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Rejection Advice

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It's been a devastating week for admissions decisions for me so trying to look ahead at what to do if (as appears to be the case) I get rejected across the board. (Only have two schools left to hear from and they are far reaches.) It's my second cycle applying and I aimed high with profs' advice; I have an MA from top 10 school with a 4.0, strong recs, and put a lot of time into making sure I had what I thought was a strong fit, SOP and writing sample... though clearly I messed up terribly somewhere. All to say that I am incredibly disappointed in myself and could use some feedback:

1) Does anyone have any experience applying a third time? Or is that just a waste of time and money? (My stats would be rather similar, though I suppose I could try to get something published in the interim.)

2) Is there any space in the history field for someone without a PhD? Alternatively, any advice on where to look about pivoting towards a new career or related fields that might use history skills? I have 5 years of professional history research experience but it's primarily qualitative.

Thank you all for your advice.

Edited by snackademic

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It's hard and devastating to strike out the second time.  I had that experience too.  I definitely went into that dark, dark, dark, dark corner that took a long time to climb out of.  Self-care is incredibly important.  I put everything relating to grad school admissions away for a while and focused on things that I knew would make me happy (volunteering a therapeutic riding center, which of course, had a double benefit of having horses back in my life making me happy and not feeling judged) and working as a camp counselor, where I got work with entering first graders who really challenged me and brought a lot of self-satisfaction in seeing them grow. Then it was back to work in the fall.  I was very fortunate to have landed an internship at a museum, where my colleagues with PhDs offered unbelievable support for me to try again. It was incredibly hard but the level of support was so high that I just couldn't say no. And I'm glad because I did get into two wonderful programs on my third try.

I don't know what are your field and end goals. You mentioned that you aimed very high, which is fine, but are there potential POIs who are stars but not in tippy top programs that you could hae applied to?

It is also worth reaching out in March/early April once you have official rejection letters, to find out how your applications were received.  Be specific-- what were the strengths and what could be improved for the next cycle.  You should be able to some feedback. If it seems like you were on spot but there were simply other applicants with better fit, there is nothing you can do expect.... just try again if you want the PhD this badly.

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Really sorry to hear about this, OP. I was rejected from every program I applied to in 2017, which was a crushing experience. Was thrown a lifeline (MA referral) at a top 10, and went in with an all-or-nothing attitude. The experience helped me grow academically, and I also got some experience RAing and started learning a third language. I'm still waiting on a few schools, but am already satisfied with my options thus far.

1) Cannot speak re: a third cycle, but here's what I improved to make a successful second cycle. Of course, all the things you listed about having a better SOP, good LORs, and a very good fit with the faculty applied to. That said, I applied to 10 programs this cycle. Definitely not a perfect fit for every one, but I tried to make as good a case as possible for each in both my informal contacts/interview and the SOP (I work on a transnational topic, which in some ways might have helped). Connecting your research topic/interests to important events/trends in the present may also help your case. I emailed about 30 people in the Fall, scratched a few programs off the list, and heard back from about a dozen people, which helped me refine my SOP and list even further. I gleaned a few insights about how admissions worked at several schools, though nothing in too much detail. From my experience, sharing a particular vision about your field or topic is one of the most important things in determining which faculty will support your application in the committee. Echoing @TMP, it may be helpful to write to faculty inquiring about what could be improved in your application. If it is relevant to your sub-field, learning another language(s) in the interim 1-2 years might also be helpful, particularly if you spend time living abroad. Like the MA, it would show that you are dedicated to the craft and committed to improving yourself with each cycle. If you apply to work with some of the same faculty, this would not be lost on them.

2) There are plenty of think tanks, NGOs, museums and other educational/entertainment organizations that employ historians, with or without PhDs. Public history orgs are one way to do this kind of work. I worked at an educational history podcast as an undergrad and helped research segments for shows and blogs. It was a wonderful experience, I learned a lot (about stuff outside my sub-field), but was also able to employ the same historical skills. You might also get some publications this way.

I hope you hear some good news during this cycle, there are still a few weeks for the majority of programs.

