The PhD application process has certainly been eye-opening. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone, but here is a summary of what I’ve learned. A lot of this has been said by other applicants in the forum, so I’m probably just echoing previous sentiments. 1. PhD admissions are not like undergrad, or even master’s programs (depending on the discipline). Most people (relatives, friends) will not understand this, and expect you to easily gain an acceptance.
2. It’s ideal if you can figure out “fit” before you decide where to apply (yeah, I know, pretty obvious). When I applied, I wasn’t 100% sure what I wanted to do, and since I was applying only locally, it limited my options. In retrospect, only 2 of the 5 programs I applied to were in the course of study I wanted to pursue and were a good fit. I figured this out later in the application process.
3. It’s okay to apply locally (or in a preferred location), but be aware of the limitations. I needed to stay in the local area for the immediate future for various reasons I won’t go into. However, I was fortunate enough to live in a city with multiple universities, and two programs with excellent fit that I would have been happy to study at (and one that I ultimately received an acceptance from). You may not get in the first round, and it’s ideal if you can open your search up nationally, but there are perks of being in a preferred or needed location: I feel I’m much more likely to succeed in my PhD program because of this.
4. There is such a thing as a “safety” school. When I say “safety,” I do not mean “guaranteed admission.” Rather, I mean a school that receives fewer applicants and likely does not have as super high test score/GPA/etc acceptance levels. This does not mean it’s not a good program or a good fit. But having “safeties” increases your chances of getting an admission somewhere. (Granted, some people are accepted to top programs and rejected from safeties, so of course there are no guarantees.)
5. You will lose confidence over the course of the application process. You start off feeling fairly certain in your chances (if you're like me). By January, you’re biting your nails, but still feeling okay. By February, you start to feel like it’s a 50-50 shot. By March, you’ve decided your fate is sealed and you have no chance whatsoever. Increase this lack of confidence and anxiety levels by the following factors:
a. receiving no acknowledgments from programs that you exist;
b. receiving a rejection or multiple rejections before any acceptances;
c. seeing others get interviews or acceptances to your programs before you hear anything.
6. It’s okay to not go to a “top program.” (Not to mention some of the best programs are at schools that aren't name brand.) Many of us who are used to excelling academically and going to well-respected colleges have a bit of a snobbery factor with schools (I’ve been guilty of that myself). But frankly, there are many good PhD programs that aren’t highly ranked.
7. As a follow-up to 6: consider programs with your career goals. I am not getting a PhD to become some world-renowned researcher and necessarily teach at an R-1. Granted, those things are nice, but my career goals are fairly modest, and I don't need to go to a top-ranked program to achieve my goals. I just want to teach and do research, not to mention the consulting opportunities that are in my field. My other (top) priorities include having a flexible schedule and being able to balance work with life/family.
8. A Plan “B” can keep you sane. From the time you submit your applications to hearing something, it can be up to 5 months. That’s a lot of time to stress about where you’ll be the next year. My plan B became very extensive; I made a preliminary list of schools to apply to nationally next year in case I didn’t get in this year. I thought about what I would do both personally and professionally in the upcoming year. I tried to get as excited as possible about my Plan B. Some people are easily able to distract themselves and not think about the application process: I am not one of those people (and kinda get annoyed when other people say "just chill!" Sorry, "chill" dude, we're not all zen like you). Thus, planning and thinking about the Plan B instead helped maintain my sanity.
9. If you don’t succeed, try, try again. When I first decided to apply for programs, a PhD wasn’t my be-all-end-all. It was only as I continued to be involved with research and learning what a career would be like as a professor that I realized “this is what I want to do.” I was fortunate enough to receive an acceptance this year, but if I hadn’t, I would have had to reapply next year. I think if you’ve decided what makes you happy, you should keep going for it, even though it’s a painful process sometimes.
10. I can say all of this, but really: it’s a total crap shoot.