What I Wish Someone Taught Me When I Applied to My PhD: Considerations for Professors of Incoming (International) Students

Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash

Fall is here and the new academic year has started. Three years ago, this coincided with my first active steps towards applying to a doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology. I have learned many things throughout the (rather gruesome) process of applications that are easily teachable and transferablein the form of skills, pieces of advice, warnings, or pats on the shoulder. While I share some of these tips that I found helpful in my experience here, I regard this post primarily as an invitation to professors in anthropology departments to consider designing a crash course, one-day workshop, or a Zoom session to guide their undergraduate and/or Master's-level students as they decide to jump into the PhD application process. These workshops or guiding sessions would orient students toward what to expect and what to do, but would also allow all prospective students to work together, share resources, and make this process less lonely, stressful, competitive, or world-shattering. On another level, I regard this post as an accessible resource that professors could link in their email responses to incoming (international) students in an effort to be more transparent, clear, and honest about the injustices and inequalities inherent in PhD admissions in most North American universities.

Coming to the Global North might seem like a dream to many international students, with promised aspirations of better “quality of life,” but it is a less utopian dream when you add PhD to the equation.

First Things First: What, Exactly, is a PhD in Anthropology Anyway?

If you are an international student, like myself, you will soon enough come to realize that most countries in the Global South lack doctoral programs in anthropology. And when/if they do offer these, you are most likely to be advised to go elsewhere. This elsewhere is specific, “the Global North.” A doctoral degree from a Global North institution “weighs more,” is stronger, and will equip you with the tools you need to grow as an academic. While many of these claims are debatable and reflect geopolitical inequalities that put international students at a grave disadvantage, they bear some truth and you must take them seriously. Eventually, international students from the Global South are bound to leave “home” in search for better educational opportunities.

Coming to the Global North might seem like a dream to many international students, myself included, with promised aspirations of better “quality of life,” but it is a less utopian dream when you add PhD to the equation. Especially in the first year or few years, depending on the structure of your program, a PhD sucks you in and overwhelms you, filling your life and overwhelming it with deadlines, proposals, and endless variations of “what are you working on” and “introduce yourself and your research.” Leaving your hometown, regardless of whether you ever desired it or not, is a leap to a new set of uncertainties. PhD is an added uncertainty that makes this leap more challenging in most cases.

With that in mind, here’s the best advice I received during our PhD orientation: the PhD is a full-time job. It is much more, of course. It is pleasure, company, play, conversations, growth, and discipline. But I begin with the full-time job definition because it allows you to understand that “liking” a discipline, seeking an escape, or being okay with teaching are not sufficient reasons for you to apply for a PhD in anthropology. This definition also helps you grasp how demanding it is, while also realizing that it takes hard work for you to compartmentalize it and keep it as just one part of who you are and what you do every day.

The Voice, Academia Edition: Getting In

Given a lack of formal/informal teaching of how the PhD admission and acceptance process goes, many students feel overwhelmed, uncertain, and largely scared of what this mythical process really looks like. Do professors look into potential students? Who decides, and what are the parameters of acceptance or rejection? While I might not have all the clearest answers to these questions, let me try and expose some of the workings of PhD admissions and acceptance/rejection crusadesmany battles of which transcend your project, intelligence, and research capacities.

Allow me to play with this analogy for a bit: your acceptance in a PhD program proceeds quite similarly to acceptance in a talent show like The Voice. Let me explain. Now that you have decided to apply for a PhD in anthropology, an initial very important step is to work on the required documents, the most important of which is your statement of purpose (SoP)a.k.a. what are you performing in your blind audition? In other words, this is your pitch. Do your research, know your interests, and ask any friends/colleagues who are already accepted whether they would be okay to share their SoPs with you. Talent shows have requirements for what is accepted, and so do PhD programs. A SoP is a genre of writing, one that you learn and get better at with practice. Once you read a few accepted SoPs, you will soon understand the parameters, the cues, the harmonies by which the components of your proposed research becomes a coherent piece. My description of SoPs as a “pitch” is also meant to emphasize that you are not strictly wedded to that pitch and everything it says. An SoP is more of your entry ticket and while you are expected to more or less commit to the project you applied with, your project will inevitably change over the course of the PhD program. As such, regard your SoP as a preliminary pitcha playful, provisional, introductory, and strategic description of your area of interest.

