This is the second part of a post on applying to PhD programs because it was way too long for a single post. You can read the first part here to get up to speed if you haven’t done so already. Otherwise, enjoy and please feel free to leave comments below or keep them to yourself I don’t care (actually I do care…a lot).

Have a Project in Mind That You Can Discuss and that EXCITES You
As I said above, you don’t necessarily have to stick with the project that you propose when applying for a PhD (I am speaking only on behalf of the Humanities and English, in particular, and I don’t know if this is the case in all academic disciplines). It is important, however, that the project you propose in your application is something that interests you and not simply something that you think will get you into a particular program. Most programs will ask for a statement of intent that includes your project outline and reason(s) for wanting to attend their program. You will usually have between 500 – 1000 words in which to make your case so you’ve got to make every word count. I am certain that every academic who has ever had to review applications can tell the difference between a proposal that has passion behind it and one that is done proforma to tick a box. Also, if your proposal is on Modernist poetry (or whatever) and you hate Modernist poetry, chances are you will not have a great time switching fields completely to Anglo-Saxon chronicles (or whatever) and find that the program that accepted your Modernist proposal is actually fairly weak in the thing you really want to do. I’m not saying that a change this drastic has never been done or that it is impossible, but your initial proposal should at least be an honest portrayal of what interests you, even if you don’t end up doing the exact thing that you wrote about. In fact, I doubt you will find anyone who did the exact project they proposed when applying for a PhD. Interests develop over time and they can go in all sorts of weird ways. Go with it, but be honest from the outset about what curdles your cream.

Because I like you, I am sharing with you the actual letter of intent I sent to UBC with my application. I found when I was applying that the most difficult task in writing one of these was that there was no standard format. Some places, as mentioned above, wanted as many as 1000 words and gave very little instruction as to what you should include. UBC gave fairly detailed instructions (included in the document) and even little hints on how to compose your letter, like suggesting that it be an abbreviated version of your Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Statement of Study. Below you will find my UBC letter of intent, word for word (except I didn’t include the instructions on the copy uploaded in my application). I have since changed topics slightly, well pretty drastically actually, but I am still interested in all the things I wrote at the time and I am incorporating some of the same ideas into my present research.

Justin O’Hearn Letter of Intent for UBC English PhD
Research the Faculty You Might Want to Work With
and then contact them to see if THEY want to work with YOU. This is probably one of the most important parts of your application. Like your letters of reference, you need someone who is enthusiastic about your work at the institution(s) you’re applying to. Funny that, eh? So, like your referees, you need to contact your dream supervisors early. How early? Like late summer/early fall early so…early. First thing you need to do is – apart from being organized and having something to actually say to a potential supervisor – get over your fear of the cold email. I think it used to be the case that students would call potential supervisors on something called a telephone, but I don’t know of anybody in the past five years who did that as an initial communication. I got responses from every person I contacted and they weren’t all positive or supportive either, so get ready for that little dose of reality. The major point here is, you can’t pussyfoot around when you’re talking about potential supervisors. You’ve got to seek out the person or persons you think will be the best fit for your project and look at their research and work and then contact them. The same rules apply for the cold email as the request for a reference letter: the professor may not feel they are a good match for what you’re proposing, but they will often recommend somebody who is. I have found many academics I have contacted to be friendly and obliging in this regard. There are a few who don’t care about you and will hate you simply for existing, but I think that is true of people in general and not specific to academia. If you are sending out a number of cold emails, I would suggest you adopt some sort of a proforma email that looks something like this:

Dear Dr. [SOMEONE],

I am applying for entrance to [SCHOOL’s] PhD program for [next year] and I am interested in your work. I believe our research interests are complementary and I am trying to gauge the level of interest in research like mine in [SCHOOL’S] department. I have also contacted [SOMEONE ELSE IN THE DEPARTMENT] regarding my proposed research in the hope that I can get a good feel of the type of work being done at [SCHOOL]. If you could suggest other faculty who may have interest in my research it would be great if you have time to look over my proposal, I have attached it to this email for you to peruse. Please let me know should you have any questions or require further information.

Thank you in advance.

-Eternally grateful PhD hopeful

You’ll obviously want to replace the things in brackets with specifics. You’ll notice that this email mentions your contacting someone else in the addressee’s department. This is a good practice because you have to have backup plans as well as keep in mind that you will need to form supervisory committees when you actually get into a program. It could also help you if two or more people in the department start talking about you because, to paraphrase my homeboy Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So, having two or more potential supervisors or members of a committee gunning for you is a great thing. Also, if the people you email with your query and project proposal are really enthusiastic about working with you, they will advocate on your behalf during the selection process thus rendering you more likely to be accepted than the guy (or girl) who just sent all the application materials in without contacting a single person at the department.

Also, if the potential supervisors you contact are interested many of them will respond by telling you that you can mention their interest in you when you send an application to the department. This is a very good thing. Some may want to have further contact with you on the phone or in person, though this never happened to me. It couldn’t be me, could it? Some may also ask for another writing sample or further information on your project. This is not because they doubt you, it is because they are interested in you (or at least your work). This supervisor/student thing is a two-way street, folks. You need them, but they also need you. Once you’ve found a potential supervisor and committee members, you have to make sure that you work those connections when filing your application. Mention exactly whom you have spoken with regarding your project. This will serve two functions: 1) it will tell the people doing the accepting that you are a good fit for their department and 2) it will jog the memory of the person(s) you contacted. In my experience, I didn’t have a great deal of contact after the initial “Dear Dr. Someone”, their response, and a followup thank you email, so reminding them of how great they think you are can’t be a bad thing.

I feel I must add one last point in the hunt for supervisors. Rock star academics don’t necessarily make the best supervisors. You all know who I mean. Don’t get me wrong, it would be a truly awesome (in the Biblical sense) to have someone like Judith Butler as a supervisor but the reality is that probably will never happen (to many). I’m not saying that Butler would be a bad supervisor, but you have to take into consideration why you want this person as a supervisor. Is it because of the name alone? Do you think they will be able to devote an appropriate amount of time to your project? To this end, it is not an unfair question to ask potential supervisors how many students they are supervising at the moment and how many that they have supervised are placed in academic careers (this is also a good departmental question). Basically, the more students your person is supervising the less time they will have for you (most of the time) because it is a time-consuming kind of relationship. When you take into consideration how busy a professor’s job already is, think about that rock star who flies around the world giving talks to gaga grad student fanboys/girls, keynote addresses at conferences, teaching, and other important person stuff. Will they really have the time to devote to you and your project? Choose your supervisor wisely and for the right reasons. Since we are on the topic of Judith Butler, why not check out the podcast of the excellent talk she gave a while back in my ‘hood of Vancouver.

In conclusion, mine is not the only advice on this topic by a long shot. You can also check out this post on writing to potential supervisors by Faye Hicks (I had originally misattributed this post and I apologize for that).

Okay, this is running way longer than I anticipated so stay tuned for the third and (I hope) final installment. Thanks for reading and commenting! -J