How to Apply to our PhD Program (and Probably Others, Too) – An Update

Since I was head of the Doctoral School in Political Science, International Relations and European Studies, and Public Policy (yes, the name is really that long…) at CEU Budapest, I get a lot of questions how to apply to our program. It seems that it is particularly difficult for overseas students to understand the logic of European/US American graduate schools. There is a lot of useful information about how to apply to Phd schools from people working at political science programs elsewhere (eg. Blattman, Drezner on applications, and on proposals). Let me digest some of the FAQs we usually get. I will focus on ‘strategic’ questions, for technical questions about the admissions procedure at our university see here. Most of my points are probably applicable to other Graduate Schools, too.

1.) The program has a strong training component in the first year. So it wise to check out the lists of courses required and offered to get an idea, whether you want to apply and to which of the academic fields (the five tracks, as we call them).

2.) The program is research intensive, with an idea that many of our students will continue their career in research or ‘research-near’ institutions. This is important for your letter of motivation. We are not only interested in knowing how you want to change the world (that’s an important part of CEU’s mission, but not the only aspect). A short but succinct motivation using normative concerns or ethical problems is not bad at all, but it is insufficient to make a clear case for why a PhD and why with us. This also means that you need to do some research on CEU and the program.

3.) It is highly advisable to check out the lists of faculty and research groups, projects etc. of the three departments involved (and related departments) and try to identify people with whom you might want to work in the future.  This is especially relevant for the Doctoral School to identify potential supervisors. Be cautious: though it may sound like a good idea to pre-establish contact with faculty at CEU beforehand, please don’t bombard them with questions, especially if your questions consist of asking stuff that would be readily available on the web. For instance, faculty cannot answer very generic questions (‘Professor, do you think I my topic is interesting?’) neither can they revise entire research proposals before your applications. So be careful and, if you need to ask something, thing twice what and how to ask (see again Drezner for that).

4.) Make sure that your letters of recommendation do not hurt you more than they help! One way is to tell people who write these letters what you need: how does the referee know you; why does he or she thinks you would do fine in our program (etc.)?

5.) Please make sure that you add transcripts of your academic records that explain well (or, if necessary, use the letter of motivation) the  grading system of your home university. It makes life of the reviewer much easier, and a happier reviewer might be a nicer reviewer!

6.) Please focus in your proposal on key aspects that show us that you know how to produce an academic piece. This includes demarcating a topic clearly, give a motivation (normative problems are usually not enough, you also have to say why this should be interesting for a larger academic debate, preferably but not necessarily with a counterintuitive spin (= a puzzle)), posing a (preliminary) research question, a decent survey of the academic literature in the field (don’t underestimate the importance of accurate referencing!), and an idea how to answer you question (theories, hunches/hypotheses, methods, data ec.).  Obviously, details for the proposal depend on the academic subfield and the topic, but understanding how to place yourself into the academic community is a key aspect for evaluators. I find this illustration of what a PhD aims to achieve (and what not) extremely helpful.

7.) Some additional remarks about the proposal: One of the question I get very often is: “Is this a good topic for your PhD program.” The answer is easy. Almost any topic in the realm of social sciences with some relation to policies, politics or polities can be a suitable topic for our school. The devil lies in the details. As exposed above in point 6.), a good proposal needs to address a topic from a scholarly angle. Furthermore in some of our tracks we deal with comparative issues. That means that although a study on and for a single country may be feasible, applicants need to make sure how to relate the knowledge generated for their (usually home) country to the broader public. How does your problem in your country relate to other countries’ experience? Can we learn something out of this case for others? Since we get applications from all over the world, you need to defend the case why your country is interesting. This is much easier if you can relate it to a general debate/ theory/ issue.

Let me know if I have forgotten an important question that might be relevant for many of you!



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