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What we learned from this Application Season


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16 hours ago, MichelleObama said:

I’ll send you mine! 

Would it be possible for me to jump on this train? I am also 31, worked through college, had some pretty bad transfer GPAs from over a decade ago. I haven't accomplished anything near what you have, but I would also be aiming for considerably less prestigious schools.

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The number one thing I learned was that comparing myself to others, specifically on this website, was terrible for my mental health. I logged out after the first week of February when I realized I was feeling absolutely horrible over the success of anonymous strangers.  You are your own candidate. Do the work and feel good about it and f*ck the rest. I’m sure this will be taken down...but really wish I had seen someone saying this when I checked here for the first time back in September.

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16 minutes ago, FlamePoint said:

The number one thing I learned was that comparing myself to others, specifically on this website, was terrible for my mental health. I logged out after the first week of February when I realized I was feeling absolutely horrible over the success of anonymous strangers.  You are your own candidate. Do the work and feel good about it and f*ck the rest. I’m sure this will be taken down...but really wish I had seen someone saying this when I checked here for the first time back in September.

I feel like this is important though and good to know when being on here just ain't it for you and when it is. Someone in another chat said that it was important to know when being on here was helpful for you and when it just made you feel worse and I cannot agree more. February is a super stressful month and I think that even for people who have really solid cycles you can still get the nagging feeling of "why was what they're delivering better than my best effort" and there usually isn't a clear cut answer for that. Some things that were helpful for me to keep in mind was that: 

1. If they aren't in your subject area it's not as if them doing well affects you in any way whatsoever.

2. Even if they are in your subject area, chances are they aren't just "a better version of you" they're just out here doing their own thing and the admissions committee thought that they fit better with their program.

3. Plenty of current professors with tenure or on track to get it had to apply multiple times before getting in somewhere. 

4. This process is hard on everyone and the amount of people who just destroy their application season are pretty low and even for the people that do have an amazing season, they can only pick one place, and all the other slots will be up for grabs to those on the waitlist.

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  • 2 weeks later...

If you're an ambitious BA-only applicant, like I am, and you want to jump straight into a PhD program, please also consider applying to MA programs too.

I applied to 14 doctoral programs and was shut out. I did not apply to a single MA. But, at the last minute, I found some whose deadlines hadn't passed and now have standing offers.

I thought that I was a good candidate. It turns out, however, that the PhD pool is insanely competitive. Consequently, where I struggled to "keep up" with PhD applicants, I shined bright in my MA ones.

There are many wonderful MA programs, and these usually have deadlines in Dec/Jan (the same time that your PhDs are due). Please, please, please...heed my own warning. You can get into a doctoral program off the rip. People do it all the time--some have multiple/many acceptances. But, I think it still makes sense to add in a few funded MA programs into your list of "where I'm applying."

So, to reiterate, don't automatically pass on a funded MA because it is not a PhD. Deciding to apply to some may drastically increase the chances that you have a graduate program to look forward to next Fall.

As someone who is almost at the end of their first application cycle, I wish I had taken this notion more seriously. I am appreciative to have salvaged what almost became a relative disaster. I'm lucky to have MA offers, after a PhD shutout! If you really want to go all-in, it is, of course, up to you. Best of luck no matter how you decide to apply. It is still a (somewhat) uncertain-to-predict process.

Edited by Puurple
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  • 2 weeks later...

Hey all- 

I have been reading all the posts and grateful for all of your insight. I am not always one to jump in, but I feel totally baffled by this year’s outcome for me and am reaching out into the ether to see if anyone can relate or has any thoughts or advice. 

I was shutout last year, after getting waitlisted at my top choice (UPenn) and only applying to 6 top 20 PhD programs. I’m a non traditional student w an interdisciplinary BA, early 30s, pretty good stats (4.0 gpa, tuition scholarship at my undergrad, 164 V 6.0 W but like 140 Q after studying for 9 mo lol). 

This year I applied to 4 top English programs & 2 small interdisciplinary phds plus 2 funded MAs. I asked my POI at penn for feedback and listened to him on everything: wrote a brand new writing sample, sop that was much more focused on a proposed project, edited for months, had 5 strong LORs (including 3 well know/respected scholars)... and I was very lucky to get into a fully funded MA, but other than that, nothing. No waitlists. Nothing from penn. Rejected from a reasonably easy to get into MA (I know nothing is guaranteed, but still!).
 

