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thebends1996

To Those Who Didn't Get In: A Different Perspective

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One thing that never seems to be mentioned in this forum is what to do after complete rejection. These boards can make even the smartest person feel inadequate, with all of the acceptances to elite institutions left and right. A student who is bright may find that all of their immediate plans are ruined. I’m here to try and offer a bit of encouragement and advice to those people.

I started as a student at a relatively small liberal arts college. I became enchanted with the idea of going to a PhD program and pursuing a career in academia. Like all of you, I was an accomplished student. I presented at conferences, had a high GPA with decent test scores, and had great letters of recommendation (from faculty that aren’t universally known, but still great letters). I sent in my applications with grand hopes that were soon dashed away: not one single acceptance from a full-fledged PhD program. I was basically left with no plans.

The stage after rejection is by far the most difficult. I really had no idea what to do. I ended up having to keep my remedial college job at a local car repair shop until the next round of applications were due. I decided this time that I needed to get a masters degree of some sort to make myself more appealing down the line. To my original chagrin, my advisor told me to pursue a more practical degree and enroll in theoretical courses while attending. This would give me a bit of a safety net, just in case things didn’t work out on the PhD front.

Well, I had much better luck applying to MPA/MPP programs than PhD programs. Obviously, these programs aren’t nearly as selective, but it felt good to get some sort of validation for my efforts. I was lucky enough to receive a full-ride with a research assistantship at a good, but not highly ranked (top 35) program. I decided that I would roll the dice, and not take on the heavy debt burden of a place like NYU or GWU. I did pretty well during my graduate studies. I was in the top ten of my class, worked on a lot of research, and thoroughly enjoyed my time in graduate school (I don’t think I know a lot of people who can say that). I reapplied to PhD programs with better success than before (2 out of 5 if I remember correctly). I was accepted into two good, but not what people consider top tier programs (top 30 or so).

After the sense of relief that I finally got into a PhD program faded, I really started to do some soul searching. Why was I so enchanted with academia? It wasn’t the prestige because, sans the few rock star professors, being an academic isn’t the most glamorous position. It couldn’t be the pay because, well, it’s not that great. The lifestyle of a tenured professor is pretty amazing, but that’s a pretty big roll of the dice for a middle-to-upper class lifestyle. So, exactly what was it? It was because I just didn’t know anything else. I had been programmed to think that the only way to have a rewarding, self fulfilling job was through academia. I decided to try and make it in a non-academic position to see what else was out there.

After about two years of professional experience, I’m currently at a job where I get to do some of the things I loved in graduate school with things that I never thought I would enjoy. I’m able to influence key policy decisions at the national level, sit in on high level discussions, and even work with some professors at nearby universities. It’s been an amazing experience so far that I hope will not end soon.

Now, the goal of this post isn’t for me to say that a PhD is a waste of time, or for me to say screw you to places that rejected me. It’s really just me trying to tell those people that were rejected, or those that are on the fence, that there are a lot of options out there where you can be professionally fulfilled. I will add, though, that getting some sort of graduate degree is a really, really good idea!

Sorry for the long post. I just know how tough it is for those that didn’t receive the news they wanted, and it has to be somewhat nice to hear that other people have been there before.

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After the sense of relief that I finally got into a PhD program faded, I really started to do some soul searching. Why was I so enchanted with academia? It wasn’t the prestige because, sans the few rock star professors, being an academic isn’t the most glamorous position. It couldn’t be the pay because, well, it’s not that great. The lifestyle of a tenured professor is pretty amazing, but that’s a pretty big roll of the dice for a middle-to-upper class lifestyle. So, exactly what was it? It was because I just didn’t know anything else. I had been programmed to think that the only way to have a rewarding, self fulfilling job was through academia.

When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to a high school teacher. One of my teachers at that time told me and many others with similar ambitions NOT to do so if we could stomach doing anything else. His rationale was this: that we wanted to be high school teachers simply because it was one of the only jobs we'd ever seen "close-up." We thought we should be teachers because we'd spent the majority of the last twelve years of our lives watching teachers do their jobs and it was a system and a routine that we understood. It was a safe choice.

In many ways, academia lures a lot of success-driven, structure-oriented people because it's a path that seems very friendly to us. We've spent so much of our lives in an educational setting, jumping from one institution to the next, and it's what we understand. And the sheer amount of "I'm applying to grad school because what else can you do with a BA in English?"-type comments we see around here illustrate the fact that without the structure of academia, many of these great students have no idea what to do with themselves.

I'm really glad you posted this because I think it will be useful for a lot of those applying now and in the future. But also because I think that it's a good idea for applicants to reflect on whether they're applying to grad school just because it seems like the thing to do next. Especially since spending a life in academia nowadays - while perhaps a choice with structure - is not by any means a safe choice. A lot of us will never get a TT position, ever. So, if you're going to piss away the next seven odd years of your life on a PhD, it really should be because you'd rather do that and wind up with absolutely nothing than have everything but.

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We actually have had this discussion before on other threads but anyways, thanks for your intentions.

It's nice to hear some positive stories.

I agree with what you said entirely although it's not working like that at all for me. I've been rejected across the board for two and it looks like three years in a row at this point. I haven't been able to find fullfilling work at all. I was unemployed for a year and work a miserable job now. I think the economy is a major part of this. I'm hoping and I'm sure I will find a job that allows me to do something related to my interests. It's just that it takes a lot of time and affort to even find that-as much time and effort it takes to get into a grad school program. So what's one to do in the mean time until you even find that job or similar opportunity? The way things are for me at his point-no time for volunteering even-I'll just have to kind of ride out this thing with this job I have now until things change.

What you said is true. I don't think it's the end of the world or anything if you don't get into a program. One can Still have a fulfilling life but it's just as time consuming and agonizing to find that happiness--at least it has been for me, but that's just me.