Once you have a draft of your pitch or SoP, you begin reaching out to potential “coaches” or supervisors. You choose them based on your research interests: What themes are you working on, what region are you working in, what questions are you proposing? My advice: reach out to as many anthropologists as you can. Here’s the deal: even if they don’t respond or respond negatively, now one more anthropologist knows that you exist in the world and what you are researching. You send your pitch over email and wait. And wait. And wait. A blooper? At least half of the responses will be prefaced by something along these lines: “This is an interesting research project. Are you a domestic student by any chance? We accept a very limited number of international students, and we have very limited funding.” Welcome to the land of international students, limited funds, and dwindling opportunities (for a quick reflection on that topic, check this recent piece).

A Call to Action for Professors: Can we please add more context to these otherwise disappointing emails? Any additional details on percentages of accepted international students, unequal distribution of funds, alongside acknowledgement of the quality of the student’s potential makes a huge difference!

It could be something along these lines: “Your pitch is great, but it is not just your voice that is being judged here. It’s also where your voice comes fromthe passport carrying your voice makes a difference. As an international student, you are disadvantaged in various ways, and your pitch is straddled by many geopolitical realities that you are born into. This is only to urge you to continue but only with the awareness of how already unequal this process is. You proceed, while expanding your options as much as you can (afford).”

Another idea would be to respond through sharing a transparent view of how admission works in your department. Here is a further glimpse shared generously by Saida Hodžić on her page of Academia.edu. While this summary is specifically about Cornell University, one can safely say that this is more or less how most programs operateat least in North America. Prior to students sending their pitch to potential coaches, Hodžić explains that Cornell has a rotating graduate admissions committee that reviews all applications, ranks them, and selects only the best fifteen to twenty percent. It is only then that faculty members/potential coaches are invited to look through the chosen fifteen to twenty percent and evaluate candidates. This is when coaches read students’ pitches, a.k.a. SoPs, and “vote” with a yes or no. Hodžić points out that only six to ten PhD students are admitted every year, a number largely restricted by funding considerations. The latter likewise depends on, among other things, whether the university is public or private and the amount of funding the department has. Unsurprisingly, of these six to ten students, perhaps only two to three international students could be squeezed in. Students, picture this: a potential coach listens to your incredible top-of-the-batch voice but as they rotate their chairs to vote “yes,” they are reminded that you’re an international student (here’s a sample blind audition if you’re unfamiliar with how The Voice works). Oh well, the yes could then become a yes with a but, a waitlisted yes, or a no, all depending on the rest of the applications and their country of origin.

Your acceptance in a PhD program proceeds quite similarly to acceptance in a talent show like The Voice.

A Potential Checklist/Action Plan:

It would be redundant to reiterate or emphasize yet one more time that international students are disadvantaged in this application process. Apart from potentially moving across continents all by themselves in most cases (if and when they are accepted), international students also pay for these applications and additional requirements such as Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) and International English Language Testing Systems (IELTS) in foreign currencies. In light of this surreal state of affairs, I share some tips and resources that I found helpful while applying. This list is inspired by and expands on a 2018 blog post on Anthrodendum whose author, Dick, provides a wonderful list/timeline for PhD application preparations. Dick’s list further expands on a Twitter conversation that took place in 2018 under the hashtag #HiddenCurriculumduring which, contributors rightly pointed out the importance of demystifying PhD application process and the right of students to be taught and guided in this overwhelming ritualistic contest. I invite professors to share this list and/or link this post in response to incoming (international) students or undergraduate students who plan to apply to graduate programs in your department.

