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Significant Other and I BOTH Applying to Same MA/PhD Programs (Advice?)


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Hi everyone, 

People seem quite nice on this forum, so I'm taking the plunge and expressing my worries in hopes of any advice and guidance from those in grad school, applying, or those who have recently gone through the process. Here's my dilemma: Both my boyfriend and I wish to ultimately pursue a PhD in English (which is awesome! We're kindred spirits and fellow nerds), but we'd obviously like to stay together.

I have deeply considered taking a gap year or gap years and possibly even venturing onto a different career path, but this has been what I've wanted to do for years.  Similarly, it has taken my boyfriend quite some time to figure out what is right for him in terms of a life path (he's an older student and has been in school for sometime), and he knows that pursuing a PhD in English is truly what he wants. 

A little bit about us for context:  We went to different schools for undergrad, and will be applying to English MA and PhD programs with just bachelor's degrees. He's primarily interested in Modernism and Theory, while I'm interested in 20th Century & Contemporary Lit with an emphasis in critical theory, cultural studies, media and aesthetics. I am pretty confident in our stats. We both have gpas on the high-end, and we've been studying for the GRE. Both of us have been highly encouraged by our respective professors to pursue graduate degrees.  

This is already a stressful process as you all know, and lately I've been feeling the stress of not one, but TWO, grad apps, LOL.  While I expressed that we're in pretty good standing for admission and I'm confident both of us could get in somewhere, I'm worried about the chances of us being together.  It's just...aaahhhh.  It's honestly so scary. 

Does anyone have any advice as to how we might navigate this process? We are currently looking into dozens and dozens of programs and are trying to find either  1) programs that look good for both of us or 2) programs in close proximity of each other.  Has anyone dealt with a similar issue?  I hear a lot about applicants applying to places with a significant other, but not necessarily applying together to the same program.  Thanks all. 

 

 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am by no means an expert in this subject, but my husband is the one applying to PhD programs. If we were in this situation, I'm pretty sure we would do what we are doing now: focus on a general geographic area. You could, for instance, look at Boston (and the surrounding area) and have these options: Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Tufts University, UMass Amherst, UNH, etc. This is just how I'd do it to ensure we could live together. 

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One of the younger professors at my MA school talked about how when he and his wife were applying to PhD programs, it became so much more complex because they had to attend schools near each other as they have young children. He said the stress was extreme trying to coordinate and get funding for both of them. As a result, he kept his job as a FT MA instructor at the university where he now is professor and attended a program with no funding he could drive to once a week. Not quite the same scenario as yours, but somewhat similar.

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Ah, so good to see a couple of replies to this one...I've been thinking about it as it lingered and languished here for a while, I suspect just because of how genuinely tricky this situation is. I was in a similar situation, and while I appreciate the other replies, I'd strongly suggest considering the prospect of taking turns with your degrees. Not a very sexy option, but it did work for me. My partner and I found the odds just too damn tough to deal with, even by focusing on similar schools and/or similar geographic areas; it was too hard not to envision the scenario in which one acceptance didn't align with the other acceptance - or the other non-acceptances - and in turn, that anxiety alone was too great to even begin us going down that route. By taking turns, you really turn the situation back into a one-step-at-a-time kind of approach. Granted, it is an early step, and it doesn't solve the later step of how to gain employment in the same geographic region. But that later step would be waiting for you in any case. If you're willing to take turns, one of you has to be willing to wait. That was me, the waiter, and I can tell you that it wasn't that bad. I waited 3 years, which gave me time to save up some money and really fine-tune my applications. Yes, there were times when I just really wanted to get moving on the process, but then again, I was moving on the process, if we spin things around to the positive light. In this way, one of the unfortunate aspects of higher degrees in this field, wherein one must be hyper-professionalized in order to gain entrance into a program that has traditionally been designed to impart the professional skills that one must already have, actually becomes an advantage: you get a crack at independent scholarship, and with a purpose and an end-game to boot. If you have a job, you also get money...the independent scholarship thus happens on nights and weekends, and so you don't really ever sleep, and viola! It's just like you're already in grad school with the silver lining that you're not totally broke!

