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Things I wish I had known before I applied to PhD programs

Only those in possession of a bizarre sort of personality genuinely enjoy the process of filling out applications. While, I confess, I may not have serious statistical data to back up that claim it is my experience that most people approach the task of applying for things with a mixture of anxiety, dread, annoyance, and occasionally outright despair – mingled with a secret hope that is never expressed out loud. Applying for admission to schools can be a particularly nerve-wracking procedure and it is one that seems to induce more concern – and become more opaque – as one scales the academic ladder. Certainly, there are legions at the ready with helpful information about applying to become an undergraduate…but once you get to the point where you’re thinking about applying to a PhD program that helpful information becomes sparser and less clear. Thus, having just navigated this process myself, I felt that I should share some of the things that I learned along the way. And though this site has at times provided advice that some may deem largely satirical – the comments that follow are sincere. These are things I genuinely wish I had known before applying and things that I really did learn along the way, and they are offered here in the hopes that they may be of help to, well, someone.

Insofar as some of what follows may seem somewhat discouraging – please know that it is not meant to actually discourage anybody. That being said, to get through this process requires a willingness to slog forward even when you are feeling wretchedly pessimistic.

At the outset, I would also like to thank every professor, graduate student, and ne’er do well who gave me advice along the way – I could not have survived this process without their support.

So, without further ado…

Prepare for the nay-sayers

As you are probably aware – alas – many people in the world enjoy being less than supportive. You will be astonished by how many of these people you know once the word gets out that you are applying for PhD programs. This nay-saying will come in many forms, and though most of it will not be of the “you won’t get in” or “that’s a stupid idea” variety (though some of it may be), but it still has the potential to cause you to doubt yourself significantly. Or, to put it more clearly, you need to be prepared for the question “what do you do with a PhD in [insert the name of your field?” Granted, this is usually a fairly easy question to deflect. Therefore, you should be ready for the more nefarious question (which is you usually posed as more of a statement than a question): “you know there are no jobs, right?” If you wish you can always respond to this by pointing out that “there are no jobs” could be applied to any number of fields these days – but you might want to prepare a moderately more polite response. You should also prepare yourself for the types of comments that don’t really seem like criticism but which will eat away at your subconscious. For example: you tell somebody the list of schools to which you are replying and as you mention some of them they say “wow, you’re really applying there? That’s a very good school – I bet it’s hard to get into.” This is the type of comment that can easily chew on you, and make you to begin doubting whether you are good enough for that particular school, even if your interlocutor did not really mean to imply that you are not good enough. Brace yourself for a certain degree of negativity.

And for what it’s worth – recognize that much of the negativity you encounter will actually just come from your own self-doubt.

Prepare for the yay-sayers

Though some will doubtlessly discourage you, others will encourage you to a degree that seems almost counterproductive. Few people will have the audacity to tell you that “you won’t get in anywhere;” however, you will certainly encounter quite a few people who will declare, “you’ll get in everywhere!” This is nice. This is comforting. But (at risk of being accused of being a nay-sayer) you probably will not get in everywhere. It might happen! Hopefully it will! But if you apply to six schools, get into three, get waitlisted at one, and get rejected by two – that is still a wonderfully successful wave of applications. Too much enthusiasm can be as much of a stumbling block as too little enthusiasm. It sets you up to be even more deflated when you get a rejection or two, and it puts you in the awkward position of having to tell these celebrants that you did not in fact get in everywhere. This also works in cases where people claim, “you’ll definitely get in at [name of particular school.” Again, these comments might come from a nice place of sunshine, rainbows, and endless positivity – but if you buy into it you’ll be setting yourself up to be caught unprepared when the rain starts. Thus, you can take the outpouring of optimism as an opportunity to keep everybody’s expectations (including your own) reasonable. When somebody says, “I’m sure you’ll get in” counter with “thanks, I appreciate it, but I know this is a really competitive process. I’m hopeful! But I’m trying not to have unrealistic hopes.”

