Graduate School After Peace Corps

In 1998, while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador, I decided to apply for a PhD program in political science. I had no idea what I was doing. Though I had majored in political science at UNC-Chapel Hill, graduating in 1993, I had a limited understanding of the “discipline.” I barely knew what journals were. I had limited access to information about programs, with no access to the internet on a regular basis (I had a dial-up connection once a month or so if I took a two hour bus ride). In the end, two of the four programs I applied to required prior Master’s and I didn’t get in to those (including the one where I now am a professor!). I studied for the GRE’s using a practice book, in between neutering pigs and workshops on cultivating blackberries. When I went to take the exam, it was the first time they had used the on-line computer version, and it was so different! My quantitative score, compared to the practice exam, paled. It was a miracle I got in to Georgetown.

With volunteers and other prospective applicants having access to the internet in even remote locations (I just got an email from my graduate student in East Timor), there is no excuse for that kind of ignorance in this day and age. What can prospective graduate students coming out of the Peace Corps do to prepare themselves? In addition to my scholarly activities, I lead a small NGO called Friends of Ecuador. I know we have a great set of guidance for would-be applicants to PhD programs, but here is a post for returning Peace Corps Volunteers that speaks to applying for graduate school, both for MA and PhD programs. 

So, for many current volunteers or recent RPCVs, additional education is an attractive prospect. What should you know? What kind of degree do you want to pursue? There is a huge difference in commitment and resources between say a two-year Master’s Degree and a PhD, which can minimally take five years to complete. You also have to think about what you want to do afterwards.

Several of us involved in Friends of Ecuador went on for postgraduate work after Peace Corps. Josh, for example, went and got his PhD at Georgetown University in Government (Political Science) and is now professor at the University of Texas in a public policy school and has been on the Admissions Committee for the MA program at his school. Ben, for his part, went and got his PhD in Epidemiology at UC-Berkeley. Here are some thoughts about navigating the application process, either while your service is on-going or once you get back.

Degrees – MA or PhD or other?

The most important question here is: what do you want to do following your graduate education? MAs as two to three-year professional degree programs are a great way to get additional skills and contacts en route to a job. Though a lot of people in the world of doers have PhDs, many PhD programs, particularly in the social sciences, see their business as training the next generation of professors. A five-year minimum commitment is asking for a lot so you should know what you are getting into. For both, be ready for some math/statistics/economics classes. Unless you go into a program like history, you may be in store for methods classes with a fair chunk of math and statistics. Be not (too) afraid.

Master’s Programs: For MA programs, there are a number of programs like our MA program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs that are affiliated with Peace Corps. These seem to be programs where you get your MA before serving. In our case, the program offers some credit hours for service, a waiver of an internship requirement and possibly a language requirement. This is potentially a great program if you have the foresight to apply to graduate school alongside your service.

For most readers of this site, we imagine that you’ve already served and are looking to apply now that you are an RPCV or are about to COS. For those folks, I’d say that your Peace Corps experience will often be counted in the admissions decision so I would definitely flag it in your cover letter and CV. You may not get additional funding or fellowships explicitly because of your service, but you are more likely to get in (though some programs may have fellowships for RPCVs). Consider joint degree programs if you are doing a generalist program like public policy. You may find that a joint public policy-public health degree or public policy-regional specialization degree will serve you well. The general public policy degree may not provide as much technical or substantive specialization as you may want or need.

PhDs: For PhD programs, the most important thing is to identify a program and a city where you can be “happy” working for an extended period of time. You want a place that has a rich intellectual environment with ambitious students and faculty that will do right by you in both getting through the program and doing what you want to do when you finish.

I contribute to an academic blog where we’ve collected a lot of advice about whether to get a PhD (in political science) and if so, what to do. Here is Dan Nexon’s take on the requirements to get in and a general link to our other academic advice.

