PhDreaming: Narrowing Down the Schools

Figuring out where to apply for PhD programs is kind of a nightmare. I miss the days of being in high school and thinking “Well, the state schools opened their applications today. I guess I should apply.” Although going to college was life-changing for me, as a high school kid with a 3.0 who had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, it wasn’t a really stressful thing at the time. Until I got my acceptance letter which stated I was “conditionally accepted” and, not really knowing what that meant, spent an hour on the phone with someone in the admissions office freaking out that I would have to raise my grade in AP Statistics (since I wasn’t passing it) while the admissions counselor kept telling me, “no, you only needed to take up to Algebra 2, and you did that. You will be fine.” And me saying, “Really? Are you sure?” Spoiler alert: I did get into college.

Even applying for my M.A. wasn’t this stressful. I loved where I did my undergraduate and knew I wanted to go there for my M.A. so that was easy. I applied to a few other places, but ultimately stayed here and I do not regret that one bit. I love my program more than life itself sometimes. Pursuing education is my jam.

PhD applications though are so daunting. Applications are not typically due until December/January, but I am trying to get it togethter now.

The first step was narrowing down the schools. I’ve been working on this task since last semester. And I would have started earlier, but I entered my M.A. thinking I would study literature and switched to rhetoric last summer. Everytime someone, usually a professor, tells me about a program, I look it up and usually add it the list. Then another professor asks why that program is on the list, but not this program. And then you think you finally have a good list of ten schools only for them to be questioned even more.

I narrowed it down so early on because I was given the advice to ask for letters of recommendation before the conclusion of this semester so faculty will have enough notice and won’t be stressed in the fall. Also, some faculty won’t write multiple letters of recommendation, so, if I am applying to the same programs as my classmates, I will need to ask first. I was also told to send a list of the programs I was applying to when I asking for the letters, as well as the due date of the programs, so, I had to compile that list.

On top of stressing about narrowing down the lists, each school only takes an average of four students. Some admit as low as two! So, if you are applying to ten schools, there is only a total of 40 slots. It’s quite scary. I have a pretty good track record in the M.A. program. I’ve been able to maintain a 4.0, I have a pretty solid plan (OK, idea) for my thesis, I have maintained professional relationships with a lot of faculty in the department, and I am so incredibly passionate about what I do. Yet, I have a lot of doubt about my ability to get into a PhD program. The rates of acceptance are so low. How do I make myself stand out? Will I have a good enough writing sample? What if I suck at the application? What if I just suck in general? What if I’m not good enough to get into a PhD program?

I feel like that a lot in the program I am in. I’ve been told that imposter syndrome in graduate education is real and I feel that. Sometimes I wonder if I just get A’s because I am a nicer person and the professors would feel bad for giving me another grade. I had a class last semester where I was one of three solid A’s (out of 15). Everyone else was an A- (which is a 3.7 in terms of GPA) or a B+ and I still haven’t been able to figure out why I got the solid A. According to professors here, an A- is kind of like a “Nice try, thank you for playing” and a B is a “you should reconsider grad school.” I have a really hard time believing it was based on my ability and my work in the class. I keep thinking he accidentally put the A on the gradebook when he went to submit grades. I’ve never actually asked that professor why I got an A in his class, but somehow I did.

That’s what applying to PhD programs feels like. Even if I get into a program, I will probably wonder why I did. What made me stand out? Did they make a mistake and mean to admit the person who was alphabetically next to me? Was my admission a computer error?

There are so many steps to a PhD application, so, they will get a sense of who I am. THERE ARE SO MANY STEPS. In the summer, I’m devoting a week to each school to work on personal statements getting the right writing sample, making sure I have everything, etc. while working on my thesis and working full-time in July and August.

At least the first few steps are done. The ball is rolling. And once it’s in motion, it stays in motion until it hits a wall. Okay, just be glad I’m not getting a PhD in anything science-y.

I loved this meme, so, I thought I would leave it here. I think it’s a good reminder for me to think in terms of “once I get my PhD” instead of “if I get my PhD.”

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