This is not chiefly about the challenges of the application process, but documentation of my personal experience and the lessons learnt, while applying for a social welfare PhD from Singapore.
Some of these challenges, nevertheless, include the high cost (individual college application fees, the GRE, sending GRE scores, sending transcripts and having them evaluated, all of which, for me, amounted to about S$1,200 for five school applications), the tedious process (long lists of requirements, many of which – such as letters of recommendation – must be requested in advance), and above all the opaqueness of decisions. With the large number of applicants, schools inevitably find it difficult to discern and to make offers, yet the information asymmetries for international applicants or first-generation applicants persist, and some of the more qualitative indicators can therefore be hard to pin down.
I have had a lot of help, as I felt my way around the application process, and I thought I should summarise my six broad steps:
1. Deciding to do a PhD
The answer to “why a PhD” is not as straightforward (and usually accounted for, across four to six pages in your personal statement), though in summary for me it was a convergence of my long-term involvement in the non-profit and philanthropy sector in Singapore and – after two years of graduate studies at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) – the acquisition of research skills. Working on my dissertation on how charities measure and manage impact gave me great satisfaction, and at the LKYSPP I picked up skills in data analysis and applied econometrics, which has allowed me to work on needs analysis and programme evaluation for non-profit organisations (NPOs). And hence in the past year or so, my involvement in different NPOs has shifted from that of direct programme or service delivery, to that of research or capacity building. So this was not a long-term ambition, but one that was built up over time.
Trying a variety of internships over the years was productive too, especially the stint at the Asia Philanthropy Circle. What I think bears emphasis is the importance of giving oneself options – through immersions and attachments – to figure out one’s best fit.
2. A PhD in social welfare, with the help of career services
When I first explored the idea of the PhD, I started with the specialisation in public policy, based on the general experience at graduate school. But through consultations with career services – and with the professors or researchers within LKYSPP – I was nudged to align my interest and expertise with PhD options in the United States (where I was inclined to head to, given the more generous funding options), to first narrow my research area of interest, before broadening the scope of my search (in other words, to go deep first, then listing possible choices or options). The amount of online information can be overwhelming, so it was useful to have a career counsellor to bounce ideas off, and in addition to that she also dispensed more practical tips, of approaching schools and their graduates students to find out more.
This process started in the summer of 2016, when I had a few iterative sessions with the Centre for Future-ready Graduates at the National University Singapore, and through these sessions I trimmed my initial list of 10 schools to seven, and finally to five.
3. Application requirements and the game-plan
Once I knew my schools, I collated the list of requirements across the five schools to identify if there were common requirements which could be duplicated, and then worked backwards from the deadlines, estimating the amount of time needed for each requirement. I also double-checked with the schools, on whether TOEFL was required. The two sets of documents I paid most attention to were the personal and history statements as well as the letters of recommendation (for which professors or former bosses had to be approached in advance). Seems commonsensical, but I had to balance school and family commitments, and other factors beyond my control.
As an international student, postage takes time too (unless high amounts are paid for express services, which I did not opt for), adding to the costs of application. And that means earlier and more precise planning is of utmost importance.
4. The dreaded GRE
Nothing befuddles graduate-school applicants – especially those who rail against standardised examination – and nothing takes up as much time, in my opinion, than (preparing for) the GRE. Practising for the quantitative section took up many Saturdays, and I overestimated my abilities for the qualitative and writing bits, which resulted in frayed nerves the day before. I did not, moreover, plan far enough, so I only had one chance to do well. Remember that it takes extra time for the test centre to process your scores and to finalise them before they can be sent to the schools, and although most of my deadlines were in December I only took the GRE in end-October.
Working backwards from the deadlines, your first GRE attempt should be at least two months before. Just in case you need a second try. Schools normally state a minimum GRE score, though anything above 155/155/4.5 – in general – should be reasonable. GPA scores matter too, and likewise schools would state a minimum score. Typically, it should be at least 3.3, over four (CAP, over five, should be around 4.2).
And taking the test is expensive too: S$286 for the test itself, and then S$33 to send the final scores to each school (unless, quite rarely, you are absolutely certain of the four schools and their codes at the end of the test itself).
5. The mad rush, and learning about the gaps
I ultimately had barely two weeks – after I completed my final papers in school – to properly work on my personal statements and to put the final applications together, and because preparing for the GRE took up so much time I did not adhere strictly to the initial game-plan. What was also disheartening, after I had submitted my five applications, was finding out that it would have been more advantageous (for some schools, in particular circumstances), to have approached professors of interest or POIs beforehand. The purpose would be to ascertain alignment in research interests and whether the professors have the interest and the capacity to take in new doctoral students, and some prospective students, in fact, even flew to the different universities to meet with these potential POIs and the doctoral students.
Sending email introductions would have been part of my plan, had I not been successful on this attempt.
6. Luck and the waiting game
Taking a structured approach to the application process can increase changes of receiving admission offers (and reduce the stress or anxiety involved), yet there is an element of luck too. There are dozens of reasons – many of which are out of our control – for rejections, and the waiting game is the hardest, for instance, when you hear nothing from the schools or receive generic emails or rejection letters on admission portals, giving no information on why the decision was made. For me, since I was also graduating in May, it was also pragmatic to apply for jobs at the same time, and to craft back-up plans just in case the PhD aspiration did not materialise.
I only started frequenting online forums such as thegradcafe after submission, though in general these forums – and the sub-forums for specialisations – are useful to check on the release of results and to get general information.