For the first time, I’m going to depart from my topic of evolutionary politics. And I’m going to take this liberty for what I think are good reasons—to share a few dirty little secrets that will save some newly minted college grads years of unnecessary effort and untold thousands of dollars.


My wife and I are in our last year of paying college tuition. Yes, our “baby” just started her senior year of college. And she and her friends have been seriously talking about life after graduation. Many will be starting jobs, some want to take a gap-year breather before beginning the next phase of their lives, and others want to head off to grad school. It’s this last group, the aspiring scholars, with whom I want to share a few dirty little secrets. In particular, they are intended for those who may eventually want to get a PhD.

Don’t worry, these aren’t mere titillating tidbits about a friend, neighbor, or celebrity. These dirty little secrets are insider tips about grad school that can save people years of time and thousands of dollars from a guy who’s experienced graduate education from both sides—as a student and a professor.


So pull up close and listen carefully to these five dirty little secrets of getting a PhD.

1. You do NOT need to get a master’s degree first. Many PhD programs accept students who only have a bachelor’s degree. Why? Because they want to train their doctoral students from their own perspective. For example, some departments are highly quantitative (i.e., lots of statistics) and others are more qualitative (e.g., few statistics). So save yourself a couple of years of grad school work and lots of money by going straight into a PhD program if you can.

2. The school should pay you. I’ve been told by promising students more than once that they weren’t going to grad school because they didn’t have the money. While most students pay out of their own pockets (or their parents’) for their master’s degrees, many PhD programs offer small “salaries” to their better doctoral students. These come in the form of teaching, graduate, or research assistantships (TAs, GAs, or RAs). While you wouldn’t want to live long-term on a TA’s salary, it’s often enough to pay your share of the rent and buy more than ramen noodles. And as an added bonus, many PhD programs often waive tuition for students with assistantships.   

3. Pedigree matters.

Unless you are just getting a PhD in order to receive a raise or promotion at work, get your doctorate from the best school in your field that you can get in to. Avoid the temptation to go to your local university or the place where you got your undergraduate degree unless it’s the best you can do in your field. Better schools usually offer better training, and potential employers know that.

How can you tell which are the best schools in your field? Look at rankings from places like U.S. News and World Reports and ask your professors. It’s also very important to ask the programs how many of their PhDs are getting jobs and from whom. If they are not regularly placing their doctoral students in jobs you want, then go to another PhD program.

4. Take a test prep course. Standardized test scores (e.g., GRE) matter. Higher scores get you into better schools, and your scores may also be used to determine if you get an assistantship or a scholarship. 

So take a test prep course and do everything they suggest. The major test prep companies have figured out the dirty little secrets of these standardized tests and mastered techniques to teach them to their clients. The $1,000-$1,500 in tuition is a pittance to pay for the structured preparation and feedback, which often lead to substantially higher test scores. The tuition will easily be paid back with even one semester of an assistantship and certainly with the higher salary and prestige you’ll likely gain with a better job after graduation.

Yes, I know you can buy a book to study, but few people have the discipline needed to maximize their score by studying from a book. I’ve never talked with anyone who regretted taking a test prep class, but I’ve talked to several people who regretted trying to study on their own from a book.  

5. You can still get a master’s degree even if you don’t finish the PhD. Sometimes students don’t complete all the requirements for a PhD. For example, they decide they are not up to writing a dissertation, or they don’t pass a required exam. In these cases, their department may give them a “consolation prize” of a master’s degree. So if you’re not sure you’re committed to getting a PhD, it still may make sense to enroll in a PhD program with the possibility of falling back instead to a master’s degree.


Of course, these dirty little secrets won’t apply to every PhD program or field of study. But I hope you’ll consider these tips when thinking about going to grad school. They may save you years of toil and thousands of dollars not to mention making pursuing a PhD financially possible when it may have appeared impossible before. Good luck!  

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In addition to writing the "Caveman Politics" blog for Psychology Today, Gregg is the Executive Director of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech University. You can find more information on Gregg

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