Pi Sigma Alpha

Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School

Rosalee A. Clawson, PhD, Past President, Pi Sigma Alpha
August 12, 2022

In this essay, I distill the insights from professional development panels on “Thinking About Graduate School” featured annually at the Pi Sigma Alpha National Student Research Conference, a two-day event where undergraduate students present their research and attend professional development sessions. Panel participants come from diverse institutions, programs, backgrounds, and career stages. This information will be helpful to undergraduate political science majors considering whether graduate school is right for them. Faculty members are encouraged to share this post with students who have questions about graduate school. 

Please see the list of panel participants from 2019, 2020, and 2021 at the bottom of this post. 

For an additional resource, see Strategies for Navigating Graduate School and Beyond

Rosalee A. Clawson, PSA Past President

Do I want an MA or a PhD?

One of the first and most important decisions students need to make when considering graduate education is whether they want to pursue an MA or a PhD.  Generally speaking, MAs are professional degrees that prepare graduate students to be a practitioner.  Professional master’s programs prepare students for careers in such areas as campaigns and elections, advocacy politics, data analytics, survey research, and government.  Some MA programs are full-time; others are part-time and offer courses in the evening to accommodate students who have jobs. 

PhDs are research degrees that prepare students to conduct research and teach, most typically in an academic setting.  In recent years, some PhD programs have paid more attention to preparing their students for research jobs at think tanks, in the private sector, and in government.  This is important due to the paucity of academic jobs.  There are more PhDs in political science than academic jobs, so students need to understand that before choosing to pursue a graduate degree.

Another key difference between most MA and PhD programs is that students (or sometimes their employers) pay to attend MA programs, whereas most PhD programs in the United States waive tuition and provide a stipend for students to work as a research or teaching assistant.  PhD students will certainly not get rich during graduate school, but their stipends should cover basic living expenses.  If that’s not the case, then students should think very carefully about whether that program is right for them.  PhD Stipends provides comparative data on graduate student stipends. 

What about the application process?

Students should get feedback on their application materials.  Start early and leave plenty of time for feedback from faculty mentors, the writing lab, or the career center.  The writing sample is important, and the research statement is critical for articulating what students are interested in and how they fit with the program.

Give faculty members plenty of time to write letters of recommendation. . . months, not days.  Provide them with the materials they need to write a strong letter of recommendation, such as a CV, research statement, and personal statement. Students may need to remind professors which classes they took with them and when.   

Prepare for the GRE.  In a word, Ghazi Ghazi called the GRE “terrifying.”  The good news is that some programs no longer require it, and other programs are putting less weight on it. 

Consider creating a spreadsheet to track program characteristics, important criteria, required application materials, and deadlines. 

Applications are expensive so students will want to select carefully where they apply.  If students have participated in select research programs as undergraduates, they may get application fees waived.  It’s worth the time to review each program’s policy on fee waivers.

What should I look for in a great program?

Fit.  Search for a program that will help you achieve your career goals.  Identify people who are doing the kind of job you want to do and then look at what kind of degree and work experiences they have.  Look for a program that offers that kind of degree and will help you get those work experiences. 

For PhD programs, identify faculty members who are doing the kind of research you want to do.  Ideally you will attend a program that has several faculty members who fit your interests.  Just because someone is a star researcher in your area of interest, does not mean they will be a good mentor for you.  Thus, it’s helpful to select a program that has several potential mentors. 

Should I visit once I am admitted?

Yes, if students have the opportunity to visit the university, it’s a great way to assess the culture and community of the program.  Sit in on a class.  Find out about core course requirements.  Talk to current graduate students.  Ask graduate students what they do for fun.  If they hesitate, well, factor that into your decision. 

Ask faculty in MA programs:  Do faculty help graduate students get internships?  Ask faculty in PhD programs:  Do faculty co-author research papers with graduate students?  Ask administrators:  What is the retention rate?  What is the average time to completion?  Where are students placed? What actions does the department take to increase diversity and ensure inclusion? 

Ask everyone:  Is the program family friendly?  Does the department care about students’ mental health?  Graduate programs can take years.  Lots can happen in your life during that time:  births, deaths, marriages, divorces, illnesses, a global pandemic, etc.  Does the program take a sink or swim approach?  Or does it recognize the complexity of individual lives and support students accordingly? 

After a visit, send thank you notes, especially to administrators who helped organize the trip. 

How should I prepare for graduate-level work?

Math classes help prepare students for the quantitative methods classes they will likely take in US graduate schools.  Writing and reading skills are also critical.  Both writing style and grammar matter.  Learn to revise and carefully edit your work.  Practice reading and retaining large amounts of material. 

