(This is very long so if you’re easily bored, I’d skip it.)
Oh, the joys of applying for admittance to a PhD program. I’m having so much fun, aren’t you? Since I’ve talked about it ad naseum, you know that I am waiting for the decisions on my PhD applications. I applied to 8 programs in December and the application process is one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve every done. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my experience with the process in case you have any allusions that the process is in any way simple.
First, I realize that everyone goes through the following charmingly twisted hoops and that I am not special. However, my job during this process is to make the PhD gods overlook my non-specialness (wherein all the applications look exactly the same) while I try to convince them that I am indeed most special, if they will just give me a chance to expose my specialness without actually having to print my application materials on polka dotted paper. And since I am the only person in my house currently applying for PhD programs, I am a little special. Even if it’s only the ‘stop eating paste’ variety of special.
The process looks like this:
1. You’ve watched 7 millions films. You get a B.A. in something film-ish or maybe even in film. You add another million films that you are forced to watch in class because not one of the 7 million you viewed previously is one being used in any of the 4 years of classes you’re taking.
2. You decide you should be the world’s foremost expert on Jane Austen films or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or genocide film or Northern Irish cinema or Film anti-theory as a new theoretical paradigm. You then get an M.A. in Film or something sort of related to film. You start submitting papers to journals and conferences, about 90% of which are rejected. Another 9% never reply to your submission (apparently it was that bad.) The final percent will be accepted at first but rejected after you send in the full paper, because of “space limitations.”
3. During your first week as a master’s degree student, someone (probably several people) ask you if you’re going to get a PhD. You think, “I can’t even find the printers in the library, I don’t understand anything one of my professors is saying (I keep watching her mouth when she talks, hoping that lip reading will offer a different level of enlightenment) and I somehow managed to get myself locked into the stairwell of the science building on the first day, but if I make it through the first semester without getting an F or dying of exposure after locking myself on the roof of the gym, I might consider it.” You answer, “Of course.” That night, a friend of yours tells you they’re not going to go for a PhD after their MA but instead attend a yoga school then teach classes in California.
4. You take on the challenge and decide to continue the joy of constant near-death experiences that make up your life at graduate school and, thinking yourself very clever and fully prepared, (after all you have a vague idea that your research proposal should have something to do with film, or maybe, good film) you make an appointment to talk to an academic advisor on the first day of fall classes for your final year. This is slightly more than three months before the first deadline. You state your purpose. Your advisor asks, “Can I see your research proposal?” You get a quizzical look on your face, thinking “Certainly. If I had one. But since I have no idea what they should say, I have yet to start one.” You say, “I haven’t finalized it yet.” She asks, “You mean your recommenders haven’t critiqued it yet?! But it’s already September. Are you planning on applying in the upcoming cycle?” You start watching her mouth because you’re not sure what she’s saying, but you don’t think it’s good. You say, “I am applying for the Dec. 1 deadlines” hoping that has something to do with what she wants. “No one has looked at it yet.” She looks at you like you just rode a horse into the office, then jumps out of her chair and jerks you out of your seat as she runs by. Momentarily, you both arrive in someone else’s office, everyone looking a little startled. Your advisor explains that you are oh so very late and that you need help.
Your new minder is a recent PhD graduate who calls himself a rock star in academia in the first five minutes of your meeting, then proceeds to tell you that you basically have no hope of getting into any school you’d be happy about because you should have started last summer. He then states that even though you don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, you should contact your recommenders and make sure everyone has a copy of your proposal to rip apart. Because it will be wrong. He runs through a verbal checklist of what 30 or so items should be in the proposal and says that all of that has to fit in two pages. You ask where to find good samples of proposals. He shrugs. On the way out, he says that he’ll be conducting a PhD workshop in March if you want to apply for the following year. You sit in a study carrel in the library and cry the rest of the afternoon.
