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Thread: Getting into a PhD program after RA

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    Getting into a PhD program after RA

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    I will be starting a full-time RA job at a top 5 place this fall, and I'm planning on staying for 2-3 years. Maybe I'm selling myself short, but I think if I had applied this cycle, I would have gotten offers in the #25-40 range (good but not great math grades, some research experience, two very strong letters, etc.). I have two questions: one, how much can this type of RA gig improve my chances at getting into a top 10-20 place (I can also take classes while I'm RAing) and two, I've heard that, provided you do well as an RA, you have a good shot of getting into the university where you are RAing. Is there any merit to this?

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    Re: Getting into a PhD program after RA

    I'll be starting my full-time RA gig pretty soon as well! As a general rule of thumb, profs told me that the largest marginal benefits are experienced by applicants who have everything in good shape except for what can be filled in by that full time RA job.

    So basically, those who have:
    1) good grades in advanced math/econ classes
    2) two good letters of recommendation (assuming you'll be working for one professor?)
    3) an undergrad thesis (not totally necessary, but I'm guessing that one letter of recommendation will come from your thesis advisor?)

    but does not have
    1) a strong third recommendation letter
    2) demonstrated research experience

    All else equal, I'd guess that you have a higher shot of getting into the school you work at, since your professor will likely be much more connected with faculty at his/her institution. However, if your other two letter writers were already well connected with top schools, maybe the marginal benefits of your full time RA prof's connections are not that large. (and if your other two letter writers weren't so well connected, then the marginal benefits will be much larger). If other areas of your application are weak (bad grades, mediocre letters, etc.), then you still may not get into the school you're working at.

    This is only my opinion, however, so feel free to disagree with whatever I said!

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    Re: Getting into a PhD program after RA

    If you are RAing at your dream school, then good job. Regardless of where you go, it will be an awesome experience that you will look back on fondly.

    For the purposes of maximizing your chances of getting admitted to that school (or any of the top tier schools, for that matter), then time is your biggest advantage. People often don't realize that if you work an RA for only one year, your supervisors are going to have only 4-5 months of work to write about. This is not ideal, because an RA is something that, in my experience, takes getting used to. It took me about 7 months to really get good at my job. So, if you are willing to stay for 2 years, then you will be doing much higher quality work, and your letter will be stronger because of it.

    I would advise you to take advantage of all the resources available to you. When you can, attend seminars that interest you. After you get to know your supervisors, you will be able to ask them if they can connect you to certain professors whose research interests are close to your own. When I was an RA, I had a few meetings like this, and I found them incredibly valuable. If you take a class, make sure to give it your all and definitely make sure to not overload yourself. I underestimated how tiring a full time work schedule can be. If you are not confident that you will stand out in terms of grades, you can always ask to sit in on classes.

    I stayed at my RA for only one year. Despite this, I still got top 20 offers and some attention from top 10 schools (i.e., waitlists, unfunded offers). If you have a good profile and are interested in your job and do good work, I expect you will have a reasonably stress-free application season and should get a few offers from the range of schools you're targeting.
    WWCBD: What Would Colonel Blotto Do?

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    Re: Getting into a PhD program after RA

    I personally did not work as a full-time RA, but during my several years of exchanging solicited and unsolicited information with applicants, I've built up a decent sample and it seems that over a majority of full-time RAs get an offer from the department of their professor. The lone exceptions might be Harvard/MIT, as their professors take a disproportionate amount of RAs with NBER/JPAL/etc., and they don't admit a majority of them. But a lot of these end up at Chicago/Yale etc (and occasionally vice versa). Hopefully a poster with top 5 RA experience can share some more information, as they'd have known many other full-time RAs during their experience.

    In any case, I've never heard of a full-time top-5 RA dropping to below top 20 PhD -- though, keep in mind that unsuccessful applicants don't often tell their stories.

    I still agree with matheonomics' framework - background matters. And we shouldn't disregard self-selection of strong undergrads into RA jobs when we judge their results. But on the other hand, a paid RA job with a top 5 professor is not trivial to obtain, so you should take it as a positive signal on your own unobservables. In particular, your two letters are definitely above a certain threshold of strength, so you can re-use them with peace of mind.

    And yes, contacts are important. Did you ever hear the tragedy of the Harvard admissions leak? No? I thought not. It's not a story your professors will tell you. It's an EJMR legend...

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    Re: Getting into a PhD program after RA

    Do you guys think that there is a difference between RAing at a top5 school for an assistant professor vs. a professor with an established name? I wonder if the marginal benefit of their letter differ, and if so, by how much.
    Quote Originally Posted by chateauheart View Post
    I personally did not work as a full-time RA, but during my several years of exchanging solicited and unsolicited information with applicants, I've built up a decent sample and it seems that over a majority of full-time RAs get an offer from the department of their professor. The lone exceptions might be Harvard/MIT, as their professors take a disproportionate amount of RAs with NBER/JPAL/etc., and they don't admit a majority of them. But a lot of these end up at Chicago/Yale etc (and occasionally vice versa). Hopefully a poster with top 5 RA experience can share some more information, as they'd have known many other full-time RAs during their experience.

    In any case, I've never heard of a full-time top-5 RA dropping to below top 20 PhD -- though, keep in mind that unsuccessful applicants don't often tell their stories.

    I still agree with matheonomics' framework - background matters. And we shouldn't disregard self-selection of strong undergrads into RA jobs when we judge their results. But on the other hand, a paid RA job with a top 5 professor is not trivial to obtain, so you should take it as a positive signal on your own unobservables. In particular, your two letters are definitely above a certain threshold of strength, so you can re-use them with peace of mind.

    And yes, contacts are important. Did you ever hear the tragedy of the Harvard admissions leak? No? I thought not. It's not a story your professors will tell you. It's an EJMR legend...

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    Re: Getting into a PhD program after RA

    Quote Originally Posted by chateauheart View Post
    The lone exceptions might be Harvard/MIT, as their professors take a disproportionate amount of RAs with NBER/JPAL/etc.,
    I'd guess that Chicago would also fall in one of these exceptions as well. They seem to hire a lot of full time RAs, at least based on job openings posted at the NBER.

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