Advice for Applicants

If you’re an international student interested in studying in a top comparative politics Ph.D. program in the USA there are a few things you need to consider. Perhaps the main thing to bear in mind is that US programs usually require at least two years of required coursework in comparative politics, quantitative analysis, and language, as well as several other sub-fields in the discipline. So you need to think hard about whether you really want to have such a broad and intensive training, or whether you want to start on your thesis right now, as you would in some other systems.

Because of this training, as well as the increasingly methodological focus of top flight Ph.D. programs, application committees in the USA spend a lot of time looking at whether candidates really know what they’re getting themselves in to, as well as whether their previous coursework, publications, language and area expertise, and language and quantitative expertise (measured partly by GREs), seems to prepare them well for the coursework and subsequent thesis research.

These priorities can sometimes create barriers for very good applicants from abroad for a couple of reasons. First their undergrad/MA courses may not have included much US-style political science in terms of theoretical preparation as well as emphasis on such things as the quantitative approaches that are now required in many US-grad programs. Secondly, students may be unfamiliar with how to ‘translate’ the relevant experience they have had in a way that may be helpful for admissions committees. For instance students in arts courses may have a substantial mathematical background that they might point to in their application process as evidence that they can handle the required statistical courses, or students who have taken no polisci courses may nonetheless be able to point to their SoP or articles that demonstrate that they will be able to cope with such materials. Students may also need to put into context GPAs that may seem low by US standards, but that may just reflect less grade inflation in other countries.

So if your transcript has lots of Bs, or scores of 67/100, but this places you in the top 5% of all students in your system, you should mention this in your SoP or (even better) have your academic adviser explain this in her/his cover letter. And if you have taken no quantitative classes in political science but you have a superb high school preparation in math, then you should mention that as well. If you’ve taken very few US-style political science courses but you have a research paper that shows you have read widely in the literature and are well prepared outside of your classes, then include that in your package. The bottom line is: make it easier for the admissions committee to understand your strengths by pointing to them in your SoP and other materials, ‘translating’ where necessary to address the likely concerns of a US admissions committee.

The writing sample and statement should demonstrate familiarity with US-style research, previous commitment to and aptitude in political science, and clear preparation and motivation for the course of study. The statement should also point out why the specific program is a good fit. Write to professors at the university, and find out all you can from the web and from current students, about whether the program is a good fit for you.

Lastly, and this applies to all applicants, you should come up with an interesting puzzle or question in your application, that you want to work on in the future. This doesn’t create a contract between you and the department, and we won’t hold you to this topic or question when you are admitted. But it will provide important evidence of your originality, and your familiarity with the literature as well as the real world.