There are those who would see my optimism as forced or strained...the truth is, this is not an easy situation, and my proposed solution is not an easy fix. But it is a doable one. For those of a certain temperament, I actually think that it can galvanize two commitments at once, since you'd have to be truly in love with your partner as well as your scholarship to do something like this. And those commitments do get tested here - I view these as something like a long-distance relationship, which, for me, is like the last thing I'd ever want to attempt, or to wish on my enemies, yet sometimes there is simply a shortage of great options, in which case sucking it up and keeping the faith is about all you have to go on (in fact you can see through these comparisons that I'd rather wait on my dream than attempt long-distance from my partner, which in itself implies a hierarchy of my own personal priorities). But commitment is commitment, and if it's real on both counts, then you don't question it, you just do it. And hey, if it's not real on either count, then finding that out earlier rather than later is not such a bad thing, either. 

Whatever you choose, I wish you luck! Just know that it can work, and for my money one step at a time - literally - is what makes the difference. Both of you applying at the same time would literally be two steps at once, presuming you're a permanent unit who will go the full distance together, that is, degree, employment and beyond.

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On 7/7/2017 at 7:34 AM, punctilious said:

I am by no means an expert in this subject, but my husband is the one applying to PhD programs. If we were in this situation, I'm pretty sure we would do what we are doing now: focus on a general geographic area. You could, for instance, look at Boston (and the surrounding area) and have these options: Boston College, Boston University, Brandeis University, Brown University, Harvard University, Northeastern University, Tufts University, UMass Amherst, UNH, etc. This is just how I'd do it to ensure we could live together. 

I think that the East Coast schools are prime for that!  Our list of schools are spread all over the U.S., however, we've been coming up with clusters of schools in proximity (similar to your approach, although I'm thinking that you and your husband's is probably even more solid with one geographic location).  I'm going to keep doing some digging and see if I can come up with any possible 'proximity clusters' on our existing list. 

On 7/7/2017 at 8:18 AM, cowgirlsdontcry said:

One of the younger professors at my MA school talked about how when he and his wife were applying to PhD programs, it became so much more complex because they had to attend schools near each other as they have young children. He said the stress was extreme trying to coordinate and get funding for both of them. As a result, he kept his job as a FT MA instructor at the university where he now is professor and attended a program with no funding he could drive to once a week. Not quite the same scenario as yours, but somewhat similar.

Ahhh yeah, so happy to not have kids on top of everything else in the mix of things!  That sounds so tough, although hearing a story about things working out for an academic couple (even though compromise sounded like it was necessary) is definitely uplifting. 

On 7/7/2017 at 0:30 PM, EmmaJava said:

Ah, so good to see a couple of replies to this one...I've been thinking about it as it lingered and languished here for a while, I suspect just because of how genuinely tricky this situation is. I was in a similar situation, and while I appreciate the other replies, I'd strongly suggest considering the prospect of taking turns with your degrees. Not a very sexy option, but it did work for me. My partner and I found the odds just too damn tough to deal with, even by focusing on similar schools and/or similar geographic areas; it was too hard not to envision the scenario in which one acceptance didn't align with the other acceptance - or the other non-acceptances - and in turn, that anxiety alone was too great to even begin us going down that route. By taking turns, you really turn the situation back into a one-step-at-a-time kind of approach. Granted, it is an early step, and it doesn't solve the later step of how to gain employment in the same geographic region. But that later step would be waiting for you in any case. If you're willing to take turns, one of you has to be willing to wait. That was me, the waiter, and I can tell you that it wasn't that bad. I waited 3 years, which gave me time to save up some money and really fine-tune my applications. Yes, there were times when I just really wanted to get moving on the process, but then again, I was moving on the process, if we spin things around to the positive light. In this way, one of the unfortunate aspects of higher degrees in this field, wherein one must be hyper-professionalized in order to gain entrance into a program that has traditionally been designed to impart the professional skills that one must already have, actually becomes an advantage: you get a crack at independent scholarship, and with a purpose and an end-game to boot. If you have a job, you also get money...the independent scholarship thus happens on nights and weekends, and so you don't really ever sleep, and viola! It's just like you're already in grad school with the silver lining that you're not totally broke!

