your timeline

This is a broad outline of when things will be happening, by season and month. Just so you have a sense of what is going on and when. The timelines for PhD and MA programs are mostly the same, though many MA programs have slightly later deadlines and will require slightly different essays (i.e., you’re not describing your planned doctoral work to MA programs).


You begin your work in earnest during the Summer, although you should be in conversation with your faculty mentor(s) long before then. Summer is when you’ll do the bulk of your research into both potential programs and, more importantly, potential faculty mentors. Remember, even though you’re applying to a particular program, you’re mostly applying to become somebody’s student. You may be in a more collegial relationship with your graduate advisors than with undergrad mentors, but you’re nonetheless applying to be their student. 

June – July

  • Graduate? Good for you!
  • Better still, you’re about to enter your final year of MA or BA work, so see a movie or hit the beach!
  • Now, time to start looking into GRE prep courses so you can (re-)take the GREs.
  • Identify the faculty you’re interested in working with. Namely, go through the people whose work you love and figure out where they are!
  • Then: read as much of their published work as you can!
  • (This can include looking up their dissertations, which are a treasure trove of information about folks. If you still have access to a university library system [as most recent grads do for some period of time], figure out how to use the ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Database. Dissertations are great because they give you a glimpse into their intellectual backgrounds, the programs they came through, and the people with whom they’re in conversation. Did you wonder how Grace Hong, Roderick Ferguson, and Chandan Reddy knew each other? It’s from their time at UC San Diego together [with overlapping committee members and many debts acknowledged to each other in their dissertations].)
  • Compile basic information about all the programs you’ve discovered into a spreadsheet or Word document. This information will be revised come Fall. But it’s helpful to have a sense of things like deadlines, fee amounts, and program descriptions early on in the process so you know what you’re getting into.


  • While you’re doing all of that reading to get acquainted with potential faculty members, you’ll get started on your essays. By the time Fall rolls around, you’ll want first drafts of your statement of purpose, personal statement, and writing sample for your letter writers.
  • Be sure to (re-)take the GRE if you’re applying to programs that require them.
  • Figure out from whom you’ll be asking for letters of recommendation.
  • Create a dossier to send to your letter writers.


This is when everything starts to come together while simultaneously falling apart and coming back together again. If you did a lot of work over the Summer, the Fall will be a little less insane for you.


  • Start contacting your targeted faculty members about whether they’ll be around for the application process. You don’t want to discover after you apply that your dream faculty member is on sabbatical for the year and won’t be taking on any new students.
  • Get back in touch with your letter writers. Keep in mind that ideal letter writers will be people you already know well enough that you’re getting back in touch, not cold-calling.
  • Seek advice on revising your statements, complete final drafts.
  • Make a checklist! A checklist can be very helpful for organizing the work you’ve done. See mine from the beginning and the end of my most recent process.
  • Look into emergency programs. M.A. programs often have deadlines in the Winter and sometimes the Spring. It helps to be aware of a few in case the PhD offers don’t come in and you don’t want to take a gap year.

November-December (and January for a few places)

  • Complete the applications–the online forms, the statement of purpose, the personal statement (if needed), the letters of rec., the GRE scores, your transcripts–before the deadlines. Make sure everything you need to do is done by the deadline. There’s leeway with letters of rec. that come in after the deadline (a professional courtesy extended to fellow academics).
  • Keep in touch with your letter writers, though, so they know when to expect email notifications from various schools asking for their letters.


Well, it’s all over now… for a few weeks, at least.

February-April 15

  • First things first, complete your FAFSA.
  • Keep your mentors appraised of your acceptances and rejections. Acceptances are usually sent out beginning around the end of January and into the beginning of March. If you haven’t heard from a program by mid-March you’re in some trouble. Your mentors can help you think through the decision making process and help you step back from the ledge if you’re not getting good news.
  • If you haven’t heard from anywhere by the end of February, break out the emergency MA programs.
  • Whenever you receive an acceptance, send a brief but very warm email to the Director of Graduate Studies or whoever informed you of your acceptance saying how happy you are to have been accepted. This small professional courtesy can potentially lead to better funding, or, at least, will inspire them to fight harder for you to come there (that is, will get them fighting for better fellowships on your behalf).
  • If you have multiple offers, inform everyone of where you’ve been accepted. If school 1 is offering a better funding package than schools 2 or 3, send them the offer so they can fight for you to get a competitive offer. Remember, if they’ve accepted you, they want you and want to do what it’ll take to get you there.
  • April 15 is the deadline to respond to fellowship offers as established by the Council of Graduate Schools Nationwide. No school can legally ask that you respond earlier than April 15th, though they can allow you to respond later.

See? Is that really so bad? (Yes, it very is.)

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