Where Should You Go

Pick the very best program you can get into and afford. For PhD programs, the degree pecking order can matter quite a lot in terms of getting an academic job when you come out. If your degree is from Harvard or Princeton and some other top schools, you have a leg up on people from lesser ranked schools in terms of getting a job interview.  I wouldn’t choose a program to work with a particular person as academics sometimes move around, go on leave, but you want to go to a place where there are a number of people who work on issues you care about.ELT200801081700355134372

For MA students, I’m not sure if university prestige matters as much for the job market. Our graduates do pretty well in terms of applying for things like the Presidential Management Fellows program. You want to go to schools that have a rigorous program, maybe one with good overseas travel opportunities that are funded during the program, and ones with good internship programs.

Here are some relevant rankings that might help you.
US NewsTRIP Survey on Political Science

Visiting the School

Whether Boston or Austin or Princeton or DC is the best fit for you may depend a lot on you. Are you a big city person? Do you like live music? Can you handle the heat/cold? Do you need to be in the nation’s capital? Do you need mountains? A visit can be a great way to decide, but it may be harder for you to visit the school, especially if you are applying from your country of service. Here, ask friends who know you well who have gone to graduate school to give you recommendations. See if you can Skype with RPCVs who are in those programs if you can’t afford to visit. Visit a select few if you go home to visit family.


Good students will be eligible for funding and fellowship support at both the MA and PhD levels. You may also be eligible for a teaching or research assistantship or part-time student worker positions. At the PhD level, you probably do not want to go if you don’t get offered multi-hyear funding (that’s quite a lot of debt to assume if you are going to self-fund your graduate education). That said, I didn’t have funding when I started at Georgetown but picked it up after the first semester. That was lucky.

At the MA level, programs will have some fellowships to give out to the very best students. RPCVs, given our experience, can be among them, though our test scores may be lower if we’ve been out of school for a while and/or try taking the GREs from our country of service. You want to put yourself in the best possible position for that money.

(Law and business degrees as three-year programs are a whole another animal. Generally, I think people have to pay their own way).

Here are some things admissions programs take into account:

GREs – Practice Makes Perfect

I took practice GREs at my site, using a GRE practice book and then took the exam the first year they administered an on-line version that had a pretty different format. My math score could have been better. Low GRE scores and low GPA scores send a bad signal. You can still get in with middling scores for both, but while GPA scores at this point, you can’t control. You can still control your fate with higher GRE scores. Here are some of our recent averages for the 2012 admitted class (though I don’t think we really look at the writing score [the cover letter is important though]:

GPA: 3.61
GRE Verbal: 160 – 83rd percentile
GRE Quantitative: 156 – 70th percentile
GRE Writing: 4.4

Cover Letters

For MA programs, you should be able to talk about why the program is a good fit for your career goals. Be as specific as possible. Try to use an important anecdote from your service and what it taught you. Make the sure the letter is written well. Tailor your letter to each individual school and mention the courses and professors that you might want to take/work with. A little idealism about what big problems in the world are a plus. The less workmanlike the better. Imagine you are on the other side reading 300 of them.

For PhD programs, emphasize your research interests, the questions that animate you. Be specific about why you think the program is a good fit. Even if you want to get a non-academic job in the future, you might want to keep that to yourself. Be able to answer why a PhD?

If you have friends who have successfully applied to graduate school, ask for their letters for comparison.

Letters of Recommendation

These are very important. You will sometimes have been out a while so it is harder to get an academic letter from someone who knows you well or who has been in touch with you recently. You might stay in touch with your former and favorite professors during your service. Getting letters from real world employers for an academic program is a little tougher. We like to see these for MA students, but for PhD applications, I think we will want to see letters from academics.

You will want to get letters from people who know you well and can write positively about your attributes in a very specific way. You can give those folks your CV, your cover letter, and some bullet points about things that might be salient. Provide them with all the contact details they need with plenty of anticipation. Don’t just ask them the week before the deadline. If you have any blemishes in your record, the letters might be able to speak to that.

Good luck and get in touch if you have any questions!

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