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Doctoral apps: how many times should you apply?


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I've been planning for doctoral apps this fall, but I'm not sure I'm ready. I have a language issue that I want to strengthen, and I'll need the reference from a course this fall. Trying to decide if I should go ahead and apply a little bit before I feel really ready, or if I should wait a year and line things up better.

Will it harm me to apply before I think I'm ready? Do applicants get stale, or do they look persistent if they come back a couple of times? What's the limit for number of apps you can reasonably toss at a single institution?

(Fwiw, I'm thinking about 2-3 application cycles, to a limited number of institutions. If I try for two or three years and don't get in, it wasn't meant to be - I'm not planning to spend 5 years trying and failing at an ever-expanding list of possible institutions).

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I would say that if you're not sure you're ready, don't apply now. You want to present yourself as (and actually be) someone who is ready to begin as soon as you step foot on campus. Applicants do get stale, yes, but if you've actively continued to do work, publish, etc. then that can make up for not being in classes. It might be worth doing another masters, something like an STM/MTh, which is only a one year commitment and allows you to work on strengthening your application.


Practically: If a rejection is because of something like, "You were right on the cusp" or "We just weren't admitting anyone in your subfield this year," etc., then reapplication is going to look different than if a rejection was based on a glaring problem in your first application. The reality is that admissions committees do have memories. Schools will ask you on your application if you have ever applied before, they reserve the right to consider previous application materials as part of any future application, and they can limit the number of total times you can apply (e.g. Harvard only allows 3 doctoral applications in a lifetime). A second application is fine and routine, especially if you've significantly retooled, but a third application is rather unlikely to be accepted. With each cycle, you apply with new classes of people just finishing their M* and who have also taken time off to strengthen applications. And a lot depends on each school's idiosyncrasies around reapplication: Some explicitly do not allow reapplication within a certain time frame, usually a year (so if you apply in fall 2014 and aren't admitted, the earliest you can apply again is fall 2016), whereas some have an abbreviated application if you apply the next year and encourage people to do so. As with everything in PhD applications, it all depends.

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I agree with theophany that you want to put the best possible "you" forward that you can, so if you really don't feel ready, don't apply. I also agree that reapplication very much depends on the school.


I just want to add, though, that sometimes, you just need to apply even if you don't feel 100% ready--because maybe you really are ready. In other words, despite actually needing to be ready when you step foot on campus, as theophany says, for some it's really really hard to feel like you are even if by all accounts you really are. Academics, especially applicants and new PhD students, suffer from this sort of self doubt all the time. This situation may not be everyone's, but it was mine as I was trying to figure out when I should apply to PhD programs. When I was finishing my first MA (in English), I remember my thesis chair asked to meet with me when she found out I was going to apply to more M* programs instead of PhD programs. I had lots of reasons (i.e. wanting to change disciplines, become more interdisciplinary) but something she said really stood out to me. She asked me if I was scared to go on to a PhD. I thought that was ridiculous. She warned me though that she had seen other students of hers go down the road of earning M* after M* degree and never go on to a PhD. I just ignored her and went on to my second MA (which was definitely necessary for the PhD program I'm currently in).


I was finishing my seminary degree (my second MA) during my PhD app season, and a prof who was helping me hammer out the SOP suggested to me that I think about applying to a couple local (to Los Angeles) MA in philosophy programs just as a back up. I had also thought about the possibility of staying at the seminary for a ThM. That I felt some sense of comfort at her suggestion made me realize I was nervous that my prep wasn't strong enough. My MA in theology was the only formal training I'd had in religion at all. The thought of going on to yet another M* program seemed really comforting, and I felt pretty confident I could get into either the ThM at my seminary or one of the local philosophy departments whom I knew had taken students from my seminary before. It was at that point that I also realized I maybe was a little scared to apply because I didn't want to get rejected. I also realized that even though I had thought getting a third MA would give me more time to narrow in on a topic for my PhD apps, I just wasn't going to advance in my intellectual development if I didn't go on to a PhD program. The third MA would not have helped me write a better application to RS and theology programs I don't think. I resigned myself to apply only to PhD programs despite my self doubt, and like you, planned on giving myself two or three rounds to make it happen. I feel very lucky that I received offers on my first attempt. 


Your situation is obviously a little different, Marcian, but I say all this just as a reminder that it's a good idea to think very seriously about whether the potential holes in your application are actually holes or if they're self doubt. You've mentioned some concrete issues which may be unavoidable, but I would caution against running headlong into a second or third M* degree when you actually might have a legitimate shot at a PhD program (where they may force you to earn another MA anyway if it's RS.)

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Thank you, Theophany and MarXian. I appreciate your insights. I'm not sure I'm any closer to a decision about applications, but you've named some of the issues and questions I need to think about. I suspect that on paper my application would be fairly strong, and that I might or might not have a small issue with languages, depending on how I present myself and how I formulate my academic interests.

Hopefully all will become clear in a couple of months. Maybe.

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