So, you've decided to pursue a PhD...

graduate admissions PhD admissions

You’ve come this far! And if you have asked yourself the important questions—and more critically, if you have responded with honest and intentional answers—you are ready. I don’t suggest going down the PhD path if you think you should, or if you feel like it would be a waste of your past work not to follow through. Your journey has yet to be determined, and this is one big fork in the path that has valuable outcomes regardless of which way you decide to turn.

Am I ready to apply?

When embarking on the PhD application process, you should feel secure in yourself and the person you hope to be on the other side. I had heard from multiple people when starting my own application brainstorming that this process takes a lot out of you. It whittles away at you with each “no”, and gives you motivating hope with each “maybe”. Many people are just waiting until they get a “yes” to feel fulfilled from the journey. But I strongly emphasize that fulfillment can look many different ways in such an unpredictable process, and it doesn’t necessarily mean getting accepted into your top program. Remember that there are several factors within your control (e.g. your academic record, personal statement, the schools and programs you choose to which you choose to apply, whether you took the GRE, etc.) but even more factors outside of your control (e.g. whether a professor has funding, how many graduate students a lab took the year before, hidden initial screening criteria, the possibility that a lab already promised a spot to another applicant, the presence of fair and equitable application review processes, how many people applied to the program, etc.).

I wrote this initial piece in the midst of interview season, without a “yes” in hand (yet) — I felt very secure in myself and my purpose, having made a concerted effort to avoid comparing myself with other applicants. Whenever I caught myself wondering how everyone else was doing, I tried to remember that everyone’s respective processes unfold a bit differently, which reflects how we each have our own call to the fields of study and research. Eventually, we will each have our own unique contributions to these worlds, regardless of how this single application cycle goes.

How can I mentally prepare myself for the application process?

I encourage you to build and reinforce several personal buffers before moving forward with the application process. Consider the following questions:

  • What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 
  • Do you read, journal, draw, exercise, dance, cook, sing, swim, game, etc.? 
  • Who can you call at the end of the day to share your updates, both positive and negative? 
  • Are you the type of person who gains comfort from social media and online forums, or do these types of platforms add stress?
  • Will you power through applications after a long work day, or do you prefer to set aside a protected weekend day to write?

It may all sound a bit cliche, but truly ask yourself why you want to do this and how you are going to make sure that you get through to the end of the day, and onto the next. 

  • How do you remind yourself you are worthy? 
  • Where can you ask for samples, templates, and resources so you don’t have to rebuild the wheel? 
  • Do you know how to identify when you’ve done “enough,” and do you know how to walk away? 
  • Why did you decide to pursue this field in the first place, and how can you remind yourself of this mission moving forward?

Additionally, take some comfort in knowing that you are not alone in this process. You are likely already well aware of the many people visibly “in your camp” or “on your team” who have given time and resources to support your growth, and who have gone the extra step (or even extra mile) to open doors for you. But even the little interactions—a sample CV here, a tweet reply there—can remind you that there are so many people supporting you.

Furthermore, hold on to the idea that you are unique in this process: no one will be able to replace you and the impact you'll have on the world. This self-assuredness in your set of talents, thoughts, and abilities is all the more reason to reduce the burden that competition and external comparison have on your own application process. With this transparency, you will be free to build open and honest connections with other applicants who can support you along the way, both during applications but also into your graduate studies and subsequent career.  

What should I remember?

I hope that you will walk away from this post feeling:

  1. More confident in your conviction to pursue this path;
  2. More prepared to embark on the journey ahead (or more aware of the resources you still need); and 
  3. More supported in knowing there are others walking these same paths, sharing these same feelings. 

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