I realized I want to be a researcher years ago. Unsurprisingly, on the day of my college graduation, my good friends joked that I’d probably end up marrying my PhD. I protested adamantly! As time would tell, my lack of “real world” experience and my good friend “impostor syndrome” would keep me from pursuing my ambitions to apply to PhD programs. Until now.
That’s to say, I spent the better part of $5000 and the last 6-months entrenched in the process of applying to doctoral programs. Contrary to common perception, good grades and recommendation letters aren’t the top secrets to getting accepted to PhD programs. I can assure you, the process is much more complicated than that! It involves networking, self-awareness, prerequisite courses, tests, patience, and applications! If you can do all that and live to tell about it, you’re ready!
I’ve heard that the hardest part of a PhD program is getting in. While I cannot attest to this fact because I’ve yet to be accepted or start a program, I can concur that this process was grueling, exhausting, and anxiety provoking. For me, this entire process was exacerbated because I have OCD. I didn’t wake up one day and just simply know how to apply to PhD programs and even though I had a basic roadmap and some scraps of details from friends and colleagues, my anxiety made it difficult for me to be in this process.
Here’s how to apply to PhD programs when you have OCD:
Related, Relevant, Program-specific Research
First, read EVERYTHING you can about ALL the possible programs. Record the data meticulously in a spreadsheet with several columns for all the possible variables and information that may be relevant such as funding and research opportunities, potential advisors, and application requirements. I mean it, scour the program websites for the requirements, faculty interests, and the specific language they use to describe their program. Generally, this type of scrupulous research is encouraged; however, if you have OCD I recommend rereading the sites an unnecessary amount of times to make sure you didn’t miss anything crucial to the admissions process – be absolutely sure they don’t require a writing sample!
As you’re reading consult your ever-present, always rational friend “impostor syndrome” at regular intervals. It’s their job to talk you in and out of this decision to apply. Their influence will have a pendulum effect. If you wait long enough or engage in a stimulating conversation where someone asks incredibly thoughtful questions about your research interests and aspirations your motivation will swing back the other way. Make sure to repeat this process dozens of times and continually refine your “final list” up until the week before you apply to programs.
When you’re pretty sure that you’re applying to at least one school, start to stress about asking for letters of recommendations. Be sure to wonder if you’re inconveniencing your mentors/professors by asking them to advocate on your behalf and on behalf of your qualifications. If they say yes, be sure to wonder, a lot, about if they actually think you’re qualified and should pursue doctoral studies or if they’re just saying yes to humor you. Recommendation letters are crucial to your applications! By this I mean, scrutinize about whom you ask to write recommendations for which programs. If you know folks who are alumni of the program, snag them! Make sure to vary the people who are writing you recommendations so you have the best representation of institutions and experience. Play the game wisely! And, it absolutely is a game!
As the deadline approaches carefully finesse reminder emails as specific intervals (2 weeks, 1 week, 1 day, etc.) that you’re too afraid to send because you don’t want to badger them or be a burden. Reread, duh, the reminder emails several times for typos and ways to seem less annoying and needy. Then, hastily press send when you’re “ready” so it’s just over and done with. After you’ve sent the emails, reread them in the “sent” folder even though you know there’s nothing you can do about any typos or alternative ways to phrase certain sentences since it has already been sent.
Later in the process, panic, but try to play it cool, when you don’t hear anything from them after these several reminder emails and points of contact. Wonder only irrational things about why they still haven’t submitted your letters at 10 PM THE DAY THEY’RE DUE. It’s probably best if you wonder if they’re purposely holding out on submitting them to seriously screw with you and try to cause you major anxiety. Also consider that they’re doing you a favor by submitting them late and this is their way of gently bringing you down from your delusion that you deserve to be in a PhD program. You should convince yourself that their subtle sabotage is actually doing you a huge favor and sparing you the humiliation of rejection from these programs when the admissions committees realize you’re not qualified. Don’t forget to worry if something seriously bad happened to them that made them unable to submit your letters on time. Since you’re definitely not high up on their priority list, if something serious happened you would probably never find out. Subsequently, you should worry about how you’ll explain your request for an extension to the programs if you need to find someone else to write you a letter because of such an emergency or dire situation. Panic in this circular and entirely irrational way until they submit them ON TIME. Then, thank them profusely and never, ever mention that their near lateness caused you an absurd amount of unnecessary anxiety.
