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129. Grad School Rejection: Why it Happens and How to Get Accepted

 I feel a little disheartened because I’ve been rejected from many of the places I applied to and haven’t heard back from a number of others. Is it worth it to hold out hope for the ones that haven’t sent out updates?

 I have been rejected from 5 schools and am expecting 3 more rejections soon enough without any invitations for interview. I’ve had my time in regret and disappointment and I’m now thinking about what to do next. 

Should I just give up at the thought of me obtaining a PhD? I feel like a mess right now.

These excerpts are from just three of the many messages we received this year from grad school applicants who were moving through the stages of rejection grief.

Some understood it would be an uphill climb, and half-expected the bad news. For others, it was a surprise because they had followed all the advice on how to craft the perfect application.

For everyone, it was disappointing, demoralizing, and confusing – what can I do if I’ve been pushed off the only path I know to a career in science?

This week, we explore the arcane inner workings of an admissions committee, and detail not only WHY you received that rejection letter, but what you can do about it next year.

Why Not Me?

The first question many applicants have is, “Why did I get rejected?” In many cases, they have experience, grades, and strong letters of recommendation. So what gives?

The answer will be different for every person, of course, but there are some common threads that could lead to rejection. We take a look behind the scenes in an admission committee meeting to learn what makes some applications rise to the top, while others are cast aside.

Fierce Competition

If you only apply to schools your mom has heard of, like the Ivy League Yale, Stanford, or Harvard, then you’re much more likely to receive a rejection letter. The same may be true for schools on the coasts, or in heavily populated areas.

These programs receive thousands of applications from the most qualified students in the world, some of them with first-author papers. If you ONLY applied to extremely competitive programs, odds are, you got a lot of rejections.

Next year, treat grad school the way you did undergrad: with a mix of reach-schools, target-schools, and ‘safety-schools’. Having options is a good thing, and the research training at these other schools will be as good as, or better, than the Ivy League.

Early Birds

They say timing is everything, and that’s true in grad school applications as well.

Applications may arrive in the admissions office between the open date and the deadline, but the admissions committee will review those applications in batches. Their goal is to find the most qualified students to offer interviews, but the staggered nature of the review process presents a few challenges.

Early in the cycle, the committee may offer interviews to a few top-tier candidates and reject a few that don’t pass muster. But what about those in the middle? They may be tabled and re-reviewed later in the the season, after the committee has seen the rest of the applicant pool.

That’s why it can be valuable to submit your application early! Those early applicants may get a second look, while those submitted at the deadline have fewer chances at an open interview slot.

Just keep in mind that a complete application includes your letters of reference, which are often out of your hands. Remind your reviewers of their deadline, and consider setting it a bit earlier than you actually need it.

Little Ponds

An often-overlooked reason that an application is rejected may be attributed to the way big fish view little ponds. Top-tier research programs tend to be at large, well-funded universities. If an application arrives from a candidate from a small liberal-arts school without a reputation for research, the committee may have doubts about the student’s readiness.

Some of that bias may be unfair (there can be excellent training and research opportunities at smaller schools), but some of it is valid. A small lab with only undergrads that publishes once every few years may give you a valuable introduction to science, but there can be a culture shock when you begin your training at a RO-1 funded university lab with 20 postdocs, students, and technicians, that publishes three or four times a year on several overlapping projects.

You absolutely need research experience to get into a biomedical grad program, and if you’ve only done that research at a smaller college, it’s worth taking a few months to expand your training. Apply for a technician job at a larger university, especially if it’s the one you want to attend for grad school!

You’ll get valuable experiences AND another letter of recommendation.

Just the Beginning

In this episode, we cover many more details of the application committee’s work, and ways you can maximize your chance of getting in next year. We also discuss a few things that applicants freak out over, but don’t raise an eyebrow on the committee.

Most of all, you should know that this isn’t the end of your scientific quest, it’s only the beginning. By gaining more experience, polishing your personal statement, and reapplying next year, you’re demonstrating a commitment to research that the admissions team is sure to notice.

Don’t stop now!

Farm to Face

This week, we sample some tasty listener beer – and from a member of the faculty no less!

It’s the Farm to Face Sour Ale Aged on Peaches from Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, Maine.

It’s a sour beer with a hazy complexion and a cork in the top. It also festively overflowed all over the studio! Next time, we’ll make sure to keep our faces close by when opening the bottle.

3 thoughts to “129. Grad School Rejection: Why it Happens and How to Get Accepted”

  1. This is an excellent podcast! I highly recommend it – especially for those who are dealing with or have dealt with difficulties getting into a graduate program.

  2. Nice talk. Working as a technician or a research assistant sounds like a good strategy for re-applying a PhD again next round, yet it does not guarantee success. What would be the next plan if those still did not receive the opportunity after doing all that stuffs?

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