There are those who would see my optimism as forced or strained...the truth is, this is not an easy situation, and my proposed solution is not an easy fix. But it is a doable one. For those of a certain temperament, I actually think that it can galvanize two commitments at once, since you'd have to be truly in love with your partner as well as your scholarship to do something like this. And those commitments do get tested here - I view these as something like a long-distance relationship, which, for me, is like the last thing I'd ever want to attempt, or to wish on my enemies, yet sometimes there is simply a shortage of great options, in which case sucking it up and keeping the faith is about all you have to go on (in fact you can see through these comparisons that I'd rather wait on my dream than attempt long-distance from my partner, which in itself implies a hierarchy of my own personal priorities). But commitment is commitment, and if it's real on both counts, then you don't question it, you just do it. And hey, if it's not real on either count, then finding that out earlier rather than later is not such a bad thing, either. 

Whatever you choose, I wish you luck! Just know that it can work, and for my money one step at a time - literally - is what makes the difference. Both of you applying at the same time would literally be two steps at once, presuming you're a permanent unit who will go the full distance together, that is, degree, employment and beyond.

Thank you so much!  I genuinely appreciate your response here.  Compromising and waiting to take the plunge one step at a time as you said is something I've definitely considered.  My boyfriend is older than me (I'm in my early 20's and he's in his late) and while grad school is important for both of us to pursue, I truly feel like it may only be fair that he'd take the first shot.  From the many conversations we've had about this, I get a sense that he'd probably sacrifice grad school just to be with me. Honestly, that would bother me I think! He's been in school a lot longer than I have, is older, etc. I feel like, considering my age in comparison to his, I could possibly benefit more from a gap period. And hey, your personal example's pros (independent research, being able to make a lot more money in comparison to a stipend, and, of course, being with your significant other) sound pretty good to me. Granted, I'd ideally like to be in grad school, and this would absolutely be a compromise, but this is something to consider nonetheless.

I guess the question is, do we hedge our bets and still both apply to see what possible options we have now?  My plan (as of now) is to definitely apply. On a good day, I feel optimistic about the process.  On a bad day, it feels like too much to handle.  (Like you said, the odds and anxiety are overwhelming.)  Part of the worry stems from the unknown of the outcomes. If I decide not to apply at all, it eliminates hard decisions or "what ifs," however, not applying also presents itself with other "what ifs!"  (And of course, this is all going to cost us money, haha.)   Biggest worry I think: It would be a lot harder for me to step away from an offer of admission (especially to an MA/Phd program) if it's been given to me, you know?  (Definitely the odds and anxiety you referred to.)  As long as we're both open to compromise though, things will work out. 

Hmm, your response got me thinking... in addition to applying, maybe I'll explore other options in the places we're considering for grad school?  Possible job opportunities or even internships that I might enjoy could be out there and would lead to even more options.  Like I said, grad school is my ultimate goal, but if I found something awesome to do + I could be with my boyfriend, that'd be sweet. 

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  • 2 weeks later...

I can also speak to the virtues of staggering your graduate careers, as I have been the supportive significant other to an overworked and overwhelmed graduate student for the past 7 years. I've learned an immense amount from going through the process vicariously through her and I like to think that I've made her graduate career easier by being present when she needed to vent (or when she needed someone to proofread).

My advice is that you should both go through the application process even if you decide to stagger your entries. Applying to graduate school, unfortunately, has a lot to do with the unadvertised/unknowable circumstances of the departments to which you are applying, and this means that good candidates with strong GPAs and excellent writing samples get shut out due to dumb luck. It's also more competitive than it's ever been as more and more funding gets cut. You both should cast wide nets (7-10 schools) and understand that there are no safety schools. You might both be amazing candidates but your problem might solve itself if neither of you are accepted (most likely) or if only one of you is accepted (likely). If you both are accepted then you can worry about the details of which one of you goes/work out the details of a long distance relationship. Generally speaking, the odds are against acceptance.