The project I discussed is pretty interdisciplinary and transhistoric, which may be a factor for the English programs—but, I applied to all interdisciplinary programs (save penn) last year with similar results... so I don’t know what to think.

I am daunted thinking about applying again, but also committed to go attend a PhD program. I know the MA might help (and at least will offer community—applying while working in non profits with very little academic support is harrowing on its own).

Has anyone applied 3 times? Any sage wisdom from your journeys? I am super excited to start the MA in the fall but as of right now, just feel confused about what I have learned from this process... 

congrats on your good news (if you have it) and your persistence (if you have to try again) and I hope you are all taking care during this time—

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^ Maybe just apply to more places next time. It's not like the admissions process is completely subjective, but it sounds like you did absolutely everything you could, and speculating past doing more than everything you could will just make you crazy when a lot of these decisions might be somewhat random anyway. 

I'm very, very glad I applied to a lot of places - and while I can't help but wish things went better for me, and wonder how I could have improved, there is also no way I could have known, from the schools' perspective, whether I was a good fit or not for the more subjective/circumstantial aspects of the app. At this point, as much as I can be before actually attending the school, I'm quite satisfied with where I ended up. 

A lot of candidates get placed excellently after the MA. I suspect you'll be fine - it sounds like admissions will get even more competitive, but it also sounds like, having done this a couple of times and benefited from even more time to work on your materials, you'll have a leg up.

Edited by merry night wanderer
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Oh, Gosh. I feel like I've learned SO many things. Here, let me make a numbered list. For any future readers, know that these things are Rhet/Comp specific, but also, specific to a very small thread of Rhet/Comp, and an applicant who is disabled, graduating with two concurrent MAs, with teaching experience, loads of conferences, and fluent in multiple languages. Happy to discuss any of those things further by PM.  

1) Waitlists are genuinely a good thing. They felt like the end of the world at the beginning of this.

2) If you happen to submit your MA Thesis you're still actively working on as your writing sample, your materials will improve significantly even just over the course of the term you apply. This is normal. Don't drive yourself crazy by looking back at your WS and thinking you're so bad. Yes, this is a hugely important application, but admissions committees are aware that you're a student and you're in the middle of growing and learning. 

3) Rhet/Comp PhDs and sections of English Studies PhDs in our field often have very small cohorts. Smaller than you realize. Like, two sometimes. And that is in the ideal situation where they actually fill both spots -- they might not. So if you ever wonder 'what the heck does x person have that I don't?!?', it might be sobering to remember that it might literally be -A- spot. Some programs ARE larger, though.  

4) Really understanding not only who you'd ideally seek to work with AND who you'd work with in their stead if they took a surprise sabbatical during a pivotal time in your studies is crucial. I'd always heard folks say, 'Don't go somewhere just to work with one person in particular,' and I didn't really take it to heart -- turns out, from experience, that's very real. 

5) ESPECIALLY here on GradCafe: be very mindful of the differences between Rhet/Comp and Lit. This board is mostly Lit folks, which makes sense, but it also can get a bit confusing. It is completely normal (sadly) that our stipends are lower, that our cohorts are smaller, that our job market is a bit different (for better and for worse). We also don't really exist at the Ivies, whereas you'll see lit people on here ardently struggling to choose between Harvard and Yale and you might think, 'Oh my Gosh, my field doesn't even exist in those places'. That's all part of the deal. Literature is just a different ballgame, and that is okay. As you start your PhD, you'll likely learn a little bit about how Rhet/Comp emerged as a field, and a bit of the "contention" between our fields. It's friendly, but it's a thing that goes back forever. Keep it in mind, but don't take it to heart. 

6) In the same vein as #5, don't be shocked when you see a lot of Literature folks applying to PhDs as BA-only applicants. That's a thing in a lot of fields, but generally not ours. You will find that virtually all Rhet/Comp PhDs expect you to come in with an MA, and it is not a bad thing for you to have one. In fact, it's sometimes a very good thing. 

7) Sometimes, but not always, really good Rhet/Comp programs are in schools that you would never expect -- schools that are below the top 50, even below the top 100. That is okay. Remember: it's less about where you go, and more about who you study with and how you network. Our field is a bit unique. 

