Saturday, January 23, 2016

PhD Applications Again

Three and a half years ago, I wrote a post about PhD applications. Since then, I have received a huge number of enquiries from prospective students. I now have two PhD students (Alrick Campbell and Panittra Ninpanit) and am on the committee/panel of two others (Anil Kavuri and Rohan Best). There are a couple of other good students who have applied but haven't come here because either their English test scores didn't meet our requirement or they couldn't get funding. We don't offer any new internal Crawford School scholarships at this point and I don't have any grant funds for PhD students. So, it is quite unlike applying for a PhD in the US where most students are funded by university sourced money in social sciences like economics. Here it is most likely that you will be funded by the Australian government one way or another, by your own government, or by an intergovernmental organization like the Asian Development Bank.*

As I mentioned in my previous post, also, unlike North America, applying to do a PhD in the social sciences and humanities here in Australia requires lining up a supervisor (=advisor) up front. Therefore, it is more like applying to do a PhD in the natural sciences and engineering in the US. Our formal process here also requires that potential students submit a research proposal, despite the fact that at ANU there is up to a year of coursework required in the economics program, which makes it seem more like a US PhD than most Australian PhD programs where you start doing research more or less straight away.

This is where I have been a bit frustrated by potential students submitting proposals that aren't at all related to the kind of research I do (despite this blog and my research webpage), proposals that are not very good, or being surprised that they need to submit a proposal because that isn't required to apply for a PhD in the US. Some of the latter seem like potentially good students. When I ask them for a proposal, the usual reaction is to write something rather quickly. I can't blame these students - when many programs around the world don't require a proposal, why should they invest a lot in writing one. One of the main reasons I did my PhD in the US rather than Britain was that I didn't know what to write a proposal about at the time. Another downside of a student submitting an upfront proposal is that they might then feel somewhat locked into that subject despite having written the proposal being a sunk cost. Alrick and Panittra were exceptions, having a pretty good proposal up front that was related to my research, which is why I agreed to supervise them.**

So, after receiving another off-the-wall topic from a prospective student this morning, I'm thinking of taking a radically new approach. Maybe, I should require students to submit a completed research paper (like we did when I was at RPI) instead of a  proposal for future research and then discuss this paper with the student to see how they think etc. I would require students to work on one of the broad areas I work on ("economic growth", "meta-analysis" etc.) and develop an actual proposal with them after they arrive here.

Or maybe the process is working exactly as it should? After all, I have had a few good applications and probably as many students as I should have. Any thoughts?

* Australian students can get an APA. Foreign students main option is the Australia Awards program. There are very few scholarships for students not from developing countries that Australia is interested in giving aid to. According to the government's Innovation Package, this will change dramatically.

** Students only need to line up the primary supervisor ahead of time. The other panel members usually join after the student has finished their coursework.

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