I have more bad news for you though... Even in the best case scenario where you both get into your dream programs and you're right down the street from each other/at the same school, the odds that one of you will have to compromise. Google the "Two-Body Problem" then consider that your dilemma is even worse as in order to end up in the same school, you'll have to end up in the same department. Usually, when a University advertises a position, there'll only be funds for one tenure-track position open in the department. Spousal hires are uncommon unless one of you is a rock star, and you or your spouse might be stuck as a lecturer/adjunct for a few years before the Dean can open another TT position. When my fiancee landed her TT gig earlier this year at a small, regional comprehensive, state school, there were 184 applicants, 14 skype interviews, and only 3 or 4 on campus interviews. Things don't get more likely after getting accepted to graduate school. They get vastly less likely.

The GOOD news is that merit plays a role in both graduate and job applications, albeit a limited one. Work your butts off and, hopefully, you can become giants in your respective fields and have departments scrambling to offer you spousal hires. A short story to give you hope:

This past semester, my fiancee's department (part of an R1 and a flagship state institution) was miraculously given the opportunity to conduct two TT searches at the same time. When they offered the first of those positions to a woman, she informed them that she wanted a spousal hire for her husband... who had applied for the second position and was eliminated from consideration early on. She also informed the department that her husband was strongly considering a one-year appointment at Oxford and he had already secured a spousal hire for her--the insinuation being that my fiancee's institution had better sweeten the pot or they'd lose both candidates. The department had scrambled to open enough funds to field competitive salary offers and had to invite him to a belated on campus interview. Another candidate had also accepted the second position, so my fiancee's department had to cash in a future TT line. 

The moral of this story is that if you're enough of a big deal, even in this buyer's market, universities will always scramble to get their candidate, and the big universities will find a way to hire both you and your husband if one of you knocks it out of the park. It can be done! You just have to be, like, the very best.

Hope this helps. Good luck to you on your journey. Support each other and have patience with each other. Know that you'll both change radically. No one leaves graduate school the same person they were when they started.

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Positivitize you said you were the supporting partner. Now that your fiancé has a TT position, I see you were accepted to Syracuse for your MA. I hope that your fiancé is either at the same school or nearby for you.

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57 minutes ago, positivitize said:

You both should cast wide nets (7-10 schools) and understand that there are no safety schools.

Great post and this isn't so much directed at @positivitize as toward the general sentiment that I detect that 7-10-ish schools is somehow a "wide net." YES! Cast a wide net, please for the love of everything holy, cast that sucker far and wide! PLEEEEEASE! And: NO! 7-10 schools a wide net does not make! 7-10 schools is a net, average to kind of puny, to be totally honest. Widen that net, people! Widen it, baby. This probably isn't even the right thread. My bad, but hey, let it be known. Wide nets are wider than you think, yo. Just...more. Wide means more. Hit 18, 20. One very conventional and highly respected professor in a proseminar once told my entire cohort 20+, even 30 (I shit you not). Excessive? Well...let's look at placement rates then, no? More is more, not less, got it? Odds and so forth. It stresses me out to see all these applicants applying to 9 and 11 schools and stuff. Do yourselves a favor and WIDEN your NETS. Thanks.

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31 minutes ago, EmmaJava said:

Cast a wide net, please for the love of everything holy, cast that sucker far and wide! PLEEEEEASE! And: NO! 7-10 schools a wide net does not make! 7-10 schools is a net, average to kind of puny, to be totally honest. Widen that net, people! Widen it, baby. This probably isn't even the right thread. My bad, but hey, let it be known. Wide nets are wider than you think, yo. Just...more. Wide means more. Hit 18, 20. One very conventional and highly respected professor in a proseminar once told my entire cohort 20+, even 30 (I shit you not). Excessive? Well...let's look at placement rates then, no? More is more, not less, got it? Odds and so forth. It stresses me out to see all these applicants applying to 9 and 11 schools and stuff. Do yourselves a favor and WIDEN your NETS. Thanks.

