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How many times to apply?

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As another admissions season comes and slowly fades away, bringing with it many rejections, I wanted to get an idea of how many times people in this forum applied until they were accepted. I'm also curious to know what you did, if anything, to improve your applications that you believe (or know) got you admitted. 

A bit of background: currently getting a second Master's, this time at an Ivy, to improve my application to my top programs. Fluent in one language and studying a second currently. Fourth year applying but the first three years were just hoping against hope because application was ill-suited to the top programs (too many years out of school, first Master's thesis nothing to do with proposed topic, weak language skills). Thought this year chances were much better but was evidently mistaken, even though a few programs expressed sincere interest. Not sure where to go from here since this was first year with viable application. 

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Unfortunately, no one can answer your question for you. You need to think long and hard about what you want to do with a PhD and if it is necessary. Also, you need to ask yourself if you're ready to give up on a PhD and move on. It sucks to think about moving on, but it's something you need to face with an honest face and plenty of support. I don't mean to discourage you by saying these things, but rather these things are the questions that I needed to mull over after my two years of rejections and wait lists. In the end, I decided that one more year was worth the work and possible heartbreak. Luckily, it paid off and I was accepted this cycle.

 

First, I looked through all my old applications and sent a mock application to two professors that I admire, but more importantly, trust to give me honest and critical feedback. I'm not saying a select few professors give critical and positive feedback. Rather, I know these professors and have a collaborative and friendly relationship with them, which fosters more of a close working relationship. After they gave me feedback, I began preparing my new set of materials and sent them back to the professors for a final read over before submitting the final applications. Second, I talked with several of my closest friends about why I wanted to do a PhD. I wanted to think through whether I needed a PhD to do the work I wanted. They had some brutal comments, but those comments pushed me to reevaluate and reframe my application. Lastly, I kept in contact with several POIs and tried to develop an early working relationship with them throughout the application cycle. In fact, one of my POIs at my accepted university reached out to me after I received the decision letter and thanked me for taking his advice to heart and keeping in contact. He felt that I showed not only an in-depth knowledge of my topic, but also a willingness to work with him and develop a relationship.

I'm not sure if one thing changed my application or if it was all of them. I do know that I took a hard look at myself and decided that it was time to go all out one last time. Maybe it was the extra oomph created by giving myself only one more cycle that helped me get into a school. Or maybe it was dumb luck that I was accepted. In short, do not beat yourself down and give up right away. Take a couple months to decompress and think about whether you want to do a PhD. If you decide that it is, then come back and go at it once again.

 

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12 hours ago, Tigla said:

Unfortunately, no one can answer your question for you. You need to think long and hard about what you want to do with a PhD and if it is necessary. Also, you need to ask yourself if you're ready to give up on a PhD and move on. It sucks to think about moving on, but it's something you need to face with an honest face and plenty of support. I don't mean to discourage you by saying these things, but rather these things are the questions that I needed to mull over after my two years of rejections and wait lists. In the end, I decided that one more year was worth the work and possible heartbreak. Luckily, it paid off and I was accepted this cycle.

 

First, I looked through all my old applications and sent a mock application to two professors that I admire, but more importantly, trust to give me honest and critical feedback. I'm not saying a select few professors give critical and positive feedback. Rather, I know these professors and have a collaborative and friendly relationship with them, which fosters more of a close working relationship. After they gave me feedback, I began preparing my new set of materials and sent them back to the professors for a final read over before submitting the final applications. Second, I talked with several of my closest friends about why I wanted to do a PhD. I wanted to think through whether I needed a PhD to do the work I wanted. They had some brutal comments, but those comments pushed me to reevaluate and reframe my application. Lastly, I kept in contact with several POIs and tried to develop an early working relationship with them throughout the application cycle. In fact, one of my POIs at my accepted university reached out to me after I received the decision letter and thanked me for taking his advice to heart and keeping in contact. He felt that I showed not only an in-depth knowledge of my topic, but also a willingness to work with him and develop a relationship.

