As of this week, I can happily announce that I’ve accepted an offer from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs (SPEA) to pursue a Ph.D in Public Policy, complete with four years of guaranteed funding and a research assistantship. SPEA is the #3 public policy school in the nation according to the U.S. News rankings (right behind Syracuse’s Maxwell School, and tied with Harvard’s Kennedy School).

A doctorate is something I’d considered for many years, but I’d hesitated to take the plunge. But the job market had been showing me no love, and last year I decided to get serious about the idea and apply to some graduate programs. I kept this close the vest until now, being unsure how it would turn out. But now it’s real, and I’m doing it, and hoping this will let me shape the kind of personally fulfilling, intellectually stimulating career I’ve always wanted. In August I’ll be relocating to Bloomington, Indiana. With any luck, in five years I’ll have more letters after my name and a junior faculty position somewhere.

But man, let me tell you, getting even this far was not easy, and it came surprisingly close to not happening at all…

Long story short, the grad school applicant pool is wickedly competitive these days.

I didn’t do this thing by the seat of the pants (unlike my approach to law school applications back in my undergrad days). Far from it. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for years. I’ve always been a political junkie, as any reader of this blog is surely aware. And a career that would let me combine this passion with “the life of the mind” has appealed to me for longer than I care to admit. Hell, one of my major motivations for transitioning to nonprofit work involving civic affairs, several years ago, was to provide a plausible professional transition to graduate work in public policy studies.

So I started months in advance, buying and reading several books on how to research and select good graduate programs, and how to submit the best possible applications—including scoring well on the GRE, writing an attention-getting essay, getting good recommendations, the whole kit and kaboodle. I plotted out my whole strategy with project-management software, and followed it diligently.

What did this entail? Well…

  • I set up a filing system to track the collected data on every school I was considering.
  • I carefully formulated my research interests, which had been percolating in the back of my mind for years.
  • I looked into the background of specific members of specific faculties and contacted them in advance, by e-mail and occasionally by phone, to sound them out about their programs and their personal research.
  • I sought out advice from one of my favorite undergrad political science professors at the University of Chicago, now Dean of Social Sciences there, and enlisted him to be one of my recommenders.
  • I also asked for recommendations from one of my law school professors, one of my recent professional colleagues (who works in public policy), and the U of C professor who taught an extension course I’d taken a year earlier (on issues related to my research interests).
  • I studied for and took several sample tests for the GRE, both written and computerized, until I knew the exam inside out.
  • I personally visited faculty, current students, and/or administrators at almost all of the schools I was considering… including a marathon road trip last November in which I covered 2,400 miles and hit five cities in just one week. (And let me tell you, the logistics of arranging that are a story in themselves.)
  • I carefully drafted and redrafted my essays, with input from my recommenders and other friends in academia, framing my educational and professional background in a way that links it to my research interests, then customized it for each school, mentioning their programs and faculty and editing to match varying length requirements.

In the end, what I submitted to ten carefully selected schools were application packages—all complete by the first week of December, before even the earliest deadlines—that showed I was smart, serious, dedicated, responsible, and that I’d carefully considered this change in career path and what I hoped to achieve with it. I dotted every i, crossed every t, and paid every fee. My GRE score was a perfect 800 on both parts of the test, Verbal and Quantitative—you literally can’t score any higher than that—along with a 5.5/6.0 (92nd percentile) on the Analytical Writing portion. My recommenders were on my side; indeed the secretary for one of them described his letter about me as “glowing.” My work history was relevant. My essays were as carefully tailored as humanly possible. Many of the people who’d be assessing my applications had met me face-to-face. The weakest part of the portfolio was almost certainly my undergraduate grades, which were below 3.0… but that was 20+ years ago, when I was teenager, and they were earned at the U of Chicago, which is famous for not practicing grade inflation; even my law school grades improved considerably on that. At any rate, that was one factor beyond my ability to change.

In short, I can say without patting myself on the back unduly that I did everything right that it was possible to do. It wound up occupying no small portion of my time last summer and fall, even as I continued to trawl the job market.

And what was the result of all this, after a winter of waiting for decisions?

Mostly rejections.

The two schools where I hadn’t visited rejected me first. So did the Maxwell School at Syracuse, even though I’d had an incredibly welcoming visit there… but I figured hey, it’s the number-one policy school in the country, so it must’ve had an extra-competitive pool of candidates. One of my “safety schools” accepted me. At a place where the program director had asked me to bring a copy of my GRE scores because he hadn’t ever seen a double-800 before, I was accepted without funding.

(Understand, one key feature of a doctoral program in almost every case is that if a school thinks you have any promise as a scholar at all, they waive your costs to attend there and throw in a stipend. You don’t pay them, they pay you. Admission without funding is tantamount to saying “we don’t really think you’re worth investing in, but we’ll be happy to cash your checks.”)