For all of this – about the nay-sayers and the yay-sayers – leads to a very important point…

Know your odds

What is the size of the incoming cohort of PhD candidates for the program you’re considering? How many total students apply to that program? These numbers will, obviously, vary across schools, fields and specific programs – but when you look at the numbers you will probably realize that the odds (alas) are not in your favor. Do not get discouraged. The odds are not in anybody’s favor. Let’s say that the program builds a cohort of 5 and that the program receives 100 applications – that means your odds are 5% (yes, I deliberately picked numbers that would make the calculation easy [a 5% chance is actually pretty good]). This does not mean that you should refrain from applying…but it is worth recognizing that you are trying to get one of the very few spaces available. I’ll admit, after figuring out my odds at various schools I felt very discouraged – and then a professor provided me with the following information (I’m not sure if this applies to every school equally):

“In any pool of applicants, half of them shouldn’t be applying, and their applications get thrown out almost immediately. These are people who are clearly not putting any effort into their application and people whose research isn’t an appropriate fit for the field or the department. It’s the person whose statement of intent makes it clear they have no intent of actually finishing the program. It’s the person applying to an Information Studies department when it’s really obvious that they should be applying to a Film Studies department. So, right off the top, half the pool is gone. Of the remaining half, about half of these will wind up getting tossed out for slightly more specific reasons: lukewarm references, a formulaic statement of intent, a terrible writing sample, a student who doesn’t seem interested in that actual school, an obvious research mismatch. Meaning, if you’re a serious candidate you’re really only competing against about a quarter of the total applicant pool. The problem is that everybody in that top quarter is going to be very qualified. That’s where it comes down to how you do on your interview, or which professors you’ve talked to, or how good a ‘fit’ you are for a particular department. So, if you’re a strong candidate, you’re only really competing against the top 25% of applicants.”

I found those (admittedly, paraphrased) comments to be simultaneously very encouraging…but also rather discouraging. Nevertheless, it’s important perspective to have, and it can help you to set realistic hopes for yourself. Hoping you’ll get into every program you apply to is what everybody (I confess: me too) secretly hopes – but it’s more realistic to hope to get into two programs so you at least have a choice (and getting into two programs is an accomplishment [it really is]). And that being said, there are legions of people currently in PhD programs who will tell you that they didn’t get in anywhere the first time they tried applying – just because you don’t get in one year doesn’t mean you are never getting in.

Remember, patience and fortitude aren’t just the names of lion statues.

The process of applying begins long before you actually apply

Yes, this seems counter intuitive. But it is meant seriously. When you apply to a PhD program you will be expected to sculpt a narrative of your life and academic pursuits that has led you to the present point at which you are applying. In other words: all of the stuff you’ve done up to the point of applying is part of your application. This does not necessarily mean that the random stuff you did for a year or two will negatively impact you (it might really help you in the end) – but it does mean that you need to think about how you are going to spin some of the odder points on your résumé. Granted, when it comes to applying it may be less about your résumé and more about your CV – which is like a résumé except that it is designed to make you feel even less confident.

If you go to the website for just about any university and look at a random professor’s profile you’ll probably be able to pull up that professor’s CV. It will be intimidating in its impressiveness! It will be filled with conference presentations, books, chapters, reviews, invited talks, awards, memberships to academic organizations, fellowships and many other things…of which you might not have any. Do not lose heart! Every CV started out in a rather unimpressive state. However, start thinking about whether or not there are any things you can do start adding lines to your CV now. If you are still a student (and even if you aren’t) consider trying to present a paper at a conference. Join some of the organizations affiliated with your field (this is cheaper to do if you can wrangle a student membership) and see if you can write a review for the organization’s journal. The work of applying to a PhD program begins the day that you start to seriously think about applying – even if you are thinking that you might not apply to a program for a few more years. Of course, you may wind up changing your mind, but the sooner you get serious about planning out applying the easier the eventual ordeal will actually be. One of the best ways to tell a department that you’re serious about contributing to scholarship in that field is to have a CV that shows that you’re already starting to contribute to scholarship in that field.

Furthermore, one really great way to figure out if you’re really interested in pursuing a PhD in a field is to go to a conference for that field and ask yourself “can I really see myself coming back to this conference for many years to come?”

