Post Academic

Resources: Applying to Graduate School Site

When applying to graduate school, it’s easy to get disorganized. To maximize your chances, you may be applying to a million and one programs, and your advisor may or may not be helpful.

However, a University of Michigan grad student in Psychology has created a Web page that walks grad students through the application process step-by-step. You could print out the front page of this Web site and treat it like a checklist or even a substitute advisor.

Some of the best advice involves the personal statement. The Live Journal site “So you want to go to grad school?” often features students posting their personal statements and asking for feedback. Before you even think of drafting a personal statement, visit the Applying to Graduate School page on the subject, and it will save you a lot of trouble. Here’s a sample tip:

Remember, it’s called a “statement of purpose”, NOT a “personal statement.” This is not an essay about your emotional development. If something in your personal life is integral to your studies, then you should include it. However, most of the time, professors do not want to read about your personal life. The statement of purpose should read more like a professional document.

While we give plenty of advice for the “post-academic” phase, I’m sure plenty of “pre-academics” are visiting this site. If you’re one of them, bookmark this site now.

Applying to Graduate School

On Re-Applying to Graduate School Programs

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox ExtensionNow that you’ve dusted yourself off after receiving a rejection to grad school, you have two choices: 1) Abandon the plan and go on another career track altogether or 2) Re-apply. Before you re-apply, remember the statistics Arnold offered regarding getting a tenure-track job in the humanities. If you get into a grad school program, it will get tougher. But, there’s no arguing with passion, and becoming a professor of the humanities is a dream you cannot deny, here’s how to apply again.

Tighten your research focus. Despite super scores and references, you may not have gotten in because your research aspirations were vague. What field interests you the most? Is there a subject on which you might want to write a dissertation? Do you want to pursue the implications of your Honors thesis? Make a commitment, and tell the search committee exactly what you can do at their school.

Please, Please Don’t Take It Personally If You Get Rejected

Posted in Process Stories,The Education Industry by postacademic on March 17, 2010
Tags: , ,

Image Source,Photobucket Uploader Firefox Extension Judging from the popular message boards such as The Grad Café and So You Want to Go to Grad School, which Arnold’s already covered, this is the time of year when people either get accepted or rejected for grad school. You’re not alone: Aspiring professors are finding out if they got postdocs and tenure-track jobs, too.

One recent poster at So You Want to Go to Grad School wrote about getting rejections and how tough that was since he/she has a strong academic record. The headline was “Rejected and Dejected.”

Do not be dejected. Don’t take it personally if you get rejected for a tenure-track job, grad school or a postdoc. This is one case in which you can rest assured that it’s not you … it’s them. Thanks to this wretched economy, more people are applying for a dwindling number of slots, and some programs are dropping fellowship funding altogether.

If you were rejected in the early stages of all your applications, then maybe you should tweak those applications for another round. But if you are sure that you made it to the later stages and didn’t break through, don’t fret about your talent or give up altogether. Try again next year if it is your true passion, or keep looking for your true passion.

By the time you are a finalist for the job, much of the decision is out of your hands. There are so few slots that, even if you have excellent scores and recommendations, your victory will be a matter of taste. It may also be a matter of office politics, which you cannot escape in academia. (In fact, office politics may be worse in academia, but that’s another matter for discussion …) Keep your skill sets sharp, apply again, and don’t close your eyes to other opportunities.

Image from Wikimedia Commons, screenshot of movie “Cry Havoc” from public domain.

Going to grad school, part 2: The intangibles

Following up on my post yesterday on the factors that went into my grad school decision, I wanted to discuss the intangibles that helped me make my choice.  Caroline’s post from earlier today on checking out the atmosphere of a department already addresses many of the points I wanted to make, but I figured I can give a concrete example of what she was discussing–plus, you can’t have a part 1 without a part 2.

The intangibles: I’d say that making a good impression cuts both ways.  For me, it was turning in a thoughtful, carefully edited application, which was a bit difficult since I was allowed to turn in my rushed, typo-filled undergrad thesis for at least one of my applications.  But once I was admitted to a few programs and schools started making their pitches, the initial vibe I got went far in my decision-making process.