I'm not sure if one thing changed my application or if it was all of them. I do know that I took a hard look at myself and decided that it was time to go all out one last time. Maybe it was the extra oomph created by giving myself only one more cycle that helped me get into a school. Or maybe it was dumb luck that I was accepted. In short, do not beat yourself down and give up right away. Take a couple months to decompress and think about whether you want to do a PhD. If you decide that it is, then come back and go at it once again.

 

Thank you for your thoughtful response. I appreciate you taking the time to share your story. 

Honestly, the reason I've put myself through this cycle after cycle is because I've done a lot of painstaking reflection and I have repeatedly concluded that a PhD is the right path for me given what I want to do. This year, somewhat unlike past years, I developed relationships with two professors who helped me immensely with my SOP in updating the language so that it was in line with expectations. In the past, I received advice from some professors but it was more haphazard and (and I hate to say this) outdated. My concern is that it's been several years that I've been doing this but I'm also thinking that this is only the first year I had a really strong application and whether I would be making a mistake pulling the plug now only because I have the baggage of the very weak applications the first few years, especially as my profile has changed significantly (second Master's, new thesis, new SOP). I'm worried if I pulled the plug I'd be wasting an opportunity having only submitted one strong application (knowing that many admitted PhDs submit applications over several cycles) but on the flipside I am exhausted after so many cycles of rejections and keep asking myself if I actually have a chance or if I'm just fooling myself into thinking that I do.

On the point about POIs: I was wondering, actually, if I have to more actively maintain a relationship with my POI(s) so that my name is constantly in their minds. 

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I think that in your specific circumstance you should give it another try. It sounds like you are in the final year of your MA, so waiting to re-apply when you have completed the thesis will be an asset to your application. You will have more perspective on your research goals and agenda, a better writing sample, and your letter writers will be able to write substantively about your thesis. I know that many people apply to top programs as undergrads or during the 2nd year of their MA, but when I was applying I was strongly advised to wait until my MA was completed. I resented the advice and didn't want to take it, but I'm positive I would not have been as successful of an applicant if I had not waited. 

Re: POIs, I would not try to push to much of a relationship with POIs, especially at top programs. These people barely have anytime for their own students and might be turned off if they think a perspective student is going to take up too much of their time. 

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On 2/13/2019 at 7:41 AM, pilisopa said:

As another admissions season comes and slowly fades away, bringing with it many rejections, I wanted to get an idea of how many times people in this forum applied until they were accepted. I'm also curious to know what you did, if anything, to improve your applications that you believe (or know) got you admitted. 

A bit of background: currently getting a second Master's, this time at an Ivy, to improve my application to my top programs. Fluent in one language and studying a second currently. Fourth year applying but the first three years were just hoping against hope because application was ill-suited to the top programs (too many years out of school, first Master's thesis nothing to do with proposed topic, weak language skills). Thought this year chances were much better but was evidently mistaken, even though a few programs expressed sincere interest. Not sure where to go from here since this was first year with viable application. 

Based upon the information in your posts on this BB, it's hard to assess how invested you are in history. IME, the ability to communicate commitment to the craft goes a long way.

Keep in mind that no decision you make in the near term is etched in stone one. If you decide to focus on other pursuits for a spell, you can always apply to a graduate program down the line.

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I don’t think there is a single answer to this that applies to everyone, so this is not specifically addressed to your situation, but based on people's experiences here and my conversations with other students and faculty members, I do think the general answer is twice is totally fine (and not unusual), and potentially a third if your circumstances have changed substantially from the previous two times. 

There are a lot of factors out of your control that can lead to well- qualified applicants facing a year of rejections: faculty go on leave, the previous cohort took all the field slots for your area of interest, institutional fights, etc. There’s also a steep learning curve to the application process. For some people, the process of applying for the first time is an important learning experience about their own interests, how to best frame them, and how academia works in general. In both of these cases, applying a second time makes sense and has the potential to lead to better results. This was my own experience, and the experience of several others around this board.  