As your list of schools to which you are planning to apply grows (or narrows), start playing the networking game. It goes something like this, “Hey [professor you know] who do you/we know at [name of school] that you could put me in touch with?” If they know anyone ask for a virtual introduction and support to set up a meeting. You can also muster up the confidence to send some cold-emails and try not to fret about their severely delayed responses. It probably means they’re convinced, accurately so, that they shouldn’t waste their time talking to you. If they reply, schedule a meeting anyway.
Applying to PhD programs is way more about who you know not what you know. Make sure that at least one (okay maybe four) faculty members in the program/department know your name and that you’re interested in applying. Before each informational interview, obsess over your resume formatting (even if the PDF file hasn’t been modified) and qualifications for at least three hours. Be sure to also obsess over the questions you’re going to ask about the program (even if you already have a list of questions with the ones you want to prioritize marked by *). Again, consult “impostor syndrome” to remind yourself that you need to convince them, and eventually an entire admissions committee, that you’re worth their time and investment. Psych yourself out entirely until just before your call/meeting. Then, turn the positive self-talk on hyper drive to attempt to forcefully convince yourself of your credibility and eligibility before you start the call. Attempt to be cool, calm, and collected and ignore the secondary conversation that’s going on in the back of your mind. You’ll have time to ruminate on what/how/why you said whatever you said for hours later. So, set aside several hours of time that you’re supposed to be very productive to ruminate and convince yourself the informational, networking meeting went well (or probably didn’t). You’ll need at least four hours.
In the meantime, expect to write at least 25 drafts (if you include every draft you changed a single punctuation mark) of your personal statement. Forget about calling it a “statement of purpose”. You know you have no “purpose” pursuing a PhD Send it to everyone you know, trust, or even just sort of like to request their feedback. Because you don’t trust yourself or your writing qualifications (even though you’re a paid freelance writer at several reputable sites), attempt to incorporate everyone’s feedback in some way. Do this because you know their intuition is better than yours. Make sure to doubt yourself during the entire process. If you forget to doubt yourself, check back in with “impostor syndrome” to see if they think you’ve convinced anyone of your credibility or qualifications yet. Resolve to believe that you probably never will.
As you get closer toward the deadline, expect to be useless for all tasks except rereading your personal statement. Expect to read it on a word doc, then save it as a PDF, find a single error, go back to the word doc to correct the mistake, resave as a PDF, and start rereading from the beginning. Do this anywhere from once an hour to seven hours straight. You can try setting limits on the amount of time you can spend or the number of times you can read it aloud or resave as a PDF, but just know you won’t be done until you can recite your statement verbatim. Depending on the number of programs you’re applying to, this process can be very rigorous, exhausting, and time-consuming. Your compulsions will absolutely get the best of you and even if you’re aware it’s happening, you won’t be able to stop.
Check “the portal” (i.e., the online platform where you submit your application) constantly. Make sure that your submissions on “the portal” align with your progress checking on the aforementioned spreadsheet and myriad of lists you’ve generated to keep you on track. When you’re in the application process, check that your “required uploads” are still uploaded and legible every time you log in. Read and reread your address and name each time upon logging in until the letters are blurry and you have to articulate each letter individually to be sure you spelled “Gmail” correctly. Do this from the beginning, every single time you log in. Once you’ve “submitted” (CONGRATS!) constantly check that everything is “complete”. Review that all your uploads are there in “the portal” and everything that’s required was submitted. For a few days after, be sure to keep checking that the status still says “submitted”. You know there won’t be any decision overnight, but this is to be sure you actually applied and didn’t skip that critical final step by accident.
Oh! Here’s the most important thing of all!
Talk about your applications, hopes, and dreams incessantly. I mean it – nonstop! If it’s the only thing you can think about, make sure everyone in your life knows that. Of course, be sure to follow up your statements about your aspirations with an ample dose of self-deprecating talk. It’s definitely useful to discredit yourself and all the things you shared about the process with something like, “but I probably won’t get in.” That way you don’t seem too pretentious or confident. Confidence isn’t a good look. Make sure to worry, often, about if you seem too confident. If you do, consult “impostor syndrome”.
Got it? Good!
So, you’ve applied and you’ve made it look easy to everyone around you! Congrats! You fooled them again. Everyone thought you totally had this under control even though your mind felt like a frenzied, chaotic place and you felt like you were going to implode. Then you realize, this grueling process is only the beginning! You realize you’re willingly signing up for 4+ years to this internal struggle. You’re exhausted, but also feeling energized by all the possibilities (and probably anxiety)!
In all seriousness, this was an incredibly challenging process for me because of my OCD. I can poke fun, and in hindsight, some of this is really quite quirky and laughable, but it was also very difficult and overwhelming. The good news is, my applications have been submitted! Now, I wait…