, as mention above, professors are busy people, so really do your homework before contacting them or else you will risk leaving a bad impression, which might hurt your application. Also, it might sometimes take weeks or even months for professors to return an email, so I would advise you contact them again only if you have not heard from them for several weeks. Lastly, even though in general I consider it a good idea to get in touch with professors, I do advise against contacting more than 4 professors at an institution. I personally never emailed more than 3 professors per institution.
Q4: How do I secure a good recommendation letter?
The recommendation letter is a very important part of your application, and you may also want to plan it early. The person who writes your letter needs to know you well, and sometimes long enough, for them to craft an influential letter. For applicants who have worked for several years, it would be fine to include one letter from a practitioner, but anything more than that may not help your application. The decision committee will be composed mostly of professors, and as a result they often tend to weigh letters from their academic peers more heavily than real-world practitioners in making their decisions. This is intuitive. Your employer might be able to testify to your work ethic and enthusiasm and have confidence in your success in graduate school, but your academic skills to craft interesting research questions, synthesize academic literature, and understand the intricacies of different methodologies will have to be backed up by academics for these credentials to be credible.
So, how do you get a good letter? I would suggest that you look for professors who work in your research areas or interests, with whom you have at least taken one course, who gave you a score of at least a B+, and who have published in major (U.S.) political science peer-reviewed journals. However, you may still wonder how one could guarantee that a professor would write a strong recommendation. My advice is when in doubt, directly ask the professor, “If you are willing to write a recommendation letter for me, would you write a strong one?” I am not certain whether such questions are offensive to ask to a professor in Taiwan, but I consider it suitable to ask to an American professor. Interestingly, when I asked the above question to a professor, the answer he gave me was: “I will be honest.” I still let him write my letter and was able to get into several programs.
Q5: How do I write a good SOP?
The SOP, or statement of purpose, is unquestionably the most important document in your application. A persuasive SOP could help you punch above your weight, while a lousy SOP can easily lead to rejection even though you may have perfect test scores and grades.
There are many ways to write a SOP, but in general I consider the following components to be indispensable in one’s statement for Ph.D. admission. Firstly, you must demonstrate a clear sense of your reasons (motivations) for pursuing a doctoral degree and career plan after receiving it. The question is a hard one but absolutely necessary, as the committee members in general will be quite interested in learning about your motivations for a Ph.D. degree to decide whether they would give you an opportunity, but not to others. For me, I realized after working in the private sector, public sector, and an international organization that I am still most interested in working as an academic. For you, it could be this or that you are so fascinated with a topic and want to know more about it. There are no right or wrong reasons, so do not worry.
The second component is your research areas/interests and specific research questions. Research areas/interests can cover many areas, from broad concepts such as international security, international political economy to more specialized topics such as Sino-U.S. relations, religion, public opinion, elections, and so forth. In general, I think it would be sufficient for a master’s applicant to identity their research areas and interests. However, for a doctoral applicant, simply doing this is not enough, as many professors would want to see an applicant has the ability to form an interesting research question.
The ability to form a good research question signals the applicant’s ability to synthesize academic literature and think creatively. This skill is highly valued in academia. There are also no right or wrong research questions, but I have a feeling that many professors prefer those that can be thought of as puzzle—something that contradicts one’s understanding or expectations but as of yet has no explanation for it. As a result, if you can think of one based on your research interests, then rest assured that you have a good research question. If not, it is definitely fine; questions such as “I want to understand how X influence Y”, or “the relationship between A and B” are also appropriate. My research question in my SOP was “although both Taiwan and South Korea were colonized by Japan during World War II, the citizens in both countries nowadays react toward their colonizer very differently. South Koreans in general are antagonistic toward the Japanese, while Taiwanese have a strong affinity toward the latter. What explains the discrepancies in the attitudes of the publics?”
After you identify your research interests, you should talk about your preparation for the Ph.D. program. This part would involve working experiences (practical and academic) and courses that you have taken (theories and methodologies). Instead of simply making a list of your achievements, the gist of this section is to convincingly explain how your past experiences could help you become a successful doctoral student. Many students would also use this part to link their SOP with their recommendation letter. For instance, if professor X is going to write you a letter, then it would be helpful to indicate your interactions with him or her in your SOP: “while taking professor X’s class, I…” to leave a stronger impression on the committee members.