8 ) Important: you will get a job. Almost every university and community college in North America has some form of writing program. It is a LOT easier to place a writing specialist than it is to place, for example, a Queer Shakespearean scholar. Now, granted, the first job you do get might not be TT, and you might be in the middle of nowhere... but please trust me, as an anon person on the internet, from one panicked first gen student with no safety net to another: you will get a job. 

9) If you are on a waitlist, be prepared to be genuinely waiting down to the wire, to April 15th, or even beyond. Check the results history. Sometimes -- even not in a pandemic--people get offers a few weeks later than the 15th. 

10) Apply to more schools than you think you'll need to. 10 sounds like a crazy number, but in retrospect, having only done 5 myself this cycle, I now wish I had just bit the bullet and applied to those other couple of 'maybes' that I didn't, that have now in retrospect become more realistic places for me to live than the places I did actually apply to.      

And the most important: 11) So much of admission details comes down to minutia. I'm lucky to have an inside connection at a handful of the places I applied to, and I've learned that when it comes down to who is offered a place vs. ending up on a waitlist, sometimes it's genuinely stuff that the applicants have zero control over. This could be anything from how currently packed a POI's schedule is, searches going on at the school that are diverting attention from student-facing duties, whether or not a grant got renewed, or more. And that's just some of the handful of stuff on the department side. Sometimes decisions come down to things you as an applicant cannot really control, like maybe a bad GPA from literal years ago, or one candidate having more undergraduate research experience than another. In my own case, I transferred three times during undergrad and had gaps in my education to work. I started at a community college, then a regional school, then graduated from a top 20 R1. Although I probably had experiences to do research at that last stop, the reality was, my educational background and the ways I'm non-traditional meant I couldn't have those same experiences that sometimes adcoms use to make 'cut off' decisions. So, what this tells us is this: sometimes, you literally could not have done anything better or different -- it isn't you -- and that is okay.       

Most, most important thing: You will be okay. There is a place for you. You bring something meaningful and important to the table, and worst comes to worst, you just need to try again. Keep your chin up. ❤️  

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On 3/7/2020 at 6:35 PM, onerepublic96 said:

I know this may be a bit too personal of a request but I was just wondering if anyone who was successful this season would mind sharing their SoP/bits and pieces of their SoP/or at least how they structured their SoP. I’m beginning to think that may have been my weakest part, and I’ve scoured every website known to man for examples of successful statements, but still feel like mine is missing something...

Or, if anyone would be more comfortable with looking over mine and giving some feedback instead of sharing theirs, I would really really appreciate that, too. 

I'd be happy to send mine too. :)

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On 3/7/2020 at 6:35 PM, onerepublic96 said:

I know this may be a bit too personal of a request but I was just wondering if anyone who was successful this season would mind sharing their SoP/bits and pieces of their SoP/or at least how they structured their SoP. I’m beginning to think that may have been my weakest part, and I’ve scoured every website known to man for examples of successful statements, but still feel like mine is missing something...

Or, if anyone would be more comfortable with looking over mine and giving some feedback instead of sharing theirs, I would really really appreciate that, too. 

I'm a non-traditional student (first gen college student / first gen american), so when I wrote my SoP I started by talking about my background, life challenges, etc. My advisor told me not to do this. She said to reverse it and start with my research interest, and bring in my background towards the end to fill in the gaps and connect my research to who I am. In that way, I kind of forwent the idea of having a personal "hook" and just talked about my field of interest, research, etc. until the end of the piece and it worked out for me. 

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19 minutes ago, Les Miserables said:

I'm a non-traditional student (first gen college student / first gen american), so when I wrote my SoP I started by talking about my background, life challenges, etc. My advisor told me not to do this. She said to reverse it and start with my research interest, and bring in my background towards the end to fill in the gaps and connect my research to who I am. In that way, I kind of forwent the idea of having a personal "hook" and just talked about my field of interest, research, etc. until the end of the piece and it worked out for me. 

For whatever it's worth, I did exactly the opposite (started with a personal "hook" that led into discussing my research interests) and had a pretty successful season. I know it's not terribly helpful, but I really do think writing an SOP is a highly individualized undertaking, and probably the more your SOP is organic to you the stronger it is. Then again, I'd be lying if I said I didn't read a whole bunch of models before writing mine, and it probably helped. So I'm happy to share mine if you PM me, @onerepublic96.