Yes, you should contact the department – but don’t put too much stock in their response

Sending a cold e-mail is rarely enjoyable. What to say? How to say it? And this gets only more worrisome when you’re considering e-mailing a professor in whose hands you may be placing your chances of acceptance. Obviously there are things you can do to make this initial contact, potentially, less awkward – you can mention that you have enjoyed their books/articles (only mention this if it is true), say you enjoyed hearing them speak (only mention this if it is true), or explain that somebody else you know – who they also know – encouraged you to contact them (only mention this if it is true). But…all of that is pretty obvious. Isn’t it? In my experience (and in the experience of other people I’ve talked to) it seems like this contact generally goes something like this: you spend hours painstakingly crafting the perfect message, and you get back a short reply that pretty much says “I encourage you to apply.” It is worthwhile to send these e-mails. It really is. And you’ll probably get a few really great responses – but you’ll probably mainly get ones that say, “I encourage you to apply.” Don’t put too much faith in this encouragement. After all, they want you to apply – it means you’re paying and it helps add to their stats. But don’t expect a professor in a department to give you the definitive “you should apply here” or “you should not apply here.”

Also, if you say, “I really liked your book/lecture” be prepared to have them retort “what did you like about it?” Really.

When talking to current students, ask them what they don’t like about the program

Want to know what it’s really like to be a PhD student in that department? Why not actually ask somebody who knows? Many departments will feature their current PhD students on their websites – and oftentimes their contact information will be listed. This can be a great way to learn about what life in the department is like – and many students will be happy to help (“many” does not mean all). And though you should still take care to conduct yourself politely, it can be less intimidating and much more casual than contacting professors. It can also be a great way of getting recommendations as to which professors you should contact (and when you contact those professors you can now say “[name of current student] suggested I contact you”). But as you think of what questions you might want to ask, you should really consider asking students what they don’t like about the program/department. Department websites, graduate liaisons, and professors can be a great source of information about all of the ways in which a department is awesome – but current students can tell you which floorboards are creaky and which are rotted through. They will tell you things that you might not want to know! But they will tell you things that you need to know! Is the professor you really want to work with planning on retiring next year? Does the department harbor misogyny and xenophobia? Is there no money to send people to conferences? Is the department at risk of being shut down by the school? Are all of the current PhD students miserable? Does the professor you want to work with have a crummy track record as an actual advisor? Are the undergraduates at that university insufferable? Does the school’s library stink (literally and/or figuratively)?

It may be that all of the students are (more or less) fairly content. But it’s better to find that out before you try to join their number.

It is as expensive as you’ve heard it is

Applying to PhD programs is expensive. Really. It’s as expensive as you’ve heard it is. Actually, it’s probably more expensive. The application charge at most schools is around $100, but there are other charges. You’ll have to pay to send your GRE scores (probably), and you’ll have to pay to take the GRE, and you might wind up spending money on preparing for the GRE. And, of course, who can forget the expense of entering into a not particularly well funded master’s degree program which you were planning on using as a stepping stone into a PhD program (I’m not saying that’s a bad idea [I did it], but it is an expensive idea). And then there’s the cost of potentially going to various cities to visit schools there. True, after you’ve been accepted many schools will pay for you to come visit – but if you want to check out the city/school before you decide to apply? That’s coming out of your pocket. And, of course, all of these charges stack. If you apply to 6 schools (which seems to be a decent number) it will probably cost you well over $700 – and that’s if you don’t try to visit any of those cities. It is true that some schools do offer waivers for various reasons – but I know of many more cases of people applying for such waivers, than cases where people actually received them. So start saving. Which is another reason to begin planning early.

Which brings me to my next point…

Don’t waste your money

Confession: I threw away some money while applying to PhD programs. I applied to a school that: was not a good fit for my research, had no professors I wanted to work with, was in a city I was not willing to move to, and to which I had no real interest in going. And to make matters worse? I knew all of that…and I still applied. To make matters worse? It was the most expensive application fee.

Do you already have a degree from the school to which you’re applying? Find out if this will help or hurt you

Have you earned a master’s degree from the department/school to whose PhD program you’re applying? If so, this could help you, but it could also really hurt you. You should find out which it is. Ideally, you should try to figure this out before you go into a school’s master’s degree program if you think that you might want to pursue a PhD at that school. While there are certainly some departments that are happy to take some of their rising master’s candidates – there are also quite a few departments that really prefer not to take their rising master’s candidates. Of course, one of the benefits of being in a department already is that you (hopefully) have developed strong relationships with some of the professors – they should be able to give an honest answer to this question. And be prepared for an odd answer such as that in the accepted cohort of five they usually keep one spot open for a rising master’s student, or they tend to fill their waitlist with rising master’s candidates. This will vary from school to school, but it’s worth knowing.