I was accepted first to the obviously more prestigious school of the two between which I was choosing, though how I was notified was something of a comedy of errors and a not-so-smooth sign of things to come.  I received a call one day, much earlier than I expected to hear back from schools, asking me to fill out a form which would help the department push for a better funding package for me.  At this point, my antennae went up, and, despite trying not to jump to conclusions, got the sense that I had been accepted to one of my two top choices.  The staffer on the other end of the call then figured out that maybe the admissions chair hadn’t contacted me regarding my acceptance, but had to, in some unofficial way, suggest to me that I was indeed in.  As a result, I made a quick appointment to drop off the form (the school was local), in order to confirm that I was accepted to the program.

Unfortunately, this very first interaction was pretty much par for the course with some of the basic operations of this particular program.  The admissions chair, after having a nice recruiting lunch with me, pretty much neglected responding to me emails and calls, something to do with a spring break vacation in the desert.  Then I found out later that my funding package might have been stronger if the department hadn’t gotten the (wrong) idea that I already had outside fellowships.  And I also discovered years later through a friend of a friend that I wouldn’t have fit in at the school, since I seemed too conservative, being a Stanford grad and all–this was the most stinging slight!  That isn’t to say they didn’t try hard to recruit me and that people weren’t well-meaning and trying to be helpful: Despite the fact that the admissions chair basically wasn’t doing the appointed job, the dept’s best- known “superstar” was really generous with her/his time and probably talked to me about my decision more than anyone else had.  All-in-all, though, I didn’t get a great vibe about how things worked in this program, even though I was much more inclined to attend due to its innovative program and the great location.

In contrast, I didn’t really want to choose to go to UC Irvine, which I wouldn’t have heard of except that some of my college friends had taken summer school classes there to avoid the weeder bio lectures at Stanford.  But somehow, UCI had pretty much the best critical theory program during the heyday of critical theory and, of course, Jacques Derrida taught there (although my closest interaction with him would be having him sign my drop card, with him filling in the scantron dots to make sure I wasn’t going to turn it into an add card!).  UCI was pretty much the opposite of the other option: Despite seeming like a totally uninteresting place to live that was not unlike the suburb in which I grew up, the administration was really, really together, producing a generous offer, helping me with my residency status, setting up plane tickets for me to visit, following up with me on pretty much every matter, and answering every question.  And it passed Caroline’s atmosphere test too: The students and prospective students all seemed like nice people who enjoyed going to school at UCI, joined together, in no small part, because Irvine was a boring suburb.  Now maybe it wasn’t going always be like this after the hard sell, but, between the better money and the stronger intangibles, it wasn’t really much of a choice.

Being a 20-something contrarian, I was able to turn things around in my head and tell myself that the practical, safe choice was also the less conventional one that I couldn’t imagine myself making: I was passing over a “dream school” that everyone in the world knows for a university I had barely heard of (sell that one to the parents!), as well as moving away from my friends and one of the more ideal late-1990s cultural scenes to a proto-suburb.  But one thing I learned from the process all those years ago that I should keep telling myself now that it’s okay to find myself in a position I didn’t really foresee and envision.  Sometimes, the right choices don’t have predictable or manageable outcomes, but that’s okay.

Surviving Grad School: Testing the Atmosphere

Posted in Surviving Grad School by Caroline Roberts on March 9, 2010
Tags: , , ,

To paraphrase a certain rapper who goes by the name of Pitbull, when choosing a grad school, think “MIAMI,” or “Money Is a Major Issue.” But it’s not the only one. The blog Thoughts Arguments and Rants offers smart advice regarding a grad program’s overall atmosphere:

And don’t just look at the individual students – look at the culture. This can be tricky, because cultures can change. But they tend to change slowly. A culture where everyone is competing to be the best student, and denigrating each other along the way, is going to be a bad place to be at grad school, and it will stay that way. On the other hand, a culture where everyone is trying to help everyone out will, in all probability, keep being a fun place to work for many years.