Edited by The Hoosier Oxonian
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I think the lesson from this season application cycle, like in the past cycles I have participated in, is that one issue/one event with your academic history does not determine your fate. Poor GPA, uncool GREs, one or four bad grades, etc do not block your academic career, if you are serious. My advice to future applicants is that, do not let people, stupid events, unfair stuff, block your path. Your dreams will come true, if you determined. Good luck. 

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Here are some of the things I learned after going through 2 application cycles:
-Get application fee waivers (should you be eligible) asap. Some programs only give out a set amount, and they could be gone by Sept/Oct. I did this in my second app cycle and saved a lot of money.
-Not to sweat GRE’s/Subject scores. My GRE scores weren’t great (V 154, Q 137, A 4.5) and my Subject was abysmal (400). I have terrible test anxiety. The two schools I was accepted to this round required both, so obviously it wasn’t weighed heavily. Many programs are ditching this requirement anyway.
-I did not do this but read this on the forum and wish I did – reach out to POIs before you submit apps to foster a connection. Even if you don’t get accepted, who knows what could come out of your reaching out.
-Try to make your SoP/PS as personal as possible and not just a list of accomplishments. Get as much feedback from mentors/advisors/professors as possible.
-Your past doesn’t define you. As a non-traditional, I was terrified of having to submit transcripts from my first undergrad institution because my last 2-3 semesters before withdrawing were awful, and my GPA suffered. While I’ll never know if that one transcript did influence any decisions, it didn’t stop me from getting into good programs.
-Not to give up hope if it doesn’t work out the first time. After having to walk away from a program in 2019, I did not believe this was going to work out for me again – especially after getting hit with so many rejections this second cycle. However, when I got my Tufts acceptance, I could see light at the end of the tunnel again. If this is the dream, keep going. Try again.
-Do not apply to Boston University unless you have the patience of a monk, mother of 3, or someone who enjoys watching paint dry, because those folks will keep you waiting.

Good luck to all future applicants. This process is crazy stressful, but you can do it! Also, eat as much cheesecake as possible. It helps. It really helps. 

Edited by gooniesneversaydie
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  • 2 weeks later...

Some tips for y'all--mostly made up of things I really wish that people had told me back when I was applying:

 

1 - Admissions committees often look to admit applicants who match up with their own interests or with the interests of faculty who have openings for new advisees.  Don't just look at who you want to work with.  Try and find out if they even take advisees.  Are they half a semester away from retirement?  Do they already have 15 advisees?  Are they the dept oddball who gets hidden during visit weekend?  Look at recent commencement info.  Most schools will indicate recent graduates and their advisors.  Those advisors may well have an opening.  So much of this is based on logistics as much as and even more so than pure talent on paper.

 

2 - People will tell you to apply to a range of schools.  I used to be one of those people.  You need to be thinking about your future job well before you even apply to grad school.  Do you want to get a TT job with a teaching load of 3-2 or less?  You need to limit your applications to top 10 programs. Yeah, there are outliers, but that's exactly what they are. Are you pretty sure that you want to go alt-ac after the degree?  Most top programs have NO experience in doing that, so much of the training they offer in that area will be woefully inept (I've even heard--refreshingly--a DGS at an R1 say that she's not remotely qualified to offer advice on pivoting out of academia).  You can't really change your institutional pedigree, so if you start at a mid-ranked school and then decide that you want to teach at an R1 or a SLAC, you have just given yourself absurdly lower odds of ever achieving that goal.

 

3 - Don't get all twisted up about the SoP.  Use it to give a clear sense of what you aim to do and why the people/resources at that school make it a good fit for your work.  Ask 15 people for advice on the "correct" format for an SoP, you'll get 20 different responses.  I went narrative in my first version.  A prof at my MA school told me that nobody cares about that stuff, and that "you are your project and nothing more."  So I revised to make it sound more Vulcan-esque.  My application cycle?  An admit and a pair of wait lists using the narrative SoP and an admit and a pair of wait lists using the Vulcan SoP. You can't predict how adcoms will react to things like style.  A style that generated acceptances one year might lead to rejections a year later under that year's different admissions committee.  Beyond making sure that you are conveying the info clearly (see 2nd sentence above), the rest is unpredictable and not worth stressing over. This goes double for the GRE, which most schools don't give a flying fart about.  