The last component of the SOP is why you choose this program. This question is common but very important. What it is really about is research fit. To do a good job, it will be necessary to browse the department’s website, faculty profile pages to learn about the strengths of their program (for instance, the department might have a strong focus in research on civil war), and how these strengths could assist you in becoming an influential researcher. It may also be necessary to identity the professors that you want to work with. Remember not to just list names but really discuss why the professor is so important for your doctoral degree.
Q6: Will having a publication increases my chances of being admitted?
I think the answer is a qualified yes. When I asked my American professors this question, they told me it depends where your papers were published. Say, for example, you publish in a highly-regarded, tier-one journal in political science such as International Organizations or American Political Science Review; then I think we can both be confident that you will be admitted to almost any program that you wish to get into, if you write a good SOP. However, if your paper is published in a journal that is regional and perhaps in a different language than English, then the journal might have less viewership among American academics. In this case, professors who review your application might not weigh those publications very heavily in their decisions. In other words, it is great if you have a publication when applying, as it signals your ability to conduct academic research; however, if you do not have a publication so far, you can be relieved that it will not hurt your application. I was able to get several acceptances without a single publication, and I also know many who did not have a single publication but got into prestigious programs. I also have friends who have publications in their countries’ journals but still received numerous rejections. All in all, as I indicated above, focus on the statement of purpose, as it is the true deal-breaker.
Q7: What is a good political science program?
There is no consensus on this question, and everyone may have a different answer. Common answers to this question could range from an overly-simplified answer such as “go to the program that ranked the best” to an overly-pessimistic one: “I will go to anywhere that takes me.” However, I think my advice would be to “go to a graduate program that could make you happy.” I know this answer may sound naïve and vague, but what I mean is that you should pay attention to the variables that you think will make you happy when applying to school. In the business world, they often rank companies based on the happiness of their employees, and I often wonder why there is no such ranking for political science programs. Graduate school is a long process, and whether you are happy or not when going thorough it will make a huge difference.
You might not be entirely sure of all the factors that could make you happy, but I think you should at least know some that you know will make you happy. List them. For instance, if you value ranking highly, then it is logical to think that a highly-ranked program would give you a lot of happiness. If you value warm weather, then schools in California and Florida sound like good choices. When I was applying to school, I told myself that I wanted my future school to have a huge gymnasium for me to do sports, and now it is actually an important factor that makes me happy.
However, simply focusing on one variable can still make you miserable, because even if you are happy about one variable, then there might be other variables that might you unhappy. For instance, if you get admitted into a prestigious program, but it does not provide you with funding, then we can both be sure that you will be constantly worried about managing your monthly budget. As a result, find the variables that will make you happy but make a holistic decision, instead of just focusing on one variable. Some common factors that applicants often consider are ranking, funding, location, weather, research fit, family, and culture of the department. My point here is that when many people apply to graduate school, they often get overly fixated on one variable such as ranking or school name, while overlooking others important ones such as living environment, the location of the school, departmental culture or funding and become unhappy after they start their program. It will be hard for someone to finish a Ph.D. degree in that situation.
That is all I have to say, and let me wish you all the best in your applications!
Appendix: Useful information
The following are a list of websites and blogs that I think will be useful for you:
1.) Columbia University Professor Chris Blattman’s blog. Check out his “Advice: Professional” section. http://chrisblattman.com/
2.) Yale University Professor Nuno Monteiro. Check his “Advice” section. http://www.nunomonteiro.org/
3.) Academia Sinica Assistant Research Fellow Wu Wen-Chin. Check “通往博士班之路” in his blog, http://blog.yam.com/wenchin/category/796123
4.) Gradcafe, an online platform where prospective as well current graduate students discuss and exchange ideas on application. Sometimes, faculty member will provide their opinions. http://forum.thegradcafe.com/forum/36-political-science/ Go to the “Results Search” site and type “Political Science” or “Government”, and you will find a list of application results that people report. http://www.thegradcafe.com/survey/
5.) 美國政治所博班。申請作戰中心—an online Facebook community where you can find information about applications as well as other resources. https://www.facebook.com/PS.PhD.TWtoUS Go to the “Notes” section and you will find two current Taiwanese Ph.D. students’ advice and reflections on applications.
6.) Applications Information on the PTT Bulletin Board System.
7.) A Chinese student’s advice on how he got into the Ph.D. program at Stanford University.
8.) 黃畢誠, a Ph.D. student at the University of Virginia, offers his experience in applying.