The first part was done: deciding to go to graduate school. The rest was a bit harder.
After I had successfully defended my master's thesis , my advisor asked what my plans were now that I had done that hurdle. When I told her of my inclination of going on for my PhD, she was super supportive. Her only word of advice was in carefully choosing were I would like to get my doctorate from.
Fit is important in choosing a graduate program. Not only do you have to consider if the potential faculty and department are able to support you the best that they can, but you have to wonder how you would fit into the program. Are there enough faculty members who are able to serve as your mentor? How does the university do in funding graduate students? Stipends? Travel/research grants? In providing academic resources?
This is something I wholly neglected to evaluate until it was too late. I was only concerned with finding potential professors to work with, which also was done badly. I searched a random set of universities - schools I've heard of, schools I thought were interesting - and searched for professors through departmental faculty pages to see any potential interests. But since no other professors is really doing what I'm doing, it was an awkward process. In hindsight, after reading numerous forum posts from GradCafe after I had applied, the best bet would've been to contact professors and asked them. But I didn't and pressed forward.
If there is any takeaway from my experience, it's that I did a lot of things badly and got immensely lucky at the end.
Applying to graduate school is expensive. You will normally pay $50-70 per application. As someone of limited financial means since leaving my old job, this constrained the number of schools I applied to. And even if you get rejected, that money will never be seen again. I do wonder why there isn't a greater movement to remove these application fees across the board. Yes, some schools do have fee-free applications for financially disadvantaged applicants, but this is neither consistent or readily advertised. If universities were actually serious about opening up graduate education to minutes and lower-income students, this needs to change. But it hasn't, and I was forced to charge this on my credit cards.
Not only are fees a limitation, but so is asking professors to write you letter of recommendations. Even if application fees are not a barrier, asking your professors to write you 15 LoRs comes across as a bit much to me. But maybe it wouldn't be. Maybe your professors will be happy to write those letters. But I didn't know since I didn't ask them what a reasonable number of applications would be. I simply assumed six applications was "enough." I asked and had no issues on that account. But again, the professors I've asked I have worked closely with, and they knew what I was capable of. If you are thinking about graduate school, just keep in mind who you need to ask for LoRs and ask them what they process normally entails. Would've done me some good.
With both those out of the way, I then went on to do my applications. If there is one takeaway here, it's to read the instructions carefully and press forward. Fortunately, I did not screw this part up! Yay me!
The application process finished in December. Everything was submitted on time, and my LoRs were sent on time. It was now to play the waiting game.It is around this time when I began reading GradCafe and other sites, and as I read more, I cringed more. So yes, read these sort of sites before you start applying. They're full of wise sages. Heed their advice!
Of the schools I applied to, three accepted me and three rejected me. In hindsight, I chalk this up to my obliviousness to note how I would fit into these programs. One was a dream school that I applied to without considering the fact that the faculty members I needed were not entirely a good fit for my own research.
The three schools that did accept me were more close to me in the "fit" department. What made the difference to me was that Vanderbilt reached out to me: first my future advisor, then graduate students. What made me lucky was that my future advisor was animated to reach out to me (despite not having prior contact) and wanted to see my research first-hand. I imagine he would be busy enough to justify looking over GPAs and discarding those that would not interest him. But he looked into my application and saw something there. I really lucked out there, and I'm thankful for that.
Not everyone will be so lucky. If there are any takeaways, it's these:
- Contextualize your research interests into something larger. Since my research dealt with geography and cartography, I should have situated my own research into the wider history of science.
- Understand that your research is unique. As such, you will not find a future person of interest (PoI) who will do what you do. From what I've heard from various professors at Vanderbilt, having a graduate student apply doing the exact same thing as you is actually detrimental. Find someone who you admire and think can expand your research, not another you.
- Aim High. Vanderbilt's graduate acceptance rate is on par with Yale. I purposely did not apply to any Ivy League schools out of a sheer sense of intimidation. If you have the money, try to apply to a top-tier program. You'll never know!
- Contact your PoI! Seriously, it's necessary. Why? Because the department will discuss amongst themselves for graduate students, and if a PoI knows you, they will vouch for you. This is how students are accepted. Not by the "best" GPAs or "best" credentials, but by these intra-department discussions. That my advisor would reach out to me and vouched for me in these discussions only proves that I should've done this will all the schools I applied to.
In the end, I got into a great program. I just finished my first semester, and I'm very much looking for the next. While things worked out for me, they so easily could not. I do wonder where I would be if I was not accepted to any programs. Some on GradCafe have said they've applied multiple years before they got accepted to their dream schools. I don't think I would've been able to do that, and I greatly admire those who do.
I do not know where my journey in grad school will take me. But I'll be sure to keep this page updated with any news.