Interested in a Ph.D. after the MPA? Three Factors to Consider

GedmanBy Sam Gedman, Deputy Director of Elections in Durham County, North Carolina

After graduating from the EMU MPA program and working three years in the public sector, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science. For those students seeking to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science or a related discipline at some point after the completion of an MPA, I hope my perspective may be helpful in your thought process. 

1. Where to Apply. 

Most programs are small relative to a professional master’s program and as such have limited space in seminars and limited funding for assistantships. If you want to better your chances of funded admission into a Ph.D. program, you will want to consider programs in a large geographic footprint. This is especially true for students who do not have a specific concentration or preselected mentor they hope to join. Remember that the academic job market is nationwide, so you are likely to be moving again after graduation. Tenure track positions are becoming rarer, and it is not uncommon to spend 2-3 years as a visiting assistant professor at multiple colleges before acquiring that coveted position. So if you are living a transient lifestyle for close to a decade anyway, start early and give yourself a good chance. If you do have a course of study in mind, it is important to apply to departments that have faculty who can mentor you in your studies and ideally help you have a publication portfolio as you head into the job market.

2. Admissions. 

Do not take for granted that your career, MPA, and undergraduate performance will be solely determinative in your admission and funding. Your performance on the GRE and “fit” into a program are very important. Some programs will value a graduate student with an MPA as it will allow them to teach prior to taking comprehensive exams, where others may not intend to have graduate students teach at all. Certain professors may take an interest in your background or the course of study you articulate in your statement of purpose, and they can be very influential in admission decisions. Some programs will have very clearly defined GRE score and undergraduate GPA baselines that must be cleared before they consider an applicant.

Understand that admission and funding decisions are not just a reflection on you but on the many (sometimes unknowable) needs a department has. If at all possible, you might consider visiting or at least calling a department you are particularly fond of to assess their needs and present yourself as a candidate. My graduate cohort had students who graduated with honors from Tulane, Seton Hall, South Alabama, Western Michigan, Michigan State, and Georgetown. Some, such as myself, had graduate degrees on top of that, and a diverse set of professional experiences. What everyone had in common was a roughly equivalent quantitative GRE score and a story about a program they were surprised they did not get in to or were not offered funding from.

3. Factors Unique to Political Science. 

The pragmatic mindset and writing style of a public service professional is, if not antithetical to academia, at least an undervalued skill set. Much of modern political science is very quantitative and theoretical. Practical experience in politics and public sector employment do not always help in building econometric theories. Understand that you are going to be undertaking a new challenge and not simply taking more classes or adding a credential. Understanding the discipline is invaluable to having the best possible experience in graduate seminars.

A Ph.D. will take between 4-6 years to complete under the best of conditions, and beyond completing a degree, it should be your goal to leave a program free of any additional debts, with a publication and a job offer. It is difficult under the best conditions and is something that can be, at times, all consuming. If you are deeply passionate about a lifestyle of learning, teaching, and academic rigor, the experience can be a very fulfilling one. My advice to you: go in with a realistic set of expectations and make sure someone else is paying for it.

Sam Gedman, a 2007 graduate of the EMU MPA program, completed his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Mississippi in 2015. Upon completion of the degree, he has been an instructor at the University of Mississippi and the University of Memphis and is currently the Deputy Director of Elections in Durham County in North Carolina.

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