If you get rejected two years in a row (especially after getting an MA), it seems less likely it’s only bad luck. I think then there are generally two explanations. First, your application is missing something critical or has some major red flag. This might be a solvable issue, but to solve it you’re going to have to ask a lot of people for critical feedback, take it to heart, and make some substantial changes before you try again (as @Tigla excellently describes above.) If you think you’ve already done that that it seems possible your interests, goals, and/or background are just not fitting with academic history. Maybe their home is in another discipline, or maybe the things you’re most excited about are better pursued outside the academy. If this is the case, it might be time to look critically at what you want to do after getting a PhD and start investigating about other paths there. This is not a failure! It’s a way to put your energy and skills into something productive instead of banging your head against the same wall over and over. 

More than three cycles with similar materials is a lot of your time and money, and a lot of time for the people reading your application to solidify their opinion of you (if you’re applying to the same places.) 
 

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Personally, my plan would have been - if I was rejected to all my programs - get some sort of low-paid admin job in Hyde Park Chicago, move there with my partner, and keep applying til I get in or until I lose interest. It all depends on you, but I would apply to those programs who showed interest again next year. Although applications are time consuming, it is definitely doable if you are working full time. Maybe try getting a gig at a museum or even substitute teaching, or really anywhere! You have the BA and an MA, so keep reading to stay abreast of your field and keep in close contact w/faculty - maybe take a class a semester with them.

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On 2/14/2019 at 11:26 AM, urbanhistorynerd said:

Personally, my plan would have been - if I was rejected to all my programs - get some sort of low-paid admin job in Hyde Park Chicago, move there with my partner, and keep applying til I get in or until I lose interest. It all depends on you, but I would apply to those programs who showed interest again next year. Although applications are time consuming, it is definitely doable if you are working full time. Maybe try getting a gig at a museum or even substitute teaching, or really anywhere! You have the BA and an MA, so keep reading to stay abreast of your field and keep in close contact w/faculty - maybe take a class a semester with them.

I had the same exact plan of moving somewhere and hopefully getting a job in the university system somehow while continuing to research and apply again the next year. I am in a very long-term relationship and my choices of where to apply revolved around that fact, honestly. I did not apply to some of the places that I would have if I were single, and I applied to some places that I did not feel were great fits. Therefore, I realized there was a very real possibility of not making the cut this year due to intentionally limiting myself, but I figured I would want to stay within the academic sphere. I think if one plans to re-submit, looking for something like museum job or substitute teaching--something that signals your devotion to your field-- is really a great thing to do!

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15 hours ago, daradara said:

I had the same exact plan of moving somewhere and hopefully getting a job in the university system somehow while continuing to research and apply again the next year. I am in a very long-term relationship and my choices of where to apply revolved around that fact, honestly. I did not apply to some of the places that I would have if I were single, and I applied to some places that I did not feel were great fits. Therefore, I realized there was a very real possibility of not making the cut this year due to intentionally limiting myself, but I figured I would want to stay within the academic sphere. I think if one plans to re-submit, looking for something like museum job or substitute teaching--something that signals your devotion to your field-- is really a great thing to do!

Yes! And at the end of the day, no matter what, we will always be scholars. I've always been afraid that if I don't land a tenure-track job, I won't ever get to live the 'life of the mind' like all my professors do. But I've realized that the 'life of the mind' I want to live in isn't so dependent on my job - and that is what a professorship is, a job. If I was a coal miner or an admin assistant or even if I taught high school or whatever, yes my time is limited, but I'll read the way I read now, I'll still write the way I write now, and I'll still think the way I think now. If 6-8 hours a day five days a week are spent working, you have all that other time to read, think, and write. As a working class student, I've consistently worked 25-30 hours a week while going to school. I made the time to read, think, and write. Plenty of other people in this nation do too. If we slice down who is a 'scholar' and who isn't based on a job position, then I think we are limiting the idea of scholarship and intellectualism. I don't know if that is other people's fears, but that has always been mine. But I've been able to rectify it.

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2 hours ago, urbanhistorynerd said:

I won't ever get to live the 'life of the mind' like all my professors do

If you really pay attention, you'll find that the "life of the mind" is mostly responding to emails.

