I am currently filling out applications for 2023 and 24. I’ve found programs that I want to apply to, advisors whose research is up my alley and are tenure track to tenure.
What if anything can I do to prepare for the first 2 years of coursework? I am decent at writing, researching, and teaching. But, I am worried about some classes. I am not great at math and statistics and I have no idea what to do to prepare. My mentor told me “not to get a random stats book because their are different statistics concepts you could be learning and you don’t want to go down the wrong road.”
What are final exams for classes like? Every website I go to, every search I make does not even mention class finals/exams. The websites talk about the QEs and dissertation defenses. I know I still have a few years before I believe I am ready to apply, but I want to prepare as best as I can.
If it matters, I do have a Master’s degree, so I have graduate-level class experience. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

– Applying PhD Programs


Dear Applying PhD Programs,

Thanks for reaching out to us! You are already on the right track seeking guidance in advance. One of the most important factors for success in doctoral work is looking ahead and identifying what support resources you will need to succeed in the tasks required of you. This is what we call self-efficacy, and it is strongly related with perseverance and success in academic endeavors.

On that note, I would recommend several actions. First, you have already identified math/statistics as a learning need. You will want to identify what support resources exist at the institutions you are applying to and how to utilize their help (e.g., making tutoring appointments, attending webinars). You may want to consider which institutions provide help for your learning needs; if they do not, it may not be the ideal fit for you.

Second, before you begin your doctoral program, you could audit a free massive online open course (MOOC) that will provide real university instruction on the math and statistics topics you will work with. While your mentor is correct that you will not use everything in a stats textbook off the shelf, there are some basic concepts that all stats courses at the graduate level will cover. Courses like this one (link to: https://www.coursera.org/learn/basic-statistics?specialization=social-science) will teach you concepts you can expect to see in a no-stress ungraded atmosphere, allowing you to get ready and identify concepts ahead of time that you will need further learning support for. Getting your feet wet with graduate-level statistics will help you manage your concerns and prepare for the work to come.

As for exams, this will largely vary from institution to institution, and program to program. For individual courses, exams are typically content review, essay style, linking theories, and research to answer a broader question in the field. In more mathematical or statistical classes, exams often look like problems you will solve or even conduct analysis in the software tool and processing output, preparing results, and tables, and syntax like a paper. They are more work to complete, but they typically solidify what you have learned by application of the knowledge.

For social sciences, QEs are typically larger course or research papers that are written and submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree. These papers can often be fine-tuned for publication after or integrated into the dissertation itself. Exams can be integrated into programs where you are required to demonstrate skills learned (such as coding skills in an engineering program). To prepare for QEs, it is good to identify ahead of time topics of interest to you in your program and for your dissertation. To avoid doing extra work (e.g., writing a QE that does not relate to your dissertation and cannot be integrated), an early understanding of what you want to write your dissertation on will save you time and work. In this vein, attend the office hours of the potential advisors you have identified to discuss dissertation concepts. Their advice will be invaluable for forming your prospectus as they will be able to tell you what is achievable and needed for your interests.

A dissertation defense is a final step in the fulfillment of the requirements of the degree. At this stage, all of the dissertations has been completed. You will present your work (not read the dissertation aloud) to the committee, answer their questions about your work and findings, and then they will deliberate on whether you have met the standards needed to confer your doctoral degree. This meeting is designed to help you think critically about your dissertation and its applications, demonstrating your reasoning skills and understanding of your own work.

We hope this is useful information! Please see our related web guides about preparing for grad school for more step-by-step help in preparing for your doctoral program.


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