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Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Coping with the unknown: Grad school desicions season

Olivia Wilkins

You've tweaked your personal statement a million times over, personalizing it for every institution to which you are applying. You've filled out slight variations of the same form, which you then checked and rechecked to make sure you haven't skipped over any sections after being numbed by already answering those questions three or more times. You've tried to keep track of your recommenders, shooting out numerous letter requests and reminder emails. You've uploaded your CV, only to do delete it, revise it, and re-upload it at least ten times.

For three or four months, you've obsessed. And now, applying is over.

Or not....

After endlessly poring over your application materials, grad program websites, and nagging your friends to read your personal statement, you've finished perhaps the easiest part of the process. Now, you wait... and wait... and wait. For the next one (less if you are lucky) to three (more if your prospective programs like torture) months: silence.

For some people, focusing on research or coursework will be nearly impossible (guilty here). For others, it will be a distraction, a blessing. But at some point, waiting to hear back (even a rejection would be a relief from the unknown) will probably leave you feeling stressed.

How do you cope?

I coped with the unknown in the worst way. After receiving an acceptance back in October (I had extensive contact with a faculty member at the school, and they offered application fee waivers for those submitted before October 31), I felt great. No stress, I'm going somewhere next year. Even if I get rejected from every other school to which I applied leaving me without options, I am going to grad school. Then on January 4, I received another acceptance... and I fell apart (bet you didn't see that one coming). I became obsessed for nearly two weeks, thirsty for more results. I didn't care whether I found out good news or bad news; I just wanted news.

While I am doing better now, the week following the second acceptance was an extreme ride of emotion.

Initially, I was ecstatic. My husband took me out for celebration milkshakes, and I was all smiles. Yet after a couple of days of excitedly reporting to family and friends, I began to think about my options without knowing whether I had them all. I began comparing the two schools from which I'd heard back, frantically trying to decide whose offer I should accept. DECISIONS ARE NOT EVEN DUE UNTIL APRIL 15! Nevertheless, I asked myself where what would be the best option for my career, who would have the best advisor, where would I want to take my family, who had better research, which had better teaching opportunities. As I stared at my ceiling at night, unable to sleep for unrelated reasons, my mind couldn't help but wander to grad school decisions, making sleep nearly impossible.

I began to scold myself for stressing over a decision that I had three months to make. I also told myself that a decision could not be made because there were still two schools for which I didn't have either an acceptance or a rejection. I had to learn to cope with the unknown.

Curious about when I might hear back from said schools, I turned to The GradCafe. The GradCafe is a website that allows grad school applicants to submit their admissions results and hosts forums for everything from applying to complaining about writing your PhD thesis. There, I found a community that showed me that I wasn't crazy. There are hundreds of students out there struggling with decisions season. Some of these students have only heard rejections, some of them via cold emails from their dream schools. Others are conflicted about where to go, trying to weigh all of the factors that go into making such a life-changing decision. And still, there are others celebrating, relieved that they got into their dream school (or somewhere at all).

Although it is difficult to remain patient and confident, this is something you must do if applying to graduate school. It is easy to get caught in the throes of decision making, with schools announcing decisions at different times, some as early as late December, some as late as early March. Some schools don't even accept everyone at one time; decisions may trickle in over the course of two or three weeks. Some schools require interviews, perhaps only to people interested in a specific field or in working with a specific PI. Grad school is going to be stressful, but don't let that stress devour you before you even enroll.

As a fellow grad school applicant, I'm here to tell you that it is and will be okay. Now, to share with you some things I've learned:

  1. You are allowed to be stressed and to panic. You are even allowed to cry. But only for a moment. Take deep breaths. And snuggle up with some hot chocolate while you are at it. (They make you wait the winter out after all.)
  2. You are not alone. Just check out The GradCafe forums. There you can find people in your own discipline or other people chatting about how they cope (for example, from 2016, WINE, WAIT, AND WHINE thread).
  3. No, your application wasn't perfect. If applications with stupid mistakes were automatically disqualified, there would be no grad students. Don't obsess over your personal statement or how you formatted your CV. Don't even look at your application ever again. There is nothing you can do to change these things, and someone probably erred worse than you.
  4. Treat yourself. You successfully submitted your applications! GO YOU! You deserve to get home from work or class and binge on Netflix and ice cream every night of the week if you want it! Take yourself out to dinner. Don't be afraid to say, "I've done enough for the day. It is time to go home." Sleep. Whatever you do, take care of yourself. You worked hard (I hope) on your applications, so you deserve a break.
  5. Refreshing your email doesn't get the decisions notifications there any faster. Close your inbox. Schedule a time to check your email and leave it alone otherwise. Look at the results for your schools and programs from previous years on the GradCafe, figure out when you will likely hear back from a program, and play video games or whatever you need to do to distract yourself in the meantime. For the weeks when you probably won't hear anything, you are allowed to not think about grad school.

Good luck to everyone waiting for grad school decisions! Grab your favorite bev (tea, coffee, juice, beer, wine) and yell 'Prost!'; you've done well.