Edited by IGoToWar

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15 hours ago, snackademic said:

It's been a devastating week for admissions decisions for me so trying to look ahead at what to do if (as appears to be the case) I get rejected across the board. (Only have two schools left to hear from and they are far reaches.) It's my second cycle applying and I aimed high with profs' advice; I have an MA from top 10 school with a 4.0, strong recs, and put a lot of time into making sure I had what I thought was a strong fit, SOP and writing sample... though clearly I messed up terribly somewhere. All to say that I am incredibly disappointed in myself and could use some feedback:

1) Does anyone have any experience applying a third time? Or is that just a waste of time and money? (My stats would be rather similar, though I suppose I could try to get something published in the interim.)

2) Is there any space in the history field for someone without a PhD? Alternatively, any advice on where to look about pivoting towards a new career or related fields that might use history skills? I have 5 years of professional history research experience but it's primarily qualitative.

Thank you all for your advice.

I'm sorry you are going through this. 

Rejection is not fun. Even though grad school is "like a job," we put too much personal investment in it so it's hard to even begin to disentangle it. That said, rejection is part of the game, from admissions until retirement. 

So, a couple of things: 

1) If you are still convinced you want to pursue a PhD and go into academia, by all means apply a third time. If you do, I would suggest having an honest conversation with your closest mentor to find out what you could have done better. I doubt they will have the answer, though... Would you apply to the same places? (I applied three times to one school and never got in).

1 bis) "but it's primarily qualitative" makes it sound as an apology. Qualitative research is research. Actually, most historians do that, so I'm not sure why you are upfronting a "but" there. All the career paths I mentioned in 1) would be happy to have a candidate with research experience. (I'm not sure what "professional history research experience" means, though. I'm international so maybe that's it). 

2) In addition to the wanting to have something published for next year, I'd also try to go to a conference and shamelessly introduce yourself to people. Many POIs sometimes schedule coffee hours with potential students (I've met two at the AHA).  

3) I would approach the "no-PhD" issue differently. What if you find a job that enables you to build a doctoral career in a couple of years? Eg: museums, archives, libraries, HS teaching, NGOs, political campaigning, college administration, etc. Rather than taking rejections as a final stop, what if they are an invitation to regroup and apply again in a couple of years? Given the job market as it is, my senior colleagues in my department and other departments I know (non-Ivy) are increasingly leaned towards taking students that have a strong non-academia plan. Thus, having work experience will strengthen your application while providing you with tools to navigate the job market down the line. 

4) I strongly, firmly believe that you have not "messed up." Admissions are hard, everyone is qualified. So do not absolutely not think that this is on you. Cohorts are shrinking (except Yale, apparently), departments are shrinking too, and this means less faculty are admitting students. If I am going to give you any advice on rejections, be humble enough to acknowledge many, many, many things are outside of your control (unfortunately!). 

 

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1 hour ago, AP said:

] Given the job market as it is, my senior colleagues in my department and other departments I know (non-Ivy) are increasingly leaned towards taking students that have a strong non-academia plan.

 

I'm very glad to hear that. I hope they also adjust their advising so that they can help these students carry out that plan.

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On 2/8/2020 at 10:46 PM, snackademic said:

... I have an MA from top 10 school with a 4.0, strong recs, and put a lot of time into making sure I had what I thought was a strong fit, SOP and writing sample... though clearly I messed up terribly somewhere. All to say that I am incredibly disappointed in myself and could use some feedback:

1) Does anyone have any experience applying a third time? Or is that just a waste of time and money? (My stats would be rather similar, though I suppose I could try to get something published in the interim.)

Firstly, I second everyone's commiserations and the general advice to take care of yourself! Secondly, beyond ruling you out if they're terrible, stats really don't matter--cohort sizes are so small that basically no one is being admitted simply because they look good on paper (because too many people look good on paper)--it's really about making your project sound ~~~amazing~~~, which is also going to be true for every other thing you're asked to compete for throughout grad schools (internal and external fellowships etc). I know you mention fit etc but I wonder if you might be over-focusing on fit and under-focusing on "selling your project" in a way that makes you sound super special and exciting to work with. My applications were basically like, the project I have in mind is SO urgent, potentially FIELD-ALTERING, I'm **uniquely positioned** blah blah blah--it's v painful to go back and read that SoP now but it was frankly very effective. The importance of "standing out" is sometimes under-emphasized, even though it's vitally important. If you end up needing to apply a third time I'd be focused on totally re-framing the proposed project (though fingers crossed that you hear back from one of the remaining schools soon)!

