Thank you for your interest in the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s (HGSE’s) PhD program! Recognizing that the admissions process can be inequitable based on a number of factors, this page is intended to provide prospective applicants with general – and equal – information about what I (Dana McCoy) look for in a PhD applicant. In particular, below I provide responses to several questions that I often get from prospective doctoral students.
Where can I get more information about your work / the doctoral admissions process?
For information on my research and team, you are welcome to check out the rest of this website!
For information on HGSE’s admissions process, I recommend the resources provided by the Admissions Office: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/admissions/apply
For broader information on the “hidden curriculum” of graduate school, I would recommend the book A Field Guide to Grad School by Jessica Calarco.
Are you available to discuss my interests/application prior to my acceptance?
For both practical and principled reasons, I don’t meet (in person or on the phone) with prospective students prior to admission, nor do I read draft personal statements or other materials outside the normal admissions process. On the practical front, I tend to get numerous inquiries a year, and I just can’t make time to respond substantively to prospective applicants while also giving my current students the time and attention they deserve. On the principled front, I believe strongly in trying to level the playing field for prospective applicants and am concerned that individualized meetings may lead to further inequities.
With this being said, if you are admitted to the PhD program, you can rest assured that I will shower you with attention and answer every possible question you may have. It is in our collective interest to ensure that the relationship is a good fit, and that you can achieve your goals if you come to Harvard!
Does this mean that I shouldn’t contact other HGSE/non-HGSE faculty, either?
No, it definitely does not! Norms and protocols regarding admissions vary widely both within and across institutions. At some schools, individual faculty play an important role in selecting students for admission and, as a result, contacting faculty ahead of submitting your application can be an important means of demonstrating interest and ensuring your full application will be read by someone who could advocate for your selection. It is therefore probably a good idea to reach out by email to other faculty members with whom you are considering working ahead of submitting your application. These emails do not have to be complicated. They can include several sentences that clearly, concisely, and politely communicate your background, key research interests, and the alignment of these interests with the prospective faculty member’s research agenda. It can also be helpful to include your CV and any additional follow-up questions you might have for that person (e.g., whether they are accepting new students, are available to talk further, etc.). If you don’t receive a response immediately, you can follow up with a polite reminder. With all of this being said, you should not take it personally or as a negative sign if you do not hear back from a prospective faculty mentor.
Are you accepting students to work with you this coming year?
Yes, I am always enthusiastic about taking on new doctoral students! It is important to understand, however, that unlike in some institutions, individual HGSE faculty do not have the authority to admit individual students. Rather, we accept candidates as an entire faculty (represented by the admissions committee). This is important for two reasons. First, we have way more faculty than we have new PhD slots, and my colleagues also generally look forward to taking on new students. On balance, I am therefore unlikely to get a new doctoral advisee in any particular year. Second, you should think of the audience for your application as being the whole faculty, not just me (and other prospective advisors). You do need to excite at least one prospective advisor, as we accept students only if there is one (or more) faculty member who is enthusiastic about taking them on. But at the same time, you also need to excite the faculty as a whole. Advisors retire, get ill, move institutions, get pulled into new roles, etc. When we admit you, we commit ourselves to you as a school, and commit that even if (heaven forfend) your advisor gets hit by a bus, you will still receive the support and training you need to do great work in education. So make sure you really want to be at HGSE, not just working with me, and make sure you can explain to the faculty as a whole, not just to me, what work you want to do, why it’s important, and why you’re well positioned to do it.
What do you look for in a PhD application?
I am happy to provide some details of things that I look for when I read a PhD application, with the caveat that these are my own personal opinions. Other readers of your application (including members of the HGSE admissions committee, who vary across any given year) may look for other implicit or explicit criteria. As such, you should take these ideas with a grain of salt!
