Over the past three weeks or so, I’ve received a trickle of graduate school rejections and, thankfully, acceptances. Once the initial euphoria of that first acceptance wore off, the sheer strangeness of the entire process began to sink in. Applicants spend months and months working, researching, and worrying. There are the inane hoops to jump through – mountains of paperwork, re-answering the same application questions, altering document formats for different schools, and my personal favorite hoop of inanity: the GRE’s. They spend hours and hours drafting emails to potential advisors, delicately harassing their recommenders to get their letters turned in, and editing and proofreading countless personal statements or writing samples. And the entire time, they are constantly reminded of the similarities between graduate school admissions and rolling dice at a craps table in Vegas. If that weren’t enough, the most common advice an applicant usually receives about getting a PhD in history is: don’t. Unless you enjoy being unemployed.
By the end of January, the last of the applications are submitted, and applicants are left to wait. There are no other forms left to fill out, boxes to check, or essays to upload. For a day or two, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. It took me a solid week before I could watch a football game without feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on applications. This is the stage of admissions purgatory, with applicants wishing they could be a fly on the wall of a graduate admissions committee meeting. I’m sure the process varies from school to school, but I’ve always wondered just how random it is – how much depends on the order in which your application is read? Whether or not someone spilled coffee on your writing sample? Did a committee member used to date someone who graduated from your school? And would that be a good or a bad thing? These are some of the questions that skitter through your mind while sitting in admissions purgatory.
With any luck, purgatory is lifted with a magical acceptance note. With any greater luck, more than one arrives. And like flipping a switch, the lowly graduate applicant is suddenly the valued commodity. Once you finally get past “I am pleased to inform you…” you suddenly feel that switch flipped. It is liberating, joyous, and utterly surreal – to go from the position of seller, peddling yourself to various schools, to the position of buyer, as schools offer you their wares. All of that hard work, from those hours of studying in the library during college right up until you clicked SUBMIT on the last application, has finally paid off. I’m sure the stress will come later: of making a (the right) decision, of weighing financial support and programmatic or geographical fit, of accepting the reality that you are truly committed to spending the next 5-7 years at one school laboring to obtain an elusive degree that you will uselessly cling to like a life preserver as you tumble into the deep end of an over-saturated job market.
But for now? I’m just enjoying the ride.
[As a less rambling coda, I would point anyone else in my position to Jeremy Young‘s extremely helpful post at Progressive Historians, “So You’ve Gotten Into Grad School. What Do You Do Now?” ]