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PhD Application Cycle 2009: Lessons Learned


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Great topic.


I was lucky in that I had grad student friends I could ask to read my SOP, but even so I think I underestimated how important it was to get their input. Given my GPA, research background, GREs, etc., I think the best thing I did for myself during the application season was to get extensive feedback from several people on several drafts of my SOP.


If you have any friends or acquaintances at the grad level or above in your field, pick their brains fearlessly!

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What do you know now that you wish you would've known then? :idea:


For 2010 applicants, please comment on your battle scars and lessons learned in the 2009 process. What would you have done differently? What do you wish someone had told you?


Done differently - not invested my savings in stocks :/


Wish someone had told me - that submitting applications would take up ALL of my free time for two months (would've helped set lower expectations from my personal life in that period! :rolleyes:)

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I applied to 13 programs. Despite the fact that I did get in to one of my top picks, if I had it to do all over again I probably would've applied to 15-20 programs.


I also would've retaken my GMAT and crushed the quant section (it was teetering on 5 years old).


Oh, and I wish I would've had realistic expectations about the waiting window. I was beginning to freak out in January - no need to even begin wringing your hands until mid-to-late February. :)

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I should have applied to a wider range of schools, not just top 10 + safety. they were all a stretch except the safety.


Also should have planned the GRE better. I can only sit it twice a year in NZ, so I should have sat it in April, so I could resit in October. And I should have studied a lot harder for it, taken it more seriously.

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I, too, ended up with my top choice so I guess I can't complain a whole lot. That said:


1. Apply to more schools, if only to decrease my stress during the "waiting season." I think I would've been a lot more comfortable had I applied to 15 schools rather than five.


2. Been less specific regarding research topics in my SOP. I think this limited my chances at a couple schools (granted, it might have raised them at others!) and maybe even looked naive, considering that no one really expects accounting applicants to have much in the way of research ideas.


3. Started my math and econ preparation earlier! I am serious stressing about first year coursework.


4. Like doctoraldude, not put my savings for school in mutual funds. :(


5. Contaced profs at all of the schools I applied to. I contacted profs at two schools in September to discuss programs and admissions, and perhaps not coincidentally, received very early interview requests from those two schools. I didn't hear from the others before withdrawing my applications.


This is a great thread; wish this had been around earlier in the year!

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I got into one of the top Accy programs, and with an incredible stipend, but still...


1. Definitely should have started my math preparation sooner.


2. Should have *forced* myself to be motivated to study for the GMAT.


3. Should have recognized that Cornell's program is very, very small. Very. Very very. And that I would therefore not only be competing with Accounting applicants, but *all* business applicants.


4. And although everything turned out okay, I totally should have increased the number of programs I was applying to--applying to five PhD programs and one Masters program is insane given the schools I was trying to get into.


5. And I'll echo the above: should have contacted professors at schools I would be applying to, and I should have started doing it about a year prior to establish some type of relationship.

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I would have applied to more big name schools. I only applied to 1 top ten school and got rejected, but I got interviews and offers from all the other ones (which were also good schools, but not the big name ones), so I feel like I should have applied to more schools that were a long shot just to see.


At the time I applied, I was considering only faculty research interests, and not the impact of brand name on future prospects.

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i would like to add one thing.


do more research on schools.

i mean when preparing to apply, applicants must consider not only the research fit, but also the grad school's general atmosphere.

i had overlooked this point, and based on what i saw, i thought that many applicants also did not care much about this.

although research productivity may be high enough equivalently, some schools focus more on theoretical advancement itself, while others pursue the knowledge for practice or for contribution to the society. of course there cannot be a clear distinction, but their emphases do differ.


to be admitted, i believe that applicants should show good fit with schools' emphasis, in addition to the perfect research fit.

if i had been more confident about this, i would have saved some money.

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I think I underestimated how important strong LORs are. Even with my relatively strong profile and 750 GMAT, I was worried about my low quant (48) and the low acceptance rates, so I applied to 19 schools across the top 25. In hindsight, I overdid it by a LOT; I applied to way too many schools. But that's just the thing -- that's in hindsight. When approaching the application process, I wanted to err on the side of too many applications rather than too few. I didn't want to end up getting into a decent PhD and then end up always wondering, "What if I had applied to some more top 10s?"


My take-aways from the process are as follows:

  1. Don't confuse the issue -- GMAT is a very important part of your application. However, if you have LORs from well-known faculty who have personal relationships with the big wigs at top schools, this can be overcome. I am proof of this! An adcom basically told me as such. Do everything you can to ace the GMAT with a quant score of 90% or higher and to secure amazing LORs.
  2. Invest the time to write a stellar SOP that will make you stand out when the committees read it. Think of something unique about your profile and use that as a focal point so that they'll remember you out of the hundreds of other people with the same scores, GPAs, and degrees.
  3. Cast a wide net when applying to schools. It's better to regret spending extra hours and money applying to more schools than to always wonder, "What if?"
  4. BE PATIENT! I was lucky and started getting contacted for interviews before the new year, but even that is no guarantee of quick decisions; I am still waiting to hear back from a school I interviewed with in December and again in early January!!
  5. Don't stress about interviews. They are laid back, and the questions are easy; remember, they wouldn't be calling if they didn't already think you were good enough to get in.