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9 hours ago, telkanuru said:

What was different about your application between your first and second cycles?

Thank you all for your advice! It all means a lot to me.

My application was very different first and second cycle. I got an MA and gained research fluency in the language that a professor giving me advice first round told me would be helpful for my project. I kept the broad periodization of my previous proposed project but changed the geographic emphasis and thematic emphasis somewhat, and also made my SOP far more focused on historiographical intervention and brought in some new angles (including history of science, legal research, etc.). I also learned and applied some big data skills that I used for my MA thesis, which was advised by a big name in my specified field (as opposed to my undergrad thesis, which was advised by someone who wasn't well-known). Sorry I know that's all super broad and not helpful; my topic is a little bit distinctive so I'm reluctant to identify myself too much on here in case I reapply.

But suffice it to say that I changed a lot. Perhaps too much and it came to be seen as a pivot. Or then my project was too specific and my SOP came off as essentially a dissertation prospectus to be rubber stamped, which I've heard is a bad thing. I don't know.

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Hm, that's not quite what I was getting at. Of course you should be a different applicant after completing your MA!

What I mean is this: what flaws did you identify in your application the first time around, and what methods did you try to address those issues? Are any still outstanding? Do you think some solutions were not as effective as you had hoped? 

For example, when I got rejected in my first round and before my MA, I looked at other candidates who got accepted to the tier schools I wanted to go to, and decided that I needed to add a language, bring up my GPA by a LOT, craft a better writing sample which specifically made use of the language fluencies I claimed to have, and to aggressively consider my fit with the particular professors I applied to.

So I came up with a plan. I took reading German, got a 3.9, took a seminar paper, presented it at a conference, and sent it to a journal (a GREAT way to get WS feedback if you have something presentable). My list of schools the second time around looked almost nothing like the first time, and I spent a great deal of time on the final paragraph of my SOP which argued for my fit for a particular school. 

So: did you have a plan? How did it work out? Do you have enough information to make another one? You shouldn't feel the need to answer such questions here! But this sort of rigorous self-reflection is immeasurably helpful in all aspects of adult life. 

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My take is somewhat similar to @OHSP's. You seem to be focused on metrics at the expense of defining yourself as the historian you are now and the historian you seek to be.

The way you describe your work as a master's student is, IMO, problematic. It seems to me that you're checking items off a list rather than demonstrating how you've developed as a historian. Your reluctance to disclose even generally your proposed project is also problematic. It speaks to a state of mind more focused on one's individual goals at the expense of the needs of the profession. If you're as familiar with the historiography as you suggest, you should be able to present a thumbnail of your topic without disclosing methods and sources that are ground breaking. But then that raises another issue given how often historians share source materials and ideas with others working on similar projects.

I've been trying to phrase the following for three days, let's see if I get it right. From your posts on this BB, you strike me as a person who is not as giving as others. It seems to me that you're much more focused on what people and programs can do for you rather than what you can contribute to the profession of academic history.

Case in point, the value you place on two POIs based upon how well they're known. Name recognition can help, but the way you phrase it is controversial. As written, you are suggesting that your masters thesis is more worthy of notice than your undergraduate thesis because of your advisor's name recognition. IME, this kind of valuation of established academics simply does not work.

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The metrics point that @Sigaba stresses is very real -- my MA was advised by a prof no one knows at a university no one's heard of using methods that were frankly pretty random, but I think (importantly!!) guided by good questions. I really wouldn't worry about being seen as pivoting--tbh few people are reading applications closely enough to even notice a pivot. My proposed project was far away from my MA thesis in terms of topic and region, and my current diss project is lightyears away from my MA and my SoP--people are used to graduate students changing their focus--but I would say that, essentially, my core questions have stayed the same and they're probably what got me into schools. I'd be interested to know what your big questions are/what you are passionate about when it comes to research--what are the questions that would potentially stoke the enthusiasm of profs well outside of your field/period etc. 

