How I was Accepted Into my Top Ph.D. Program

Last fall, I started my journey of applying to Ph.D. programs. I had not planned on applying this cycle; however, due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and employment, I decided to take the plunge. I’ve always had the goal of getting my doctorate someday and becoming an English professor, and this past autumn felt like the right time to apply.

After almost six months of researching, applying, and interviewing, I am planning on attending the University of Michigan this fall for my Ph.D. in English and Education!

I am grateful for the opportunity to attend one of my top programs because this year was particularly competitive due to programs admitting smaller cohort sizes.

For anyone who is still waiting to hear back from programs or is on the waitlist: I am in solidarity with you. I was actually on the waitlist for the program that I’m planning on attending due to the program accepting only half of the typical number of applicants this cycle. I hope that more students have the opportunity to attend their dream programs and will hear back soon.

Find your “why”

The first part of my application process was finding my “why”. This advice may seem dated, but asking myself these questions helped me determine if applying to programs was right choice to begin with: Why do you want to start a Ph.D. or graduate program? What is your long-term goal? What research needs to be done in your field? Is a Ph.D. program going to be an environment where you are going to thrive?

At the beginning of my research, I was uncertain of what types of programs I wanted to apply to. I have degrees in English, communication, and teaching and yet, I felt like I didn’t want to commit solely to one specific area. I continued to ask questions of why I wanted to do research, what problems I wanted to solve, and if I wanted to continue teaching throughout my career.

After speaking to some graduates and students in the field of Rhetoric and Composition, I realized that this field encompassed exactly what I was searching for: the intersection of teaching and English. I spoke to a couple of alumni from Rhetoric and Composition programs and a faculty member from my undergraduate institution. Afterwards, I had a much clearer picture of what types of programs I wanted to apply to.

Conducting Research

Any Ph.D. or graduate alumni will probably say that their search began with a spreadsheet. Once I knew what types of programs I wanted to apply to, I started to do research. It wasn’t just the reputation or strengths of the program that I focused on – it was also the faculty, location, teaching opportunities and financial aid package.

First I created a spreadsheet with 15 programs I was interested in:

*Note: All information written on the spreadsheet can be found on the program’s website. Because this is all public information, I have decided to include it in the post. Specific faculty/students names will not listed.

For the first spreadsheet, I first focused on the overall features of a program. I wanted to know if the program had faculty in my concentration and if they had a straight to Ph.D. program without an M.A./Ph.D. combined program. Then, I narrowed down my list to my top 6-7 programs and added more information such as cohort size, professional development opportunities, and faculty I wanted to work with.

By thoroughly researching my options, I could narrow down my options and focus on what I valued most in the program. For me, it was the faculty and access to professional opportunities such as conferences. Selecting a program just because it is “prestigious” or sounds good on paper doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be the right choice for you. However, if a location or number of alumni getting tenure-track positions excites you, than by all means, go for it!

The Application Process

After completing my research, I started setting up my application portals and sending my letters of recommendation requests. After emailing my recommenders and receiving confirmation that they would submit letters of recommendation on my behalf, I sent them emails with a packet containing my CV, draft of my personal statement, and writing samples. This is a crucial step because some recommenders may have not worked with you for years and need to see your best work. I also can’t stress how important it is to give your recommenders this information at least a month in advance! Some recommenders may be happy to write a letter in a day, but most would appreciate time to craft a compelling letter, especially if they haven’t worked with you in many years.

Then, I focused on drafting my personal statements. While some programs required just one, others required a teaching or diversity statement as well. I drafted these and had others edit them before I uploaded my documents.

Most importantly, I spent a couple weeks working on my writing sample. Since I didn’t have a formal thesis from my undergraduate or graduate degree, I decided to start from scratch and write a 20-page research paper. Yes, this was a long and tedious process. Did I make the process more difficult for myself than it should’ve been? Probably. However, I learned a lot about Rhetoric and Composition in the process and had the opportunity to read articles from professors I hoped to work with.

After some close deadlines and late-night editing, I finally submitted 6 applications. While the deadlines were different for each application, each iteration of my personal statement and writing sample became stronger with each submission.

The Decision

I anticipated waiting months for the decisions to arrive. Surprisingly, in late January, I received my first acceptance. I wasn’t expecting to be admitted into that particular program because it was my first submission and one of my top choices. The relief of getting accepted into at least one program was reassuring.

As I waited longer, I received a waitlist notice, a rejection, and a notice of being a finalist. During COVID-19, many universities conducted their interviews online instead of inviting finalists in person, so I did a couple zoom interviews for teaching positions. Later on, I received notice that I was off the waitlist and on an inconspicuous Tuesday evening. I was surprised to be admitted – even on the waitlist – and now I had the dilemma of choosing between two great programs.

Ultimately, there was no one factor that my decision came down to. I was excited to be accepted into my top two programs and looked at a variety of factors from health care to recreational areas near campus before I made my decision. A few weeks before the deadline, I finally committed and (so far), believe I made the right choice.

There’s no one set way to apply to to programs because everyone’s application process is different. Especially during COVID-19, many programs have taken different new measures and changed their application processes. For anyone who is applying or thinking of applying to a Ph.D. program, my advice is to go for it – but make sure to do you research first. There’s a lot of feedback that you can learn through the process, even if it doesn’t work out the way you intended.

For those who may be asking about grade requirements/research experience, etc. I can’t say what is a “sliver bullet” for admissions. I came in with a relatively strong (above a 3.5) undergraduate and graduate GPA, as well as some great recommendations from faculty members. I also co-published a research paper in a major journal during my undergraduate degree. I can say, however, to go with your gut with the programs that you’re applying for and to focus on where you’ll be the most happy for the next 4-6 years. The best program is the one that will support you financially, academically, and emotionally and that will celebrate your graduate student milestones with you!

I wish the best of luck to all applicants and incoming students this year!

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