Those are the big things that come to mind.

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A few pieces of advice


1. Think about attending the national meeting for your area. For example, I attended the American Accounting Association conference in Anaheim last summer as a student member. This gave me the opportunity to not only get more familiar with research, but it also allowed me to meet professors and current PhD students. I am certain that connections at this conference helped me a lot in the application process.


2. Apply to a broad range of schools. Yes, I know that the vast majority of us would love to get an offer from Chicago, Wharton, etc..., but you must also diversify your risk. Applying to only top 10 type programs is very risky, you probably want to consider 5 top tier, 5 mid-tier, 2 safety, or something of that nature.


3. Try to familiarize yourself with research. This does not mean you need to have published already, no one expects that. But it certainly helps to have read some papers in your area because then you can talk about topical areas and the research of certain professors in a professional manner.


4. Do not start freaking out in late Jan. or early Feb. like I did, this process took longer then I expected. I thought I would have a decision made by mid-Feb., but it ended up being early March.


5. Do not underestimate the importance of your SOP. Please take the time to write and re-write. Have other people read it, in particular try to get a professor from your undergrad or masters who has some experience on admissions committee to give you fead back.


6. Most importantly, stay positive and do not let the process consume your life for 6 months.

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But at what cost? The marginal return might be negative, once you factor in the anxiety and "burn-out" you get from too much tweaking. It's also harder to find mistakes and stuff the more you read it, since you begin reading on auto-pilot. That was my experience, anyway. It drove me nuts!


In the end, I eventually found a pretty glaring typo about a month after my last application was submitted, and it wasn't caught even though I had been reading this thing for months! I almost think it's better to get it looking really good, and then just submit it and forget it -- Ron Popeil style. :p

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I have learned a tremendous amount in this application process, but two big mistakes on my part stand out.


1. Take more advanced math classes. I have a load of statistical expertise in my background for just having a bachelor of business (like nearly 20 credits), & I want to study consumer behavior in marketing. But I took calculus for business majors as a freshman & got a B+ (I emphasize "freshman" because, while I aced every exam, I failed to turn in about a quarter of the homework, haha). I am plenty good at math & should have taken the "real" calculus class, even for redundant credit later in my undergrad career. As a result, I'm currently looking at a Plan B that includes getting an MA in math... expensive, both for my time & my money.


2. Contact professors with whom you are interested in researching. I know the marketing professors at my alma mater very well - three of them wrote recommendations. I assumed from my experience with business faculty that their time is beyond precious, & therefore they would not welcome a random PhD applicant emailing them presuambly to play kiss @ss. But it's not kiss @ss if you genuinely like what they're researching! I sincerely regret that I did not put myself out there on a more personal level with the professors that caught my intellectual attention.


In the end, the combination of my thin background in "strong" maths (calc, linear algebra, multivar.) plus my avoiding contact with the individuals at each marketing department has doomed my application season, I'm afraid. Don't hold back in your applications! If you really liked a paper by a professor, & it raised some interesting questions for you research-wise, tell them about it! Ask THEM those questions!

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DG, I'm surprised to hear you've found that a math background is so important for CB applicants. Isn't stats/psychology background enough for CB? Obviously you know best, but I guess it varies by field--I am in micro OB and took math only up to multivariable calc, no linear algebra, and no one has ever complained. I think a good quant GRE score did help me, though.
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Isn't stats/psychology background enough for CB? Obviously you know best, but I guess it varies by field.


Well, I wouldn't say I know best! I am speculating, based on the knowledge of marketing applicants I've acquired over the past several months. Comparing other applicants' profiles with my own, the obvious difference is my degree, a BS in business (marketing). Business degrees do not put you through advanced math or advanced economics (unless you're in finance, & then that's still not all that difficult compared to degrees in those fields). Business degrees really aren't supposed to prepare you for technical research, but for management, case work, & entrepreneurship. In other words, what marketing professors teach,versus what they do, requires very different skills.


So while I discovered during my business studies that the business world was not my destiny of choice, I suspect that my research work in the marketing department on a few academic papers was not sufficient to show my preparedness for PhD-level research in the same department in which I got my degree. I think marketing professors want to see evidence of specific, analytic skills, & high-level math & economics are the most common proving grounds. Even though I've proven capable of conducting original research & working on established papers with reputable professors, I probably need to bust my math chops a bit more before I can break in to the best programs.


As for my stat background, I am proficient in SPSS & Excel, & I took five upperclass courses incorporating statistics, plus my research assistant gigs on two different papers, & finally (& most importantly) I collected my own data from an original survey, organized it, computed it, & spat it out into a descriptive thesis outlining future research streams available based on the preliminary findings. So yes, back in October I did think that I was qualified for PhD research. Guess not, hmm? :p

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