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Grad School Saga Pt 2 - Feeling the fear...and doing it anyway

St Andrews Lynx

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[initially I planned to only cover the story of my application in two parts. This plan fell through as soon as I started writing. Apologies for stringing out the conclusion, it's coming soon...]

May 2012. Basel, Switzerland. It was evening and most of the tears had dried. Simply the act of admitting that my current situation had to stop made me feel better. I resolved to take plenty of time in the upcoming long weekend to relax and stop thinking about grad school applications and my failed attempt at Fall 2012 admission. I wasn't even going to think about alternatives yet, I certainly wasn't going to settle on a firm course of action ("settle on a firm course of action = post a Facebook status or blog post on the matter) for about a week.

It was a gorgeous long Spring weekend. I sat on the balcony as the sun came up, cradling a steaming mug of coffee. As scheduled, I headed over to Prague for 2 days (pretty place, but too many tourists). As a strongly introverted person, I prefer to turn thoughts over in my own head long before I start discussing my ideas with others.

The decision wasn't one I needed to think actively about. When I came to examine my thoughts a little while later I found I'd already decided: I wanted to apply to the USA again for 2013 entry. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing exactly the way I want it.

I took a hard look at my application, identified some key weaknesses and sorted out a plan of action.

Chemistry GRE score was awful...I'm going to re-sit it.

Have two years of industrial experience...I need another academic research project.

One of my referees isn't really in the position to describe my research competencies...as above, I need another academic research project.

As an international applicant I'm a complete unknown to these universities...I'm going to have to visit them.

Here I need to divert to talk a little about fear. I had identified several things that I believed were necessary to improve my chances of admission - the thought of doing them absolutely terrified me. I'm an introverted scientist. I was terrified of approaching a Big Name Professor at a conference, introducing myself and asking for advice - even though we'd arranged the meeting via email in advance. I was terrified of dropping in to the office of one of my work bosses unannounced to ask questions about sponsorship. I was terrified of emailing Very Big Name Universities to ask if I could have a look round their Department.

Terrified...yet I did all these things anyway. Whenever I hesitated or felt myself shaking with nerves, the voice in my head aggressively demanded "Look, do you want to get into grad school or don't you? Quit stalling and do it."

More than anything else, dealing with my fears proved to be the key to improving my odds of admission.

During the summer I took a two week holiday in the Philadelphia region. In those two weeks I caught up with all my friends, did fun summery tourist stuff and visited 5 grad schools. I met with faculty, students and administrators. [Advice - grad school administrators are usually v. willing to organise a visiting day on your behalf if you say you're a prospective student. Then they do the running around the schedule meetings with Big Name Faculty who would most likely ignore your unsolicited email. On the top of that you'll probably get a free lunch thrown in too]

In early Fall I was back in the UK, enrolled as a Visiting Student at one of the top science Departments in the country. Falling outside all funding categories I took it as unpaid: not ideal, but there wasn't a better option available to me. As luck would have it, I really enjoyed those 3 months - great group, challenging project, awesome location - they did a lot to restore the professional self-esteem left battered from all the rejections.

Better-informed about the competitiveness of the US admissions system, I chose a broader range of grad schools to apply to. I kept the number of American applications the same in the second cycle (5), but I put in applications to 3 British universities at the same time and kept the option of applying to more later.

Things did not go completely according to plan. My Chemistry GRE score came back no better than the first time around. This was upsetting, but wasn't going to totally derail me: I stuck with applying to the universities I'd been in close contact with (where I'd have name-recognition on my side) and invested more in the British applications.

Soon it rolled around to December 2012.

Press 'Submit'.



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mmm I feel you. This is my second time applying to grad schools in the US as well. Except that I didn't have to take subject test (thank god, I barely had time for the general one) and I didn't get a chance to go on campus visit. My AWA score was even worse than the first time I took it and my TOEFL score, while decent, wasn't good enough to pass Maryland's and Carnegie-Mellon's cut-off in writing. But I, too, submitted my apps and now hope for the best.

 

Good luck to you and me both :D

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I completely agree with you about visiting, even as a prospective graduate student. Two of my favorite schools quickly became my least favorites after visiting. The department secretaries were incredibly nice and the faculty helpful (one was helpful by being brutally honest), however, I realized I didn't want to be there if I didn't have to be.

 

So I definitely advise people to visit!

 

Funny story about visiting though... my current study abroad institution has four or five "visiting days" (one of which is today). Even though I live in Wales and it is one of the rainiest places on Earth, it never rains on Move-in day or Visiting Days. It's bright and sunny right now with barely a cloud in site. I'm convinced our Chancellor has control over the weather. ;)

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Funny story about visiting though... my current study abroad institution has four or five "visiting days" (one of which is today). Even though I live in Wales and it is one of the rainiest places on Earth, it never rains on Move-in day or Visiting Days. It's bright and sunny right now with barely a cloud in site. I'm convinced our Chancellor has control over the weather. ;)

Brutally honest helpfulness if my favourite kind, although usually in hindsight. 

Also, it sounds like your Welsh university should increase its number of visiting days...

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Good luck to you and me both :D

Thanks, good luck to you, too. 

Some schools put a lot more emphasis on these scores than others when deciding between applicants, so hopefully you will have success at the places you chose.

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Really enjoyed this entry!  Some of us can feel so paralyzed by fear that it's hard to know how to begin applying/improving future applications.  Your self-awareness and honesty seem to have led to you to a realistic and effective game plan...can't wait to hear how things turn/have turned out! :D

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Really enjoyed this entry!  Some of us can feel so paralyzed by fear that it's hard to know how to begin applying/improving future applications. 

My secret is to sit down with a nice cup of tea and a paper & pen. Then to think and start writing... :) 

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I loved reading this entry. During this whole process I was constantly battling myself in my head. I also hated contacting professors that I had never met or barely knew. I had to keep telling myself, "you want this, just do it, just do it!" I know it paid off, I never thought I would get into some of these programs, and especially a top program since I too had a poor chemistry GRE score.

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