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Just now, telkanuru said:

If you really pay attention, you'll find that the "life of the mind" is mostly responding to emails.

Haha, I've only been admitted to graduate school for a few weeks now and I have discovered this.

 

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1 hour ago, telkanuru said:

If you really pay attention, you'll find that the "life of the mind" is mostly responding to emails.

🤣 This is exactly what one of my professors said about becoming an academic. 

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On 2/14/2019 at 11:30 AM, kaufdichglücklich said:

I think that in your specific circumstance you should give it another try. It sounds like you are in the final year of your MA, so waiting to re-apply when you have completed the thesis will be an asset to your application. You will have more perspective on your research goals and agenda, a better writing sample, and your letter writers will be able to write substantively about your thesis. I know that many people apply to top programs as undergrads or during the 2nd year of their MA, but when I was applying I was strongly advised to wait until my MA was completed. I resented the advice and didn't want to take it, but I'm positive I would not have been as successful of an applicant if I had not waited. 

Re: POIs, I would not try to push to much of a relationship with POIs, especially at top programs. These people barely have anytime for their own students and might be turned off if they think a perspective student is going to take up too much of their time. 

Thanks for the support. I do feel that my application will be stronger if I apply again but I'll have to muster the energy to go through another cycle. 

Re: the POIs, I've always been wary of how to deal with them. They seem like such a fickle bunch, leading us to apply to programs where we may have no hope of being admitted while offering little feedback on potential or past applications. 

On 2/14/2019 at 12:06 PM, Sigaba said:

Based upon the information in your posts on this BB, it's hard to assess how invested you are in history. IME, the ability to communicate commitment to the craft goes a long way.

Keep in mind that no decision you make in the near term is etched in stone one. If you decide to focus on other pursuits for a spell, you can always apply to a graduate program down the line.

I think you may be referring to a post I made on another board and that was for a person close to me, not for me in particular. In any case, I myself am very committed to studying history although I'm not sure how I would prove that to you. 

 

On 2/14/2019 at 12:32 PM, archi said:

There are a lot of factors out of your control that can lead to well- qualified applicants facing a year of rejections: faculty go on leave, the previous cohort took all the field slots for your area of interest, institutional fights, etc. There’s also a steep learning curve to the application process. For some people, the process of applying for the first time is an important learning experience about their own interests, how to best frame them, and how academia works in general. In both of these cases, applying a second time makes sense and has the potential to lead to better results. This was my own experience, and the experience of several others around this board.  

If you get rejected two years in a row (especially after getting an MA), it seems less likely it’s only bad luck. I think then there are generally two explanations. First, your application is missing something critical or has some major red flag. This might be a solvable issue, but to solve it you’re going to have to ask a lot of people for critical feedback, take it to heart, and make some substantial changes before you try again (as @Tigla excellently describes above.) If you think you’ve already done that that it seems possible your interests, goals, and/or background are just not fitting with academic history. Maybe their home is in another discipline, or maybe the things you’re most excited about are better pursued outside the academy. If this is the case, it might be time to look critically at what you want to do after getting a PhD and start investigating about other paths there. This is not a failure! It’s a way to put your energy and skills into something productive instead of banging your head against the same wall over and over. 

More than three cycles with similar materials is a lot of your time and money, and a lot of time for the people reading your application to solidify their opinion of you (if you’re applying to the same places.) 
 

Thanks for the advice. The learning curve is real! I have learned SO much since that first couple years when I was WAY in over my head. Each year my applications have gotten better but this year I thought I had a real shot given the significant change in my profile (the new MA from an Ivy, language study) but alas, it seems it wasn't meant to be. At this point I'm definitely considering options outside the academy but I have been so devoted to the idea of pursuing a PhD that I want to realize it. I'm also wondering whether I should be considering programs outside history, possibly comparative literature, where I could also make my proposal work. But then I wonder whether switching at this point would essentially be starting over somewhere else. 