If you really want to get ahead, you may be surprised to discover that you can’t get ahead on your own. Your studying and reading might take place in a single room, but you won’t get anywhere unless someone is challenging, pushing, and even supporting you. You will also need to network and make connections in order to get slots on conference panels, chapters in books, and your first big job.

Speaking of jobs, the same rule goes for that, too. Even if you don’t have many choices for jobs after the MLA, don’t take a job just because it was offered to you. Ask yourself what the atmosphere is like at the school. Sniff out vague statements and faux-chipper attitudes. Talk to as many people as you can to find out the truth. No grad school or department is perfect, but the pros must outweigh the cons. If they don’t, you can do better. Either wait for another market cycle, if possible, or start taking your skill set elsewhere.

Advice for Incoming Grad Students [Thoughts, Arguments, and Rants]

Going to grad school, part 1: Money matters

In the spirit of Caroline’s thoughtful observations on surviving grad school, I thought I’d explore what goes into the process of making a decision on which graduate school to attend in a series of posts.  For those of us searching for full-time academic jobs in literature, this time of year is pretty much the end of the annual tenure-track market, where you have either just gotten a position, are waiting to hear how searches are concluding, or figuring out how to get by to go through all this again next year.  Under the circumstances, it’s easy to forget that this time of year is also when grad school applicants are getting their admission offers, beginning a process that many of us might be/are at the end of.

Using my own experience as an example, I’m revisiting what went into my decision and how/what I would change with the benefit of hindsight.  One caveat is that funding opportunities back in the late 1990s was a lot better than it is now, although it would’ve hard to imagine back then that grad students could subsist on less than we got just a decade ago.  Indeed, many of the most practical aspects of choosing where to go are completely out of anyone’s control, particularly structural issues such as whether there will be jobs after you finish school and what fields will be in demand.

We’re looking for readers to weigh in on all parts of the process, from your own experiences in deciding to go to grad school to questions about the process from future students to those of our friends and colleagues who are now on the other side of the process.  How did you decide to attend the school that you did?  Was it a good choice based on the right reasons?  What would you tell students now after you’ve learned what you know now?

Money Matters: I don’t know about anyone else, but there was a certain idealism in deciding where to go to school that makes more practical issues appear secondary–I decided to pursue grad school (in the humanities, no less) in the first place, so I set aside many practical concerns to begin with.  Despite this idealism, I ended up making the pragmatic decision, though it may have seemed contrarian at the time (more on that in a later post): Simply put, I took the offer that funded me the most generously.  UC Irvine presented me with a great funding package, which included fellowship money for the first 2 years, after which I was guaranteed teaching for what seemed to be a more than adequate amount of time.  The other offer I was weighing at a seemingly more prestigious school gave me teaching right from the start but no fellowship money, which may or may not have been due to administrative snafus; funding at School 2 was more competitive across the whole University, so getting teaching was a pretty good deal.  Still, the intangibles made me take the less lucrative offer seriously, which even included the very, very wrongheaded idea of paying tuition for a year so that I could get used to school without jumping straight into teaching.

In addition to the relative financial boon that the UCI fellowship provided, the money also reflected a number of factors that would be important through the whole graduate school process.  More fellowship money at the beginning of the Ph.D. program meant that I could finish almost all of my coursework before I started teaching, which (theoretically, at least) should have expedited the process of taking my qualifying exams, then starting the dissertation by a couple of quarters.  It also suggested that the department had more resources to support students, which included research and travel budgets built into my package as well as money to apply for in a more general pool.

Looking back, I can say I made the right choice, but there are even *better* reasons for the decision that I couldn’t have foreseen before starting grad school.   More than a decade(!) later, I’d advise prospective grad students to take the money when they can, since there are no guarantees about financial security at the end of the process in the form of a tenure-track job — or even in the course of getting your Ph.D.  As I experienced towards the end of the process, the funding practices you might have expected based on precedent can change quickly when department and school budgets feel the pinch.  It’s kind of like the way NFL players want as big a signing bonus as possible in free agency, because the back-end years that inflate the size of the entire contract aren’t guaranteed.  Of course, the big difference is that grad school offers are in the thousands and NFL contracts are in the (tens of) millions!

Next up: What first impressions can tell you…