5. The next morning you wake up really pissed off and a little hung over and scream into the mirror. Then you make appointments with anyone willing to talk to you about the possibility of getting into a PhD program. All of them stress the importance of a good research proposal and personal statement. They also alert you to the fact that some schools might want this combined into a single document. One of them asks if your recommenders are anybody important. You think “To whom? In what way?” but you say “Probably not.” She looks at you and shakes her head. She then suggests the PhD workshop in March. Somehow your inability to make friends with famous people suddenly makes you a bad person. Your chances apparently are getting worse. You pick up a brochure for truck driving school.
6. You start writing your research proposal which takes two days of writing and revising. Once you’ve gotten to a place where you think it’s at least at the first draft stage, you take a copy to the rock star in some misguided belief that this person is actually trying to help you. He says “Replace the first paragraph with a personal story.” “Ooh like what?” you think. “Should I recite a narrative of how I made breakfast? Lost my keys this morning? Got lost in Ikea?” Before you ask any or all of the questions in your head, he says, “something about how you got to this point. Mine was about when I got sneezed on by a fairy.” “I’m sorry?” He repeats it, you hear the same thing. You leave his office picturing the lovely Tinkerbell sneezing on this arrogant tool who’s way to full of himself to offer any actual help, and trying to figure out how letting the PhD admittance committee know you believe in fairies is in any way helpful to the process. And if it is, you’ve been going about this all wrong.
7. After another 2 days of re-writes, you email copies to 4 people. Your academic advisor doesn’t reply. Your best friend says that one of the sentences is too long and confusing but she would accept you anyway. (BFFs are like that. That’s why you love them to bits.) Your recommender wants to see the final version, not a draft, which this clearly is. And your thesis advisor, says “You need to come see me about this.” These are words you never want to hear. It never means anything good is about to happen.
8. You go to his office a couple of days later. He looks at you like he’s trying to figure out what to say. “I’m going to be honest. This sounds like an undergraduate wrote it.” Yikes. There is literally nothing worse he could have said to you. Except maybe “You’re ugly.” He then tells you in detail all the things that are wrong with this piece of crap including that the first paragraph with the personal story has got to go. He says to start re-writing and come see him in a week. You leave his office hoping that Tinkerbell will show up any moment.
9. You write 6 more drafts and finally, your thesis advisor says, “This is just unique enough to make your application stand out. Now you can start the applications.” You’ve got three weeks until the first deadline.
10. After beginning the applications for 3 schools, you hear that another department on campus is doing a PhD application workshop. You go. The two professors giving the workshop spend the first 1/3 of the time telling everyone that no one should get a PhD anymore. The second 1/3 is spent listening to several of the other students say things like “I don’t really want to stay in academia, but I don’t want to get a job so I’ll get a PhD.” Or “I applied to 12 schools and didn’t get into any of them.” Or “I know that the school I want to go to is going to accept me so I don’t see the need to apply anywhere else.” The rest of the time is spent on how to get funding and, finally, what to include in a research proposal. This was a colossal waste of time.
11. On the way home you think about what’s been said and realize they’re wrong. People do need to get PhDs. In theory, their argument works. If fewer new PhDs enter academia, then there’s a better chance tenure will be achieved by the existing ones. However, in practice, it can’t work. The idea behind getting a PhD, and the reason that this system of education exists is to create new knowledge. All too often, once tenure is achieved, the scholar ceases to create new ideas but usually builds on his or her previous work. Without the constant infusion of new PhDs, there would eventually be stagnation in the various fields. So all the people over the years who’ve said that no more PhDs should be conferred are basing this on their own situations rather than an overarching look at the system. You scream. People on the subway move away from you very quickly.
12. You send out 7 applications for PhDs and one application for a writing program which you pretty much have no hope of getting into and realize that all but one are top tier schools and you could, quite possibly, be screwed.
13. Two months later you get your first rejection, from UCBerkeley. Since it’s very early in the process you realize that you must have been rejected in the first round which could be based on anything at all, including potential mismatch, advisor not being available, missing criteria, missing materials, etc. and is almost certainly not because of your proposal. They probably didn’t get that far. This gives you some hope, but then the real panic sets in while you wait and wait and wait…
To be continued when more results come in…