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Grad School Saga Pt 1 - Rise & Fall

St Andrews Lynx


The first part of my story begins with me dreamily wandering through the office on a beautiful Philadelphian spring day. It ends with me tearfully running across a small Swiss town exactly 2 years later.

I call it a saga for a reason.

Actually, the saga kicked off in Scotland, the country where I grew up and chose to study my undergraduate Chemistry degree. I chose the University of Edinburgh mostly for the strength of its degree program, but also because I was enchanted by the city of Edinburgh. A stately, rugged and charismatic place that I connected with as soon as I saw it. The first few years as an undergrad gifted me with a peaceful sense of inertia: if you'd asked before the summer of 2009 what I planned to do with myself after graduation, I'd have replied, "Well, y'know...I guess I'm going to stick around in Edinburgh, maybe doing a PhD, maybe working." As far as I was concerned there was no need to go anywhere else in the world when I had Edinburgh. A PhD was an abstract thing I assumed I'd slip into one day, but didn't think about in any proactive sense.

Yet in the summer of 2009 I had a visa glued into my passport and strode onto the plane that would take me away from Scotland, putting me on the opposite side of the Atlantic for the first time. Not as a holiday-maker, but as an independent worker. In the British university system, the scientists on a 5-year B.S/M.S course have the option of spending 12 months "in industry" and a significant number of scientific companies recruit Edinburgh students directly. Middling through my degree with no driving motivation for high grades I was a quick victim of the global recession: applications went unacknowledged. The offer I was made in February for a medicinal chemistry place in the USA was entirely unexpected - I'd convinced myself I was staying in-house for my penultimate year - but I took it swiftly.

Those 12 months in the States were perfect. I loved Philadelphia. I loved the med chem and working environment. I loved all the travelling and adventures I got swept into. Inspired by the science I decided what I wanted to pursue as a future career: an Organic Chemistry PhD in the USA would be the first step towards that goal.

Instead of applying to PhD programs during my final year at Edinburgh, I figured it would be a tad less stressful (and more useful overall) if I went into industry for another 12 months following my graduation, aiming for Fall 2012 entry into the school of my choice. A friend recommended I approach a pharmaceutical company he'd worked at in Basel, Switzerland. He had contacts and knew that they took on a number of interns in my position. It had been a downer returning to the UK after my time in Philly. Burning with wanderlust I booked my one-way flight to Switzerland.

Fall 2012 admission did not happen.

Looking back, I was quite naive about the whole grad school application thing. In the UK, an elite research-intensive university is not nearly as competitive as its equivalent in America: all of my smart British friends who wanted to do a Chemistry PhD applied to a maximum of two institutions and were accepted without breaking a sweat. The UK degrees aren't broken down into GPA scores - our classifications are much broader - so I didn't appreciate the importance stats like GREs and GPAs would have in the American admissions process. The >10% admissions rate for international applicants at my top choices didn't mean anything to me. If I had what it took to get into a British program, why should a US one be any tricker?

Under-estimating the competitiveness of the American system (or else over-estimating the competitiveness of my application), I applied to 5 of the most elite chemistry programs that the country had to offer. I get the feeling that this is a common mistake international applicants make - one of my French friends did exactly the same. I was working when I revised and sat my Chemistry GRE: my score was horrendous. I chose for my 3rd reference a professor back at Edinburgh who knew me personally and was in a position to comment on my academic record...but who wasn't an organic chemist and couldn't comment on my research ability. Dimly aware that these all counted as weaknesses in my application, I maintained cheery denial of how these details would impact me.

What happened next was a series of rejection emails spread out over the course of 3 months. I didn't know of the Grad Cafe's Results Section back then, so had no idea they were coming. I kept myself in a state of denial for those 3 stressful months, refusing to admit that I should be investing in a Plan B (PhD in UK or Europe) until too late. I applied piece-meal to grad schools in Switzerland, Germany, Britain with increasing desperation. All their places had been allocated. Several Germanic professors initially seemed interested...until they found someone better and simply stopped replying to my emails. I hated myself for sending begging emails and pleading for replies...but I sent them anyway, instead of decisively moving on to the next opportunity.

My personal and professional sense of self-esteem crashed. Relations with work colleagues became strained as I retreated into a dark place within myself. Instead of developing as an independent scientist in preparation for doctoral research I was reliant on my supervisor telling me what to do: I hadn't the self-belief to make decisions on my own.

We were moving out of winter and into spring. Still I was frantic in refreshing my email inbox trying to get sorted for Fall 2012 admission. I no longer cared where I was accepted, just as long as I was accepted somewhere. Refusing to contemplate any alternatives, I just had to get onto a PhD program.

It was on the day that I left work in tears and rushed home across Basel that I knew my situation had to change. I was going to have to accept that Fall 2012 entry wasn't going to happen for the sake of my mental wellbeing and the wreck of a person I was right now.

This came to mean only one thing: Fall 2013 & the re-application cycle.


If you're procrastinating and wish to explore the story's background then check out some of my previous Wordpress posts:

Edinburgh | Postcard From Edinburgh | Edinburgh: Taking back the city

Philadelphia | 10 Things I Love About Philadelphia | (Back) On The Streets Of Philadelphia

Basel | Basel is the New Orleans of Europe... | In praise of "Continental Europe"

The Fall 2012 Application Cycle | Broken | My 2012 did not go according to plan


Recommended Comments

I'm so sorry to hear about your hard road. I didn't up vote it because I was happy to hear about it, but I upvoted it because you're very kind and brave for sharing your story to us all. I think most of us go through some kind of rejection associated with grad school - beit admissions, scholarships, RAships, etc. It's so reassuring to see that you're still going for your goal and dream! I like to think that everything happens for a reason, perhaps this Fall is going to be extra spectacular, or maybe between now and then something lovely and life-changing will happen! :)

Good luck!

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Thank you for those kind words. 

I can see on the Forum right now a lot of people worrying about not getting accepted anywhere. I've been there and I feel for them. Although 100% rejection seemed like a nightmare scenario for me last year...turns out that it wasn't the end of the world. 

Part 2 of the story has a much better ending, thankfully. :) 

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Can you tell us the second part of the story? I am going through the same phase now through which you went a year ago. Crushed in self-esteem on all levels. And I wonder how I can regain the energy in order to re-apply next year. A similar story with a good ending would help a lot right now :-).

(by the way, I live in Basel, did my BA and MA there)

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Can you tell us the second part of the story? I am going through the same phase now through which you went a year ago. Crushed in self-esteem on all levels. And I wonder how I can regain the energy in order to re-apply next year. A similar story with a good ending would help a lot right now :-).

(by the way, I live in Basel, did my BA and MA there)

Will do, with the next couple of days. 

Sorry to hear that things didn't work out for you this time around...my first piece of advice would be to spend a week not thinking about grad school applications (I spent a lot of time in the Manora Restaurant on Claraplatz eating their chocolate brownies - that helped me!). That was the first step in getting myself back on track.  

Enjoy Fasnacht, too. 

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Your determination is amazing. Good that you stuck to your goals even after the setbacks. I am paralyzed by fear so I missed a lot of my application deadlines. I didn't think I was good enough since I was applying directly after graduation. I have a scholarship deadline in May. Giving the general GRE on April 1. Lets see how it goes. Will I feel the fear and do it anyway too? 

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