How to Apply To PhD Programs When You Have OCD

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!

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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.

Recommendations

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.

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Networking

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.

Personal Statement

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.

“The Portal”

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!

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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…

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I am a “Runner”

I never identified as a “runner” until someone else named it for me. I described my weekly mileage, the feeling of invincibility, the restlessness I feel when I’m not running, and they named it – “you’re a runner.”

Over a year later, I still wasn’t convinced. My friend even explained to me, “You’re a runner. I’m just someone who runs.” The differentiation wasn’t clear to me. One seemed affiliated with an identity whereas the other was associated with a series of actions or behaviors. I’ve been grappling with being a runner (tossing around the hashtag (#runner) and seeing how I “stack up” among other people whom I consider to be “runners”) for the last fourteen weeks. I’ve lamented over long runs, skipped out on social plans to get up early and run, thrown tantrums during taper week, and logged several hundred miles.

I am a “runner”.

A year ago, I wrote that I didn’t care that I didn’t finish a half marathon. In the grand scheme of things, I didn’t. Today though, I completed my redemption run! I finished the race that got the best of me a year ago, and I got a PR! 

I told a friend who asked me about the race the following:

Well, it was perfect. I felt amazing. I was so strong and confident. I didn’t psych myself out at all! My mindset this time was so different for the training and everything – 3rd time’s a charm I guess! Hard to explain, but I learned a lot this time around. I am overall so much healthier than any other time. I like that feeling – it took a lot of work. I am really proud. I’m just excited to feel so great. It’s refreshing!

I never thought I’d talk about running like that! These days I rely on expected consequences of running like “runner’s highs” and the sense of camaraderie I feel when another runner nods at me when I’m out on my course. I talk about my workouts and training goals using lingo like “negative splits” and “form drills” because I know what those things mean! Settling into running as a hobby as opposed to a compulsion or as an act of punishment/retaliation has been a long, difficult journey. I’m so proud of where this journey has taken me!

It’s never easy to train for a race when you’re prone to compulsions, have a chronic physical illness, and have a history of regimented behaviors around food and exercise. This type of training took a special amount of conscientiousness. Trust me, intentional focus on my behaviors and my motivation, and a healthy relationship with food and exercise were essential to my success.

As I was reflecting on the past fourteen weeks of training and mental preparation, objectively there are several things that made a difference for me.

Here’s my recipe for success:

Ingredient Specifics Dosage
Food High Protein and Healthy Fats; No Carbo Load 3X Every Day
Water  Just Water. 12 oz.; 3X Every Day – Or More!
Caffeine Coffee w/ Truvia and Milk No More Than 2 Per Day; Not After 11 AM
Sleep White Noise Machine Allocate 8 Hours Per Night
Weighted Blanket Use When Sleeping Every Night
“Naked” Runs No Tracking, No Timing. Just Run! Once a Week
Amazing Grass Supergreens and Fiber Before Food or Coffee 1X Every Day
Alcohol Any None 2 Weeks Prior to Race

[ Note – Inevitably, different strategies will help others feel successful. This approach worked for me. Find what works for you and stick with it!]

Primarily I believe I was successful because I stayed committed to my training plan, forgave and forgot missed or bad workouts, and celebrated the small victories as well as the big ones. And also because… cross-training. I can’t stress this enough. Cross-training made ALL THE DIFFERENCE.
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A lot changed for me during this training season. For example, rather than simply thinking of food as a necessity after a long run to replenish lost calories, I started relying on a consistent strategy for meals so that I could feel nourished and energized for my workouts during the week. The mentalities, “calories in, calories out” and, ” I run so I can eat” were both replaced by the simple, yet sometimes hard to digest (pun intended), concept that food is fuel. I ate food that made my body feel good and strong. I used my bullet journal to keep track of my meals and sleeping patterns; this mindfulness strategy helped me stay accountable to my training goals.

While there were several concrete ingredients to my success, on a subjective level there were also critical connections, realizations, and mindset changes that helped me feel successful.

For example, during one of my more difficult runs rather than struggling through, trudging along, and wondering “Will I finish?”, somewhere along the way, I started to think, “I will finish!”. This epiphany hit me like a breath of fresh air; it felt light, crisp, and perfectly necessary. I can’t quite explain it, but this realization empowered my mind and my body. I finally knew I could do it; there was no doubt in my mind that I would finish the run even if it was incredibly challenging. From that moment on, my training felt lighter and less burdensome. A heavy hunch that I might fail was lifted from my mind, and I felt like I could trust myself and my body in a way I never experienced before.

In that moment, running no longer felt like an obligation. It felt like it was a part of me – like a feeling rather than a task. In that moment, mileage or minutes didn’t matter anymore. I learned that I don’t have to race every run and often I’ll be better in the long run (pun again) if I listen to my body and respect all the cues it’s giving me about how to feel and be my best.

