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On Safety Schools

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Recently I've had a few conversations with people who have finished their undergraduate degree, and are now on the path to graduate school.  Often these talks lead to the mentioning of "Safety schools" and below I've discussed summary thoughts and opinions from multiple discussions, for anyone who is interested in a long read.  Keep in mind, I can only offer my perspective, and while I believe it is well supported, it is just that.


There is no doubt that graduate school competition is stiff, you need strong grades, solid gre performance, a demonstration of research potential, and other often cited talents that I'm sure we can all by now list off in our sleep.  Despite all this however, we could easily be rejected despite having an excellent application created through years of hard-work and dedication.  An influx of qualified students might apply any given year, your star professor and person of interest could lose funding, go on sabbatical or decide to retire, the university could face finical constraints and admission numbers could suffer.  We can sit down over tea and crumpets until the cows come home listing off reasons of why an extremely qualified applicant was rejected.  Though lets not, I fear the end bill and ultimate weight gain. 


So from this, how do we lower the risk of rejection?  How do we reduce the chaos, competition, randomness and all other factors that boil into us being admitted into graduate school?  Many create a list, here are the schools we are interested in, schools that match us and that we would be gleeful to attend.  Ah, but what a short list it is, enough so to make me feel uneasy, perhaps though if I list just one or two more schools I could ease my mind enough to resume my minecraft adventures stress free (or whatever happens to be your cup of tea).  These additional schools, are placed under the heading of "Safety schools".


Of course the idea of "Safety schools" is idiosyncratic, you could define a safety school as somewhere you are a shoe in for admittance, will happily attend, and, will overall be sufficiently content enough to do sound work.  However, those schools we title "Safety schools" often seem to have an entirely different connotation. 


For many, it seems safety schools are better described as a bottom rung of interest, a place we will attend if only there is no where else to go.  I ask for anyone who resonates with this, or has safety schools on their list, to consider the following questions. 


Graduate school serves to prepare you for your future career, will your safety school adequately do this?  Does it have the right people, the right program, will your safety school actually allow you to do the kind of research you are passionate about - or are you compromising your passions? 


If you accept an offer from a safety school, what will your mentality be?  Will you years down the road be resentful and bitter?  A menality of "I'm not here because I want to be, I'm here because I had no where else to go" at best will poison your gradaute school experience, and at worst, do far more.


If you ultimately do not care where you go, safety school or not, consider if graduate school is really where you want to be?  Ideally you are passionate and proud of the university you attend, more realistically, you are at least happy and content.   If instead you shrug and reply "I'll go anywhere that accepts me, it doesn't really matter", then what of the investment you are making?  Years of your life, a considerable sum of money, a lifestyle that prepares you for something you are impartial to, this is after all your future we are discussing and not a passing phase. 


Lastly, consider that if we all apply to safety schools, we might actually hurt each others chances of being accepted into our preferred schools. 


Imagine that you are wait-listed at dream school "University of X-Men" and accepted into safety school "University of Spiderman".  On the flip side however, another individual has the opposite results, their dream school is "Spiderman" for which they have been wait-listed, and their safety school is "X-Men" for which they have been accepted.  Both individuals have been accepted into their respective safety schools, and both wait-listed into their respective their dream school.


If enough of us willy-nilly apply to safety schools, might this impact applicants who are geninuely interested in those schools?  Consider of course the flip side, what if willy-nilly applicants apply to your dream school, how might this impact you?  What a terrible state of affairs if there ever was a circumstance of individuals being accepted only into their "safety schools", when had they not applied to them at all, their odds of being accepted into their preferred schools could have been better. 


So, given what has been said, what is one to do then when faced with the anxiety, fear, and risk of rejection from graduate schools?  I argue, do not apply to safety schools.  Yes rejection is painful, it can be scary and it can hurt our egos, but, if your heart is set on three particular schools, I argue that you strengthen yourself as much as possible, apply to those three schools, and be done with it.

If instead you are rejected from all three schools, and have only been accepted into a safety school, I advise you, take another year and apply again.  Find out why you were rejected, fix weaknesses as much as you can, contact professors and ask for advise, look for other schools to consider, do all you can and don't be afraid to reach out for help.  The pragmatic rebuttal might be "Ah but I will lose an entire year and not only do I lose time but I will also be miserable!".  There is no sense in sugar coating this, losing a year sucks, however, consider the alternative.  Lose a year being miserable now, or lose several being miserable in graduate school. 
I understand life is not always idealistic and that we might have to struggle and fight hard to get somewhere we want to be - that said consider the investments you are making.  Graduate school is a long and costly investment of commitment, money, effort, sometimes sanity, and perhaps worst of all time, time that could easily have been spent with the most precious people our your live - family, friends and loved ones.  Do your best to make it count!


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