Edited by OHSP

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On 2/8/2020 at 10:46 PM, snackademic said:

Only have two schools left to hear from and they are far reaches

If I am reading it right, it is still possible for you to hear good news from two schools! In my humble opinion, there are not really "far reaches," so don't give up yet. I did my Bachelor's and Master's in other disciplines and another continent, so I am pretty sure none of my professors here know about my previous advisers. So, don't worry about name recognition.  I also got rejected everywhere during my first cycle. It was like my biggest nightmare coming true, but, if I may quote Conan O'Brien, "there are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized."  If not being able to enter a PhD program in 2020 is not your biggest fear, congratulations, you are much more mature than I was.

And, should you get rejected everywhere, I second all the advice offered by others^

Fingers crossed for you!

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On 2/10/2020 at 4:45 PM, telkanuru said:

took a seminar paper, presented it at a conference, and sent it to a journal (a GREAT way to get WS feedback if you have something presentable).

I would boldly suggest that a writing sample ought to be at least presentable, if not publishable. Otherwise, it's like taking a knife to a gun fight. The top programs attract candidates with elite backgrounds (think: private prep school, Ivy, at least 5+ years of at least one language, and it's not rare for them to have family/connections in academia). If you don't have these advantages, which I suspect most of us don't, then you better have an application that shows you have the same level of preparation and fortitude.

My friend's grandfather is a well-known scholar at an Ivy. His father is a faculty member at a state university. He's going to an elite law school. Whether or not we like it, top academic and professional programs have an incestuous component.

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Sure, but is it presentable in time to send it to a journal and get reviewer's comments back, ie. at least a year out? Actual peer review is one of the best critiques one can have for a writing sample, but don't abuse your colleagues by sending them something that's not ready, is what I was trying to say. 

 

 

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On 2/8/2020 at 7:46 PM, snackademic said:

It's been a devastating week for admissions decisions for me so trying to look ahead at what to do if (as appears to be the case) I get rejected across the board. (Only have two schools left to hear from and they are far reaches.) It's my second cycle applying and I aimed high with profs' advice; I have an MA from top 10 school with a 4.0, strong recs, and put a lot of time into making sure I had what I thought was a strong fit, SOP and writing sample... though clearly I messed up terribly somewhere. All to say that I am incredibly disappointed in myself and could use some feedback:

1) Does anyone have any experience applying a third time? Or is that just a waste of time and money? (My stats would be rather similar, though I suppose I could try to get something published in the interim.)

2) Is there any space in the history field for someone without a PhD? Alternatively, any advice on where to look about pivoting towards a new career or related fields that might use history skills? I have 5 years of professional history research experience but it's primarily qualitative.

Thank you all for your advice.

This is my first round of applications, but I have also been rejected everywhere. I've given myself a couple of days to mope, but now it's time (for me at least) to climb out of the cauldron of boiling self-loathing and remember that I am good at history, it's just that everyone else is good too! Time to rework the application materials for next year, and as hard as it is, I will apply as many times as required/ they let me in order to pursue a PhD! The field needs us! Don't give up!

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On 2/8/2020 at 10:46 PM, snackademic said:

It's been a devastating week for admissions decisions for me so trying to look ahead at what to do if (as appears to be the case) I get rejected across the board. (Only have two schools left to hear from and they are far reaches.) It's my second cycle applying and I aimed high with profs' advice; I have an MA from top 10 school with a 4.0, strong recs, and put a lot of time into making sure I had what I thought was a strong fit, SOP and writing sample... though clearly I messed up terribly somewhere. All to say that I am incredibly disappointed in myself and could use some feedback:

1) Does anyone have any experience applying a third time? Or is that just a waste of time and money? (My stats would be rather similar, though I suppose I could try to get something published in the interim.)

2) Is there any space in the history field for someone without a PhD? Alternatively, any advice on where to look about pivoting towards a new career or related fields that might use history skills? I have 5 years of professional history research experience but it's primarily qualitative.

Thank you all for your advice.

I would consider applying a third time and making it a priority to publish something and present it at a major conference where your POI's may be in attendance. Make sure to ping them about your presentation and invite them to attend. (Keep in mind you can even present it before you publish, which enables you to get feedback before submission.) 

Additionally, consider using the year to do language study.

I wiped out the first year I applied to a PhD. The second year I got into the programs in which the POI's attended my paper presentation, and wiped out everywhere else.

If you wipe out a third year in a row, then I think you should start looking at other career options. In fact, you should already have a clear plan in mind for that...

Just my advice, coming from a Religion PhD however...

Edited by Averroes MD

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