To my surprise, the most stressful part of graduate school was not the application itself — it was what followed. Slogging through paperwork to apply to schools? Manageable. Trying to visit schools and, in some cases, impress them? And then deciding where I wanted to spend a sizable chunk of my life? Not so clear-cut.
First of all, rejections happen all the time. Consider that most laboratories/advisors only have room for one new student each year — and that there’s nearly always a strong pool of applicants, sometimes including individuals with strong pre-existing ties. It could also be that the timing is simply not in your favor. Rejection should not discourage you if you hope to enter academia; this won’t be the first or last time you’re turned down.
Waitlisting is also a very common occurrence. Things can change at the last minute. In my experience, major shuffles happen during the days right before the decision deadline. A good number of my friends heard back from great schools at, literally, the nth hour.
Of course, there is the best-case scenario: the school shows interest in you right off the bat. They will usually invite you to visit their campus for a formal day or weekend of activities. As a sidenote, I strongly feel that these visits should be paid for, at least in large part, by the program — it speaks to the financial resources they have available down the line.
Here, a distinction should be made between recruitment and interview weekends. If you are lucky enough to be recruited, you already have an acceptance in hand — now, it’s the school’s turn to try and win you over. If you are interviewing, you are still in an advantageous position. The school has decided it likes you enough to send you to the next round with its other top picks. Programs typically only arrange one or the other for all their prospective students, though there are special cases where an exceptional student may be accepted before others.
The rule of thumb for visiting is simple: be on your best behavior. Even when you think you’re “off-duty,” if you’re in a room with people from the program, you are being evaluated on some level (yes, even by the graduate students). *Update: now that I’ve been on the other end of this several times over, I actually don’t think it’s as intense or high-stakes as I initially portrayed — so don’t freak out too much! We just want to get an “authentic sense” of who you are. However, other programs may be less laid-back, so it never hurts to be as polite and genuine as possible.* The program wants to make sure that they can live with you for 5 years. However, this doesn’t mean that you need to mask your true personality. Be yourself; just use common sense. Dress well; it’s always better to be more formal, though I’ve found that business-casual usually does the trick.
Don’t forget, too, that you are assessing the program just as much as they are you. Seriously consider whether or not you can thrive in the social and academic environment. Look for red flags, like unhappy faculty and students. Explore the surroundings, seeking out things that you value in a location.
One of my most helpful practices was journaling immediately after each interview. During each plane ride home, I would try to recount what I saw, heard, and felt, in as much detail as possible. This really helped crystallize my opinions of each program — and make for more accurate decision-making (since we all know how unreliable human memory can be!).
If you are fortunate enough to have options, you will also be unfortunate enough to have to choose one door and close the others. Every decision is highly personal, depending on your priorities. Location and quality of life? Family and/or significant others? Funding? Think carefully about what you value. Hear people’s stories on how they made their decisions. Talk to people about the programs — including your would-be advisors. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to take as much time as you need to achieve clarity. Don’t be afraid to reject schools. You have every right to mull over this decision before the deadline. It is one of the few times in your academic career that the ball is in your court.
Personally, I took all the time I had to make a decision. I was faced with very competitive offers and sought input from countless people. At the end of the day, however, it boiled down to something that many had suggested: a gut feeling. Listen to what your instincts tell you. I won’t lie and say I didn’t have doubts about my decision — after all, it meant I had to unwillingly leave my beautiful home state — but now I can’t imagine having chosen any other path.
Know, too, that things will work out in the end. It can seem unlikely at times, but I’ve always seen my peers come to be exactly where they need to be. Life is a very long journey, and the decision to attend a graduate school is just the first step in one very exciting leg of it!
See other posts in this “Applying to Grad School” series!