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I would highly recommend anybody to go out and get some professional work experience before committing to academia, if for no reason than to see what the other side is like and ensure that you won't ever have regrets or doubts about the direction you took.

It took me two and a half years of professional experience to realize that academia is where I am happiest and that that is what I want to do with my life. I have no regrets about taking that time away from study though. Besides the material benefits of a very good salary with which I was able to pay down some student debts, it has ensured that I will never wonder if the grass is greener on the other side so to speak.

Some people think I am crazy for leaving what is a very good job with some serious prospects in order to go back to school, but I look at it as a case of being happy. I love academia and the idea of being able to do something that I truly enjoy for the rest of my life trumps any other considerations in my career choice.

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SBL - Are you in a graduate program now? How did you decide that academia is where you are happiest?

No. I am applying this year.

I have an MA in which I worked my butt off (was in the library until midnight most weeknights as was working a job too), and did extensive original research for my thesis. Loved every second of it.

Guess I should mention I have some teaching experience too. Not enough to shout home about, but I certainly enjoyed that too.

Edited by SBL

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When I was in high school, I thought I wanted to a high school teacher. One of my teachers at that time told me and many others with similar ambitions NOT to do so if we could stomach doing anything else. His rationale was this: that we wanted to be high school teachers simply because it was one of the only jobs we'd ever seen "close-up." We thought we should be teachers because we'd spent the majority of the last twelve years of our lives watching teachers do their jobs and it was a system and a routine that we understood. It was a safe choice.

I've been a high school teacher for a few years now. In my M.Ed. program (my 18th consecutive year of being in school), I was burned out and convinced that I never wanted to be a student again. After teaching for a bit, I realized a number of things about myself, including the fact that I sincerely felt unfulfilled not doing academic work. That time doing something in "the real world" really helped me to clarify my life's goals and to approach them with enthusiasm rather than inertia. While I'm sure a lot of people can go straight through and never lose their passion nor their purpose, I definitely second all those of you who mention the value of taking some time to experience the other side of adult life.

For what it's worth, I also learned that I hate having to be a disciplinarian, that the majority of high school classes aren't nearly as academic as the ones I remember, that a lot of teaching is performance acting rather than serious cognitive instruction (and that to deviate from that standard practice is to turn one's classroom into a Lord of the Flies situation), and that the cream does not rise to the top of any level at most public school districts. So, as someone who I assume is an academics-oriented person, you are probably much happier for not going down that road! [/cynicism] B)

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I would highly recommend anybody to go out and get some professional work experience before committing to academia, if for no reason than to see what the other side is like and ensure that you won't ever have regrets or doubts about the direction you took.

I don't think this can be emphasized enough. I'll have two years of working at good, interesting political jobs when I enter grad school, and I know beyond a doubt it is the right thing to do. I also think taking the time off helped me place higher into grad school, as it meant I had more time to study for GREs and work on my applications (I was only working part-time during the application season, so that also helped....) But seriously, take time off before grad school. It's a huge commitment and a huge opportunity cost investment, and it should never be a default option "because I don't know what else to do." When people now ask me about grad school, I always tell them to take time that I think it is best to take time off first - which is not to say some people aren't perfectly fine going straight through.

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I don't think this can be emphasized enough. I'll have two years of working at good, interesting political jobs when I enter grad school, and I know beyond a doubt it is the right thing to do. I also think taking the time off helped me place higher into grad school, as it meant I had more time to study for GREs and work on my applications (I was only working part-time during the application season, so that also helped....) But seriously, take time off before grad school. It's a huge commitment and a huge opportunity cost investment, and it should never be a default option "because I don't know what else to do." When people now ask me about grad school, I always tell them to take time that I think it is best to take time off first - which is not to say some people aren't perfectly fine going straight through.

As a bonus, your friends will think you're really smart if you return to school after having been out a few years. I'm in an unrelated field to political science/politics/policy, so when people learn that I'm getting paid to go to back school, they're totally impressed. (This will help counteract the dumb feeling I know I'll have when I start because I'm not as recently steeped in the discipline as fresh-out-of-undergrad students.)

One other point: Working for a few years before not only helped me get in, I think, I'm also considering it a hedge against what might happen if I'm not finding a position after the degree. I always have my other "career" that I can do to make ends meet, even if I'm not thrilled about it.

And to the topic of the thread: Before I applied, I had three fall-back plans, just in case grad school didn't work out. I know it's harder when you're just coming out of undergrad (trust me, I know), but it makes the disappointment easier when you've already looked into teaching English abroad or helping your grandpa sell his antique tools on ebay. (And it's funny, I'm working on a promotion at my current job that would make me much happier here--too bad I'm only staying 6 more months.) I knew if I didn't get in, I'd be sad, but something would be in the works to fulfill my life. I'll be a bossy know-it-all no matter what my job is.

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One other point: Working for a few years before not only helped me get in, I think, I'm also considering it a hedge against what might happen if I'm not finding a position after the degree. I always have my other "career" that I can do to make ends meet, even if I'm not thrilled about it.

Bumping an old thread to agree with this. I'm applying to PhD programs after 7 years of working in my field, which is closely related to the subfield I'm interested in. I figure that, even if I can't get a good job in academia, I'll be able to go back to my old field. Of course, I will have "lost" 5+ years of climbing the ladder, but I think that if I keep my research closely related to my field, it'll be ok.

As a side note: I've seen several people go successfully from getting their PhDs to high-level positions in my field. I think they did this by developing relationships with practitioners while they were in their programs - contributing to blogs, presenting at professional conferences, doing research projects for nonprofits in the field, etc. So even if you do get in, but are not sure you want to go into academia, try using your time while you're in the PhD program building relationships in a non-academic field.

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