Preach, sister Emma...preach!!

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2 hours ago, cowgirlsdontcry said:

Positivitize you said you were the supporting partner. Now that your fiancé has a TT position, I see you were accepted to Syracuse for your MA. I hope that your fiancé is either at the same school or nearby for you.

1

Yup! She's about a 7-hour drive from me, but money makes the distance closer. For the first time in 7 years, with our combined income, we'll be solidly middle class. I'm looking forward to see how she reacts when I'm coming apart at the brain-seams. 

2 hours ago, EmmaJava said:

Great post and this isn't so much directed at @positivitize as toward the general sentiment that I detect that 7-10-ish schools is somehow a "wide net." YES! Cast a wide net, please for the love of everything holy, cast that sucker far and wide! PLEEEEEASE! And: NO! 7-10 schools a wide net does not make! 7-10 schools is a net, average to kind of puny, to be totally honest. Widen that net, people! Widen it, baby. This probably isn't even the right thread. My bad, but hey, let it be known. Wide nets are wider than you think, yo. Just...more. Wide means more. Hit 18, 20. One very conventional and highly respected professor in a proseminar once told my entire cohort 20+, even 30 (I shit you not). Excessive? Well...let's look at placement rates then, no? More is more, not less, got it? Odds and so forth. It stresses me out to see all these applicants applying to 9 and 11 schools and stuff. Do yourselves a favor and WIDEN your NETS. Thanks.

1

Good point Emma. 7-10 was as wide a net as I was able to afford given the limitations I had on time, money, and program fit. Between fees and sending out GRE scores, I spent about 100$ a pop and the 1200$ I spent meant a few months of eating ramen like undergraduates. You are absolutely right though. If you can find 30 programs where you would fit and where you would be excited to attend, apply to all of them (money permitting).

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28 minutes ago, positivitize said:

Yup! She's about a 7-hour drive from me, but money makes the distance closer. For the first time in 7 years, with our combined income, we'll be solidly middle class. I'm looking forward to see how she reacts when I'm coming apart at the brain-seams. 

Good point Emma. 7-10 was as wide a net as I was able to afford given the limitations I had on time, money, and program fit. Between fees and sending out GRE scores, I spent about 100$ a pop and the 1200$ I spent meant a few months of eating ramen like undergraduates. You are absolutely right though. If you can find 30 programs where you would fit and where you would be excited to attend, apply to all of them (money permitting).

Good deal that you aren't too far apart. 

I applied to 9 programs for PhD. Taking everything into consideration, there really wasn't anywhere else I would have wanted to attend, or had the money to apply. Even so, that was still about $900.

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Counterpoint: Please don't apply to 20 places. It isn't worth it, and if you've been denied admission from 10 schools, like I was during my first round of apps, it probably has more to do with your materials than with your limited net. Apply intelligently, and don't throw good money after bad. 

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Most dual-academic couples that I know cast a wide net, but the actual number of applications really depends on the situation. When I think "wide net" for academic couples, I would think that both partners would pick a couple of geographical areas that suit their needs (whether persona, professional, or otherwise) and then apply to everything in those cities that makes sense to. Definitely only apply to schools that you are actually interested in, but I would consider the location to your partner as part of this determination.

So, a wide net, to me, really means that you might be applying to schools that might not have interested you on its own, but if your partner has a position at a nearby school, that might be enough to make the school interesting to you. Whether this is 7-10 schools or 20-30 schools just depends on the locations the couple is considering. There are some places in the world that have 5+ schools within a 1-hour drive, so if you are considering 3 or 4 such areas, that adds up fast. On the other hand, another couple might be casting as wide of a net as they can and only find 10 schools that are worth applying to.