On 2/14/2019 at 2:26 PM, urbanhistorynerd said:

Personally, my plan would have been - if I was rejected to all my programs - get some sort of low-paid admin job in Hyde Park Chicago, move there with my partner, and keep applying til I get in or until I lose interest. It all depends on you, but I would apply to those programs who showed interest again next year. Although applications are time consuming, it is definitely doable if you are working full time. Maybe try getting a gig at a museum or even substitute teaching, or really anywhere! You have the BA and an MA, so keep reading to stay abreast of your field and keep in close contact w/faculty - maybe take a class a semester with them.

So we're of the same mind! Thinking heavily in this direction. Thank you for the advice and the encouragement. 

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I have no way of knowing if this applies to you, but if I was planning to reapply I would also take a close look at my research interests and the schools to which I've applied. You want to be sure the fit is right, because even exceptional applicants will be rejected if it's not. I'd spend the next year deeply researching programs, and their faculty, areas of expertise, resources etc. I'd also reevaluate my SOP, especially my proposed research, and ensure I've thought enough about the topic, methodology and historiography in which I want to intervene. IMO, you should make a spreadsheet and begin a column with each university's POIs, read their works, check out their current research interests etc, and if you find they aren't as good of a fit as initially believed, remove them from the list. Then move on to the department as a whole--are there professors outside your area doing interesting things methodologically or comparatively that you could note in an SOP as potential committee members? Then move to the university, does it have any notable resources (archives nearby, collections in the university library, etc). I personally deleted any program from the list if it didn't have at least 2 POIs with whom I could see myself working, but you need to figure out where the line is--I think as you're preparing an SOP, you should have a nascent dissertation committee in the POIs you highlight. And the key to fit is how you fit with the department: what does your project bring to the department? Where does your project fit with their areas of expertise? How does your project complement the interests of your POIs? So essentially, all that research is to figure out if a department can nurture your research, and the SOP describes how and where your project fits with that department, if that makes sense.

Best of luck! I'm looking forward to seeing at which PhD program you end up next season :)

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19 minutes ago, ashiepoo72 said:

I have no way of knowing if this applies to you, but if I was planning to reapply I would also take a close look at my research interests and the schools to which I've applied. You want to be sure the fit is right, because even exceptional applicants will be rejected if it's not. I'd spend the next year deeply researching programs, and their faculty, areas of expertise, resources etc. I'd also reevaluate my SOP, especially my proposed research, and ensure I've thought enough about the topic, methodology and historiography in which I want to intervene. IMO, you should make a spreadsheet and begin a column with each university's POIs, read their works, check out their current research interests etc, and if you find they aren't as good of a fit as initially believed, remove them from the list. Then move on to the department as a whole--are there professors outside your area doing interesting things methodologically or comparatively that you could note in an SOP as potential committee members? Then move to the university, does it have any notable resources (archives nearby, collections in the university library, etc). I personally deleted any program from the list if it didn't have at least 2 POIs with whom I could see myself working, but you need to figure out where the line is--I think as you're preparing an SOP, you should have a nascent dissertation committee in the POIs you highlight. And the key to fit is how you fit with the department: what does your project bring to the department? Where does your project fit with their areas of expertise? How does your project complement the interests of your POIs? So essentially, all that research is to figure out if a department can nurture your research, and the SOP describes how and where your project fits with that department, if that makes sense.

Best of luck! I'm looking forward to seeing at which PhD program you end up next season :)

Thanks for your advice and support, @ashiepoo72! I've become progressively more methodical over the years. This past year I was definitely as methodical as I've ever been although, to be sure, there were a few programs I applied to that were more aspirational than a good fit and I recognize that. However, a few programs were strong fits in the sense that there were POIs who'd said that they would be ready to work with me although even here, there were some missing parts and I worry that in trying to cast a wider net, I may be shooting myself in the foot (i.e. I was led to believe that my field of interest is too narrow and outdated because it focused on one nation's experience with nationalism so I broadened it by turning it into a comparative, transnational study). It's hard for me to tell if this was the right move because finding people to give me cold, hard feedback has been rare.

Nevertheless, thank you for your advice!

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