That was the moment I became a “runner”.

Changing my thinking during that run granted me confidence. Moving forward, I knew I was capable of accomplishing whatever I set my mind to – as long as I was consistent and intentional. The plan mattered that’s undeniable, but it didn’t matter just and only because it was “the plan”. It mattered because it was the right combination of training, self-care, and confidence – it was my recipe for success.

I did not experience that kind of freedom when I prepared for or ran my other races. Now, rather than running to grasp a sense of control, or running out of compulsion, I run because I want to and because I believe in my own strength! I run because I can.

I no longer see running as just a test of endurance. It is also a test of my preparation and self-care, and I am always going to be up for that challenge!

 

13 Thoughts on “13 Reasons Why”

I’ve been angry about “13 Reasons Why” since I started watching it four days ago. I watched the first three episodes with an eagerness to find out what happened next. However, I quickly realized this wasn’t a show for me. I felt compelled to finish as quickly as possible (I just wanted it to be over!); I never should have watched this show.

For me, it went from bad, to pretty tough, to unbearable in 13 LONG hours.

I did some reading after I finished the first season, and I learned that others shared my frustration, anger, and disappointment. Many (like me) found it triggering and inappropriate. Lots of people thought the show was glamorizing suicide. I felt like it was trivializing it!  I didn’t appreciate the script’s several remarks about staging suicide as a way to “get rid of” challenging classmates or as the solution for other teens who were also struggling.

I also had some conversations with friends which helped direct my anger and hurt toward something more productive. Our subsequent conversations about suicide prevention, access to resources, and the types of conversations we want to have moving forward forced me to compile my racing thoughts in some (semi) coherent way. These conversations gave me space to share what was on my mind, to feel heard, and to listen. For that, I am thankful.

Still, though, I can’t stop thinking about “13 Reasons Why”, and it’s nothing good.

So, here are my 13 Thoughts on “13 Reasons Why”:

  1.  The series could have been promising as a film. However, dragging out the story of a teen’s suicide for 13 hours was really unnecessary.
  2.  The way the show depicted several of the themes (i.e., sexual assault, bullying, dating/romantic relationships, self-harm, depression, familial abuse, LGBTQIAA+/identity, and substance use/abuse) was way too much/too real for those of us who can relate closely to what the characters experienced. Where the hell were the trigger warnings?!?!
  3.  For folks who cannot relate personally to the themes in the show, it was an ineffective way to evoke empathy from the audience or to help them “understand”.
  4. Top researchers on suicide prevention found that “risk of additional suicides increases when the story explicitly describes the suicide method, uses dramatic/graphic headlines or images and repeated/extensive coverage sensationalizes or glamorizes a death.”  First, nobody needed to see that. Second, it was triggering. Third, what kind of ideas or rationalization did that scene spark for folks who were already considering suicide or self-harm, or weren’t but now saw it as a viable option? [p.s. there has been a spike in calls to mental health helplines since the show aired]
  5.  Did the producers even read the guidelines on safe and responsible reporting on suicide?!?!
  6.  Why was there no material addressing adolescent mental health or substance use/abuse? Especially when it comes to adolescents, one in five have (or will have) a serious mental illness and it’s correlated with suicidal ideation/action.
  7. Why didn’t the show present any alternative to suicide or an example of successful help-seeking? Why didn’t they discuss what happens after someone attempts to end their life by suicide, but survives? How does someone move forward from that?
  8. Why didn’t one person ask Hannah directly if she was considering suicide? Effective suicide prevention techniques such as QPR suggest that “asking the question” can be a critical step toward reducing suicidal behaviors and saving lives. QPR stands for Question, Persuade, and Refer — the 3 simple steps anyone can learn to help save a life from suicide. Trust me, hearing this question is crucial.
  9. There are SO many resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Imalive.org, Crisischat.org, The Trevor Project, and the Crisis Text Line.  Why weren’t these options made available after every episode – especially when teens are using phones, browsing the Internet, and participating in social media more than any other generation?!
  10. This show was really a missed opportunity to connect with young people who may relate to the characters, themes, or experiences.
  11.  Suicide is never about placing blame. Never. It’s also not selfish or the “easy way out”.
  12. What kind of twisted world do we live in where an acceptable, palpable cliffhanger for a show about teen suicide is whether another character may also, potentially, die by suicide? That’s not enticing or captivating. That’s horrific.
  13.  Ultimately, my review is as follows: it was a big, offensive, triggering flop with some good music selections.

I am not recommending this show to any human.

Finally, if you need to talk, about anything, I absolutely welcome dialogue; I want to know what you’re experiencing. Comment below!

If you or someone you know needs help, visit the suicide prevention resources page on The Mighty.