(More) advice on graduate school applications

Deadlines for graduate school applications are coming up again. Last year I wrote some quick pointers on applying to graduate school but since then I’ve developed my boiler-plate for our school even more as additional requests for information have entered my mailbox. So here is the latest iteration of my advices for applying to graduate school. Although it is written for where I teach, most of what I say is applicable to anywhere. Good luck!

What is your project?: You can have a successful undergraduate career by at excelling at tasks that authority figures give. In graduate school, however, we look for people who are motivated to pursue an intellectual project that is uniquely their own. Brilliant students who bring funding to the school and succeed with little or no attention from faculty are particularly attractive to us. So, the single most important thing for getting in to our department demonstrating that you have a project that you are passionate about, and that that project will motivate you to push yourself through the program.

Let me repeat: The single most important thing for getting in to our department demonstrating that you have a project that you are passionate about.

Do you have ‘fit’?:
Anthropological projects have two parts: a topic (or geographical area) and a problem (or theoretical/subdisciplinary issue). When asked what they do good anthropologists can telegraph their project by saying things like “medical anthropology of Burma” or “political anthropology of Japan”. Your application to our department will be competitive if it has a project, but it must have more than a project, it must have ‘fit’ with our department — this means you should share a topic and problem with one or more faculty members in the department. In a perfect world you would apply to a department full of people who study more or less the exact same things as you. Are your topics or problems matched with our department’s topics and problems? Do you want to do fieldwork where we do fieldwork? Do you ask the sort of questions we ask? And no: your longstanding desire to visit the romantic island paradise of Hawai’i does not count as an ‘areal focus’.

GREs and GPA:
The GREs and your grade point average are, obviously, not completely transparent and infallible indicators of your intelligence. However, our school does require them, and we do look at them. Having a low GPA and low GREs is not the end of the world, since strong recommendations and application essays can offset these scores. But you do not want the people trying to admit you to have to dig around deep in your dossier for proof you would be a good candidate. Having high scores could mean any number of things, but they will never mean anything bad. Low scores, on the other hand, are a potential point of weakness in your application. The first thing that gets your application taken seriously are high GREs and a high GPA. But a GRE book or take a course or whatever—it’s worth it.

Contact faculty: In our department, and in many other departments, it is perfectly acceptable to contact professors who you might be interested in working with and talking with them about your project, their project, and how it fits. Read what they’ve written to see where they are coming from. It may be that they agree to write you a letter of recommendation which will strengthen your application, or it may be that they decide that you are not right for the program. In any event, being proactive in building intellectual ties can, when done ethically and collegially, be an important part of deciding if our university is right for you and vice versa.

Submit work: The absolute best way to demonstrate that you belong in graduate school is to submit something — a paper, an MA thesis, a published article, something, anything — so that we can read for ourselves where you are at intellectually and how well formulated your project is. Trust me — although it is a pain to mail out all this stuff, if the committee finds a BA Honors thesis in your application, someone is going to take a look at it.

Letters matter: Your letters of recommendation really really matter, and they are best written by someone who 1) knows you well and 2) can address the quality of your academic work. General character references from your pastor are not as useful as letters from academics who have been part of your project and can testify that you have an autonomous intellectual trajectory and that you are likely to succeed in your endeavors as you passionately pursue your intellectual project.

It is ok if your biography is all wonky:
Many people took time off between undergrad and graduate school, or switched disciplines. The question is: can you narrative your biography such that your life has coherence and graduate school is the next necessary step for you? Again, a project is the most important thing here (especially if you blew away the GREs and your GPA back before you started backpacking across Latin America), not necessarily an orthodox straight-line academic career.

Four-Field Work: We have a four-field department. If you came from a purely cultural anthropology background, or do not come from an anthropology background at all, please be aware you will have to take classes in archaeology, physical anthropology, and linguistics here to fulfill deficiencies. If planned right it may not slow down your progress in our department, but there is a chance that it will — and of course if you find taphonomy intolerable, it means you will have to sit through a lot of stuff you do not want to do. Just letting you know.

Funding: UH Manoa and our department has very little direct funding for students. If you come for at least a year our department will usually assist with some tuition, and then the longer you are in the program the more we support you. But because we are a public university, we do not have lucrative scholarships for our students. Trust me, I’m not happy about this either. However, our students are successful at obtaining national-level grants like NSF, SSRC, Fulbright, FLAS etc. Moreover, our area studies programs and East-West center have various small pots of money to dip into. So we are committed to doing our best to support our students given the resources we have, and with a little bit of hustle it is not too hard to rustle up enough money to support yourself. I wish we could do better but… there you go.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

7 thoughts on “(More) advice on graduate school applications

  1. Thank you for this! I just finished an article on graduate school admissions in anthropology and resources like this have largely been lacking! When I do revisions I’m definitely going to cite this as a resource.

  2. I’ve been surprised to learn some of the disciplinary differences in what qualities faculty value in students. I was talking with a history professor, for instance, who said it is not uncommon for advisers to more or less assign their students’ dissertation topics. It seems like the sociocultural application centers around proving your independence. Do you have a unique (if eclectic) personal narrative? Can you design a project? Can we send you half way around the world, and can you come back with something valuable? Basically the character traits we look for in the heroic ethnographer.

  3. Jay, that’s a great point. I know fellow historians who have apprenticed themselves just as you say (and bitch about it with the usual bitching). But perhaps the more common pattern in my field is pretty exactly like anthropology except for us the holy site halfway around the world is ‘the archive’ rather than ‘the field’ and our heroic tales involve insane archivists and rare paper molds to which we are allergic unto death. (I’m not making that last one up – a guy in my grad program actually did his dissertation research in a gas mask.)

  4. Thanks for this article…I wish there was something I could do for my low GPA and GREs (at least for this school)…those really tripped me over and I just threw up a hail mary pass (and $70) to a school.

  5. I posted this on the other article before realizing that you wrote a new one. Can anyone tell me how to best go about switching from bio anth to cultural anth? I have an MA in bio anth, and really no experience in cultural anth, but want to switch to cultural for a PhD.

  6. Looking for a little, no a lot of, advise – I received an undergraduate degree in 1982. Since then I have worked in my area of study and have had a good amount of exposure to the field. My career has lead me to my true passion and I do have a field of research in mind. While I am currently working part-time on a graduate degree, my desire is to return to full-time graduate study for an eventual PhD in Anthropology and to spend the 2nd half of my life in research and teaching. My concern is, will a university, prestigious or otherwise, even consider a 52 year old for admission into a program?

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