In my opinion, the personal statement is the most important piece of a doctoral application. In the personal statement, I look for:
- A clear account of a topic, question, or phenomenon that you want to research. What are you curious, bothered, excited, angry, or fascinated by, and why? In particular, why is this a question/topic/field/phenomenon that is ripe for research rather than working it out in the field? Although these research interests should speak to a broader problem space, they should also be concrete and narrow enough to be feasibly addressed with the confines of a (time-limited) doctoral program. For example, a specific interest in “the effects of community violence on early childhood development in Latin America” may be better received than a more general interest in “human development,” “resilience,” or “violence.”
- Compelling motivation for why you believe this problem matters. What makes this problem (or set of problems) come alive for you, and why should it matter to the rest of us? Why does it matter enough to you that you’re willing to sacrifice a half-decade of your life to figuring out (likely only part of) the answer?
- Explanation of how your prior experiences have led you to the point that you are ready for a PhD program. Your personal statement should not rehash your CV in narrative form (e.g., “first I did X, then I did Y, now I want to do Z”), but rather paint a more detailed picture of how your professional and academic experiences have prepared you for this moment in your career. What did you learn in each of your positions, and how did these experiences lead you to want to address your stated research questions within a doctoral program?
- Evidence that HGSE/I could support you in addressing your identified topic of interest and future goals. Even the most qualified students are often not admitted to PhD programs in which the admissions committee does not see a good “fit.” What makes you a good match for HGSE’s PhD program, specifically? How do you see the faculty at HGSE (and me, in particular) supporting you in achieving your conceptual, methodological, and professional goals?
- Good writing. Is your statement organized, clear, and engaging? Does it make efficient use of the short amount of space we give you? Does it demonstrate that you will be able to write good papers? Does your writing demonstrate that you can think, and that you have something interesting to say that you can convey cogently to others?
In your personal statement, you do not need to:
- include statements about how wonderful HGSE is, or about the eminence of a particular faculty member, or what a privilege it would be to study here. (In fact, please save yourself space and delete all such commentary.)
- cite a bunch of literature, although you are welcome to if it adds to your argument.
- share personal anecdotes or vignettes that are not directly relevant to the work you want to do.
- convince me that you want to be exactly like me in every way. I love my research, but am more interested in supporting students whose work is authentic and true to their own passions!
Beyond the personal statement, I personally also look for prospective students who show:
- An inclination toward quantitative methods. Please note that this does not mean you have to be an advanced statistician in order to successfully apply! Rather, I want to know that you are curious and motivated to learn more about a diverse set of quantitative approaches, including those that support measurement validation, causal inference, etc. This interest can be demonstrated through prior coursework, applied quantitative work (e.g., as a research assistant), and/or explicit statements of interest in your personal essay.
- Demonstrated research experience. A PhD is, first and foremost, a research degree. Again, the important thing here is not that you are already a fully trained researcher (this is what HGSE is for!), but rather that you have enough experience working in a research setting that you know that this type of environment is a good fit for your long-term career goals. In my view, the best preparation for this type of work is several years of full-time research assistant experience prior to enrolling in a doctoral program. Some successful students do come straight from undergrad or via a master’s program, but my belief is that it is important to have had some meaningful exposure to the research process (e.g., through a part-time position, undergraduate/master’s thesis, monitoring and evaluation experience) prior to enrolling.
How and when will you read my application?
The PhD in Education Doctoral Admissions Committee will forward to me applications that are relevant to my areas of expertise. You therefore do not need to send me your application separately or do anything special to draw my attention to your work. If you are a good candidate for the program and our interests overlap in some way, then you can be reassured that I will review your application with care and attention in the normal course of the admissions process.
Can you provide me with feedback if my application is unsuccessful?
Unfortunately, providing this sort of feedback is typically not possible. It is important to understand that the admissions committee and each individual faculty member at HGSE are always enthusiastic about more candidates than we are able to admit. Often decisions have little to do with personal aptitude, and more to do with whether the prospective candidate is a good match with the needs of the school/faculty in any given year. Please do not castigate yourself, therefore, if your application is unsuccessful.
 Many of these responses have been borrowed directly or adapted from a document written by HGSE Professor Meira Levenson. Thank you, Meira!