There is a lot of random-ness in applications because of the many factors out of your control. Perhaps these numbers vary from field to field, but for my field, if you are a good fit for a program and you have decent application materials, there's probably a 20%-30% chance of admission. I agree with @echo449 that if you carefully selected 10 schools that would be good for you and prepared accordingly but still got rejected from all 10, then it probably has more to do with your application package than the number of schools you applied to. A good candidate might get into 2 or 3 programs out of 10, and rejected from 2 or 3 other programs where they were on the shortlist or just below the cutoff. However, when you are trying to have both partners go to the same city, if you only pick 10 carefully selected schools, it might be the case that the schools you get accepted were the ones where your partner just barely didn't make the cut and vice-versa.

If you and your partner has decided that you must live in the same city, then my advice is to treat each city/area/region as its own independent competition. Hopefully there are 3+ good schools for each of you in each city (some couples only choose places where this is the case). I wouldn't worry about whether the total number of applications overall is high enough; just that each of you are submitted enough applications to one area. It's fine to pick one or two places where you only send one application if they are both really great fits for you (it doesn't hurt to aim high!) but I would optimize the location picking to ensure that most of the places you are applying to has ample opportunities for both.

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@TakeruK's....take is smart and well considered. My opinion also has to do with the market and funding--if you are both applying to 20-30 programs, thats 4-6k. If you both get accepted to proximate schools with less than ideal funding structures, there may be loans that you both have to take out. Almost no program, in the current market, can guarantee better than 50% placement, and the job market for 20th century american lit is bleak. Last year there were around 8 jobs interviewing at MLA. These are bad numbers, and, while I respect the energy and passion of other people in this thread, I think that life on the other end needs to be considered when recommending how many schools one should apply to. 

I feel like I should be more than a negative nancy, though, so, to OP, I guess I would advise you both to apply to the maximum number of schools that you can justify in the Northeast. If you both get into programs based around here, commuting to see each other/living together becomes a much more reasonable proposition than anywhere else in the country, imo. For people w/ yr interests, that would mean apps at Penn, Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia, NYU, Brown, Yale, CUNY, and Harvard. I know these are scary big name places, but idk if I'd rec anywhere else on the corridor. But, if you're grades and profiles are as encouraging as your profs say, then you should have decent shots anyways.

Edited by echo449
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My sister and brother-in-law went to school from their wedding.  They were each in a branch of the sciences, but luckily there was a decent intersection of places that would have served them both.  One didn't get into Stanford, so they both wound up going to Madison-- a top-drawer choice for what they wanted to do.  Not sure how they would have handled a less fortunate outcome during the graduation/wedding process.  It was all pretty tense at is was.

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58 minutes ago, echo449 said:

My opinion also has to do with the market and funding--if you are both applying to 20-30 programs, thats 4-6k. If you both get accepted to proximate schools with less than ideal funding structures, there may be loans that you both have to take out. Almost no program, in the current market, can guarantee better than 50% placement, and the job market for 20th century american lit is bleak. Last year there were around 8 jobs interviewing at MLA. These are bad numbers, and, while I respect the energy and passion of other people in this thread, I think that life on the other end needs to be considered when recommending how many schools one should apply to.

(emphasis added) Definitely need to consider this! Although I would also personally not be able to spend $4000-$6000 on applications and most people I know would not be able to either, I didn't address this directly since money means different things to different people. I would note that I'm in the sciences and all of the dual-academics I was thinking of before were also in the sciences, where the grad funding is better (two fully funded science PhD students should be able to pay the bills and even save a bit for the future) and the job market prospects are better (in terms of availability of positions and salaries in and outside of academia). So all these application fees might be a more reasonable "investment" for science fields.