Networking is also good preparation.  Attending conferences like the Pi Sigma Alpha National Student Research Conference is a good way to meet other prospective students and to learn about the discipline. 

Serendipity is good too.  Sometimes just being at the right place at the right time makes all the difference.  Students should keep that in mind when they get rejected from a program .  .  . and when they get accepted to a program.

Ideally students will conduct research with a professor while an undergraduate.  Research experience will help students know whether a PhD program is right for them and will help students develop important skills.  But if students are in an undergraduate program that does not offer research experiences or if their personal circumstances do not allow them the time to conduct research, that should not stop students from applying to graduate school.  An inquisitive mind and strong work ethic will prepare students for graduate school even if they haven’t had the opportunity to conduct research.            

How can I be successful at graduate school?

The first year is often overwhelming.  Graduate work is not just undergraduate on steroids.  It’s a different beast.  In the words of panelist Diliorah Arah, “Time management is your best friend.”

Being in a PhD program is like a full-time job, and the most successful graduate students treat it as such.

Don’t go to graduate school just because you don’t know what else to do.  Students should ask themselves:  am I prepared to be in an intensive program?

Do underrepresented students face unique challenges at graduate school?

Yes, underrepresented minority students at traditionally white institutions will face many unique challenges.  For example, students of color often will not have mentors (or peers) that look like them.  Recognize that as the institution’s failure, not yours, and seek mentoring from those who are willing even if they don’t share your identity and lived experiences.  Fabiana Perrera points out that you may be the “only one,” but if someone wants to help, take the help. 

Graduate school will often be difficult, so it’s critical to stay focused on finding meaning in your work.  In the face of challenges, remember your roots and why you wanted to go to graduate school in the first place.  Consider whether it is important to you to select a program that is close to family.      

Students of color often will get asked to do service, such as helping to recruit other students of color to their departments.  Thus, when you are checking out programs, inquire whether that type of service is valued and whether students of color are also nominated for awards and tapped for research experiences.  If students of color are put front and center in photo ops and during recruitment season, but not at other times, then seek another program.  Search for programs that will value your unique identity. 

What should I do the summer before graduate school?  

This question brought out a wide range of answers from panelists.  Some said that students should relax the summer before graduate school.  One panelist suggested taking a gap year if students did not feel ready to start an intensive program.  Another panelist said to work a crappy job so that students will fully appreciate the opportunity provided by graduate school.  Others said to take a calculus class or to learn R (a programming language for statistics). 


In sum, there are many factors to consider when thinking about graduate school.  This piece is a start to gathering the information you need.  Annie Jarman recommends seeking advice from everyone, including faculty at your undergraduate institution, potential graduate advisors, and especially people who hold the position you ultimately want to have.  Pi Sigma Alpha is also a great resource.  We encourage students to participate in the next National Student Research Conference so you can hear firsthand from a thoughtful group of graduate students.  

Panel Chair:  Rosalee Clawson, Purdue University

Panel Participants:
Annie Jarman, PhD Student, Washington University
Nathan Micatka, PhD Student, University of Iowa
Jackie Beckwith, MA Student, George Washington University
Ghazi Ghazi, MA Student, Harvard University­

Panel Chair:  Rosalee Clawson, Purdue University

Panel Participants:
Diliorah Arah, PhD Student, Howard University
Courtney Blackington, PhD Student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Mark Hines, PhD, Senior Research Associate, The Pew Charitable Trusts
Ranjani Parthasarathy, MA Student, Johns Hopkins University
Haley VanOverbeck, MPP Student, Georgetown University

Panel Chair:  Rosalee Clawson, Purdue University

Panel Participants:
Diliorah Arah, PhD Student, Howard University
Courtney Blackington, PhD Student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Mark Hines, PhD, Senior Research Associate, The Pew Charitable Trusts
Ranjani Parthasarathy, MA Student, Johns Hopkins University
Haley VanOverbeck, MPP Student, Georgetown University

Thank you to the graduate student panelists who generously offered their time and words of wisdom to undergraduates participating in the PSA National Student Research Conference.  Erika Kotroba, Tanya Schwarz, and Ky’la Sims also deserve recognition for their helpful feedback on this piece.   

Citation: Clawson, Rosalee A. 2022. “Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School.” 2019-2021 Thinking about Graduate School Panels at the Pi Sigma Alpha National Undergraduate Research Conference. https://pisigmaalpha.org/graduate-school-advice/