Two-thirds of the people reading your statement of intent will only read the first paragraph

Here I am, once again, passing along advice that a professor (who reads these applications) actually gave me. It should be noted that that this professor was talking about the first rounds of consideration (by the time they’re trying to pick the top 5 from the final 15 – everything gets read [apparently]) – but it should also be noted that this professor emphasized the importance of a good statement of intent. According to this professor (and several others I talked to) the statement of intent is the most important part of the application – with recommendations coming in second. All of which is to say: don’t start your statement of intent with the sentence “my name is [your name] and I am applying to [the department] at [the name of the school].” Professors will remember a good opening (be warned – they’ll also remember a bad one), and it’ll make your application stand out. Admittedly, the statement of intent is a tricky piece of writing to craft – you need to make it clear that you have the academic chops to pass muster in the program, but you also want the statement to give a sense of what you’re like as a person. Remember, if you’re applying to a PhD program you’re (to a certain extent) asking professors if they want to have you hanging around their department for the next 4 to 6 to [insert a high number] of years. If your statement of intent makes you seem like somebody they’d want to have an actual conversation with…they’re probably more likely to think that you’d be an interesting person to have in the department. Yes, this is simple advice that holds true for almost all pieces of writing (application or not) – but it is meant seriously. There are lots of parts of the application process which consist of mindlessly filling out forms – your statement of intent is not one of those parts.

Writing a template statement of intent that you’re going to use for multiple schools? Be careful

Many people applying for PhD programs will write a single statement of intent with a paragraph or two that they edit for each program. If you plan on doing this be extremely careful to make sure that you are editing everything correctly before you submit it! If you are sending this particular statement off to [school Q] you want to make sure that your statement isn’t talking about [school G]. Are you sure the professors you mention in your statement are still there? At a certain point you will have gotten so exhausted by revising your statement of intent that all of the words will blur together into one mess of word stew – but be very careful! It’s easy to forget to change a word here or there, and that can get you into serious trouble.

On a similar note, before you devote hours and hours and hours (and hours [and hours {and hours}]) to crafting the perfect statement of intent, make sure you know what the various requirements/limits are for the various schools. At some schools you will be limited to five pages, at some schools you will be limited to two pages, at some schools there will be no limit, and at some schools they will ask you to write multiple essays. It can be maddening to create a wonderful five-page statement and then realize you have to cut it down to two pages. And it can be especially maddening to realize you have to cut five pages down to two pages when the application is due in an hour.

January and February will be terrible

Though there are certainly other application due dates, it seemed to me that the majority of due dates fell on either the last day of November, December 15, or the last day of December. And then…you have to wait. And wait. Many schools begin sending out acceptances, rejections, and invitations to interview at some point in late January or at some point in February – though there are certainly some programs that won’t get back to you until March. If you just read the previous sentence and thought to yourself “so, you’re saying that there’s no real way of knowing when I’ll hear back” – well, you’re right. I have no idea when you’ll get a response. And even if you contact the department to which you applied – they might not be able to give you much in the way of a concrete date. In short: January and February (and even late December, depending on the program’s due date) are going to be rough months. I openly admit that in late January and early February I was checking my e-mail every five minutes. I would also log into the various application websites just to see if the status of my application had changed without my having been informed (it hadn’t). Try not to panic. Also, you may want to avoid the various websites and message boards where students post their results – this can lead you into a downward spiral of “the program I applied to sent out decisions by January 24th last year, it’s now January 25th and I haven’t heard anything, I’m doomed!” or “Somebody said they’ve heard back…why haven’t I heard back? I’m doomed!” Granted, for some people such sites and forums can be useful – but if you think such sites are just going to make you anxious…avoid them. I know it is impossible to really do this (I failed miserably at it) but you’re just going to have to wait and try not to obsess over it.