My advice for those limiting the number of applications for whatever reason (time, money, effort etc.) that it would make more sense, in my opinion, to apply to more** schools within a smaller number of geographical areas instead of fewer schools across more geographical areas. (**to be read: "as many as would fit your interests")

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I think this is worth thinking through: if the basis for scaling our so-called wide nets is situational and contextual, then this move toward subjectivizing and narrowing our wide nets precisely does nothing to mitigate the circumstantial obstacles that a wide net would be part and parcel of trying to overcome in the first place. Right? I mean, if the goal of an application cycle is to feel reasonable and healthy about the application cycle, then a grand scaling down or whatever else might just be the ticket, and I'm nobody to dispute that. However, feeling good about the process is the kind of thing that doesn't really require GC solicitation - that can happen on nights and weekends and holidays when our loved ones support us with loving arguments about our weird and flukey circumstances, and c'est la vie, it's a bummer that your net was necessarily curtailed, but hey, that's life and we love you and you're not a failure.

Sure, I'm on board with that. 

But...let's say the goal is to get into a good (-fit) program. If that's the case, and I understand it as a rhetorical but also a sincere if - if that's the case, then our contextualizing of whatever a wide-net might be is just not going to help anyone to play their odds, it's...just purely not helpful in that regard. And if getting shut out of the 10-school wide net implies a fundamental problem with an application package in the social/hard sciences, let me please urge this thread not to think that way in the humanities, or at least in the literary corner of humanities, because that would be false and also not helpful to would-be applicants.

Plus aren't there threads galore about seeking waivers to the application fees? I haven't looked but I seem to recall that it came up a bunch in the wake of "wide-net" discourse...

I'm understanding the premise of this thread to be one in which we try to figure out how to help someone level an uneven playing field from the get-go. If that's not really the primary concern that comes with entering an application cycle tethered to another person, then my thoughts will be much less helpful indeed.

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3 hours ago, EmmaJava said:

if getting shut out of the 10-school wide net implies a fundamental problem with an application package in the social/hard sciences, let me please urge this thread not to think that way in the humanities, or at least in the literary corner of humanities, because that would be false and also not helpful to would-be applicants.

To clarify, when I said application package, I mean potential problems in both the content of the package but also with the schools that one is applying to. In the sciences, it's very possible to have a perfectly fine application package content but if an applicant is applying to schools that they're not well suited for, then one might not get any offers. But if one is able to find 10 good-fit programs (both in terms of research interest and educational background/experience) then not getting any offers out of 10 would suggest that one is doing something wrong in the essays or other aspect of the application.

I am not familiar with the humanities / literary programs of course, so maybe you do mean that even with 10 good-fit program selections, it's common to have no offers. But in case it wasn't clear, just wanted to say that by "problems with the application package", I also include not picking schools that are good fits.

3 hours ago, EmmaJava said:

Plus aren't there threads galore about seeking waivers to the application fees? I haven't looked but I seem to recall that it came up a bunch in the wake of "wide-net" discourse...

I forgot to mention this! Good point! Usually not available to foreign students but a great resource to consider for American students applying to US schools.

3 hours ago, EmmaJava said:

I'm understanding the premise of this thread to be one in which we try to figure out how to help someone level an uneven playing field from the get-go. If that's not really the primary concern that comes with entering an application cycle tethered to another person, then my thoughts will be much less helpful indeed.

I agree with you that with unlimited resources, applying to more schools is certainly better than fewer! I also think echo449 makes a good point that there is an actual cost to these applications and so each (pair of) applicants will need to do their own cost-benefit analysis. For some concrete examples, let's say there are 4 schools in the LA area, 4 in the Seattle area, 7 in Boston, 3 in New York City, 2 in Philly and 2 in Ithaca. That's 22 programs. If a couple can afford all of them then of course applying to 22 programs will maximize the chances of getting what they want. But with limited resources, they might choose to skip the Philly and Ithaca schools and only apply to 18. (or perhaps even narrow it down to 15). 

I think this is also an important factor because most people don't have goals that they want to achieve "no matter the cost". It's very reasonable for a couple in this situation to decide to pursue other career paths or options other than both partners attending PhD programs in the same place at the same time. Perhaps a couple might decide the cost of submitting 7 additional applications ($1400, potentially, plus time taken away from working on the other 15 applications) is not worth this extra cost.

So, I think it still makes sense to include context when discussing tips/opinions/advice. Applying to 20-30 programs isn't the best path for everyone and depends on each person's goals.

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