Based on the occasional email I get seeking advice, many people considering a social science PhD end up on my website at some point in that process. As probably the most competitive round of admissions decisions ever comes to a close, thought I’d reflect on my experience not getting into any doctoral programs the first time I applied.
Clearly, my second bid panned out and I’m fortunate to have ended up in my favorite city doing what I wanted to do. But re-applying two years after first getting rejected cost more than I anticipated in energy, resources, and especially time just for another deeply imperfect crapshoot. I’m still skeptical it was wise to spend two years of the prime of my life in this sort of limbo in addition to the two years prior when I worked as a pre-doctoral research assistant. I say this even having had the security of a fully funded master’s degree to keep me afloat over that period.
If you’re considering re-application, you should have a plan to demonstrably augment your application by the time your re-application is assessed even if you believe your blanking the first time was just a bad draw (more likely this year than ever). In my case, my gamble certainly would not have paid off had research I co-authored not been published by the time I sent out my second round of applications while I was concurrently doing my M.Phil. This was a best-case scenario. I also spent a chunk of my savings from my two years of work enrolling in summer courses to bolster my transcript, which I now feel was a dumb decision made blindly that ultimately didn’t really move the needle despite what it cost me.
If you’re reading this as someone who’s been rejected from a PhD program, please try to fully appreciate your options without career tunnel vision. There’s no way of spinning the reality that getting uniformly rejected sucks but I don’t think it’s trite to call this an opportunity. This profession has a way of subtly placing these blinders on the impressionable young people it attracts or keeping them too occupied or insulated to expand their horizons. I think people get hung up on the idea of ‘I just need to clear this obstacle and then the rest of my life can begin’, but academia is just a series of checkpoints exactly like that. Each one should give us pause when we come to them. Whatever you choose to pour into this career path going forward, it’s important to be cognizant that institutional academia will never reciprocate that devotion. I’m writing this for my own benefit too.