Once you’ve been accepted, recognize that other people are waiting on you

Congratulations! You’ve been accepted! You knew this would happen! Huzzah! Mazal tov! There’s just one thing…you still haven’t heard back from every program you’ve applied to yet. Students are expected to make a decision by April 15 (this seems to be pretty standard) – and here you are in early February with an acceptance from one school (again, congratulations) but a whole lot of silence from the other schools to which you applied. Alas, every school operates on its own timeframe and you’ll probably have to keep waiting. But as you keep waiting – especially if you’re extremely lucky and you’re accumulating multiple offers of admission – bear in mind that lots of people are waiting on you to make a decision. Yes, the department itself wants you to make a choice. But more importantly, there are other students waiting for you to make a decision. PhD programs do not accept a lot of people – and there are almost certainly people on the waitlist praying that you are going to decide to go somewhere else so that they can move off of the waitlist and into the accepted spot you have just vacated. So, if you’ve already received two acceptances (you lucky person) and you know that you’re definitely not going to go to one of them (even as you’re still waiting to hear back from other schools) – do the nice thing and tell the school you won’t be going to, that you won’t be going there. By doing so you’ll give somebody else a chance. This is not to say that you should rush your decision. But once you’ve made your decision (even if it’s “I’ve been accepted at school R and school G, if I don’t get in anywhere else I’ll definitely go to school G”) – don’t keep it to yourself.

It really is about fit. Whatever the heck “fit” means

One of the things that you will hear and see mentioned over and over again is the idea of “fit.” Your research needs to be a good “fit” for the department, you need to be a good “fit” for the professor you want to work with, you need to “fit” within the department’s current group or people. And of course, this can also be flipped around, as you will be told that you need to ask yourself if you feel that the department is the right “fit” for you. And when you talk to professors many of them will tell you that in the end the real deciding factor of whether or not to admit somebody comes down to who they think is the best “fit.” It is enough (prepare yourself for a crummy joke)  to make you throw a fit (told you it was a crummy joke).

It seems that “fit” is largely a shorthand term for “all of the things that go into the process that can’t easily be broken down into something quantifiable.” And yet…in the end…there really is something to the idea. And it’s hard to really gauge “fit” just by looking on a website and having a few brief conversations with people. At some point in the process you will likely be invited to visit the school – either for an interview or for some kind of post-acceptance-you-should-come-here weekend – and when you are there you will have to ask yourself if you feel like it’s a good “fit.” As one professor told me: “you’re making a commitment to be stuck in this department for the next 5 years, and you’re going to have to be seeing these people for the next 5 years, when you go there ask yourself if you can really do that. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with the people in your cohort, you really don’t want to hate them.” If you’ve been accepted the department is clearly saying that they think you’re a good fit, but when you actually visit you have to ask yourself “is this a good fit for me?” And, alas, the answer may be no. And the answer may be no and you will find yourself having to choose between that “no” and having to wait another year to apply again in the hopes of getting in somewhere that will feel like a yes. Or, if you are lucky, you may find yourself having to choose between multiple schools where you can see yourself fitting in quite well. And though there will certainly be all kinds of things that push and pull on your decision – in the end only you will be able to know if it’s a good fit. Obviously you can solicit advice and feedback from various people to help you with this decision (my favorite comment came from a professor who told me “you don’t look like the type of person who would like being in southern California” [yes, a professor really said that]), but ultimately it’s on you.

Granted, as one current PhD student told me, “I didn’t feel like this department was a good fit for me until my second year here.”

In conclusion…

Alas, this is one of the processes which you can really only learn how to do by actually doing it. That being said – you definitely can do it! Hopefully, the above advice will be of some help to you!

Good luck!

Have your own tips to add? Feel free to comment on this post!

[Note: I applied to PhD programs in several (vaguely related) fields as the work I do is fairly interdisciplinary in nature. Those fields (as will not shock folks who are familiar with this blog) included: STS, Communication Studies, History of Science/Technology, Media Studies, Information Studies (Library School). If you have any questions or want any advice feel free to contact me! You can reach me at librarianshipwreck[at]]


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

4 comments on “Things I wish I had known before I applied to PhD programs

  1. Pingback: Back to school…with much to learn… | LibrarianShipwreck

  2. Pingback: You can do this (really) – advice for new graduate students | LibrarianShipwreck

  3. Pingback: How to prepare for qualifying exams (or, how to read too many books in seven months) | LibrarianShipwreck

  4. Pingback: What I Wish I Had Known Before Writing My Dissertation | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2016 by in Education, Higher Education and tagged , , , , , .

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