I am delighted to be deciding between several great PhD programs this Spring, which is both an agonizing decision and a stark contrast to my experience last year when I applied to PhD programs. This year, I applied for 8 program and was accepted with funding to 5 of them. Last year, I didn’t get into any of the four programs I applied for, which was a huge blow to my ego, especially when I considered that I’d been working full time in the field I was hoping to study. After dusting myself off, I regrouped and re-evaluated my approach to the applications. Some friends who are preparing to apply for programs next year asked what I did differently the second time through to produce different results. Acknowledging that this isn’t necessarily a perfect approach and it’s difficult to know exactly why my experience was so different from the first to the second year, I am delighted to share with them and you how I prepared for PhD program applications.
1. Over the summer, I started a writing group. I invited widely, so we ended up with compositionists, TT librarians, and literature scholars, both faculty and graduate student. We used the Wendy Laura Belcher book Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic Success as a guide. The value of the group was twofold: I got some feedback on my writing sample, allowing me to revise, but I also got to see my colleagues’ writing processes. Seeing what they write and how they write helped me refine my approach. Helping people with their writing helps me write better.
2. I collected Statements of Purpose from my friends who had successfully gotten into fully funded graduate programs, spread them all out on the table, and looked for patterns. This is a strategy that has worked well for me when writing cover letters, and it helped me take a completely new approach to my SOP.
3. I reconsidered my recommendation writers and swapped out one very busy colleague for a former professor from my MA program. This particular colleague had been busy, and writing my letter slipped off her radar until the last minute. Though we worked closely, she showed me that the letter she eventually did submit was a modified generic recommendation form letter, so I knew I needed someone else. Even though I had been out of graduate school and working for four years, a former professor was happy to write me a letter, and moreover, he has been a great resource for advice this application season. To make it easier on him, I sent him the papers I’d written for his class, my current CV, and a link to my website.
4. I built a professional website. The advice of one of my mentors was, “give them as many opportunities to see you as possible,” so even though the website is fairly simple (my CV, a statement of research interest, a teaching statement, and a blog), I didn’t think it would hurt my chances. That’s how this blog was born.
5. I felt a little silly about this one. Last year, when I submitted my applications, I treated my SOP as a cover letter, and I didn’t use letterhead. When I was at the CWPA conference in Savannah, I had a conversation with some colleagues about what they look for in an applicant, and they both talked about both the cover letter and the SOP. For some reason, I had assumed that they could be the same document. This year, I wrote a separate cover letter that discusses my work experience and what I would bring to the department as a TA. I put it on department letterhead, which gives it some gravitas. If you are currently a graduate student, you should have access to departmental letterhead. Just ask.
6. I asked lots of people lots of questions, and I took their advice. We are all resources to one another, and people who are further ahead in the field may be busy, but they also want to help you succeed because, chances are, they are successful due in part to the support of their mentors.
If you don’t get in, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not a reflection on you as a person. It’s just that your application packet didn’t showcase you as well as it could, and you can work with that. Spend your year out of grad school developing yourself professionally in whatever ways make sense to you. One option is to pick up a course adjuncting at a university that offers free classes to their part-timers. With your free class credit, take a course that would allow you to create a new writing sample, and then throw yourself into making it as awesome as possible. Take advantage of all the resources you have available to you on campus to revise the rest of your packet.
Go out for lots of coffee dates with people who have succeeded. Ask their advice. It’s worth the investment.