  1. How Many, Where, Second Rounds: Create a larger-than-life excel sheet (template here) with all the potential departments to which you are planning to apply. Include the deadlines, requirements, names of potential supervisors, and any further notes in that list. Important notes here might include whether this university is in a migrant-friendly country/city, an unbearably cold location, or a relatively affordable region. Brownie points: Create another secret excel sheet titled “Round 2.” This list would include less-than-ideal universities, which would put your heart at ease in case/whenever rejections flood or your emails.
  2. Testing Waters & Emerging Grounds: Upon preparing your SoP, check out the latest anthropology books from different university presses, latest Annual Review of Anthropology articles, and regional or theme-specific publications. This testing waters and emerging grounds exercise will help you find ways to frame your project in line with some of the emerging lacunae in the field, a “sexy” marketing strategy that you can negotiate after you find your way into your PhD program.
  3. Put Yourself Out There: This is one thing that I found really helpful during my application process: some public presence. This does not have to be showing up in fancy conferences or presenting in front of intimidating scholars. There are more relaxed and less stressful ways of sharing your work just a bit more widely.
    1. Academia.edu: One of my favorite mentors suggested that I create a free webpage on Academia.edu and upload all my undergraduate and MA final essays (at least those I was comfortable sharing), so that I would link that page in all the emails I sent to potential advisors.
    2. The American Anthropology Association (AAA) Graduate Prizes: Without having to pay for a membership (although I would recommend a student membership if you are pursuing an academic path), AAA has many graduate prizes varying by region and theme that you can apply to. Submit one of your best final essays or a chapter of your MA thesis, if applicable. A graduate prize listed on your application and shared in your email exchange with potential supervisors is one thing that made a difference in my PhD application experience.
  4. Reach Out to Graduate Students: An amazing piece of advice that a friend shared during our PhD applications process was to reach out to graduate students in these respective programs, especially and preferably those working with the supervisors you are hoping to work with. In addition to knowing more about the program, funding, and department environment, these conversations with graduate students allow you to get more insight on what comes to be known as supervision styles. Graduate students will be able to share whether their supervisor is hands-on, laissez faire, approachable, super-busy, super-star, invested, or about to retire. While you might easily fall in love with a supervisor from their publications or their page on a university website, they might not work best for you as a supervisor. With that being said, however, you always have the choice of changing your supervisoror going for a co-supervision if applicable in your departmentafter you are admitted (this would get us into a discussion of departmental politics but we’re running out of space here).
  5. Apply in More than One Department/Program: Explore potentially relevant departments in your programs beyond anthropology. These could be region-specific programs or theme/subfield specific ones, and in many cases acceptance in these programs is less competitive. Many friends of mine ended up accepted in interdisciplinary programs and have enjoyed more collegial environments, less competitive funds/grants, and more engaged camaraderie when compared to anthropology programs.
  6. Negotiate Your Offer: If you happen to be accepted in more than one university or program, negotiate your offer. Confidently and firmly, write to each department and explain your current situation and how many acceptances you have received, while clarifying that you are more likely to join their program if they improve their funding package. You might find this “cheap” or unprofessional, but again: the PhD is a job, rules of the game apply, and as an international student you always need more funds.
  7. Rejections Abound & a Reality Check: Your PhD application is just a first step into an endless round of applications—grants, conferences, workshops, etc. You might receive rejections on top of rejections and decide to go for a second round. The very process of applications is an experience, a strengthening of your (mental, intellectual, bureaucratic, academic, emotional) muscles that will never be in vain. Rejections can hurt at first but you get used to them quickly. I will not end with a cliché “embrace the pain,” but let us just say that PhD applications (whether you’re accepted or not) is good practice.

Writing this from my second year in the PhD program, I am forever grateful to every reassuring email response I received from supportive potential supervisors during my application process. I believe that a strong mentor-mentee bond is one of the most rewarding components of academia. If anything, feeling supported and coached by mentors who believe in my potential is what keeps me going and restores my faith in academia and teaching. While I realize how burdensome and overwhelming it is to receive endless emails from students you do not know, an email response can transform and inspire students to persevere and try again. PhDs are hard work, but they are genuinely rewarding through conversations, mentorships, and collegiality that students nurture among themselves and with professors’ guidance, supervision, and inspiring company.