I did my best to stay optimistic, figuring that schools I hadn’t heard from at least hadn’t rejected me yet… but it got down awfully close to the wire. By mutual agreement among almost all grad schools, admitted applicants have a deadline of April 15 to make a binding decision about where to go; thus, admissions decisions typically go out in March, if not earlier. It wasn’t until March 25 that I got the decision from Indiana, which was hands-down the best offer I had on the table in terms of quality of the program and generosity of the funding. (And there was one decision left to come in even at that point… but Indiana was still it in the end.) If I were inclined to bite my nails, they’d have been down to the quick.

Locationally, moving to Bloomington honestly wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s a small college town in a mostly conservative state, and I’m a cosmopolitan liberal city-dweller through and through. It would’ve been tempting to attend the Harris School at the U of Chicago, just for the sake of convenience and familiarity, even though it’s a smaller policy school that’s not ranked quite as highly. But I was turned down there, so that temptation became moot.

In every way other than geography, though, it’s a fantastic opportunity, and I plan to make the most of it. SPEA is where Elinor Ostrom does her fascinating work on governance of common resources, for which she won a Nobel Prize last year. Several other faculty members have interests that intersect mine (involving environmental sustainability and emerging technology, and the institutional obstacles to effective policymaking in that realm), notably including professors Ken RichardsRafael Reuveny, and Evan Ringquist. The particular program I’ll be entering is interdisciplinary in a way that’s ideal for me: it’s technically a joint Ph.D in both policy and politics. The students I met there love the place, and the school has a good track record of placing its graduates in tenure-track positions elsewhere. One of my best friends teaches at IU (in a different school). All in all, it’s a place well worth going.

So the story has a happy ending.

(Thus far, at least. I have a lot of hard work ahead of me, and I’ll accept good wishes from all who’re inclined to offer them!)

But damn, I have to wonder… just how tough is it to get into a good Ph.D program these days? I spent months of effort and thousands of dollars on the process. Undergrad GPA aside, I literally can’t imagine how I could have had stronger applications. And anyone who knows me will tell you that just by disposition, I’m naturally cut out for academic life. Yet I came frighteningly close to having no good offers to choose from. Just how mind-bogglingly brilliant are the people I was competing against? And just how many perfectly capable but slightly-less-lucky candidates were left twisting in the wind with no choices at all?

One likes to think of the academic world as slightly more of a meritocracy than the business sector. Still, that obviously doesn’t mean it makes meaningful opportunity available to everyone who deserves it. It’s a sobering thought.

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9 Responses to “Getting a foot in the door of the Ivory Tower”
  1. PNoy Talks says:

    This article has enlightened me with the this to consider in applying for a graduate study, specifically Doctoral degree. I understand that you have a pretty good preparation and what you’ve shared here are very useful for those who want to pursue doctoral studies in some prestigious university.

  2. Slowly but certainly we shall take a foothold in that tower you spoke of … God I can hardly wait!

  3. Andrew says:

    An interesting story indeed, the way things are seen reminds of something I used to know … can’t really remember what.

  4. Staggering, fascinating story. This must have been the trial of your life. Can you imagine a greater over all hurdle after this one? You might have had an easier chance making it big in Hollywood. Everything will feel like rolling down hill after this saga. Good luck to you.

  5. Neil says:

    Congratulations on being accepted to the Ivory Tower! I inhabited that beautiful structure for several years, all-the-while thinking I should get out into the real world. Now I am here, I occasionally brainstorm for that master plan which will allow me to return! 🙂

    As that famous quote from Ghostbusters goes, “Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve *worked* in the private sector. They expect *results*.”

  6. Addendum: It’s not just graduate programs where the level of competition this year has mushroomed. Judging by this item in the NY Times, the undergrad admission process has become truly insane (and, especially, the excessive use of waitlists to string applicants along).

  7. Tom Galloway says:


    (And you beat me out by 10 points on the GRE; my peak was a 790V 800M 800A before they changed over and dropped the analytical)

  8. Thanks for dropping by!

    I certainly have nothing against Bloomington per se. (In fact, back in ’08, I did a fair bit of canvassing there on behalf of Obama. It is indeed a politically diverse town.) It’s well worth going to for the education, and it’s the kind of college town where I’m sure I’ll be able to enjoy myself. It’s just that all else being equal (having grown up in Ohio before moving to Chicago for college, so I can make the comparison) I have no illusions about my own preferences for big-city life. 🙂

  9. Lynn Newton says:


    I finally got aroud to reading your blog and I’m very impressed with all your preparation.
    Congratulations on being accepted at IU! I am happy to hear they were rated so high and on your list.
    My room mate in college got a SPEA undergraduate degree so I was always aware of the department but
    my classes were all in the business school. I love IU and got two degrees there and Bloomington was a lot
    bigger than the town I grew up in so I think you will enjoy your time there. The college students come from
    all walks of life so I’m sure you’ll meet some with your liberal big city backgrounds. I don’t remember Bloomington
    being that conservative even though the state generally is. Bloomington is used to dealing with crazy college kids
    and I don’t remember ever getting stopped by the police for my bad behavior. So have fun and enjoy your time in Bloomington!

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