The Grad School Saga: Terms and Conditions

“And I did what any girl would do: I did it all over again.” ~Lady Gaga ‘Marry The Night’

The simple fact that I managed to find so many advice articles on overcoming rejections from grad school (see here, here and here for starters) suggests that I’m not the only one who had issues with getting into the university of their choice. Last Spring it did not feel that way: rejection felt personal, singular and isolating. That was probably what made it so upsetting.

When the decisions from the US were arriving I went one Saturday to a cafe in the nearby Badisher Bahnhof. Armed with an espresso and my red “Grad School Application Plan” notebook (with the square-lined paper beloved of Germans & Swiss but which makes no sense to me…) I wrote up 3 alternatives. Either I apply again to the US next year; I apply now to European universities (who generally operate on a year-round admissions model); or I give up on the idea of grad school altogether. As I wrote Pros & Cons for each option I realised my mind was already set on trying my luck in Europe for admittance in Autumn. I didn’t want another year in limbo.

In May I called Option 1 off. I realised that most of the European universities (despite being technically open to applicants year-round) had filled up their places. Again I was a foreigner and a stranger competing against applicants the professors knew already. I was starting to panic – whole weeks were reduced to endlessly hitting “Refresh” on my email inbox and I was begging people for updates and decisions. If I kept up this pattern of behaviour and application attempts I might get a place before the Autumn…but I was unlikely to be satisfied with it.

Re-application to the USA became viable. Better one year lost in limbo than four lost to an unhappy PhD program. I’d given myself enough time to plan this one out more carefully. This time around, everything would be on my terms.

***

As an international student applying to competitive programs, I was at a disadvantage. The number of applicants to an Ivy League Grad School could be as many as 9,000 overall, with 300 applying to a School of Chemistry. Maybe 30% of those Chemistry applicants would be made an offer, with 10% taking up the offer. Were my chances of getting into an Ivy League school 1 in 10, then? It was probably far worse: I was just a name on paper, a sizeable chunk of the applicants would be known to the admissions committee already. The committees could afford to be fiercely selective amongst the unknowns: judgements were made on the highest Chemistry GRE scores or the number of publications put out.

Whilst I could theoretically get a Chemistry GRE score in the 97th percentile (where 97% of test-takers scored a mark below mine) and could theoretically be the first-authour on a ground-breaking “Science” paper…in reality it’s highly unlikely to happen.

If I want to improve my chances of getting admitted into grad school I need to become something more than a name on a paper.

The most direct way of doing that? Emailing the professors with a short message saying that I am going to apply to their university and would like to meet them in person. Or emailing the graduate office with a list of professors I’d like to meet on a certain day. Although most school websites do not advertise this, they are usually very willing to schedule a visiting day on your behalf.

***

The meetings themselves were very useful, despite the risk of Chemistry overload. A day on campus can give me a feel for a university better than any website browse could. Is there much collaboration between faculty and departments? How competitive is the atmosphere? Are professors worried about funding shortfalls? How happy are the students?

Such details will be vital when tailoring my grad school applications, because I can now make more insightful comments and relevant arguments in my personal statements.

I was nervous at first about meeting professors – especially big name ones – but they all went well. Some gave me a grilling about my background and motivation, some gave a lot of detail on their current projects, some were curious about my Scottish background. Most of them I really liked, the vast majority I could successfully imagine myself working for. The fact that NO ONE turned around and said, “Huh, only two full years of research experience? That’s not good enough” has boosted my confidence a lot. If I do not think I have what it takes, then why will they?

It is still going to take a lot of work to get myself into the pile of “Admitted” candidates this December. There is the Chemistry GRE to resit, the letters of motivation to write, the internship in London to enjoy and the completed applications to submit. This time around I can say to myself that I am giving it my best shot…and that I’m doing it on MY terms.

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