 

4 - The thing that IS worth stressing over? The writing sample.  Good writing is the universal greeting for grad school.  Someone earlier mentioned including an abstract.  That's excellent advice.  Other good advice--avoid the "biggies."  Are you a medievalist?  I guarantee you they don't want to see ANOTHER writing sample on the Canterbury Tales.  Find something interesting to say about a text.  Look to the top journals in your field for models to emulate.  Spend the lion's share of your time on that document. Spend even more on the first two and last two pages.  They may well be the only pages that get read, so make them perfect and make sure that your argument, methodology, and the stakes are stated clearly in those pages.

 

5 -  I was non-traditional (31 when admitted to PhD program).  If you are non-traditional, don't try to hide it, but don't shine a spotlight on it either.  People will say that emphasizing it will show all the things you've gained from those years of experience.  Your CV will do that.  There are schools who seem generally welcoming to non-traditionals (Indiana has a long track record in this area).  But the reality is that again--it's less about the school and more about the attitudes of the profs on each admissions committee.  If a school has one member of an adcom who is predisposed to toss non-traditional applicants in the bin, you likely aren't getting in there if your app makes that too obvious.  My own advisor, who was the head of the adcom the year I was admitted, had no idea how old I was.  In most cases, they aren't Googling you--they don't put THAT much time into each applicant.  Your age will never be the thing that gets you in, but it COULD be the thing that gets you tossed.  Don't emphasize it and don't apologize for it. TL/DR: Own your accomplishments.  They will be what gets you in. 

 

6 - Wait lists are WONDERFUL things.  Getting in off a wait list doesn't make you a lesser candidate.  Out of an initial cohort of 8, I was the only one admitted off the wait list.  I'm also one of the three who finished the degree (two are still dissertating), and only two of us ended up with tenure-track jobs (both with a heavy teaching emphasis).  Anecdotally, I've noticed that wait-list applicants in my old program tend to do better in the long run, possibly due to that anxiety that they weren't a "first choice."  That brings us to...

 

7 - Getting into a program is step one.  It's the starting line.  From that point forward, it is ALL about the hustle.  Build a network.  Start filling out your CV.  Don't look at seminar papers as "coursework"--look at them as first drafts of articles aimed NOT at your professor but at a particular journal.  Don't go to EVERY conference, but pick two (one regional and one national) to go to regularly.  Talk to people when you are there.  Get involved in committees and such.  We used to joke that you had to have the dossier of someone coming up for tenure just to get an interview for a TT job.  The job market was that bad.  It's about to get much worse.  You need to be ready to start the hustle from day one.  If you DON'T feel ready to do things like major conferences, networking, publishing, etc, then think about doing an MA first.  I did, for exactly those reasons.

 

8 - As PART of that hustle, build your CV in a way that shows you can wear more than one hat.  Teach/present outside of your main specialty in some way.  Do your thing and theory. Your thing and Digital Humanities. Your thing and Film. Your thing and one of its adjacent fields.  As schools get fewer and fewer tenure lines, departments are going to continue searching for candidates who can cover more than one area.  Build your CV with that kind of hybridity in mind.

 

9 - No matter HOW much you want that tenure track job, it might not happen, and it won't be because you did anything wrong.  The numbers are absurdly stacked against you.  I missed out on a job last year that was PERFECT for me.  It went to an Ivy candidate who was three years out from his PhD, had two prestigious VAPs, several journal articles and a book already published at a major press.  I would have hired him over me as well. I ended up with a TT position because I hustled from day one and I got absurdly lucky (a school that posted a position looking for my primary field with "preferred secondary interests" in literally everything else I do). Before that offer came in, I was already preparing to reach out to my alt-ac network. There will come a time on the job market where many of you will need to make a choice--toil as an adjunct for year after year, or walk away and refuse to be exploited in that way.  That's a very personal choice for most folks.  I recommend setting a set time frame (ala: 2 or 3 application cycles post degree conferral).  Set it, and then stick to it.

 

Insomnia has apparently inspired me to write a small novel here.  Apologies for the length and for any sense of doom and gloom.  For what it's worth, even if this job hadn't come through, I wouldn't change my decision to do the PhD.  I found my time in the program personally and intellectually rewarding and I met some of the best friends I've ever had, both in and out of the program.  I'm not saying "don't do a PhD because the job market is scary."  I'm saying "do a PhD with your eyes wide open." 

 

Best of luck, everyone.  And always remember to support each other.  Academia is (or rather should be) a community, not a blood-sport.  Don't aspire to grow up to be Reviewer #2. :) 

 

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