Reader Question: Apply to Grad School Again?

A reader who applied to grad school this round without much luck asks:

Last time around I wrote to you looking for advice on how to apply for graduate school. It was really helpful, but as it turned I didn’t get any offers this year. But, at 25 and after 3 academic degrees, I am not sure what to do in my life at this point. Beginning from my college days, all my academic life, I have been working hard to make a career in academic research. So far, I didn’t have to twitch an eye lid on deciding whether I should continue in academia, because I was among the best of my peer group and enjoyed doing science. So, I would like to hear from you and long time readers of the blog if I should persist for another attempt to apply to graduate school? Or what are the other alternatives available to miserable souls like mine?

What say you, blogosphere?

My response, without any additional details that might have affected this particular case, is that this PhD admissions year (in the US) has been highly aberrant, not only because of the pandemic, but because of the election that affected funding agencies (their budgets and timelines). The best undergrad I have ever had (he had papers, talks, everything), who really should have gotten into the very top PhD programs, didn’t. I personally took no new grad students, and I know my department, in all, accepted fewer students than usual, too.

So, from that standpoint alone, I would say go for it again. However, before doing so it would be useful to go through the particulars of an unsuccessful application and inspect how it looks from the standpoint of someone who is deciding whether or not to accept the applicant into their research group (i.e., whether or not to invest time and resources in them).

Good luck!

8 comments

  1. 1) Yes, this was a particularly brutal year.

    2) It is not uncommon for students coming out of my liberal arts college to not get into PhD programs on the first go-round. The recipe for success on the second go-round seems to be (1) securing a post-bac position, preferably at a major research institute, and (2) preferably publishing your undergrad/MA thesis work before applying again.

    Have someone you trust look at your application materials and tell you what the biggest “delta” would be — are you short on research experience? Done a few short research projects but don’t have depth? A paper can relieve reviewers’ anxiety on the second point, and a postbac can relieve reviewers’ anxiety on the first point. And my cynical view of the situation is that the students coming out of our program are the same students a year later, but having a recommendation from a person at a major research institute (R1 or national lab) pushes them over the threshold because of our field’s pedigree bias.

    Good luck!

  2. the likely positive situation with federal funding the next couple of years means that grad admissions have a good chance of being a bit easier in many fields as well.

    however, this is also a good time to re-evaluate career goals. if you are pretty happy doing science research most days and haven’t found anything you like that is comparable, then continuing to push for grad school is reasonable. but it’s a big world, with many satisfying paths to take. science is special, but other fields have their perks too, which aren’t apparent until you have spent time doing them.

  3. Our applications were way up this year, so we declined a lot of people we normally wouldn’t have. When job markets are bad, it is harder to get into graduate school.

    We’ve also had a lot of worries about international students being able to obtain visas (we’ve still accepted them, and have gotten special permission for hybrid courses if travel doesn’t work out, but other programs may not have).

  4. Admissions committees change every year. You should apply again even in normal years, because the faculty on the committee may have different bents next year.

    Students tend to think admissions is a fixed, measurable quantity. From the faculty side, it is different every year, plus in any given year there is always an element of chance, since the process is so subjective and complicated. Apply again!

  5. Lots of good input here so far. I’d also suggest you dig into this a bit more:

    “But, at 25 and after 3 academic degrees, I am not sure what to do in my life at this point.”

    I have a PhD in a science field and there were many fellow students that didn’t know what to do so kept doing more school, just to have something to do. If you are very passionate about academic research, you will need to reapply to grad school. But if you’re not sure, another path forward that happens in my field is to work in industry a few years then, if the interest is still there, reapply.

  6. Before anyone goes to any grad school I recommend they look at NSF or other data for where people go for careers and think hard (esp in bioscience) if you want to devote the next 11 years of your life to lab research, which you will then basically not do in the rest of your career unless you’re someone’s research scientist.

    Overall, when I graduated from a (seriously) top ten R1 less than 25% of grads ended up in TT academic jobs. If that’s what you want go for it, but be realistic about how your time is spent running a research lab, grant funding rates, average length of postdoc, salaries, the likelihood you’ll end up living in South Dakota, etc.

    Also so much yes to the “go DO some research esp if you haven’t.” Undergrad and even master’s level research is nothing like a PhD! Try it before you buy it!

  7. I agree that this cycle of grad admissions was very unusual. Many places had few or no slots this year. We had plenty of slots and filled them with “A” and high “B” candidates. Normally, we’re happy to have a handful of “A”‘s, lots of “B”‘s, and no more “C”‘s than “A”‘s. Lots of people we would have been happy to admit a year or two ago never got off the waitlist this time around.

    If this is something you really want to do, I would encourage you to apply again. I would strongly encourage you to get some good mentoring, though. You want to put in the strongest possible application and make sure that you are applying to an appropriate range of schools. It’s easy to shoot yourself in the foot in this business.

    I do pause at the idea you already have three degrees and are looking for more. Without knowing the backstory this is a meaningless observation, but it could be a flag that you might need to be a bit more focused.

  8. I second what Heidi said: some of our best grad students came back to do a PhD after decades out of school. One of my students did 1 year of college (back when I was still in high school), took a 25-year gap, then did her BS in computer engineering, MS in computer science, and PhD in computer engineering (though the MS and PhD were both really in bioinformatics). She is now a full professor at an R1 university and just got awarded the Alumnus/a of the year award by our School of Engineering. We’ve had several PhD students come from industry jobs in their 40s and 50s, switching fields from game programming, VLSI design, or engineering management to bioinformatics.

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